One twist of the wrist

Up in the sky! It’s an homage! So, is that a copy? A rip-off? Or is it a good thing? Is it cool? (tail-chasing ensues)

It began, as far as I can tell, and to put it indelicately, as a hair up a guy’s butt. Michel Fiffe loved a particular run of a particular comic so much that he simply had to draw his own version: a pro doing fanfic ’cause he couldn’t not. Thus COPRA was launched as homage to the Ostrander-Yale-McConnell Suicide Squad, self-published as hard-copy issues for direct-sale through limited venues, significantly not offering them for sale digitally. Slightly more widely-distributed are the 6-issue collected book volumes, three so far.

Fiffe is completely up-front about it:

… I didn’t want to make an original story. I just wanted to draw and write the specific details of what I loved about the Squad.

There’s a lot in that sentence that I relate to, and I want to focus on the word “just.” Instead of its common meaning “merely,” and instead of its all-too-common empty and defensive meaning, here it’s something important and rich: a door leading beyond the alleged distinctions among swiping, copying, imitation, expy, homage, and derivation.

Specifically, fuck originality.

Never mind whether it shows how “mature” comics have become. Never mind if it’s good for the franchise. Mind whether it’s fun. Mind whether you can do it at all, now, right now, not tomorrow, today. Mind whether you’re pushing your abilities as hard as Lee, Kirby, Ditko, et al., were obviously pushing theirs.

What matters is the authenticity of what your stories say and how well the medium-and-idiom serves exactly that. Anything and everything after that, or supporting it, or failing to, is style.

In COPRA you can see a spectrum of choices about whom to lift and how. It’s easy to refer to some of the characters:

  • Deadshot, or Floyd Lawton, is almost exactly himself as “Lloyd,” including referencing specific aspects of the Squad run as back-story; Captain Boomerang, or Harkness, is precisely himself, surname included, lacking only the costume, the handle, and the item referred to by the handle; and Shade the Changing Man is just about the same in both characterization and plot. Flo, too, is basically still Flo, name and all.
  • Sonia is a modifieation of Amanda Waller with differences in appearance and mannerisms, but with one core feature intact, as discussed below. Guthie’s kind of like this for Lashina but more so, with the key modifications being the actual rather than feigned amnesia, as well as very different appearance and temperament.
  • Gracie substitutes for Vixen, maintaining details like the agile fighting and the modeling, but drawing far more from Grace Slick and from the author’s own background than from Vixen; something similar is going on with Man-Head, filling some aspects of Bronze Tiger’s role in the Squad but with a big change in the background and characterization, retaining only the name in translation (Ben to Benicio).
  • Wir is completely new, not corresponding to anyone on the Squad that I can see.
  • [this isn’t a complete list; you can slot the other characters along the spectrum yourself]

But such a laundry-list approach overlooks the deeper choices for the new story regarding which characters you need to know already and which you don’t, and which are locked down into specific roles vs. which get developed.

The focus is Sonia’s isolation, ambiguity, strength, and vulnerability; not even knowing herself how loyal she is to her team, and how regarding it as a “team” is both her biggest asset and biggest weakness. The story can take any character and hit the “how does that affect this person? Wait, so who is this person?” “OK, then how does it affect that person? (etc)” buttons. It also narrows in hard on the institutional betrayal, the Personal Files approach, and portraits of the dead-enders, specifically Lloyd and Harkness.

What’s not there is a big deal too: the topical geopolitics. My previous posting about Suicide Squad focuses on this context: A thousand years more, O Kali, Sheba knows her daddy, Ollie ollie oxen free, Jihad, exclamation point optional, Two women, so you can get an idea of what juices me about the title. It happens not to be a front-and-forward feature of COPRA.

See, that’s important: what Fiffe chose, or better, felt were the things to bring forward, to do, whether to keep the same or to change. They’re different from my things or anyone else’s. It’s not a matter of completely reproducing the Squad with every last detail; nor, conversely, is it a matter of finding and refining an alleged “one thing” that everyone will agree is the “one thing” that should be captured. In the choices – I’ll even say passions – of which things to grab and how much twist of the wrist each thing is given, lie the authenticity I’m talking about. Is it the Suicide Squad? Yes, obviously – but it is Michel Fiffe’s Squad and no one else’s.

