Michel Fiffe: The ‘Copra’ Exit Interview
Michel Fiffe's Copra, a strange, superheroic adventure inspired by John Ostrander, Kim Yale and Luke McDonnell's classic Suicide Squad, just completed its initial 12-issue run. In that time, Fiffe wrote, drew, lettered, published and even shipped every issue himself, once a month. As he says, it was essentially all he did for an entire year, but the end result was unquestionably one of the single best comic books of the year, if not the decade.
Fiffe plans to continue the series, but during his self-imposed vacation, I spoke to him to get his thoughts on Copra, the year of his life he spent doing exactly the comic he wanted to do, and why he wants to continue.
ComicsAlliance: So what was the feeling like when you put the last copy of Copra #12 into the last envelope and shipped it off? Were you relieved?
Michel Fiffe: I think I felt more of a sense of relief when I finally sent off the pages to the printer. I think that's when I thought it was done for real, but it was such an unremarkable thing, just hitting "send" like every other month. It was a weird moment. It was sort of bittersweet, too. I was kind of sad that it was done, because I knew I was going to take a break, but I just couldn't believe it, really. I couldn't believe I finished this thing.
It was a mixed bag. And when I finally mailed that comic, I gotta tell you, every month, I mailed those comics and it was like a mountain to overcome. The biggest hurdle, just mailing alone was like a job in itself. With the final issue, I think I took a break and read a book afterwards.
CA: I was going to ask if you just immediately went to sleep.
MF: When I finished drawing? Yes. My God, my life somewhat got back to order. This whole year has been anything but normal for me, in terms of everything. I was just doing the comic, 100% of the time. It's certainly all I thought about.
CA: That's something you talk about in the afterwords of one of the issues, about how Copra is what you did this year, and there wasn't anything else.
MF: Pretty much, yeah. I mean, that was certainly by design. It was set up to be 12 issues, and I figured that a year of my life is not that much of a time span to dedicate to doing something that I wanted to do in this fashion. It was the results that were up in the air. By #3, people would've picked up on it, to the point where it would've crippled this momentum that I had planned, but luckily that didn't happen.
CA: When you were setting it out, saying you wanted to do 12 issues, writing, art, all the production, you announced that was what you were going to do before you started. When you were in the middle of doing, like, #6 or #7, did it still seem like a good idea? Were you into it as much?
MF: The further I went into it, the deeper, I went, the more excited I got. I mean, by the second issue, I'd already planned twice as many stories as I originally envisioned. That's the thing. I planned out 12 issues, because I thought that was the maximum I could do. That's how much story I had to tell at such a pace, and the reason I did all the jobs myself was that not only am I a control freak, but I needed to get this thing done. It was like an old Golden Age mentality of just cranking stuff out -- and I don't mean hacking it out, there's a difference. I mean cranking out like those fabled Marvel stories where it's just twelve guys in a back room cranking out a 64-page comic over a weekend. It's in that spirit, and I had to do it to get this done.
CA: It's like Jack Kirby in the '70s, where he's doing four bi-monthly books, so he's writing, drawing and editing a completed comic every two weeks.
MF: You know, I heard he used to draw with both hands at the same time, but I call bulls**t on that.
CA: [Laughs] That's not a technique you picked up during Copra?
MF: Maybe in the second year, we'll see. Then I'll use my feet, too.
CA: Talking about the second year, that's really surprising to me. To me, it feels like after you did this and nothing but this for a year, and it's obvious reading it that you put so much of yourself into these stories on a purely artistic level, I would've thought you would've never wanted to see these characters again.
MF: Part of me, in the back of my mind, knowing me, I probably did that for a reason. I probably started this to purposely burn out, but it had the exact opposite effect. Now I'm in love with the characters, and I can't wait to tell more stories with them. But there's always a danger of burning out, of course. That's why I'm taking a month or two to recuperate, work on other projects, plan out the next few issues. I think that's a model that was set, certainly, by the people. It's the Hellboy model, just a few issues, then a long break, then more issues, but my plan will probably just be a year's worth of stories and then just recuperating from that.
I'm certainly not in the mode of doing this every month forever, because that would just lead to suicide.
CA: Before we started the interview, you mentioned that you expected your break from Copra would be a relief, but you were really anxious to get back to it.
MF: I cannot wait. I can't wait. But I do think a break is essential, to come back fresh, but that break will not only include other projects, but also basic things like actually watching movies, reading books, just resting and thinking. That will only help Copra or any other story that I might write or draw.
CA: How much of an impact on the actual story do you think that kind of grueling pace had on it? Do you think it would've been the same story if you hadn't committed to that monthly deadline?
