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Chapter One: Stephen Probably Could
For the last few years, one of my favorite comics to read has been Michel Fiffe's COPRA. It's a comic that I really pretty unabashadely love-- one of the few being put out right now where I would talk about it in those terms.
But for the last few years, one of my least favorite comics to read people talk about has been Michel Fiffe's COPRA.
Standard Disclaimer-- Low Self-Esteem: Oh, some people have managed to say decent things about it-- there's always some people. And I probably won't do any better than anyone else in making a run at it because blah blah blah false humility-- because this is a comic I like more than is reasonable, and will probably just gush about, rather than look at with the critical eye you deserve blabbity bloo. This is going to be me writing about the why of that, which is going to be completely insufferable.
And, in fairness to other people who've written about it: it raises a very old challenge -- COPRA talks about superheros (which folks usually know how to write about), but it doesn't seem to "care about them," at least in the traditional way comics readers are used to (i.e., all the "let me explain at nauseating length why Superman doesn't kill" ways). It's one of those comics that fall onto the "conversation" at a weird angle -- something always true anytime a comic asking its reader to be on its wavelength has been central to its appeal.
But no, no -- what bugs me is a very specific thing, an unavoidable thing that gets mentioned over and over: what bugs me is how people talk about COPRA's relationship with its most obvious influence, the John Ostrander, Kim Yale and Luke McDonnell run of SUICIDE SQUAD from the late 1980's.
People who bring up that run in connection with COPRA, they either (a) state the relationship in a very particular "tee-hee" way I find aggravating (discussed below), or (b) mention it in passing, then try to treat the book like John Q. Ordinary Superhero-Comic, no matter how obviously that's fitting a square peg into a round hole. But in either case, they don't really think about how those two books really relate very intensely, despite COPRA inviting exactly that kind of thought.
The connection obviously can't be denied-- some (though not all) characters plainly rhyme; COPRA homages specific panel sequences, lifts structural ideas; etc.
But as an example of the "(a) tee-hee" school, just picked at near-random, here is the first paragraph from the AV Club's review of COPRA: ROUND ONE:
"Michel Fiffe’s COPRA: Round One (Bergen Street Press) is an inspiring piece for anyone that has ever wanted to work on corporate-owned characters, showing that copyright shouldn’t stand in the way of an artist’s will to create. Fiffe’s love letter to John Ostrander’s SUICIDE SQUAD [...] changes character names and designs to step around legal conflicts, but underneath the superficial changes, this is a story about classic, pre-New 52 Amanda Waller and her team of former supervillains turned soldiers."
And this way of talking about COPRA is hardly limited to the AV Club-- it's the most common way of starting a review of this comic, with legal-buzzword pontificating, by reducing COPRA down to some kind of "legal stunt". And I sort of hate it-- haaaaate it. I hate that nerd insistence on playing "I know what this is a reference to -- you're not fooling me" to win some argument no one's trying to make. Categorize. Classify. Regiment. Bag. Board. Bleh.
I hate how this obsession with phylogeny, this insistence that "ACTUALLY, SUCH AND SUCH IS JUST REHASHED SO-AND-SO TO DODGE LAWYERS" is an unhealthy constant that surrounds superhero comics -- an unhealthy constant that only renforces a crappy status quo.
There are the "true versions of superheros" (the ones owned by DC Comics, overseen DC Comics' crack team of date rapists) and then there are "well-meaning knock-offs", legal loopholes, phonies. "Actually, COPRA is just the SUICIDE SQUAD. Actually, THE AUTHORITY's Apollo & Midnighter- that's just a rehash of Batman and Superman. Actually, THE WATCHMEN characters are just the Charlton characters. Good job dodging lawyers with your little tomfoolery, you fucking children."
I believe Jesus is a reheated Osiris knock-off as much as the next irritating atheist, but I mean geez: Is this healthy thinking? Has this kind of thinking ever been good for comics? I think we can all identify a number of occasions where it has been quite damaging:
- Superman accused Captain Marvel of being a Superman knock-off in a 1941-1952 lawsuit. The result? The premature death of one of comics' greatest runs of children superhero comics.
