The entity known as DC Comics has existed in various forms for more than 75 years. In that time, they have accumulated thousands of characters and printed tens of thousands comics. (1) The collective impact of this one company on the medium of comics is immeasurable. Starting with Action Comics #1, the world was introduced to the concept of the superhero. The effect of this one starting point, a single character, is massive. It’s possible to look at comics from dozens of publishers and see strains of Superman’s metaphorical DNA. Whether it’s in Alan Moore’s Supreme, Mark Millar’s Superior, Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s Squadron Supreme, or a hundred other works, the effect of Superman upon Western comics is everywhere.
This type of legacy does not belong solely to the Man of Steel or even DC Comics’ headlining superheroes, though. Throughout its history, DC Comics has published a diverse collection of titles, many of which have been forgotten, but some of which remain part of the cultural zeitgeist. Suicide Squad is one such title. Created by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell in May 1987, the title took C-list villains from the DC universe and sent them on covert missions for the federal government in exchange for their freedom. It was a simple conceit that allowed Ostrander, McDonnell, and others, including Ostrander’s late wife Kim Yale, to create psychologically complex characters who would face real stakes. The cast was massive and ever changing since no character was truly safe from death. Almost thirty years after its start, Suicide Squad is still remembered as one of the greatest series ever published by DC Comics. There have been various spin offs and restarts published at DC Comics, but the greatest legacy of the Suicide Squad is a independent comic being published in Brooklyn, New York City: COPRA.
COPRA is written, drawn, colored, and published by Michel Fiffe, an independent comics creator in Brooklyn. Fiffe grew up reading comics and was recalls being attracted to both Suicide Squad and Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil at an early age. He began self-publishing comics in Brooklyn, including a one-shot homage to Suicide Squad called Deathzone! Based on the positive reaction to its 400 issue print run and his enjoyment in creating it, Fiffe decided to create and publish COPRA for twelve issues on a monthly schedule.
The series, sold through Etsy, was a massive success. It received early attention from award-winning comic sites like Comics Alliance and The Comics Journal, despite very small print runs. The early issues have been subsequently collected into three-issue compendiums and there are plans for a large collection of all twelve issues. COPRA #13 was just released in April 2014.
COPRA began as an homage to Suicide Squad along with other popular creations like The Punisher and Dr. Strange. It has transcended that origin to become one of the best comics being published today. COPRA blends the best elements of Ostrander, Yale, and Mcdonnell’s work with independent art sensibilities and a keen eye for composition. Fiffe’s unique approach and visual aesthetics help to make the superhero genre feel fresh. Every new issues experiments with new forms and ideas. Although Fiffe continues to improve the series with each new installment, it’s clear from the very first issue (2) that COPRA is something very special.
There are a lot of very flashy, complex panels and pages throughout COPRA. Fiffe is not afraid to show off the full range of his talents as an artist and designer. These types of highlights can often overshadow the excellent fundamentals on display. Whether it’s establishing the team and their positions or transitioning between actions, Fiffe is able to clearly relate the events of the story to readers.
It may seem like a backhanded compliment to say that reader’s will be able to understand what is occurring in every panel, but it surprisingly rare in mainstream superhero comics. In the panels above, the team leader, Man Head, is surprised to find that he is under attack. The framing of each panel is the exact same, emphasizing the changes between the two moments. A spear has been driven through the driver’s torso and Man Head has jerked his head left. The lack of change in Man Head’s posture, along with his sentence being cut off in the previous panel, denotes how little time has passed. It’s a surprising moment for both Man Head and the reader, as the occurrence of violence is sudden and unexpected. Smaller details help to enhance the action as well. The driver’s shadow and that of the spear are more prominent in the second panel, providing some forward momentum to his body as he is stabbed. The clouds outside the window have moved some too based on the forward momentum of the truck.
It’s not that any single transition or sequence is clearly told; it’s that they all are. Readers will never have to second guess what is occurring on the page, unless Fiffe intends for that to be their reaction.
The small moment-to-moment beats, establishing panels, and transitions are all excellent. But the best moments of COPRA #1 come from the extended action sequence that composes its center. The fundamentals that are applied so well to more quiet moments are what provide impact to COPRA’s fast-paced violence. The geography is always clear, establishing where characters are in relation to one another and what they are currently doing. Each panel establishes what is needed to understand the events in preceding panel. In the example below, nine characters fill the space. It’s possible to determine who each character is and what they are doing based upon various visual cues. Even Man Head, who is no more than two shapes in the window of the truck can be placed due to his unique coloring and the previous scene.
