“Opposition is true friendship.” – William Blake
Written, drawn…everything: Michel Fiffe
*This examination of COPRA #20 contains spoilers*
As to Honor and Thieves
Of all the oddities, ephemera and instructions from the original edition of The Dungeon Master’s Guide, the cartoons and illustrations felt, to me, the most relatable — palate cleansers between big mouthfuls of minutia. The New Yorker-style cartoons by Will McLean about rust monsters and Bigby’s hand spells leavened much of the guide’s implied import. While other images fleshed out how an army of orcs might fare against a dragon [SPOILER: dragon wins]. There were more sinister illustrations as well, bearded men peering into gems, skull-topped and sword-studded treasure hoards and so on.
The one I will never need Google for to prime my memory is by DARLENE née Darlene Pekul. I’ve long forgotten the many, many … many rules governing D&D, but how light looks as it streams through a portcullis window (not to mention what a portcullis window is) onto a corpse, a treasure chest and the weary victor above the caption “There is no honor among thieves” is embedded in my hardware.
Self-explanatory proverbial phrases serve as a warning to any yokel, un-advanced pencil and paper adventurer, and the wet behind the ears comic book reader. Lucky for me, I was all three when I first saw and read Pekul’s illustration. However life-saving this advice is in a role-playing setting, it loses some of the lead in its pencil (so to speak) when applied to puerile plots where the good guys always win and the bad guys never get their shit together. Fortunes have been won and lost — mainstream movie and television studios and comic book publishers come to mind — on such simplistic storytelling and will continue to be forever and anon.
The spice (and sugar) this insipid approach to storytelling misses is, of course, it is never so simple and always more complicated. Every axiom has a B-side, a complement, an opposite number which makes for better drama and more intrigue. There is indeed “honor among thieves,” call it a professional courtesy. One does not simply walk into Mordor or go on a dungeon crawl or start cooking meth alone, not for long, at least. The fun, as always, is in discovering the limit(s) of such advice and/or consequences and what happens when those boundaries are traversed. The most interesting things (almost always) happen in the moments before the knife is drawn and soon after the blood pours out.
All Hail the Paperclip
Straight-up, COPRA is DC’s Suicide Squad at least as close as the United States government’s copyright laws will allow letter-of-the-law-wise. As to the spirit of the law … that is another matter. As imagined by creator/writer/artist/factotum Michel Fiffe, COPRA is a fierce, idiosyncratic lick copped and cobbled and made fresh from a love of eighties Marvel and DC comics; before gritty started seeing grim — a relationship doomed from the start — and prior to the time when tone-deafness went from amiable anachronism to full-on mandate in the mainstream. Fiffe’s gift is knowing how to ground fantasy in reality, make it feel real and make it count. More than its mainstream peers, COPRA is infused with authenticity. Fiffe writes round characters. Perhaps this sense of being genuine is due to Fiffe’s singular vision and execution, perhaps something more. If a superhero comic could ever be thought of as authentic (as real) such is COPRA.
Superhero comics are great escapism. Well, duh. The fantasy (conceit) being there are stakes, real stakes and, of course, there aren’t. Instead, readers are regularly (and willingly) bamboozled by infinite and miniscule permutations like costume changes, not-so-permanent-deaths, power set tweaks, team shake ups and on and on. And all of it yoked to continuity and sold to the reader as meaningful. I think it was Stan Lee who said “the money tree must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of corporate properties and licensed products.” Worlds can be destroyed, built back and destroyed again as long as the IP remains the constant. To do otherwise hurts, not only, the pocketbook, but is considered storytelling suicide. Well, duh.
The glitch in this particular matrix is when those properties and products are more disposable and less -canonical. Comics as disposable? The horror. The horror. Readers (and stockholders) care about Batman, but a mouthy Aussie who styles himself Captain Boomerang … not so much. This ‘nothing to lose’ attitude is why John Ostrander, Kim Yale Karl Kesel and Luke McDonnell’s mid-80’s Suicide Squad was a revelation in those revelatory days of the mid-80’s and why it maintains its cult status among readers and comic book pros, Fiffe among them.