- With the cancellation of the MIDNIGHTER series, it seems as obvious as ever how badly DC bungled THE AUTHORITY brand-- a brand that for at least a short moment in the early 00's had some cache, now all lost. DC couldn't muster any vision for the title-- oh, why should they if it was just knock-off Batman, Superman, etc., after all?
- How much of the debate about BEFORE WATCHMEN was derailed by comics' D- internet "historians" (and/or craven "creators") insisting that Alan Moore was somehow less-than, somehow not deserving of any respect for his work on WATCHMEN -- just because early in his process of creating that comic, he'd taken some small inspiration from the Charlton characters? "The Comedian is really just an Exact Xerox of the Peacemaker, a character with a bucket on his head that no one sane has ever cared about from comics most of us have never read, which really means that Alan Moore is a hack and any old pimp could have crapped out a Watchmen."
Or consider the opposite: what kind of sorry shape would we all be in, if every time a Batman movie came out, the AV Club was quick to crow that it was just a rehash of The Shadow? I saw the Shadow movie -- Alec Baldwin couldn't Batdance! Baldwin no Batdance, sister!
But it's most irritating to me-- most irritating-- because it ignores what for me growing up, and what I know for so many other people my age growing up, was and continues to be a pretty big fucking deal, a touchstone, part of the glue of all things.
It ignores RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
Chapter Two: SPOILER WARNING -- The Dog's Name was Indiana
Alan Quartermain. Denis Nayland Smith. Commando Cody. G-Man Rex Bennett. 1944's Perils of the Darkest Jungle. Lucille Love, the Girl of Mystery. Professor Challenger. Captain Blood. Mark Brandon and Valley of the Kings.
A proud tradition of serial adventurers who ran off into jungles, dangled from zeppelins, leaped from quicksand deathtraps onto moving trains, snatching diamonds from out of the mouths of tigers, stealing used women's underwear from convents, snorting rails of cocaine off erect horse genitalia, etc.
When George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan were creating Indiana Jones, all of these boyhood influences were hardly hidden away-- they were soaked into Indiana Jones from the start. Listen to George Lucas, from PAGE ONE of the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK STORY CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT (an essential transcript of the January 23-27, 1978 conference between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan where they created the first and greatest Indiana Jones movie):
"Generally, the concept is a serial idea. Done like the Republic serials. As a thirties serial. Which is where a lot of stuff comes from anyway."
But audiences didn't care. Was anyone shouting "well, this is just Alan Quartermain with the serial numbers filed off? This is Alan Quartermain-- alert the lawyers?" The comparatively tepid box office for 1985's KING SOLOMON'S MINES or 1986's ALAN QUARTERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD would suggest (as would common sense) that if such people existed, they had no friends.
Audiences did not care.
Why not? I'd like to think part of it is this:
Audiences understand that when they watch RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK that they're not watching a careful recreation or rehash of a Republic serial -- they're watching a movie that's very much about what those serials felt like inside Spielberg, Lucas, et al.'s brains, at a Saturday matinee, pre-puberty. RAIDERS is all about watching the synaptic fireworks of a clever eleven year old-- it's watching Lucas, Spielberg, et al.'s memories of the movies that lived inside their own heads as kids, after seeing Forest Ranger Captain Steve King defy evil, escape peril.
Today, more people are likely to have seen RAIDERS than a Commando Cody serial. Because arguably-- and this is not the most informed opinion, I haven't spent too many hours watching Republic serials-- but arguably, RAIDERS is a purer, cleaner hit than what came before it. RAIDERS is almost all a sugar rush of a movie because you can tell they just stole the good parts from whatever was inspiring them. Nobody remembers the boring parts of movies -- nobody dreams of growing up to recreate the part of STAR WARS where Luke Skywalker wants to go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters; when they were remaking that STAR WAR last year, they left Tosche Station out.
And because RAIDERS is not ripping off all the boring parts no one remembers about those original movies, all that's left are the parts where Lucas and Spielberg have a fanboy glee for-- a fanboy glee that the original material inherently can't have. And I would suggest to you that even people who've never seen a Republic serial can instinctually recognize that fanboy glee-- can connect with that glee, even after human memory of the underlying thing has faded away, cracked and crumbled.
Anything that gives some undue primacy to earlier work for being "the original", that casts the "original" in a dominant position just by virtue of being the inspiration instead of the inspir-ee, is thus a questionable logic, at best.
