Welcome to the first installment of Why Aren’t You Reading?, Paste’s monthly look at under-the-radar comics, creators and small presses. This week, we’ll take a look at Michel Fiffe’s self-published COPRA. One look at the comic’s back issues on eBay will reinforce its prolonged cult following. We spoke with Fiffe about COPRA’s humble beginnings to its far-off finale.
“You always hear about creators who were frustrated with their work, and in their last ditch attempt to produce something solely for themselves, something pure and fun, they manage to create something that clicks. That’s basically what happened to me.”
So begins the secret origin of Michel Fiffe’s popular self-published series, COPRA. Following 2012’s limited self-published release of Deathzone!, a fan comic dedicated to and inspired by John Ostrander’s legendary Suicide Squad run for DC Comics, Fiffe started COPRA as a way to stay involved in the superhero genre while also taking advantage of the freedom afforded with his own title.
“Creatively, COPRA was a way for me not to get wrapped up in fine tuning my work,” Fiffe says in a phone interview. “I believe in wanting perfection, but not in overworking a thing to death. Secondly, and on a practical level, it seemed clear to me: make a serialized comic, make it fun for myself, and make it compelling enough for readers to come back for more. But yeah, it started with that fan comic. That was me testing the waters. It was me coming to grips with my love for the genre, which up to that point I had inexplicably ignored.”
Now on its 22nd issue, COPRA follows an outfit of government-sponsored anti-heroes and misfits. After recovering an alien artifact, COPRA is attacked by a group of unknown villains and, in the chaos of battle, a bomb destroys a nearby city. The team and their handler, Sonia Stone, end up as fugitives on the run. By the end of issue #1, half of the introductory cast is dead, and as the survivors attempt to figure out who was responsible for the attack, we embark on a multi-dimensional epic featuring characters from other worlds, a macabre “no one is safe” attitude and unpredictable danger around every corner.
In Michel Fiffe’s COPRA, you’re lucky to get out alive—and revenge is more than just a word. It’s a mantra.
When COPRA made its debut, it immediately became a cult favorite. As word of mouth began to spread among the comic community, COPRA was lauded by fans and critics alike; Fiffe’s decision to drop readers into this new yet familiar world was praised, and the book was ultimately a smorgasbord of familiar comic tropes and archetypes that had previously inspired Fiffe — and given COPRA’s fan-comic origins, this became a central tenant to the book’s creative process.
“It’s weird because I’m channelling these preexisting voices in order to reach something new, something personal even,” Fiffe says. “It’s an odd dichotomy because I do want to honor those things I love, but I also want to break away from that.”
It’s easy to see where Fiffe takes inspiration. COPRA’s poster character Lloyd has a certain familiarity to DC’s Deadshot, and other characters are concocted off of elements initially designed by comic legends like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. “It’s the nature of the book itself, really, and my relationship with comics in general.”
But not only was the book praised for Fiffe’s writing, but also his energetic artwork and intense visuals. Unlike most comics which are planned out meticulously from script to pencil to pen and beyond, Fiffe was improvising the book straight from pen to paper. “I want to keep the spontaneous nature of the book, so the planning is minimal,” Fiffe says. “I now have some major plot points mapped out because I don’t trust myself to remember them, but they’re just that: notes. Nothing too extensive. I want the wiggle room to shift focus at any given moment.”
This freedom in storytelling was particularly noticeable in the last arc of the book (issues #13-18). During the arc, Fiffe took a break from the main saga to do character-focused one-offs. Fiffe utilized a different style of storytelling per issue, inspired by influential comic creators of the past.
“After all that time with these characters, I wanted to get to know them a little bit, I wanted to explore their different voices and still have them all make sense in a shared universe,” Fiffe says. “I drew on a few influences here and there, but mostly I was going for a range of approaches. Like the WIR issue (#14) isn’t particularly a riff on anything or anyone in particular; the only restrictions I had were to use no shadows or shading and to use a six-panel grid. I wanted it to be super rigid and sterile looking. That’s what the story called for. I was convinced that readers would hate it, but they didn’t, thankfully. I’m glad they trust my instincts.”
COPRA has had the opportunity to evolve in new directions, and the result is a rich progression that most books normally don’t see. Since Fiffe is in control of every aspect of the series—from the initial kernel of an idea to the finished comic you can hold in your hands—Fiffe has had the rare opportunity in comics for truly refined evolution as a creator. “One thing I’ve noticed that has changed has been my need to make every issue a colorful bloodbath, and that third arc is proof of that,” Fiffe says. “I mean, it was never only that, but it’s not terrible to stray from that a little anyway. It gives the book a better balance if I serve the range of my interests.”
“If something bores me, it’s safe to say it’ll bore the readers,” Fiffe remarks, in regard to how his creation process has evolved over time. Like many creators, Fiffe is aware of his avid and fairly evangelical fanbase, and Fiffe’s fairly close relationship with those who subscribe to his book gives him a unique opportunity to stay grounded as he creates. “I feel that the reader knows whether I’ll exploit something, or phone it in, or they’ll know if my heart’s not in it. I’m sensitive to that and I assume the reader is, too. So that’s something that always keeps me in check.”
One last key element that differentiates COPRA from most comics available today is that it’s only available in print. Due to the fact that Fiffe is printing and distributing these comics himself (with aid from Bergen Street Publishing, who distribute the trades) it means that when the issue sells out, that’s it—no second printings for sold out issues, formerly limited access to collections (something that’s only recently changed, with the first volume finally getting worldwide distribution from Diamond late last year) and no digital.
To some, this helps build up the value of the book; back issues of COPRA tend to sell for 10 times their initial price point on eBay, and many fans relish the fact that the book is something you can only access with a physical artifact. In fact, it’s highly encouraged by avid fans to just buy whatever COPRA comic you can find and figure your way around the story from there.
Yet for others, the lack of any digital distribution is a major hold back, especially when most independently released comics now find homes on things like Comixology Submit. “I sometimes wonder about the potential readership I’m missing out on by not going digital. I’m not trying to go out of my way to exclude readers, but the final presentation is what I’m mostly concerned with,” Fiffe says. But Fiffe holds strong opinions on the relationship between print and digital comics, and that’s key to how he’d like fans to experience and enjoy COPRA.
“The main problem—and I’m sure this is me being fussy about it—is the platforms. I’m not entirely comfortable reading comics in any shape or form online — and I mean comics that were made to be in print—webcomics are something entirely different. Another difference is that consuming digital comics is too casual. You no longer have the option of digging deep and absorbing the material because it’s now on the same playing field as social media and games and music and everything else. So sure, while it’s super accessible, it also feels super disposable. Which, you know, maybe some comics were meant to be consumed that way.”
With the first twelve issues now finally available in trade and the book’s fanbase beginning to grow in earnest, Fiffe has no plans of stopping COPRA any time soon. “I have roughly 50 issues in mind with a definite ending. At least a definite final arc that I’m building up to,” Fiffe concludes.
And looking at recent issues for the book’s fourth arc, it’s easy to see that Fiffe has no plans to take it easy on his creation; recent issues have added major tonal shifts to the book, and we’re left with a real “who will survive and what will be left of them situation” as the fourth arc finale looms close. But even with an end in mind and most pages full of doom, Fiffe has not lost any of his initial inspiration or drive.
“I want to keep momentum going issue by issue, and having that final stage in mind really helps,” Fiffe says. “Whenever I get frustrated with a page or a scene I try to step back and realize that these characters won’t be around forever and I should enjoy them in the time I have them. All I know is that I still scribble COPRA scripts on whatever sheet of paper is around.”