September 25, 2014

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Copra: Round One by Michael Fiffe

Copra: Round One
Written and illustrated by Michel Fiffe
Bergen Street Press

If cynicism about superhero comics is the disease, Copra is the (or at least one) cure*. Written, illustrated and self-published by Michel Fiffe (with the help of Bergen Street Press), Copra is an homage to 80's Suicide Squad (and other) comics, but with a style and design that feels completely unique. Come for the hard-hitting action and knowing tough-guy dialogue, stay for the visually arresting art. Copra: Round One collects the first 6 issues of the series.


Copra is a badass team of misfits. There's combat experts, along with a teenager in robotic armor and a new guy in a power suit with light-based powers. If some of these sorts of characters sound familiar, they're meant to, and that's part of the fun of the story. The team is led by Sonia, a tough-talking but contemplative woman (and a clear analogue for pre-DC New 52 Amanda Waller). 

As the story begins, the Copra team is extracting a potentially dangerous alien object from a Central American town (the hometown of Benicio, of one of their members) when they're ambushed by Vitas, a former Copra member, along with his new group. The town is completely destroyed, they lose a number of teammates, and those who survive are lucky to escape with their lives. However, things go from bad to worse when they realize they've been framed for the destruction. Someone is setting them up.  

Sonia first turns to to Vin, a master of the dark arts (strong echoes of Doctor Strange) and his apprentice, Xenia. He opens up a portal to the object's origin and out pops a hostile creature (where Copra goes, trouble follows). Wir (teenager with combat armor) has his hands full battling the creature, as Xenia appears to be possessed and is choking Sonia. Thankfully for Sonia, agent Castillo (who - not surprisingly, given the name - happens to look a lot like the Punisher) shoots Xenia, but not lethally. Vin gets Wir to redirect the creature into a portal leading to the dimension where it came from (the Anti-zone). 

At the same time, a crime empress named Dy Dy (basically a walking brain) tries to coerce one of her scientist prisoners (named Rax) into providing the whereabouts of a weapon she commissioned. Rax almost escapes from Dy Dy's henchman Gary, but not before Gary sends him hurtling through a dimensional portal at the same time Vin and Wir are sending the creature into the Anti-Zone. So, out pops Rax. 

All the while, various Copra members have been out bringing other former operatives back in the fold. They need all the help they can get. The whole group gathers at Castillo's place, and Sonia lays out the situation. This is an unruly bunch and there's high tension among them (they're pretty skeptical of Rax, who doesn't endear himself with his attitude) when Castillo's extremely unfriendly, cyborg assassin roommates show up. The roommates determine that there's a bounty on the heads of their uninvited guests, and attempt (unsuccessfully) to take Copra out (like I said, unfriendly roommates). Copra prevails, and then Xenia teleports them to Tokyo where they have a lead on Vitas. After some scuffling, they find Vitas, and issue 6 ends with an extended, brutal showdown between Copra and Vitas and his group.

This is a great, highly entertaining comic. It works on the level of homage and nostalgia; if you're a longtime comics reader, you'll recognize and appreciate the characters that are Marvel and DC analogues. However (and more significantly), even if you're not familiar with the characters, this is still a terrific, engaging book.  Fiffe does everything on this comic (script, pencils/inks, colors, letters) and the amount of detail on each page is remarkable (and appears to be hand-dawn and lettered). That he is able to keep to a monthly schedule is an impressive undertaking. 

This may be an homage to 1980's action comics such as Suicide Squad, and the character design has significant nods to existing Marvel and DC characters, but the artistic design of this book feels like a unique, singular vision. To start, the sequential storytelling in the book is exemplary, as each panels flows one to another. Given than many of the pages have no dialogue, this is a necessity (and that level of visual storytelling is not a skill all artists have). 

There are a number of multi-page fight sequences that effectively convey the power, speed and motion of the fights between the characters. Fiffe also effectively conveys the brutality in these settings; when Wir the armored teen smashes the creature in the chest, you can really feel it. Fiffe accomplishes this both with dynamic lines but also with creative lettering, which has variety and depth and adds to the effect of the scene (as the sound effects become part of the art). He also takes the additional step for certain characters (such as Dy Dy) to use unusual word balloon borders, to convey the alien, odd nature of the character. 

For character design, while many of the characters will feel familiar (Deadshot, Doctor Strange, Doctor Light, Punisher, Nova), each of the designs has been prepared with a great deal of detail and care. Unlike many typical superhero comics, each of the characters has a completely different, easily distinguishable look, feel, physique and set of facial expressions to them. While the art in the book is highly stylized and the facial details somewhat minimalist at times [Editor's note: There looks to be a definite manga influence, based on the sample pages James has selected.-RobM], the facial acting and body language are very effective at conveying everything a reader needs as to the emotions of the characters. Backgrounds are generally rendered in a minimal style, but Fiffe puts the detail and energy where it needs to be in the story. If there's particular detail in a background, you get the sense that it's there because it needs to be there. 

The story is straightforward and the main elements will feel reasonably familiar to comics readers and fans of the action movie genre. There's combat, betrayal and revenge. What brings it all together and elevates the book (in addition to the art) is that while Fiffe hits many of the typical genre tropes of this kind of (action, superhero revenge) story, he does so in a way that feels knowing and entirely serious, with humor and without irony. The emotions of the characters feel real, rather than simply feeling like some sort of self-refrential homage. Benicio's pain and his heartbreak at his hometown being destroyed at the beginning of the story, and his desire for revenge (though he recognizes the futility of it) are viscerally made real in the story. 

The tensions between the characters are effectively portrayed. The good guys are some pretty bad folks here; they're tough customers, they don't like the boss (but they respect her) and they don't like each other. The dialogue, the hostility, all feels authentic and it really helps sell the story. 

Copra feels like a labor of love - a labor of love that will punch you in the face and shoot you in the kneecaps. I highly recommend it. 

* Astute readers will know this is a paraphrase of a line from the similarly-titled Cobra, another example of 1980's badassery.