Such a work is obviously going to showcase the author’s own strengths, in this case barely scratching the surface to mention the panoramic action, reactive characterization, and in-your-face surrealism. It’s a waste of space on my part to enthuse generically about the art, which is rightly recognized as top-drawer by everyone. Layouts, flow, rendering, complexity here, simplicity there, anatomy, perspective, you name it, this is comics art, world class. When every pro points and says right there, there, then my li’l nickel is redundant.

But it’s more than “he’s talented” when examining how it got that way. He adopted the monthly issue as a working model. He abandoned the whole romantic image of the comics genius toiling away at his own quality-only rate, in favor of “screw it I’m drawin’ it” page bust-out, no time to revise, no time to dither, if it’s not perfect, OK, at least I’m drawing a new page now. Breaking the Kirby barrier and discovering it’s not a mystic act. And you know what? The result is not a single wasted word or dropped panel, but driving-ass story and heartfelt words, never getting lost, just self-indulgent enough for certain image and pacing choices to be fun.

Let me put this one up for you: that expys are not lazy or second-rate shortcuts, but rather are comics’ greatest asset.

  • Yes, the Fantastic Four drew directly from The Challengers of the Unknown, from Plastic Man and Elongated Man, from the original Human Torch, and from The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil. Not “inspired by.” Used.
  • Yes, Spider-Man drew directly from Spider Queen (1941) and from a 1950s Halloween costume. Not “inspired by.” Used.

This isn’t exceptional or cheating, it’s normal in every art and craft form. Anything you see goes into the hopper. For characters, “expy” is what a new character is, not a special category. Furthermore, once a range of projects and characters get rolling, non-linear criss-cross applesauce exchange is even more common, of the kind I described in Marvelous, meet miraculous.

It’s not easy to talk about this for comics, though. Comics fandom outdoes even film buffs in cherishing the auteur and hangs its argumentative little hats on nuances which quickly go insane. Look at the emphasis on “swiping” in The curious case of theĀ  Spider-Man Halloween costume and reflect on the text’s unstated assumption: that it would be a scandal, terrible, unthinkable, if Ditko (slash Kirby slash Lee) had not conceived of every last scrap of name, appearance, concept, plot, and powers of Spider-Man entirely in his-and-their in-house head. Pay attention to its titillation of how “curious” or “disturbing” that possibility must be, and presenting no conclusion or position except for that titillation. Think about why this rates an article as opposed to a footnote of minor interest in a scholarly work, i.e., why, in comics fandom, this is considered news.

As an IP matter? Pish posh. Let the lawyers hash it out – here, I’ll save you the money. Did the store guy publish a comic called “Spider Man” wearing that costume? No? Then fuck it. Anyone can say “he stole my idea!” and be totally right, yet in the absence of competing products, get nowhere. There’s no news in that either.

It's a good essay, just ... read it, y'know?

It’s a good essay, just … read it, y’know?

That’s only one horn of the very large feces-producing male ruminant in the room. The other is the extreme form of “death of the author” which is all the rage in academia. I have a fraught relationship with it myself, having been influenced strongly by Roland Barthes’ essay, and seen it go way outta hand. Now apparently there’s no such thing as pastiche, that nothing is anything is everything, blahdy-blah. I’m going to remain one teeny step on the tame side of the Deconstructionist divide and claim that stories do indeed exist, that protagonists are a thing, that this or that story is better than the other, and that this or that author is good whereas that other one isn’t.

That’s why examining COPRA matters a lot, to get away from both sorts of stupidity, and to examine the door better. Paradoxically (but not really), “getting the keys to the car” as Fiffe puts it allows you to play with more stuff than what’s in it, and also to try whatever you’d like with a working foundation under you. And putting yourself on a real schedule with it, “believing in the love” to coin a phrase, to carry you through, yields productivity and satisfaction you never dreamed possible.