Ostrander’s idea is a paperclip, ruthlessly efficient and so perfect in its design it can’t be improved upon only implemented. First, assemble of team of Double Z-list anti-heroes/jailbirds such as the said Captain, Bronze Tiger and Deadshot or DCU continuity deadweights like Karin Grace, the Thinker and Blockbuster. Second, send these instantly deniable assets on high-risk government sanctioned missions to war zones and political hot spots where not coming back is a real possibility and voilà, stakes, almost.
For this killer concept (this M.A.S.S. device) to work, it needs one more ingredient, sympathy. No one minds when a redshirt is killed (after all, one might argue that’s their role), but if a reader is made to feel empathy for a ‘nobody’ or a ‘never-was,’ to care about s/he, it complicates the story; no different than saying there is no honor among thieves. Ostrander et al. didn’t invent the idea of a wild bunch of morally compromised characters banding together for a singular purpose, but his execution is perfect.
The sophistication of Suicide Squad (a description that cannot be said about the title’s current state) was Ostrander’s skill at bringing the pathos, futility and authenticity of real life to superhero comics — delicate, but powerful and effective. In most mainstream media where tell eclipses show, Ostrander’s approach is considered risky because it requires both patience and trust on the part of its audience to invest in its moral conundrums while also be entertaining. Miss on the first two or go too heavy on the ethical dilemmas and it won’t matter because no one will watch it. The challenge is to care.
Fiffe treasures Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, a lot. In less self-confident hands COPRA comes off as, at best, derivative and at worst, sycophantic. What Fiffe gets is it’s not about who’s on the team, per se, or the fact (almost) anyone could be killed, it’s (again) about developing characters and getting the reader to buy in. What Fiffe learned from Ostrander is not a concept or an idea, the letter of Suicide Squad, but the spirit of Suicide Squad: make them care, make them care about characters who are less black and white and more a multitude of shifting greys.
Douche by Degree, Asshole by Choice
Character development is, of course, comic book making 101. What’s remarkable about Fiffe is how quickly he’s appropriated (mastered?) this talent. Perhaps more remarkable is how authentic his characters act. It’s one thing to craft a likeable or admirable hero or even a likeable scoundrel — Luke Skywalker and Han Solo-types are legion. So too are great and enviable villains, trickier, yes, but charm covers a multitude of sins. Fiffe wants more, risks more. COPRA is not Suicide Squad because the members of COPRA would rather garrote Captain Boomerang with his own surname and put ten in Deadshot’s head than look at either of them. That bad? Uh-huh, that bad.
Boomer Harkness is a criminal, a bad guy by anyone’s reckoning. He’s Australian, his weapon of choice is usually a blade and he often favors a hand scythe so he’s a natural choice for COPRA. True, one’s standing as a hand scythe-wielding ‘banana bender’ does start one on a bad road, but it’s Harkness’s skeeviness which makes him an outcast even among the COPRA crowd. None of the members of COPRA are all bad (that honor among thieves thing again), but each one has an added unsavoriness to remind the reader these are not naughty boys and girls, these are cold-blooded killers. Harkness is an asshole, plain and simple. It not a front nor an act, it’s a choice, but even assholes can fly. COPRA #20 shows Harknesses’s assholery at its most douchey, but with a level of professionalism that almost makes the reader forget how much of a flying asshole he is.
Harkness has been on the run after he mistakenly confesses to another COPRA team member, Lloyd, about killing Lloyd’s son (COPRA #12) and ever since Lloyd’s had his wrist shooters locked and loaded with one singular purpose: revenge. Such is COPRA.
