'Copperhead' Is Greater Than the Sum and Then Some

by Matthew Derman

10 April 2015

New Sheriff Clara Bronson comes to Copperhead not because she wants the job but because she needs it. The real reason though, isn’t explained.
 

It’d be easy to reduce Copperhead to its three core genres: sci-fi, western, and police procedural. That’s an accurate description by some measures, but it’s not even close to being comprehensive. Copperhead is nothing if not layered, simultaneously telling long- and short-term narratives about both the past and present, and often managing to develop several threads in a single scene or panel. There’s familial drama, post-war cultural tension, sharp comedy, and intense violence, all centered on the same lean cast of characters, each of whom has her or his own complicated baggage to contribute.

That’s just in the first five-issue arc, which is all that’s been published so far, and which feels like a lot more material than it is. Not because it’s heavy—on the contrary, it’s extremely light on its feet—but because it manages to be dense without being thick, comfortably fitting a whole lot of mystery, drama, and action into a relatively tight space.

The central star of the comic is Clara Bronson, the brand new sheriff of Copperhead, a small and semi-defunct mining town on a dry, empty wasteland of a planet. Bronson comes to Copperhead not because she wants the job but because she needs it, though why, exactly, she is so desperate for employment isn’t explained. We know that something happened in her not-too-distant past that made being the unwanted sheriff of an unwelcoming little town her best (and probably only) option, but the details of what she’s running from aren’t provided yet. All we see in the first arc is how Bronson adjusts to her new life, the present-tense of her attempts to settle into an unfamiliar location and do the job she was hired to do. Mostly she succeeds, but not without plenty of hardship and opposition along the way.

Trouble begins for Bronson as soon as she arrives and meets her deputy (and apparently the only other cop in town), Budroxifinicus. Bronson calls him Boo despite his protests, and the two of them have an immediately tense, terse dynamic. Boo has been on Copperhead for a while, and is a great cop, but because he’s not human, he was passed over for the sheriff position and it was given to an outsider. Boo’s species is never given a name, but we do learn that, not that long ago, the humans of this reality fought a war with Boo’s people, and it seems as though Boo’s side lost. The result is a society where both groups live together in a shaky coexistence, but not in equality, with the humans having obvious advantages and extra authority.

It’s an all-too-common consequence of war in our own world, and it’s played intelligently in Copperhead, used to establish a rift between Boo and Bronson up top that gradually, incrementally closes as they continue to work together. Though they both have gruff, arrogant, pig-headed personalities, they’re also both excellent police officers, and there’s a certain mutual professional respect that forms slowly over time.

While Boo adds to Bronson’s difficulties because he hates her, her son Zeke does so because he loves her and vice versa. Bronson is a single mother, and while we still don’t know where Zeke’s father is, it’s clear that Bronson and Zeke have been on their own for a decent stretch, because she has a list of very strict rules for him to follow, and he can recite them all from memory. Yet he doesn’t always follow them, his natural childlike curiosity and goodheartedness getting him into some trouble and, on one occasion, almost costing him his life.

In one instance, he and his new neighbor Annie wander into the uninhabited edges of Copperhead, known as the Badlands, in search of Annie’s missing dog. When night falls, Zeke and Annie are attacked by a group of the planet’s natives, giant bug creatures that come straight out of a monster movie. Luckily, the kids get saved by Ishmael, but even that creates problems, as Ishmael is an artie. The arties are robots (the term/slur “artie” being short for “artificial human”) created by the humans during the war and then abandoned to their own devices once the fighting stopped. Bronson has a real chip on her shoulder when it comes to arties, whom she believes are all uncontrollable killing machines that can’t be trusted. Chances are this attitude comes from something in her oh-so-mysterious past, but whatever the reason, she’s none too happy to see her child being accompanied by Ishmael.

By the end of the arc, she changes her mind, forced to admit that anyone who would rescue her son and return him to her safely can’t be all bad, but even then, there’s a clear reluctance on her part to apologize to Ishmael, as if there’s something deeply ingrained in her that makes it one of the biggest struggles she’s had to overcome in this story so far. So Boo hates Bronson for being human and Bronson hates Ishmael for being an artie, but in both cases that hate gives way to acceptance when the objects of it prove themselves to be stand-up, skilled, and trustworthy folks.

Obviously there’s a theme in Copperhead of tolerance and giving people a chance, but that’s just one small piece of the puzzle, an admirable but ultimately minor throughline that only tangentially relates to the main thrust of the narrative. What drives the story in these initial five issues is Bronson and Boo’s first case, the investigation of the Sewell family massacre. The Sewells are essentially alien hillbillies, rough around the edges, fiercely loyal to one another, and just as fiercely suspicious of anyone who’s not part of their family.