The proof? See where it goes – it’s hard to believe in just 18 issues, but in addition to celebrating the above-mentioned features of Suicide Squad, it manages to provide stunning conceptual homage both to Kirby’s New Gods and to Ditko’s Doctor Strange, and also a lot of idiosyncratic, in-the-moment design-work, especially in the PatrickĀ and Gracie stories.

My favorite is “Wir,” #14, which at a glance you’d think is pure 1990s slacker-bio in muted tones and a 6-square grid, but actually shows – and completely motivates – how Patrick is unquestionably more scary when he’s not wearing his powered armor. It’s a great change-up from how Sonia’s narration always characterizes him, establishing in retrospect that she doesn’t understand him at all.

One twist of the wrist. If I were suddenly chief writer of a suddenly-burgeoning comics studio, with young writers coming along, that’s what I’d tell them. I’d say, grab the keys to cars you love, then write it exactly as you love it, and see what it becomes. Because what Fiffe does here is normal – meaning, functional, working, evolving … and thus, in superhero comics, exceptional.

Links: Michele Fiffe homepage (ordering info and extensive links to reviews & interviews), Factual Opinion (interview with Fiffe), 12th Level Intellect

Next comics: Sword of God, Friends, p. 8 (December 6); One Plus One, Two, editorial (December 8); Ophite, Gnosis, p. 3 (December 10)

Next column: Cosmic muck (December 10)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on December 4, 2016, in Lesser is still great, Storytalk and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The G+ discussion of this post has some good bits. Ray asked me,

    If copyright laws weren’t what they were, how much of this argument would become moot? Let’s say we are in a post-scarcity world (so compensation for work doesn’t matter) and copy-right laws don’t exist. We assume people would just gravitate to quality, right? As you say:

    “What matters is the authenticity of what your stories say and how well the medium-and-idiom serves exactly that.”

    I replied:

    I’m not very good at speculating regarding a world without either scarcity or IP law. Let me stay in the mucky world we’re in and see if I can still answer.

    Definitely, if copyright laws weren’t what they were, then a lot of the confusion would be different. What I mean is, I think there will always be some kind of IP legalism at work, and whatever shape-and-form they take, they’ll frame perceptions of value, right-and-wrong, and “proper” fan advocacy. And they’ll operate as a force upon the general, unstoppable grab-anything-use-it context of art and commerce in action, just as they do know.

    The big player in our modern world, and has been for a long time, is the quantum shift of monetary return that cinema brings. It’s not just an 80s-90s thing, superheroes were into film before the ink was dry – Captain Marvel’s film serials in the 1940s. And I have observed that whenever I discuss IP issues in comics and role-playing publishing, especially ownership of art, I demolish all the usual boilerplate responses, and then the person plays their trump card, “but what about when it becomes a MOVIE?”

    That’s the bigger context, that people believe a golden shower of lifelong success will rain on them if their game/comic “becomes” a movie, and that if they don’t nail it down via contract at day one, they’ll LOSE it, oh my God, LOSE it. Cue talk of Bob Kane without remembering that he was one of the most egregious thieves in comics history. Cue talk of Stan Lee as if he were somehow making exec-level bucks from Marvel Studios films (hint: he isn’t).

    Also overlooking that most movies based on comics rarely acknowledge them at all; that most of them fail miserably, such that your royalties or quarter-point is worthless paper; and that no movie contract on this earth is going to include the comics or game creator as a creative contributor, or pay them as such. The people who make movies want to make the money, they aren’t going to share.

    OK, so that said, there are two layers: how copyright laws shape perceptions of quality and originality, and also the illusions about what the conversion to film actually means. From there, I think I’d like people with more direct working experience in these matters to chime in rather than me. Of course, most of them will stay quiet as they know their continued work for Marvel or DC depends on being a good soldier about the films.


  1. Pingback: Michel Fiffe » COPRAVERSE : Stickers, Subs, and Criticism

  2. Pingback: Recursion isn’t just a river in Egypt | Comics Madness

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