Chapter Three: What happened to Her Vial of Billy Bob's Blood?
But, of course, there's a very obvious counter-argument. If RAIDERS looted the American movie-going public more than KING SOLOMON'S MINES, maybe that just has no inherent meaning other than that one is simply the better better movie than the other. Maybe audiences thought (correctly) that Karen Allen was foxier Sharon Stone. Maybe audiences could see which had more craft involved, more star-power both in front of and behind the scenes. RAIDERS was plainly a movie that came out at the right time for it-- "the hero gets a happy ending, but hoo-boy the government's a bummer" pretty perfectly walks the line in 1981 between the Vietnam-stained Hollywood movies before RAIDERS and the Reagen-stained movies after it.
However, an argument can be made that RAIDERS is a better movie not just because it executed an adventure story better than the alternatives, but because it is actually about something that an Alan Quartermain "Reboot" inherently coud not have been about. After all, what Lucas, Spielberg, Kasdan, Kaufman, Marcia Lucas, etc., made in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is hard to describe as being a "classical" adventure.
For starters, Indiana Jones is hardly a "square-jawed hero of yesteryear." The movie begins with Jones an atheist looting foreign cultures of religious idols he thinks nothing of; its most memorable moment is him cheating during a fight; and whatever his relationship with the female lead was, it sure never sounded healthy.
Far from being a character who saves the day, the movie is a catalog of Indiana Jones's failures-- consider this description of the movie by screenwriter Terry Rossio (NATIONAL TREASURE, DEJA VU):
"He loses the golden idol. Marian is kidnapped and he's unable to rescue her. He finds the Ark, but it is immediately taken away. His bluff to destroy the Ark is called, and he gets recaptured. He can't even look upon the Ark when it is opened. And the government ends up with his long sought-after and much suffered-for prize."
Indiana Jones is a loser. He just loses hard-- he loses in a way you can't help but admire.
By the end of the movie, Indiana Jones is stripped of all the things that make him an Adventure Serial hero, stripped of all his weapons, tied to a stake, made helpless-- and only wins at the end by finally turning to a higher power, a higher power that before he found love he could never believe in. Indiana Jones never really beats the bad guys himself-- he just survives them thanks to a last-minute conversion.
Or heck: if RAIDERS is not example enough for you, consider KILL BILL, Quentin Tarantino's 2003-2004 "love letter" to kung-fu movies. But there too, while KILL BILL may seem to occupy a classic kung fu mode, the movie consistently avoids kung fu movie morality. A promised duel at night between honorable opponents becomes instead the hero of the movie slaughtering a mom with a knife in her own kitchen in front of her daughter -- the movie's samurai duel in the snow is only because the Bride's opponent is a woman adopting racial poses out of insecurity for her half-Japanese heritage. That scene is followed by the Bride disfiguring her samurai opponent's attorney.
All the fake honor and samurai logic gets stripped away from The Bride until the movie has become just a Russ Meyer fantasy of tattered women in a trailer swinging away, tearing each other to shreds.
By the end of that movie, we watch as a pop-culture obsessed filmmaker-- raised by a single mom-- tells a story about a single mom stopping the heart of the guy from TV's Kung Fu in order to (a) save her child from being raised as she was by the toxic masculinity he plainly represents, and (b) get an annoying nerd to stop man-splaining his Grand Philosophy of Superman oh fuck can that happen more how do we get that to happen more...
Yes, these movies are love letters to out-of-fashion genres, distillations and concentrates of the filmmaker's childhood obsessions-- but RAIDERS, KILL BILL, they're also movies about taking those childhood heroes, ignoring the morality they're supposed to have, and seeing what values survive for the filmmakers at childhood's end that allow them to survive a spiritual destruction threatened by their villains. Both reflect hyper-literate filmmakers ripping away the trappings of genre from their genre super-heroes, because they know that cheap genre thrills must be outgrown for a hero to enter into the world of adulthood (a cultural message otherwise frighteningly absent from your neighborhood multiplex presently)-- their movies end trying to stare at the human values that have to be there when just liking movies isn't enough.
Both are love letters, but not empty-headed "I like to play with the toys" love letters-- love letters that know that what they love is also it own kind of poison.
