Title: Copperhead Volume 1: A New Sheriff in Town
Writer: Jay Faerber
Artist: Scott Godlewski
Colorist: Ron Riley
Letterer: Thomas Mauer
Cover Artist: Scott Godlewski
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
I hadn’t heard of Copperhead until I was in a position to review it. I decided to check it out because the cover seemed to promise a sci-fi/western yarn. I didn’t have any expectations going in, and what I found was interesting, but I don’t think it was for me.
The protagonist of Copperhead is Clara Bronson, a police officer who has been assigned as sheriff to the mining planet Jasper, based in the town of Copperhead. Among the people she meets are Budroxifinicus, a.k.a. “Boo,” her alien deputy who resents she was chosen over him; Benjamin Hickory, your run-of-the-mill business/crime jerk you need in any boomtown in a western; Levi Mosley, the hard-drinking, implied-drug-abusing doctor; and Ishmael, a blue-skinned artificial human, or “artie,” part of an engineered race of mass-produced soldiers. The main story thread in Volume 1 is a mystery about a massacred family of aliens and the theft of their clan-specific religious icon jewel.
There’s a lot going on in the world of Copperhead, and I applaud the ideas at work. Copperhead’s space western has a different flavor than Firefly, which is the obvious analogue. Firefly’s environments are very, very western. Even in a world with spaceships and interplanetary war, you have Captain Mal riding a horse, wearing old-fashioned clothing, and using outdated-looking guns. But the police wear high-tech, blinky armor, most of the buildings in Copperhead are constructed from smooth, curving metal. You have hovercars and space guns and wrist computers. There’s a brief appearance of space police headquarters that looks incredibly sci-fi, and the impression I get is that Jasper is unique in the universe for its Western feel, which is neat.
That’s another point in Copperhead’s favor. It feels Western, even with all of the sci-fi trappings. You have vague references to a war that parallels the aftermath of the Civil War. The monstrous, spider-like indigenous species of Jasper are called “Natives,” making a somewhat on-the-nose allusion to Native Americans. Ishmael fills the role of a retired soldier who can’t stop being one. Clara and her son Zeke come in to Copperhead on a train. Hickory looks every bit the old southern gentleman, with a wide frame, white suit, and sleazy manner masquerading as cordiality. It goes beyond just story tropes, though. Ron Riley’s coloring is a standout in this book. The landscape of Jasper is full of tans and browns. It looks like there’s real grit to it, like the sand and clay of the American Southwest.
I want to take a moment to appreciate the designs in this book, too. The mechanical designs are really interesting; I haven’t seen anything quite like the hovercars and small skimmers seen here. And I love the idea of the police armor having red and blue lights on it. But the real strength of the designs is in the aliens. Boo isn’t just a dog-person. He looks vaguely dog-like with an elongated head and sharp incisors, plus hands and feet that look like paws, but his face is blunt, his nose is more of a snout, and his wide-set eyes are set just a little bit out of his skull. The only animal I can remember seeing that looks like anything on Earth is a dog. Jasper is home to lizards that have beetle-like horns, small-scale brachiosaurs, and dragon/bat/birds that can be seen in the day. The Sewell family, who are at the center of the murder mystery found in these five issues, combine multiple traits you might slap on an otherwise humanoid alien before making its skin a different color and calling it a day. They’re squat, green sentients with four arms ending in three-fingered hands and a single eye with an irregularly-shaped iris.
When I tried to hit on what exactly I wasn’t feeling with Copperhead, I tried to look at what I liked about it first. Clara is a good, multi-faceted character, and she felt refreshing as the protagonist of an action-oriented story. Sometimes when a writer tries to write a “strong female character,” we end up with characters like Kate Beaton’s satirical trio of action ladies, essentially an extreme overcorrection that only creates a flat stereotype. Clara knows when to be tough, but she knows how to have empathy for others, too. I particularly thought scenes that played to her being a mother were well-done, such as when she gives Zeke a life lesson about helping people despite what you might want to do in issue #1. She’s firm about it, but she tousles his hair with a smile, too. This moment comes back later when Clara starts to dress Zeke down for breaking her most important rule, that he not leave the house while she’s working. On this occasion, he ended up in the wilderness at night helping the neighbor’s girl look for her dog, and Zeke tells Clara, “I was just doing what YOU said! Annie needed help and I was trying to help her. That’s all.” This softens her stance on it, and it’s genuinely emotional when she hugs him for it.
Faerber and Godlewski know how to use silent panels, sometimes just setting a scene with a page of them. When Clara is about to confront Ishmael about a lead she has on the theft that points to him, there’s a page of him scoping out and approaching her police cruiser in the rain, ending with the click of a firearm behind him. Two-page spreads are typically used just for extended panels, not necessarily big moments. Most of the big moments in Copperhead are to set the scene. To see so many panel layouts that bled across two pages is unconventional, but I think I like how it works here. It’s different, and it allows the method to appear more often.
I have to admit I wasn’t especially compelled by the mystery, and it doesn’t feel entirely like a central story arc. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but here, I think the issue is that it aims for that while ultimately falling short of the goal. Most of the Sewells are killed, and their sacred crystal is stolen, but we don’t know much about its importance beyond that it has religious significance. We don’t know why it’s religiously significant. We see Ishmael give it to someone of the same species as the Sewells, but this is treated as a climactic reveal that doesn’t actually have much context until the next issue.
Similarly, the resolution feels anti-climactic, because it turns out the Natives killed the Sewells because prodigal son Floyd gambled with them and bet his family’s crystal. A treaty exempts the Natives from Copperhead’s laws, so Clara feels like she didn’t accomplish anything, and said so after I voiced more or less the same concern myself. The last issue in this collection ends with a haggard man in a prison cell holding a photo of Clara. There’s not much context to this, either, given that the page devoted to this man has no dialogue. I assume this man is Zeke’s father, who Clara seems to write to at the start of issue 1, but it’s hard to say, because the book doesn’t revisit this letter idea.
Copperhead isn’t bad by any means. Like I said, I like Clara, and I like a lot of the ideas. But in the end, I was not very compelled to read beyond this collection. Maybe someone else would like this story more. If you like westerns, if you like sci-fi westerns, I say give Copperhead a shot. You might get more out of it than I did.