MF: I think the pace of the deadlines certainly helped the actual rendition. Not so much the story, per se, that was already planned out. I wrote the story as the issues went on. Left to my own devices, if I were to draw without a deadline, I would've spent forever on these books and I think it probably would've suffered from it, at least the spontaneous sort of feeling that they have. They would've been something else, certainly.
I think the immediacy that the book has would've been lost if I didn't have that monthly burn, that deadline to meet. It certainly would've been different. I don't know if it would've been better. It's sort of form and content, you know? The story came about as a result of my schedule.
CA: Doing it monthly and building an audience, it's interesting because you can actually see the audience building as the book goes on. In the first six issues, you have the print run put right on the cover, and you've hand-numbered them. So you watch it go from 400 at the start, to 600 in #6, and then you talk about the compendia, and those selling out, then in #7, there's just no number anymore. You're getting fan-art, you're getting letters. What was that like, when you were in the middle of creating it, to see the audience was building for this thing that's right on the line between a tribute to superhero comics and Suicide Squad, and something that's very much this small, personal indie book where you're doing everything?
MF: First of all, the fan reaction took me totally by surprise. I started at a print run of 400 because I thought I could definitely sell 300 and then sit on a hundred to take to conventions. By the time I was done with #2, I was really worried, and I had to go back to print, and I had never done that before. There was a demand. That took me by surprise, and I really appreciate all the feedback, and the fan-art, and the word-of-mouth, and every single review. It only helped, and it's absolutely a DIY thing.
In terms of the content, yeah, it's a superhero content, and it's my superhero comic. I'm trying to play it straight, there's no cute gimmick, no winking or nudging at work here. I think that by virtue of the fact that I'm doing it on my own, my way, with my specific vision intact, that just kind of sets it apart. I think that's what the readers are responding to? I mean, the readers respond to different things about it, maybe the aspect of one guy doing everything, maybe just that they're old Suicide Squad fans, or just the art or the writing, but it all just works, and seeing that momentum building inspired me to move forward.
Aside from the fact that I had to get the book done because I had committed to this schedule, I was actually doing it for an audience, and that felt fantastic.
CA: It's interesting that you would've done this, committing a year of your life to it, and didn't expect it to be a hit. That's shocking to me, that you'd take that risk.
MF: Yeah. I always romanticize going away from society, you know? Like a hill person or something. [Laughs] Just making comics forever, having them be disassociated from everything. I mean, it's an insane person's thought, but with that in mind, I just wanted to make the comic, you know, only my friends would read, and that's cool, but I had to make it and I had to make it like this. With that mentality, moving forward with this superhero concept, again, the fan reaction took me by surprise. I had no idea that people would react to it.
And really, its just an extension of that DEATHZONE comic I did. People liked that, and based on that reaction, on those numbers, that's how I moved forward with Copra. I was perfectly fine taking that risk for at least a year, because really, what would I lose? A year of my life doing exactly what I wanted to do before burning out and walking away to the hills? [Laughs] At least I did that one thing.
CA: Was there any particular fan reaction that sticks out? I know you got art very early on, and you got a drawing of Vitas from a kid, which I think is hilarious.
MF: Oh my God, that was great. That was the first piece of fan-art I got. I had to run it. How could you not? I mean, I would run all fanart, I wish I had more space. I wish I had multiple pages for all the letters I get, the fanart, the nice notes. It's all super appreciated, that never, ever gets old.
CA: I just love the idea of a ten year-old getting Copra every month. That's like that kid's first comic!
MF: I know! But my first comic was that crazy issue of Suicide Squad we talked about before. So... I guess I'm in good company.
CA: Well let's talk about Suicide Squad for a minute. We've talked about it before, it's my pick for the best DC Comic of the '80s...
MF: Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt.
CA: I know you're a fan. I read DEATHZONE, and that got me excited about Copra when it was coming out, and I knew you were going to model Copra after Suicide Squad from the start. But I didn't realize how much you were going to go into using the same structure, to the point where you have the old Suicide Squad gimmick of someone dying in every storyline, and using #7 as the "Personal Files" issue.
MF: When I mentioned that Suicide Squad was the blueprint, I meant a good chunk of the stories that I was really familiar with. I think that first half of the run is as near a perfect run of any comics title, especially for those specific characters, so when I modeled the stories after those characters, that was the basis of it. I wanted to play around with all the Suicide Squad tropes. The Personal Files, the Kill List, all of those things, but doing it in my way, throwing in a few curveballs of my own that could serve the story for new readers and also surprise old readers.