"What nourishes me, destroys me." -- One of Angelina Jolie's tattoos. Pretty deep. (Could I have gotten a whole paragraph out of the fact that she was the Tomb Raider hey metaphors nudge nudge wink wink? Hell yes, I could have. I've been doing this for years, son! *spikes football at home plate*)
But so okay: how 'bout that COPRA?
Consider the key difference between COPRA and SUICIDE SQUAD -- SUICIDE SQUAD is about a team of supervillains, operating in a clandestine fashion to take on the missions that superheros can't perform. But COPRA? As far as I can recall, COPRA has never betrayed that superheros exist in its universe. The COPRA universe is one bereft of any moral alternative to the violence and murders its characters engage in.
From issue 12: "These clubs go deep, beyond reason, kings and even money. It's the monolith you never address. It's the little people firmly pressed to the ground, crushed under invisible rule. No matter what results I was responsible for, we were always fodder..."
One character even explicitly calls COPRA what it is, what all superhero team comics become: a gang. And its gang-members are mired in violence, imprisoned by their karma, sometimes due to circumstances of growing up in poverty, sometimes worries about being a "coward" (see above, re: toxic masculinity), etc. "Inmates" and "hooligans." As the story proceeds, especially in the latter half of the first year, the team is constantly being dismantled-- its characters flung into other dimensions and abandoned, or turning violently against one another, often just after we've met them.
Indeed, the entire first arc of COPRA is caused by a power from outside of their dimension-- a power that we're told consumes those that wear it.
My favorite issue is #14. Without spoiling it, issue #14 concerns arguably the most innocent and likable member of the COPRA team.
It goes badly for them. Or more specifically, it goes bad for the people around that character to know him.
COPRA is a comic that the SUICIDE SQUAD, by virtue of existing in the DC Universe can never be because it is a comic fundamentally suspicious of, derisive of, dismissive of the underlying message of superhero comics: that power can be used responsibily, that our world has space for heroes, that violence can solves problems. COPRA is so intoxicated by comic's formal properties that perhaps the fact its content isn't so peppy can easily be overlooked, ignored. COPRA has cheap genre thrills, but plays them like a black comedy-- unburdened by a DC universe context that makes no sense i.e. that the kind of power let loose within COPRA can co-exist with a moral universe.
In other words, and to bring this back to our original thesis, without properly considering the book's relationship to SUICIDE SQUAD in a thoughtful way, some of COPRA's key merits will be overlooked.
Chapter Four: SPOILERS The Greatest American Hero was Actually Your Dad That Entire Time-- Think About It -- It's a Metaphor, You Plebian!
Question: If you were to compare an old Ostrader-Yale issue of SUICIDE SQUAD and an issue of COPRA, would the two really resemble one another?
My answer is no. Because even besides the differences in their formal qualities, the differences in McDonnell and Fiffe's artistic influences / aspirations... SUICIDE SQUAD is about the SUICIDE SQUAD-- making sure the reader is able to carefully follow the goings-ons of the SUICIDE SQUAD's sordid journey through the dark underbelly of the DC Universe.
But COPRA...? What is COPRA about?
Pop quiz: What's the plot of the first 12 issues of COPRA? Answer: God only knows! I barely remember and I just reread them before I wrote this. Some triangle's being an asshole or something-- fuck you, triangle! It doesn't matter. Because it's not really about that.
And I think for me, the reason COPRA has meant something to me over these last couple years, is that it's more about a feeling -- a specific feeling that you only used to get from comics, and a specific feeling that comics itself has maybe abandoned -- or at least lost for me.
My favorite issues of Chris Claremont's THE UNCANNY X-MEN when I was a kid were the two issues in San Francisco where the X-Men fought the Marauders-- I talk about them all the goddamn time. I can still remember a good chunk of those comics-- Dazzler cutting Rogue out from some underwater metal trap; Wolverine fighting Marauders on a bridge until he has to jump off the bridge to save himself; Rogue waking up on a beach next to a guy reading a Wildcards book; Havok trying to kill his wife Polaris at the end because she'd turned evil, been possessed by Malice (metaphor!). I read those comics to tatters, as a kid. To tatters. It's not peak Claremont, but it's peak Claremont-Silvestri.
Here's the part I don't remember: why the hell were they in San Francisco! Because who gives a shit?