Bronson’s first official act as sheriff is to break up a domestic dispute at the Sewell house, which leads to the arrest of Missus Sewell after she assaults Bronson for interfering in a family matter. While Missus Sewell is in jail, her husband and their sons are all murdered in their home in gruesome fashion, so solving that crime becomes Bronson’s second act as sheriff, though to be fair it’s really Boo who does much of the heavy lifting, and the most important single clue is actually something Zeke notices during his encounter with Ishmael. I won’t spoil the details of the murder here, as they make up the bulk of the content of this storyline, but suffice to say the case does get closed before the arc concludes, a quick bit of resolution delivered in the midst of all the big-picture stuff that’s also being established and/or expanded upon in every issue.

Even the Sewell investigation leads to developments that will matter for this book in the long run. After the murders have been solved and everything has been settled, Bronson hires Missus Sewell to babysit Zeke, admiring Missus Sewell’s devotion to her own children and personal strength. So while Missus Sewell seemed throughout this arc to be merely the central character in the smallest, most self-contained part of the series, in the end she’s brought in as another major player for the future, someone who’s important now to Bronson and Zeke, and is thus bound to be important to anything and everything that happens moving forward. That’s what Copperhead does best, mixing and matching characters, plotlines, and allusions to the past in such a way that everything has both short- and long-term significance.

There’s clearly a tremendously rich history to this setting and each of the people in it, but the series isn’t focused on uncovering all of that, or at least not yet. It gives us only as much as we need to know to appreciate what’s happening in the story’s here-and-now, and is then sure to make the current events interesting and action-packed enough that they don’t even need any questions about the past to hold them up. It all comes together beautifully, creating a multi-faceted narrative that can and does move in many directions at once without overdoing it or becoming encumbered by its own complexity.

Jay Faerber is the writer on Copperhead, and of course a decent portion of the praise above goes to him and his efforts. His ability to explore as many different ideas as he does, to introduce both the world and the characters at the same time, is a major part of this series’ success and core appeal. While the Sewell murder is investigated, we’re also meeting Ishmael, the natives, and a slimy tycoon named Benjamin Hickory, whom I haven’t even mentioned yet. Plus we’re getting to know Copperhead as a place, and Bronson, Boo, and Zeke are all being fleshed out as characters, and so on and so forth like that all the time. It’s an impressive bit of juggling on Faerber’s part.

That said, without the work of artist Scott Godlewski and colorist Ron Riley, this comic could easily have become exactly the overcrowded, unfocused, bogged down mess that I’ve been enthusiastically saying it isn’t this whole time. The art keeps things as crisp, light, and clear as they need to be for a narrative with so many moving parts to work. There’s a certain energy and sense of fun in the visuals that keep the story moving at a healthily brisk pace, and that help add some humor to the depressed setting and the mostly angry cast. That’s not to say that the darker, more serious, more brutal moments don’t land, because they absolutely do, and they make for some of the most memorable images in the book, like Mister Sewell dead and dismembered in a bath of his own viscous, bright green blood. But Copperhead isn’t all (or even mostly) doom and gloom, and there are a lot of people to meet and places to see, so the art is efficient with its storytelling and consistent in its quick tempo, moving from moment to moment as fast as it can without rushing, giving all the many components of the story their due attention and space.

There’s also an immediate completeness to the aesthetic of the sci-fi world in which this story takes place; Godlewski clearly put a lot of consideration into the setting, and it shows in the details of every new background character or location. This comic isn’t just another example of great world-building, it is a world already built, fully realized and rock solid from the word “go”.

If I were to pick a single aspect to underline as the high point of the art in this book, it would be Boo’s character design, no question. Though his head seems to be modeled off of a capybara or some similar animal that’s about as far from imposing as you can get, Boo’s stature and demeanor make him come across as formidable and even a little unnerving. He’s the cutest creature I’d never, ever want to cross. His facial expressions are always so stern, and he’s got a massive, solid frame under his police armor, making him effectively impressive in action sequences and amusingly curmudgeonly in any other scene. Though he’s a man of few words and his origins are just as obscure as everyone else’s (we know he was a soldier in the war but that’s about it) I’m already enamored with Boo, and looking forward to seeing more of him as the series progresses. Which is true of everyone, I guess, but Boo in particular, thanks to his stellar design and corresponding personality.

Based solely on what we’ve seen so far, there are guaranteed great things to come from Copperhead. So much groundwork has already been laid, and as things develop and we learn more about all these people and the town that holds them, new questions will undoubtedly be raised as well. That already happened more than once during the Sewell murder investigation, which was only this book’s first tiny tale, a means of bringing the readers into this reality so that other, bigger, grander things can unfold. The final page of issue #5 teases us with a scene I don’t totally know what to make of, a small but very enticing hint of what awaits us in the future because of Bronson’s past.

That’s what makes Copperhead so attractive—the details of the characters’ respective backstories are unknown to us, but it’s abundantly evident that this series has plans, and that whatever we haven’t seen yet is being held back for a reason. The secrets are kept with purpose, so that they might pay off more handsomely later on. I can only hope the book finds an audience big enough that it gets to tell this saga in its own time, because above all of its many other strengths is the brilliant, delicately balanced pacing by the entire creative team.

Splash image from the cover of Copperhead: A New Sheriff in Town by Jay Faerber, Ron Riley and Scott Godlewski (Image, 2015). All other artwork from same.

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