Michel Fiffe On ‘Copra’: ‘That Stuff’s In My DNA’ [Interview]
Over the past year, one of my favorite comics has been Michel Fiffe’s Copra. Launched after the success of a “bootleg” fan-comic based on John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell’s classic Suicide Squad, Copra twists the formula around for a compelling, dimension-spanning adventure of a mercenary team on the run from everyone, created and published entirely by Fiffe and sold directly to fans over the Internet.
It’s been a pretty amazing accomplishment in self-publishing, let alone one of the best stories going in comics today. With Fiffe set to debut a new compendium of the first three issues at next weekend’s MoCCA Fest in New York, we talked to him about influences, how he gets a full issue out by himself every month, and what he’ll be doing after Copra‘s 12-issue run ends this fall.ComicsAlliance: We really first got to know your work at ComicsAlliance from DEATHZONE, the Suicide Squad fan comic that you did. I’m a huge Suicide Squad fan, and it’s pretty obvious from that and from Copra that you are too. How did you first encounter that book?
Michel Fiffe: It was one of the first comics I ever read, when I was about eight years old. I had a handful of comics before that, especially reprints that I had in Spain, where I lived for about a year, like Flash comics, but only a handful. My first real book was Suicide Squad, and it was #13, where they fight the Justice League.
Do you remember that issue, with the jail cell in the Russian prison? That blew me away. That was amazing. I think it had Batman kicking the crap out of Rick Flag and then he quit, it was a very intense issue. Even though it was in the middle of a storyline, it left an impact on me and I started collecting the back issues and following it every month for years.
So when I started doing DEATHZONE, I didn’t usually do the genre of superhero work. It was a huge departure for me, and I actually had no idea that people liked Suicide Squad comics. You’d written about them on ComicsAlliance and I knew that, and my pal Tucker Stone, he and I talked about Suicide Squad, but I just did this as a risk. It was an exercise for me, to create this little bootleg thing that I only printed up a couple hundred copies of to give to my friends, and it was like the best thing I ever did. I was so proud of it. It was just a chance to use these characters in such a fun way that wasn’t a work-for-hire job or commissions or anything. It was totally improvised on the spot, and it took me about a month to do. So with that template, and the response I got from DEATHZONE, that’s what paved the way to Copra.
CA: That’s a really intense comic to read at eight.
MF: Yeah. [Laughs]
CA: I mean, Suicide Squad is still a book that came out under the Comics Code, so there’s not a lot of grotesque violence, but it’s a comic where someone dies in every story. You can’t get too attached to the cast.
MF: Right, and all these characters were new to me, so there wasn’t much of an opportunity to get attached. But there was something about the art and the writing that really clicked with me, and became one of my favorite comics. That, Norm Breyfogle on Batman, and Ann Nocenti on Daredevil. Those were the three comics that I collected for years, but Suicide Squad, I remember, was the one comic I would hunt for back issues for. I’d actually go out of my way, because back in the day, getting to a comic shop was pretty difficult if you were a little kid. It wasn’t right next door.
So looking through those back issues was so compelling to me. All of those comics were so awesome, it could be in the middle of a storyline, like that Millennium crossover, which was a big old mess, but I loved it. It was a big ol’ fight in a swamp! All these things that sound kind of ridiculous right now as we’re sitting here and talking about it, those were awesome comics, and they still hold up. That’s what surprised me. Revisiting those comics as an adult, I re-read them and they were all so fresh and so well-written. It kind of surprised me, because it was more than just nostalgia.
CA: I’m a huge fan of Suicide Squad, and I love Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil, but that’s hilarious to me that you read them as a kid. I came to those books in my 20s, and Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil is this long-form treatise on the nature of violence, with that issue where Daredevil and Bullseye are dressed as each other with all these huge questions of identity. It’s so weird for me to think about those being the comics you had when you’re a little kid!
MF: Oh yeah. That and Dark Knight Returns, those were it. I was seriously eight or nine years old when I read these things. Thankfully the retailer that sold them to me didn’t check my ID. I’m really fortunate for that.
CA: You were an eight-year-old with a beard.