COPRA, especially in its first year, in the ways that really matter, is about what comics felt like when I was a kid: superheros who can barely get along with one another on the run from a world that hates them, on the run from themselves; teen self-loathing covering up adolescent realizations that the world wasn't actually built for us, doesn't care about us, is apathetic to our existence; Havok shooting raybeams at a lady because he doesn't know how to talk to girls.
Every superhero comic that mattered was on the run when I was a kid.
The Claremont-Silvestri X-Men were hiding in tunnels, hunted, under constant siege. Mark Gruenwald's Captain America was fired, replaced by the government with a muscled-up emotionless psycho, lost in his own tunnels with D-Man. (A lot of tunnels). Batman, at the beginning of his career, chased by cops, "Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on...none of you are safe". Batman, at the end of his career, chased by cops: "You were the one who laughed... that scary laugh of yours... 'Sure we're criminals.' You said. 'We've always been criminals. We have to be criminals.'"
Sure, these comics were "power fantasies for alienated kids" -- but back then moreso than today, I think the people who made those comics realized that the key word in that phrase wasn't "power", but "alienated."
Some part of me when I was a kid needed to hear that stuff. Some part of me figured out early that the world was a shitty and unfair place, and needed to hear outlaw mythologies, not realizing how fucking damaging those were to dumb, schlubby kids like I was back then. And given how much I salivate when COPRA rang that same bell, given all the stuff I still tend to like, I guess some part of me still likes to hear outlaw mythologies, even 100% fully realizing how fucking damaging they are to dumb, schlubby adults like I am right now. (Footnote: I'm not saying it's healthy. I'm not saying I'm healthy.)
But superhero comics for the most part-- besides COPRA-- they've lost all that for me.
First, if anyone was doing a great and convincing run in that mode pre-COPRA, I suppose that I missed it. The post-Miller generation thought the fascism was the fun part, instead of the sour after-taste. At least I think that's true for that wide swatch of comics THE AUTHORITY inspired (arguably an awful lot of books). "Fascists are a bummer, man." -- Pablo Neruda.
But second, for me, it's probably not just a case of "oh hey, I wish the X-Men were on the run again"-- look around. The people who make those kinds of comics now -- they've bought in. They bought into gimmicks and "it is the fans who are wrong" and endless crossover scams and ugliness. They looked at a crowd of date-rapists and said "Sign me up-- boss me around-- I'll be a loyal quiet soldier in your armies of silence."
They could try to write a little outlaw story, but what kind of fucking sucker would believe them?
Chapter Five: I Mean COPRA's Like O-Kay But This is Getting Ridiculous Bro -- Why Don't You Just Marry It?
But okay fine "COPRA is good because I like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK so much that I have somehow deluded myself into some bizarre metaphysical connection between the two things in my head, and also all weak stories were actually 'really about a feeling' this entire time it turns out, thanks genius" -- thesis proven; let's quit wasting your time talking about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
Let's instead waste your time talking about an entirely different Harrison Ford movie. Let's move on to STAR WARS. Because no one on the internet ever talks about that movie-! It's weird!
And I didn't really love that last STAR WARS movie-- I find it interesting to think about, but I had issues with a bunch of the plot choices in that movie. Except the complaints that other lonely middle-age failed men-- my brothers in arms!-- usually have with that movie tend to be very different, and ones I care much less about-- the biggest non-racist ones being that it "recycles" the storyline of the NEW HOPE. That's nerds' biggest complaint in a movie where a guy randomly comes back to life out of nowhere.
But there, I kind of think what the filmmakers have to say makes sense, that their stated intentions are persuasive-- and perhaps somewhat pertinent to pause to consider with what we're talking about here.
Here's JJ Abrams et al. describing what they were doing, to the Hollywood Reporter:
"I can understand that someone might say 'Oh it's a complete rip-off.' We inherited Star Wars. The story of history repeating itself was I believe an obvious and intentional thing. The structure of meeting a character who comes from a nowhere desert and discovers that she has a power within her, where the bad guys have a weapon that is destructive but that ends up being destroyed, those simple tenants, are for me by far the least important aspects of this movie. They provide bones that were well-proven long before they were used in Star Wars. What was important for me was introducing a brand new chapter, brand new characters, using relationships that were embracing the history that we know to tell a story that's new-- to go backwards to go forwards. [..] Yes, the bones of the thing we always knew would be a genre comfort zone-- but what the thing looks like... We all have a skeleton that looks somewhat similar, but none of us look the same. To me the important thing was not what are the bones-- to me, it was about meeting new characters who discover themselves that they are in a universe that is spiritual, that is optimistic, and in a world that you will meet people who will become your family."