The emphasis of this panel falls on Patrick Dale, the young man encased in armor. His form fills a quarter of the panel and lines created by the sky, horizon and truck all emphasize his forward momentum, moving from right to left. The eyes of most other characters are also drawn to him, re-focusing the reader’s eye on his charging form. All of this serves to stress the power of his body, which is so large that it breaks the panel borders and fills the gutters.
Gracie’s fight, as seen below, highlights the causal connections between each panel in Fiffe’s fight sequence. When constructing action in a visual medium, whether it be film or comics, it’s incredibly important for each action to have a reaction. Fights are like very short stories, where all actions are logically connected. Gracie is near a sword, which she attempts to swing at her assailant. Her assailant, in turn, leaps to dodge the sword and throws a kick at Gracie. The story of these three panels is clear. There is never any doubt about where the characters are or what is happening.
It’s also worth noting the lack of dialogue in these panels. There is no exposition as to what is going on or how a character is feeling. Dialogue is entirely unnecessary. All of the pertinent information is being communicated visually, through clearly framed panels and facial expressions. The lack of dialogue adds an element of realism to the violence. Although superpowers are present, the violence does not feel theatrical or non-threatening. Characters behave as though they are truly fighting for their lives and that includes not speaking while dodging a sword.
The most intriguing component of COPRA #1 comes on page 16. Fiffe is excellent at crafting small moments and sequencing action, but it’s at this point that COPRA differentiates itself from an exceedingly well told superhero comic. The panel structure, the framing devices, and coloring all mark it as something outside of what is expected. This is the moment where Fiffe’s indie roots are undeniable and the issue transcends being merely an homage to something that came before it.
The panel is read in two directions simultaneously. Starting at the top center is a progression of three panel moving directly down. This depicts the head embedded with a strange artifact dissolving to ash. Lines from the top corners of the panel direct the readers eye downward, bypassing the central panels to the action that consumes most of the page. These lines lead to the artifact in the panel’s center as well, before moving back out to encompass Vitas (whose arms frame the entire sequence) and his minions.
The overall effect is that the two actions are read simultaneously; the page is read as a whole before it can be broken down into its component pieces. The starting point is always the center, rather than the standard top-right found in most Western comics though. All lines and panels on the page point to it, so that the events of the page are read as a result of its existence. Although the head dissolves before the artifact is revealed, reader’s see the artifact and then understand that it destroyed its host. Tendrils attach to Vitas’ minions while Vitas holds his arms to the sky. Why these actions are occurring remains uncertain, but it’s certainly because this object exists. It reads strangely and the nature of the object is unclear, but that is a purposeful choice on Fiffe’s behalf. He means to establish it as something terrible and unknowable, which is precisely the effect of this page. Fiffe’s use of strange, ethereal elements like this bears some connection to the work of Steve Ditko.
Ditko’s influence becomes more obvious in later issues, but can be seen here and in a preview panel that shows Fiffe’s homages to Dr. Strange and Clea. Complex geometric shapes and an abundance of lines are combined to create a panel that seems equally chaotic and mathematically planned. It is an odd combination that works to evoke the idea of something otherworldly.
One additional influence to look at is Walt Simonson, best known for his work on The Mighty Thor in the 80’s. Simonson is admired for his bombastic illustrations and the epic scope of his story. One comic tool he perfected was the effective use of sound effects and onomatopoeia. Sounds like “DOOM” (3) and “KRACK” became an important component of the art.
The same sort of emphasis and visual craftsmanship can be seen in the sound effects of COPRA. When the team is first attacked, a large shape falls into the road in front of their vehicle. When it lands, it fills the page with a gigantic “THOOM”. The sound is well chosen, being easily pronounced so that readers can hear it in their minds. The effect is more visual than it is audio though. Font, color, and capitalization all provide a sense of how the panel should sound. An entirely capitalized “THOOM” fills the panel, it is as big as the world in which it exists. The red coloring further emphasizes the impact. Comics contain no audio components, but in COPRA Fiffe has found a way for visual language to convey similar effects.