MF: I had a deep voice for my age. Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, which I guess was Code-approved, all those things, man. They blew me away, and they still hold up. Those are my favorite comics.
CA: How do you think that shaped you as a creator? You obviously like those comics, but do you think they’ve affected the way you present your work? I can kind of see a little John Romita Jr. in Copra, especially the fight scenes.
MF: It’s kind of difficult, because those comics shaped my formative years, absolutely, but later on I discovered other comics. Underground comics, alternative comics, and I think I kept leaning more towards those things, like Love & Rockets or Eightball, and more European stuff. That’s kind of where I ended up. I started doing comics from that angle.
The new mainstream comics, they’re just so different, and I read them so differently, obviously, because I’m no longer a child. They’re so different, even from the ’90s, so I don’t get much inspiration from that. I was actually kind of surprised at how much these older ’80s comics have influenced me. That stuff’s in my DNA. I just know how to speak that language, but I still have that alternative sensibility, and I still like illustration and old French albums. I have that in my work, so I think Copra’s kind of a mix of those things. I don’t really know how to describe that, except that it’s a big old mix. Or a mess, however you want to look at it.
I think those old comics definitely shaped me in how to tell these bombastic superhero stories.
CA: You talked about DEATHZONE being well received and how it led you to Copra, but was it a story that you’d wanted to tell for a while? I don’t think I’m blowing your cover when I say that there’s a lot of parallels to Suicide Squad in the characters and the setup, so is this a Suicide Squad story that you’d had in mind?
MF: No, this was all pretty spontaneous. I came up with it right after DEATHZONE. My old comics series was Zegas, and I did DEATHZONE as a break. Rather than just going right back to Zegas, I was writing a script for it and it was taking too long, and I had the energy and inspiration to do something like DEATHZONE, but I didn’t want to make another bootleg comic. That’s just not what I wanted to do. Why not create my own thing? My own Suicide Squad.
That opened the doors to thinking “I could create my own so-and-so,” my own cast of characters and original ideas, too, and mix them up with the analogues. That’s how it came to be. I worked on it for a couple months, mapped out everything, to see if I could get enough mileage out of it. And the funny thing is, the more I worked on it, the more I get ideas for future stories. I definitely want to get deeper into the characters and expand the landscape of their world.
It first started as a 12-issue thing, and now I feel like I could do this forever, honestly.
CA: You’re self-publishing a full-color, 24-page comic every month. What has that experience been like?
MF: I’ve managed to figure out a schedule for myself where this is even possible. At first it’s a little daunting, only because I didn’t want to fall behind on the schedule that I had imposed, but mostly I just didn’t want to burn out. I didn’t want the third issue to come out and already be bored with it. And that couldn’t be less true. It just didn’t happen, it’s the exact opposite. Like I said, it inspired me to think of other stories and expand the story and the characters.
But my story’s pretty tight. It sounds crazy, and I went into it not wanting to self-publish. Not only Copra, but with Zegas, I ideally just want to sit and draw and write all day, but it’s funny how all the managerial stuff and behind-the-scenes stuff is all part of the same thing. It’s all coming from me, and even when I deal with readers, or retailers, or conventions, it’s all me. It’s the same voice, the same aesthetic, and I try to treat everything with the same level of respect. I’m not passing it off to an anonymous employee, or anyone else. That seems to work for me.
CA: What’s the schedule like for doing an issue?
MF: I don’t have a script. I have notes of dialogue, and then I hardly do layouts. I just go straight to pencils, but “straight to pencils” means “straight to chickenscratch doodles.” When I finally sit to finish the pages, when I’m inking and lettering, which I do all at once, that’s when I do a second or third draft on the dialogue and the plot points. It’s just this mad rush to get the pages done, and I’ve nailed it down to three or four pages a day. Then I color all the boards, and that’s another week of work. It’s a month of work, pretty much. Four really tight weeks, and then a fifth week that’s used to scan and format and send it to the printer. I have to allow myself a couple of weeks just to receive the books and get them out to stores and subscribers. There’s always something to do.
