June 2012

Martyn Pedler


Blind Thrills, Sacred Cows, and Michel Fiffe's Deathzone!

"I told myself that it was a silly idea," writes artist and critic Michel Fiffe on his site, "that it was nothing but a distraction, a nostalgic impulse at best, and that I had more important things to do. Next thing I knew, I had written, drawn, and colored sixteen pages of my very own Suicide Squad comic."

Sometimes a cultural artifact appears out of nowhere and feels like it was made just for you. Deathzone! is mine. It's Fiffe's ode to Suicide Squad, the late 1980s and early 1990s espionage comic written by John Ostrander and Kim Yale. It was a kind of Dirty Dozen set in the DC universe, in which super-criminals were forced onto government missions with the promise of shortened prison sentences. The series gave obscure, ridiculous characters heart and soul -- before putting them through the grinder of the book's unpredictable body count.

I was once obsessed with Suicide Squad, and in sixteen pages Fiffe reminds me why. He shows the team as unwilling underdogs, trapped in bizarre, hyperbolic situations they can't understand. He captures eccentricities like the maudlin Count Vertigo's flowery monologues and psychedelic visual effects. He mentions the book's fascinating, non-powered supporting cast -- always a rarity in superhero books. And nods to the look of the Squad's early artist, Luke McDonnell, especially in the way his soft, almost transparent pencils would depict interdimensional threats.

When Fiffe was nine years old, his excitement over a particular issue of DC's Suicide Squad,#10 of 1998, made him attempt to draw his own version. Now Fiffe's completed the story and printed a small number to give away to those who purchased one of his limited edition prints. I wanted to know why. And I wanted to ask him about other issues it raised for me, too, about my own nostalgia and guilt, how characters relate to their original creators and their corporate owners, and about unofficial retellings of official stories and vice versa.

So how do you see Deathzone!:a cover version of a favorite song? Artistic practice like writing out another author's work by hand? Completing an unspoken contract with your nine-year-old self? 

After working on and completing and self-publishing my latest Zegas comic, I wanted to switch gears and loosen up a bit by working on something I felt less precious about. Don't get me wrong, Zegas is my making comics exactly as I see fit, but I just wanted to draw Deadshot shooting things. 

You said that you told yourself this was a "nostalgic impulse at best." How important is nostalgia to your relationship with superhero comics? 

Nostalgia doesn't play much into my current relationship with superheroes as a reader, but it certainly did when I created Deathzone! I briefly tapped into the spirit of what keeps these mainstream creators going, people whose dream job is drawing an issue of Wolverine. I understood how that blind thrill can fuel a career, and it's terrifying, that place. Honestly, it was a blast. 

Inside the front cover, you list all the characters and their individual creators. Is this a pointed message to Marvel and DC? I mean, this year has seen a lot of general discussion of creators' rights and corporate ownership. Are you hopeful about what that means? Or are you resigned to ignoring characters you might've once loved in favor of artist-owned work? 

I'm resigned to ignoring mediocre comics by uninspired hacks, mainstream or not, creator owned or not. 

I ask this because, as I get older, I feel like more and more of a hypocrite enjoying these stories. I have massive affection for many of these characters, and still believe there's sometimes good work being done with them, but the actions of the companies that own them is impossible to ignore. I felt less guilt reading your unofficial Suicide Squad than the official new Suicide Squad title by DC. Does that make any sense? 

That makes sense, yeah. I don't feel like a hypocrite when I come across a comic I enjoy, though. I've mentioned this elsewhere but when it comes down to it, these characters are only a little more than company properties. They're logos. Their primary aim is to sell us stuff. That's not good or evil, it just is. Bless Ostrander and Yale for making something entertaining and worthwhile out of them, but I don't yearn for these characters to return to their glory, or whatever I deem to be glorious. I already have the comics I like! Who knows, a new generation of insane people may actually find these new comics remarkable. 

You also list the important redesigners of these characters over the years, alongside the names of their original creators. That's an admission that these characters are in part interesting because they've been morphed and mutated by men and women other than the ones who invented them, right? Do you think we can acknowledge the fact that ongoing, multiple authorship can be a strength of superhero comics -- without using it as an excuse to screw over creators and their families? 

It can be used as a strength, sure, but perpetual authorship is a neutral thing when you talk about commercial comics. However, something as casual as a minor redesign is important in the scheme of those properties. In my roll call, I made very clear who legally owned those characters, but more important to me was who created them. It took the work of many employees to make a comic like that exist. 

In a recent column on Before Watchmen, Katherine Wirick wrote about wishing there were a doujinshi subculture of unofficial fan versions of American comics. She says, "Setting aside -- not that we should do so for long -- corporate exploitation of artists, the difference, it seems to me, between doujinshi and DC's prequels lies mostly in the profit margin." Do you agree? 

At this point in comics, nobody really gives a damn, if anybody ever did. Not in a nihilistic way but more in giddily irreverent way. That's not to say that sincere works from respectful creators can't be found -- they absolutely can -- but this is the landscape: sacred cows are being exploited, processed, and ridiculed, perhaps as they should be. These companies are not in the business of making Great Art, and just because they've inadvertently done so a couple of times doesn't mean we should expect that from them ever again. 

One last thing, Michel: do you think your nine-year-old self would like this new story? I mean, his Batman was one who shouted, "No, you all die!!"! 

He'd walk away assured that he could draw it better. 


Now The Avengers is one of the biggest films of all time, but as Jack Kirby's son recently pointed out in a heartbreaking piece called "Happy Father's Day; Glad You're Not Here," his father's role in creating these characters is all but ignored. These Marvel blockbusters have trained audiences to wait through the credits for a final "stinger" scene exactly when they should be worried about anyone noticing all the important names missing or sidelined as they scroll up the screen. 

And DC Comics' controversial Before Watchmen series has just hit the shelves, telling stories set before Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen series from the '80s. They feel more like fan fiction to me than Fiffe's Deathzonedoes, despite the official DC logo stamped on their covers. I wonder if their creators behind them walked away thinking they wrote and drew it better, too.

Fiffe could've turned his talents to sixteen pages of any of my favorites from when I was young -- The Question, or Doctor Strange, or Mister Miracle, or Foolkiller -- and I probably would've read it with the same sense of joy and camaraderie. Only halfway through Deathzonedid the symbolism of the Suicide Squad hit me. These men and women are forced into action, against their will, at the whims of the authorities above them. They have explosives attached to them just in case they refuse to obey orders. No choice, no rights, no agency.

Now I imagine Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, Silk Specter, and all the other Watchmen characters strapped with the same explosives, posing on their new covers; and yet somehow, Fiffe's Suicide Squad feels suddenly, finally free.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.