It may seem a strange conclusion, but the best comic about the Suicide Squad is not being published by DC Comics. Deathzone! and COPRA are the best comics to use the characters created or re-invented by Ostrander, Yale, and McDonnell since Suicide Squad ended in 1992. This reveals a truth about DC Comics and the intellectual property that it legally owns. The concept of the DC universe and the characters within it are greater than the editors and executives that control them.
Through an incredibly convoluted and often iniquitous history, (4) DC Comics has come to control some of the most popular and powerful pieces of intellectual property to ever exist. The DC Universe didn’t really start in Manhattan, though. It started in the suburbs of Cleveland, OH in the shared imaginations of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. It started in the Bronx in the doodles of Bill Finger. It started in Westchester County in the daydreams of William Moulton Marston. It began in the dreams and imaginations of dozens of different creators and continues to grow in the minds of hundreds more.
The DC Universe is a place that sparks imaginations and encourages others to create new ideas and tell new stories. Many of the best comics in history have their roots firmly entrenched in this fictional collection of characters and stories, but transcend it to create something new. Without Detective Comics #27 and the creation of Batman by Bill Finger (5), Frank Miller never would have created The Dark Knight Returns. Without the many Charlton Comics characters (6) acquired by DC Comics in 1983, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon might never have created Watchmen. With the work of John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Luke McDonnell, and others on Suicide Squad, Michel Fiffe would never have been inspired to create COPRA.
DC is more than the sum of its current pieces or the fallout from its most recent crossover. It’s a collection of characters, concepts, and ideas that continue to inspire new creators. Ownership and publishing rights are incidental details. The work of Siegel, Shuster, Finger, Marston, Ostrander, and other creators may be owned by DC Comics, but the stories they inspire are part of the public consciousness. It doesn’t matter whether he’s called Hyperion, The Plutonian, or a hundred different names. A great Superman story is still a great Superman story.
It doesn’t matter whether you call it COPRA or Suicide Squad, the comic started by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell in May 1987 is being continued today. It’s created in an apartment in Brooklyn. And it’s as progressive, action-packed, and just plain awesome as it ever was.
(1) The best numbers available show that DC Comics has published 46,163 unique publications as of the time when this article was written. This number does not include second printings or variant covers, only unique collections of story material. 1935, the year of DC’s founding, contained the smallest number of publications at only 8. 2013 was their largest year yet with a total of 1888 comics published. The current year, 2014, is on track to beat this record.
(2)Fiffe recently released the entire first issue of COPRA for free on his website. You can read it here: http://michelfiffe.com/comics/copra/index.html
(3) Walt Simonson began his run on The Mighty Thor with a sound effect that was simultaneously a sound, a title, and a component of foreshadowing. It’s a truly wonderful panel and speaks to Simonson’s ability as an artist and storyteller.
(4) Men of Tomorrow by Gerald Jones provides an excellent look at the early history of DC Comics and both the creators and businessmen involved. It is not light reading though. The treatment of creators during this period was poor, at best, and there are few happy endings.
(5) Bill Finger is the man responsible for “the color scheme, the costume, the cape, the cowl, the idea that he shouldn’t have any superpowers, the origin story about his parents being shot in an alley, the idea that he’s a detective, the words “Batmobile” and “Gotham City,” Robin, the Joker, Catwoman, and other minor elements.” He also wrote all of the early Batman stories.
The only thing Bob Kane is responsible for is the name “Bat-Man”. DC Comics may be legally obligated to state that Bob Kane is the sole creator of Batman. This does not make it true.
Quote Source: Ask Chris #164: Bob Kane Is Just The Worst
(6) The central characters in Watchmen are based on heroes originally owned by Charlton Comics. Alan Moore originally planned to use the actual characters, but was later asked to change them into new creations. This way DC Comics could continue to use the characters in their shared universe with no confusion.
The character Nite Owl is based upon the Blue Beetle created by Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski. The character The Comedian is based upon Peacemaker created by Joe Gill and Pat Boyette. The character of Dr. Manhattan is based upon Captain Atom created by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko. The character Rorschach is based upon The Question created by Steve Ditko. The character Silk Spectre is based upon Nightshade (7) created by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko. The character Ozymandias is based upon Thunderbolt created by Pete Morisi.
(7) Nightshade was one of the most prominent recurring characters in Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. This is just further evidence of how interconnected the world of comics truly is.