It’s a little maddening, but it’s worth it, and it’s getting better. The first few months were a little insane, but I’ve managed to do okay. And I should mention that I’ve sold out of a couple issues, so that’s always a good thing. It’s something I never expected.
CA: It’s kind of astonishing to me that you’re doing three pages a day on this book. These are like twelve-panel pages, and even though there’s a style where you’ll have backgrounds that aren’t colored, they’re still very detailed. It’s a finished-looking book.
MF: I know that some pages have no dialogue, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no writing involved. I’m still staging everything. I try not to drag on a fight scene, which is really easy to do. I really have to cut myself short. I could draw guys punching each other for fifteen pages, and that would take up a bunch of real estate, but that’s not interesting. I don’t want to do a half-assed comic like that. There’s just so much story to cram in.
I want the experience for the reader to be that they got something out of it, that it was worth opening up. Something cool happens, something looks great, moves the story forward, and makes you want to come back for more. If I can do that every issue, that would be great, and I never thought I could do that.
CA: I probably would read fifteen pages of fight scenes. I think they look great.
MF: Thanks. You’re going to love #6, then.
CA: The fights are very kinetic. You do really good choreography, with a great use of the environment. Maybe part of that is that they’re so short, because they feel very quick and brutal.
MF: I’m glad that came across. That’s one thing I was worried about with that first issue, that people were just going to go “what is this? It’s just a big fight scene.” I didn’t want to be shy about that. I wanted to say “Yeah, it’s a fight scene, of course it’s a fight scene. This is the comic I want to read.” But I have to make it worth it. That’s why I have to go a little extra and choreograph it, or make it look interesting and move it along. I don’t want to pack a fight scene with word balloons and make the reader stop and take their time.
CA: You said the original plan was 12 issues over the course of a year, but you also mentioned wanting to do more. Will there be a Copra Volume 1 and then a break? Will we get Copra #13 a month after 12?
MF: I committed to 12 issues, because I figured that’s what I could handle, and that’s all I had to say about the characters then, so there’s a definite end for the arc. But I could do more if I chose too. We’ll see what happens, it’s still too early to tell. I’m at the halfway point of the first twelve issues.
I hope I collect them. That really depends on how it does, if I can afford to make a paperback. And if I do go to the next issue, it will be #13. I wouldn’t start over, it would just be an ongoing series. I’d probably take a few months to write that year’s worth of stories. Or maybe six months, doing six issues and then taking a break and jumping back on.
We’ll see what happens, but as it stands now, I have it all planned out for 12 issues, and as far as collecting them goes, I’m actually co-publishing a compendium of the first three issues alongside Bergen Street Comics, the store in Brooklyn. They’re going to start their own publishing hub, so we’re co-publishing it. That’s going to debut at MoCCA, so I’m super excited about that. Even that publishing plan, we’ll see what happens. That could open tons of other doors, like a second compendium, or a trade down the line. For now, I’m concentrating on issues.
CA: I assume that’ll be available at Bergen Street, but will it be online? Are you going to drag it to conventions?
MF: Yeah. I want to have everything made available. Selling out of issues took me by surprise, and it was kind of problematic, because it wasn’t in my budget to go back and reprint. I only projected 400 copies of this comic to exist, so when I sold out of the first 400, it was exciting, but it was also like “what am I going to do? I have to fund the next issue, not a reprint.” It was a monetary detail that I had to worry about.
CA: I noticed the print run on this last issue has increased to 600.
MF: Yeah, and I think I might have to go up so that I don’t have to go back to press all the time. That’s why we’re doing the compendium, just to take care of the first three issues in one shot and have it be a cool little limited edition thing that has a little extra art. If anyone’s interested, they don’t have to hunt down anything, it’ll be available online and at conventions, if I can manage to get out of Brooklyn for a show or two.
The idea is to make it available. Put it out there, and get more readers. It won’t be an exclusive thing, because we want more readers. It’s just going outside of the traditional Diamond setup, sidestepping that and going directly to the reader, and I’m very, very grateful for everyone who’s bought it directly from me, and all the stores that buy it from me without knowing what they’re getting. They seem to be finding some sort of success in moving the thing, so that’s great too. For more of his work, visit his website.