Now in New Orleans, Harkness falls back in with an old crew, Scuddy and Wolfgang Ice. A couple of low life crooks content to knock over costume shops and drug dens to either get high or pitch pennies at the dancers in titty bars. Harkness sums up his current situation in the opening line of COPRA #20: “The company you keep is a reflection of who you are … I hope it isn’t true.” Scuddy and Wolfgang are a meager revenue source, a bit of misdirection until Harkness can recover something he’s hidden in a derelict building in the 9th ward, a locked ‘go box’ that will get him far away from this life and, he hopes, far, far away from Lloyd. In the meantime Harkness is extending his friends some … let’s call it, professional courtesy. Among his friends, Boomer is the most competent (powerful) and least criminal. Next to Scuddy and Wolfgang, Boomer’s criminality seems circumstantial, as ever it’s about context
Fiffe ain’t no Jimmy Conway, he doesn’t root for the bad guys. Instead, Fiffe feels sorry for them and thinks the reader should too. Like most ex-cons looking to get their project on wheels, Harkness needs … well, wheels, transportation. So he ditches his pals who are headed out on a job (nice guy) and parlays a booty call into an opportunity to borrow a car from an old flame, Shelia. Her husband is conveniently out of town, so it’s all good. In two classic nine panel grids, Fiffe handles this simple scene in an unconventional way to show how little power big bad Boomer Harkness really has.
Shelia initiates the sexy-times by going down on Harkness, but (troubled by killing Lloyd’s son) he can’t rise to the occasion. This impotent impetus causes him to suggest to Shelia, “let’s switch it up, love — sorry s’been awhile.” Now, it’s Harkness who’s on his knees until Shelia gives him ‘the tap’ and says, “uh, that’s nice — but you don’t have to do that. Here, just give me your hand — while I.” Satisfied, by her own hand with only an assist (?) from Harkness, Shelia falls asleep leaving Harkness to go into the bathroom and masturbate. Is there nothing sadder, more pathetic, than masturbating in the bathroom (!?!) after your partner falls asleep?
Fiffe starts out with a been-there-done-that scene of a woman consensually giving in to a man and then shifts gears and goes full on feminist as he upends the balance of power from the (anti)-hero to a secondary character, who is a plot point, at best. Even in his own story, Harkness’s power is forfeit. He can’t get it up, he’s lousy at giving (and getting) head and he needs a women’s touch to get said woman off. Boomer Harkness, a douche in the living room and a bigger douche in the bedroom too, but oh, what a bit of character development and what a way to play with the reader’s emotions with the lightest of touches and slip-sliding shifts of grey.
The impotent big bad is a well-worn trope. Sure, the flute solo allows Fiffe to give Harkness an added layer of humiliation to create empathy in the reader, but there’s redemption in masturbation (natch) as Harkness redeems himself with the less than classic when-the-women-you-failed-to-pleasure-falls-asleep-steal-her-car scheme. Even a feeble lecher can be an opportunist. Harkness’s emotional arc in COPRA #20 is like a perpetual sine wave with no rests, a series of small humiliations and even smaller victories, a lot like life.
Harkness manages to get the go box he’s hidden and save Scuddy and Ice’s bacon when the robbery they were on turns into a blood bath. Points to Harkness for going back to help (honor) his friends when he could have split. With Scuddy near dead from a gunshot wound, Harkness decides to cut his losses by cutting Ice’s throat. Before Harkness can bring down the blade, an old friend comes shooting out of the shadows to take his revenge on the asshole Aussie who killed his son. Oh, yes indeed the most interesting things always happen before the blood pours out.
Don’t Rob Me of Riches
I struggle with mainstream superheroes. I don’t hate the player(s). I hate the game. I don’t see the point so I can’t enjoy the ride. Yet, COPRA is a superhero comic and so my hatred becomes antithetical in a absurd way all the ‘why so serious’ memes can’t cure. I’ll never be convinced Marvel and DC and the MCU and DCU don’t rob the medium of comics of much of its riches. And yes, I know, I should stop picking fights with ten thousand pound gorillas, call the waaaambulance and go read my small-press and DIY comics and give to DiDio and Alonso what is DiDio and Alonso’s. Fine.
I tell myself the reason COPRA hits where most mainstream superhero comics miss with me is because it is self-published, creator-owned and a ‘real’ indie. All true and like all truisms, not so black and white, not as there-is-no-honor-among-thieves as it appears. It’s taken me awhile to hit on COPRA’s authentic greys. Like the medium of comics itself, there is more to COPRA than its influences, analogues and indie cred. COPRA is damn fine storytelling. And that’s enough. Such is COPRA.