I didn't want old school Suicide Squad fans to just see things coming, so if I could work from both of those angles, I'd say I succeeded. I'm just using an old approach to Suicide Squad. It's basically what Frank Miller did with Batman, it's what Alan Moore did with most of the things he does. He built his career on doing this sort of material, restructuring or recontextualizing things, and either stripping them down to their essentials or just doing their own thing entirely. This process has been used for good and for ill over the decades, so I feel like I'm just doing that myself. I'm certainly treating it like I was approached by DC to spearhead a change for one of their titles, and this is what I've done.
I'm not doing anything so wildly abstract or out of the sandbox that it's unrecognizable. I still want to play with these sort of familiar concepts and aesthetics that define Suicide Squad.
CA: How did you decide who was going to die?
MF: The first major loss was planed from the get-go. I felt like I had to set the mood and the tone, and show that this kind of thing would happen, but it also had to have impact, so I had to make the reader care about this person. Through the series, these things happen, and they will continue to happen. Luckily, I'm not beholden to a licensed property where you're tied to keeping these properties alive. I don't have that burden. My story has a beginning, middle and end, it's a complete story, and in that story, life and death play a huge part and have fatal ramifications.
CA: Well, you thought you had an end. Now it's going to keep going.
MF: [Laughs] I'm talking like... issue 50.
CA: Is that how far you're planning, or are those just the thoughts you have when you're forcing yourself to take a vacation?
MF: I have thorough notes up to #50. [Laughs] So we'll see. We'll see. That's the hope.
CA: Let's talk about artistic influences for a minute. Your style is really hard to pin down. You've talked about Frank Miller, and the cover to #2 is about the Frank Millerest thing I've ever seen, but it's obvious that you've read a lot of stuff to synthesize your own style. I'm curious about who you looked to when it came time to draw Copra.
MF: It's funny to hear people's takes on my style, and I think it reveals more about them than it does about me. A lot of people say Kirby and Ditko, and that's certainly in there. I don't think it's a straight influence, but again, I could be wrong. I don't really do it consciously. Frank Miller's at the forefront for sure, without a doubt. I'd say that Kyle Baker is a huge influence, just for his economy and speed, you know?
You look at their shadows, and they're really beautiful and fine lined, and they're detailed, but they were drawn quickly. It doesn't suffer from it. I think it enhances that look and the story they're telling. When I sit down to draw, that's certainly a factor, that speed. Guys like Norm Breyfogle, he is fantastic, and he'd utilize different techniques, maybe to ward off boredom, but also to meet a deadline. It's really, really expressive and beautiful, and every month, he'd just do it. It's certainly a huge inspiration.
My go-tos are Jaime Hernandez and Walt Simonson. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Jorge Zaffino. Klaus Janson. Klaus Janson's like my god. It's all so beautiful. These guys are all equally important to me, so when I sit down, I just use all that as inspiration to attack the page and make it look like it does in my head, which is possibly the most generic thing an artist could say, but, you know. I don't have these comics by my desk, I'm mostly going from memory and the feeling that I get from reading these comics and seeing their work, studying their work and seeing them develop their own styles and manage their voices. That's how I came to the style that I use in Copra.
CA: I think the Ditko comparison probably comes from that issue where you have Dr. Strange and Shade the Changing Man running around together.
MF: Yeah, of course. [Laughs]
CA: You've done the compendia, but are we going to see a full Copra #1 - 12 collection.
MF: Yes. It's still being worked on, but I definitely want to get a collection out there and get it all as available as possible. Having said that, a lot of people have asked about a digital version. That may not happen for a while, I still need to get my bearings on a print edition. I'm still trying to navigate those waters, but a complete collected edition is in the works for sure.
CA: Final question. This is a vague one, but I'm curious to see where you go with it: What do you feel like you accomplished with the first 12 issues of Copra?
MF: That's a really personal question, Chris. [Laughs] What do I feel I've accomplished... I don't know.
What have I accomplished. You know, working in comics for so long, you juggle expectations and hopes and frustrations and triumphs in little blips. I can only speak for myself, but with Copra, i was forced to not consider any of those things. It was pure work. It was pure bulldozing through a project, and at the end of it, I had something to show for that work, instead of these sort of ambiguous, nebulous results, as some projects tend to be by the time you're done with them.
With Copra, I have a big stack of pages, where I've learned many things about myself, my discipline, my output, certainly my limitations and restrictions, and I can only hope to overcome them with the next 12 issues, and beyond with every single project. It's never been quite that clear to me, as much as it has been when I sent those last pages to the printer. And when it came back, when I mailed them off, it was a huge sense of accomplishment that I've never felt before.