I find that more persuasive than the arguments I find his critics making, at least where the "why is it the death star again" criticism is concerned. Besides "inherited", I think the line in that which gets to me is "to go backwards to go forwards."
But boy, comics really grinds it out of you to believe that's possible. Comics is usually "to go backwards to go backwards. Yay, backwards. Look at all this backwards!"
COPRA's relationship with SUICIDE SQUAD shouldn't be ignored. But it invites questions deeper than "how does this effect DC's oh-so-important trademark rights?" Is COPRA about something different than the SUICIDE SQUAD? Does COPRA use the SUICIDE SQUAD as start pointing in order to explore themes that SUICIDE SQUAD didn't? Does COPRA question its genre and interrogate its fantasies in a way that SUICIDE SQUAD couldn't? If content is performance and performance is content, is the fact that COPRA is "performing" the SUICIDE SQUAD's trappings (in addition to DOCTOR STRANGE and X-MEN and all the other ingredients in COPRA's stew) any more significant than if it had performed any other kind of story?
Are we going backwards to go forwards?
Chapter 6: I Bet He Put a Carrot at Its Crotch
Final point -- not particularly on-topic -- pure self-indulgence:
The way these reviews always begin by kowtowing to the primacy of the SUICIDE SQUAD-- I think what's interesting about it is how it betrays a sort of anxiety about comics as being a performance medium. It suggests that those critics think that the audience is looking for Big Ideas, and should not be left surprised to discover this comic has an Idea That's Been Done Before-- oh, that feature needs to be marked out, first and foremost. They suggest that the authors think the audience has to have their hand held on the elemental idea that serial comics are a performance space-- have their hand held on such a big and basic point about those comics!
Certainly, COPRA more than any other comic in that space right now underlines that point for a reader-- it's a point being made more persuasively by COPRA than any of the story's "messages", that of course serialized comics are performances.
It can be seen in the art-- layouts that stagger between carefully choreographed widescreen action and formalist howls, montage panels, panels of thin-line work next to thick brushwork, lenticular panels and silhouetted action, homages to DC house-style action sequences mixed with art-comic mark-making, color as storytelling, color as ornament, color as punctuation.
Fiffe himself has been open in couching the book about breaking the Kirby Barrier:
"It's an output thing: churn out those pages, keep moving and odn't you dare think of a rewrite, pal. The way I see it is not about rushing to produce some slapped together thing, it's about not being so precious that it stalls you, not refining the work until it no longer has any life. [...] It's allowed me to unerstand a part of the comics I love, especially the older ones, the less self conscious ones."
But a fan would have to be pretty thick not to notice this aspect of the comic.
There are other comics out right now that have to be viewed through that performance lens. There is REVENGER, Charles Forman's action-sleaze beat-em-up comic set in a decayed and deadened American wasteland (a more deadpan A-Team cousin to SEXCASTLE's Roadhouse)(or maybe giggling more over those dopey Andy Vachss books -- I never figured out the appeal of those). REVENGER's story is plainly overheated, with the fun of the comic not being that story so much as the straight-faced Dateline NBC tone of Forsman's telling of it, how the Stone-Phillips-iness of his delivery makes it all play like a fun inside joke to be in on (though: with Forsman again indulging in a bizarre fascination with big third act twists that I can't say I myself share, but is at least seeming now more like something he's exploring for some kind of fuzzy reasons, and less like a lack of experience or discipline or whatever). The performance of REVENGER far more than the content calls attention to (and allows Forsman to focus on) his pacing, atmosphere, the unspoken joke and invisible story of his comic-- arguably, where his strengths seem to lie.
