The medium of comic books has a long history of pastiche and tribute. It’s just part of its language — a man holding a car over his head, smashing it into rocks while passers-by run in terror; a silhouette leaping through the air in front of a bolt of lightning; a figure swinging through a city skyline with someone tucked under their right arm. These are all images that can be enjoyed on their own merits, even if the reader has zero understanding of their further meaning, but when you have a familiarity with their origins, it changes how you enjoy them. Read enough comics, and you pick up on these iconic images. If you know what the cover of Fantastic Four #1 looks like, for example, you’ll easily be able to pick out when another artist riffs on it.
It’s an exchange that goes both ways, of course; there are books that require a pre-existing knowledge on the reader’s behalf. Superman: Red Son is a good example of this. You need to understand the canon and mythology of both Superman and the DC Universe to fully get what is being subverted. The significance of Superman landing in Soviet-controlled territory instead of Kansas means nothing if you don’t know why crash-landing in Smallville is so important to his character. It’s a “What If” but you need to understand what the “what” is first to get the significance of the “If.”
Michel Fiffe’s series COPRA is a good example of how to reference pre-existing comics without being weighed down with the baggage of those characters. Taking a quick glance at COPRA, the first response most well read comic readers have is that it’s a fan-tribute to the 1980s Suicide Squad run created by John Ostrander, Kim Yale and Luke McDonnell. Which is fair; characters and designs from that run are taken wholesale and reinterpreted to fit Fiffe’s needs. It even shares a narrative premise: Copra is a super-powered mercenary squad used for black-ops missions, some of which may be suicidal. It’s easy to call it fan-fiction, but then you run into the argument that anything not made by their original creator/s is also considered fan-fiction.
COPRA is an homage, but it isn’t defined or constrained by its homage. There’s an old quote by film director Jim Jarmusch that goes like this:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. […] Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.”
COPRA exists in this idea of authenticity and unoriginality. Fiffe wears his influences on his sleeve, and makes no effort to hide where his characters are taken from. It’s a series that could’ve easily collapsed under it’s own weight, bruising your sides as it nudges you while asking if you get the reference. But it doesn’t. Instead, Fiffe transforms these characters into something that transcends their original form.
The way Fiffe uses DC and Marvel characters as the foundation for his ideas is similar to what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did with pre-existing characters when making Watchmen. Moore’s original pitch for the series was to craft a story around the various Charlton Comics characters that had just been purchased by DC Comics in the mid-80s. Editor Dick Giordano was a fan of the concept, but didn’t feel comfortable with what Moore wanted to do with these characters. Or, as Moore puts it, “DC realized their expensive characters would end up either dead or dysfunctional.” So he made some changes. Peacemaker became The Comedian, Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, and so on.
The characters of Watchmen aren’t “original” in the sense that they’re based on pre-existing ones, but you can read Watchmen without knowing what that Charlton connection is. They’re repurposed and transformed into something that extends past their original form. They’re homage, but they also exist on their own. COPRA operates in a similar manner. There are references to Suicide Squad — and even other comic properties, such as Dr. Strange — but they never obscure the comic’s overall readability. At no point does COPRA feel like you’re having an inside baseball conversation.
COPRA #17 is drawn in a style reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s work and focuses on Rax, a character based on Ditko’s Rac Shade. What’s great about this issue is that you don’t need to know this connection to enjoy and understand what’s happening. The comic exists both as an individual entity and a work of homage, and it’s with that combination of the unique and pastiche that COPRA approaches Suicide Squad. Sure, there’s a character that looks like Shade The Changing Man, but he’s not Shade The Changing Man.
One of the more recent examples of this is the recent DC series Omega Men, which used a consistent nine-panel grid layout as a direct allusion to the page layout of Watchmen, right down to the final panel of every issue being blacked out with a quote in white text. It’s a nice reference, but it doesn’t detract from your reading of the book. Understanding this homage isn’t essential to understanding Omega Men.
What Fiffe gets with COPRA is something he wouldn’t be afforded had he been making an actual Suicide Squad comic for DC: complete autonomy. If he wants to add characters from non-DC properties, he can do that. If he wants to experiment with his art style and make have issues act as a tribute to a specific artist’s style, he can do that, too. If he wants to kill off a character, he can. When a character does die, their death resonates on a deeper level than their mainstream counterpart because they don’t have an in-built resurrection clause. You can kill Deadshot in Suicide Squad, and as sad as that death may be it also comes with the fan’s assumed knowledge that death is never permanent. If you kill Lloyd in COPRA, that would feel so much more final.
It’s the same autonomy Moore and Dave Gibbons had when creating Watchmen with their own characters: “We started to mutate the characters, and I began to realize the changes allowed me so much more freedom.” Charlton’s Peacemaker can’t be a nihilistic sociopath, but the Comedian can be. Peter Cannon can’t destroy Manhattan for the greater good of humanity, but Ozymandias can.
The closest relative to COPRA is Image Comics’ recently concluded Prophet. Based on a character created by Rob Liefeld, Brandon Graham and his army of collaborators took this extreme ’90s artifact and transformed him into something completely different. I’ve never read an issue of the pre-2012 Prophet — and I probably never will — but that doesn’t change how much I enjoyed the latest series (which was a lot). Graham was given Liefeld’s blessing to do whatever he wanted with these characters, which he did by transforming Prophet into a bizarre, European-influenced sci-fi series.
COPRA is a lot of things. It’s an exploration of violence and revenge, and how they affect people behind and between the crosshairs. It’s a love letter to artists like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Frank Miller. It’s an experiment of what one can be done with the superhero genre, both narratively and artistically. At one point, Fiffe introduces a character that moves so fast that he’s rendered with lead pencil scribbling instead of the solid inks and colors of everyone else. It’s a pastiche of various series and characters that Fiffe clearly holds dear to his heart, especially the Ostrander/Yale/ McDonnell Suicide Squad. But most importantly, it’s Michel Fiffe’s book, and Fiffe’s alone.