Call it ‘The Ric Flair Rule,’ the instant when all else slips away and one is left with the simple notion: “To be THE MAN, you’ve got to beat THE MAN!” Satan tried (FAIL!) so did Darth Vader (also a FAIL, but a much softer landing). This trope of the superior successor and its many branches like surpassing the teacher, obsolete mentor and asskicking equals authority have been around since Hector was a pup, seriously, the Greeks did invent (almost) everything.
Capital ‘C’ Comics loves this story — see the X-Men (the Summers family in particular), every Robin and various Flashes — so it’s no surprise a cartoonist and a master of the form like Michel Fiffe, finds the perfect fit for this device in his acclaimed self-published juggernaut, COPRA. Their “tragic trans-dimensional caper” now kaput, Fiffe has spent COPRA’s second arc going one-on-one with six of the title’s key players. COPRA #18 sees the team’s sorceress supreme, Xenia, step to the fore. This being COPRA, readers have come to expect something less rote and more personal than the continual beating of some dead horse. Speaking of which …
Someday in some Jack Kirby-esque Fourth World world, critics will stop talking and writing about analogues in discussions of COPRA. Here’s the thing, yes, COPRA is an analogue of John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell and Kim Yale’s late 80’s version of Suicide Squad.” As accurate as that observation is, it’s a bit off in its … (ahem) deadshot analysis. Most comic book characters, especially super heroes, stand on the shoulders of giants and other super heroes. Same goes for COPRA. So what? Let’s move on.
What separates COPRA from the league of analogous analogues is Fiffe knows adaptation isn’t imitation. Like Homer and Euripides (or Miller and Moore), Fiffe takes what he likes from a story or particular versions of a story and grafts those details onto his own ideas and experiences to create a new narrative, something unique and all his own. The success of COPRA — even though it is still very much a niche title — has everything to do with Fiffe’s skill as both showman and storyteller. What makes COPRA the smartest super hero comic on the stands is Fiffe’s ability to run in parallel lines: give readers what they want and surprise them with new ideas that exceed their expectations.
In COPRA #18 Fiffe takes the ‘I-was-the-learner-etcetera-etcetera’ plot pulls it inside out and goes allegorical (more Greek!) to confront himself, his own creation and its success. It’s less murder your darlings, per se and more a willingness to learn what makes them (and him) tick.
Fiffe confronts his monster head on — time, tide and self-published DIY comics wait for no cartoonist – as Xenia says what’s on her mind: “I hate COPRA.” ‘Hate,’ is, perhaps, too strong of a word for how she’s feeling (forgive her, she’s angry and super stressed). In Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions she’s closer to the corner of disgust and loathing rather than pure rage. Her mentor, Vincent, is lost in some phantom zone and she has a chunk of alien shrapnel lodged in her gut so things could be better for the team’s reluctant sorcerer’s apprentice. While the shrapnel grants her god-like powers it’s also hell on her mental health. To get the point across, Fiffe fractures Xenia’s head on the opening page.
Xenia’s words on page one are the only spoken dialogue — there’s some inter-dimensional chit-chat later on, but those words are not said as much as thought or possibly imagined — until the final page, all else is left to the life of the mind. As the sole creator, Fiffe exacts his own god-like powers, his own intelligent design, on every aspect of COPRA. Imagine the power, the responsibility, the anguish. To portray Xenia’s disordered and splintered psyche, Fiffe uses the lettering to lock her thoughts inside boxes that loop from one page to the next, one set of thoughts obscures and overlaps other competing ideas. Xenia’s mind is a jumble and so Fiffe stacks rectangles on top of one another and moves them from left to right, up, down and even sideways, a mental map that’s all over the place. Even if Xenia’s mind is a mess, Fiffe’s page conveys order and every mark plays its part.
In her attempt to get her shit together, Xenia returns home, “Vincent’s home, his study, my sanctum.” The place looks like a bomb hit it, a bomb named Xenia, “my fault. I did this.” As she begins to literally pick up the pieces of a shattered stained glass window (metaphors about shattered glass and lives abound) she reflects on what she learned when she was Vincent’s protégé: “It’s all within us, he would tell me. Don’t regard any ascribed pantheon at the expense of your own vision. Follow your own book of law, he would insist, even when I would slack off and discipline was needed. And it was desperately needed at first, discipline.”
Think about that: “Don’t regard any ascribed pantheon at the expense of your own vision.” Affirmations don’t get more bold or philosophies more real. These are the words of an artist telling himself to stay the course, stick to his book and get thee behind me, nostalgia! Maybe Fiffe should start selling t-shirts in his Etsy shop, something like Keep Calm and COPRA On (please no, but maybe secretly yes). If only he wasn’t so committed to his own book and the discipline it takes to make it so damn good maybe he would.
Xenia’s throw down with Vincent is exciting, gorgeous and predictable and that’s the point. The battle was never in doubt, Vincent wasn’t (isn’t) the problem. Xenia is Xenia’s problem. Perhaps there is something dark … something phoenix-y about that girl, another analogue, another time. If Xenia has any connection to some fictional forbear it’s Satan, Milton’s Satan, that failure and the pater familias of all overreachers. Xenia would do well to listen to Satan, “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Godspeed, Xenia.
In the notes page on the inside back cover Fiffe explains the theme of each one of the six issues in this second arc such as ‘the Kirby and Ditko issues’ (COPRA #16 and #17 respectively). Isn’t it possible that COPRA #18 could be ‘the Fiffe issue,’ a testimonial, an allegory for what’s happened so far for the series and for him as its creator? At some point influences fade, circles complete and all that’s left is what’s next. To call COPRA an analogue of this or that denies what COPRA has become and where it’s headed next. COPRA beat ‘THE MAN.’ Now what?
When COPRA’s leader, Sonia Stone (“the centerpiece,” as Xenia calls her) shows up on the final page she reminds Xenia, the reader and Fiffe what’s at stake: “Get your ass in gear, Xenia. COPRA has work to do.”
COPRA and other fine Michel Fiffe comics are available from THE MAN himself.