Or, the serialized stories of the ISLAND anthology or 8HOUSE-- I honestly can't make heads or tails of some/most of these comics, the ones I've seen, when I try to "understand" the stories. I don't really follow what's happening narratively-- a great many ornate ideas but without any narrative structure to hold on to or for the reader to orient themselves with, with the dialogue offering no significant hand-holds. But I find that many of these comics remain entertaining, provided that I shift my reading speed, speed up, focus less on the "notes" and more on the "melody" -- provided that I respect them as performances, instead of as spoon-fed narratives. I wouldn't call any of these unqualified successes-- but if you believe that one of the hallmarks of a great comic is that in some way teaches you how to read it, these seem like at least worthy efforts.
And so, among comic creators, the idea of a serialized comic being a performance does not seem like it would be controversial-- the work itself plainly and routinely betrays that understanding, more and more of late. And yet, when you look at how comics are discussed and particularly sold, the conversation seems strangely oblivious to that fact.
And here, let's not single out the reviews-- let's not just heap abuse on the poor AV Club. All the poor AV Club ever wanted to do was tell us every single scene that happened in the latest episode of THE AMERICANS, like an annoying 9 year old. But no: consider the Image Expo.
At least as it's reported. The reports of this Expo are all about high concepts. Big Story Ideas. "What if there were dinosaurs ... on the moon? But: what if the dinosaurs were secretly magicians?? AAIIIIIIEEEEE."
But the weird thing: people care about these ideas enough to spend years writing and drawing them, one painstaking page at a time, people's adult lives thrown at these concepts. But you almost never hear why. Why are people telling these stories, why are they telling them right now instead of other stories, why do they care, who are they, who are they trying to talk to-- you never hear about the performance, at least not in how these Expos are reported. At best, the very best you can do, if you kind of squint at it, you can kind of tell that Ivan Brandon really saw some crazy shit during the War that he isn't okay with yet and he's trying to work out in his comics -- villages being burned, women throwing their babies onto rocks, men trying to hold their guts in their bodies with their hands, screaming in foreign tongues: "Why did you do this to me, Ivan Brandon? Why are you so cruel?"
Comics themselves more often than not evidence that people making them plainly understand that they are performing -- but the story that comics tells itself and sells to others never seems to be about performance. And that's enormously strange, if you just think about the history of American comics, and one of the key things that makes that history so great, at least to me.
Have you ever heard the story (maybe apocryphal) of Michelangelo's Snowman?
In January 1494, a snowstorm hit Florence, Italy-- the home of the young Michelangelo and his patron Piero de' Medici-- who history would remember as Piero the Unfortunate, who centuries later is still described as "feeble, arrogant and undisciplined." Piero sends for Michelangelo, and tells him to make a snowman in the de' Medici's courtyard. And so, Michelangelo does -- before he sculpts David, Michelangelo sculpts a snowman, which of course, eventually melts away. But his biographer Giorgio Vasari describes the snowman as "very beautiful" (though some say Vasari himself never saw it), and that is how it is still remembered today in articles with titles like "Michelangelo's snowman and other great lost works of art."
And for years, that was the the history of comics in the United States-- nobody knew that their work was going to be collected in trades, remembered, filmed, etc. A comic wasn't supposed to last past the Wednesday it was new on the shelf. Heck, (and this sounds like an exaggeration now, but at least from how I remember some years), there were times where people weren't sure there'd be a comics in America in 5 years, at least as we understood it.
But plenty of people, more than makes any sense, just said fuck it and danced as hard as they could for their money. And if you lucked out on the right back issue bin, you could find these bizarre and wonderful things. Some folks really put on a fucking show, just because that's who they were and at the speed they were working at, they wouldn't have time to think of doing anything less. For no reward. For the opposite of a reward-- they had to work in fucking comics. 95% of your favorite artists got date-raped by a DC editor. That's not me talking-- that's just according to science!
But however futile, they did the job anyways, performed their little hearts out anyways, foolishly, pointlessly, and in the absolute stupidest sense of the word, bravely.
And so for reminding readers of comics like that (Fiffe's called SUICIDE SQUAD a "deep cut" in interviews), COPRA links arms with those people, that most honorable comics tradition of "fuck it" through time, and tells that story to readers, a story critics and publishers won't or aren't, a counter-history of comics that for me at least seems infinitely cooler than any alternative.
I mean, who do you think was the hero of the Wile E. Coyote cartoons? If you rooted for that fucking bird, you probably aren't reading this, you'll die a schmuck, and COPRA's too good for you. The End, and good night.