Meanwhile, back at the Just-O.K. Corral

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Image’s new series Copperhead was conceived as a sort of Deadwood in space, but Deadwood is pretty hard to live up to. I wanted to give Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski the benefit of the doubt, but now I feel like I pulled my punches too much. Re-match next month. The following Copperhead #1 review appeared in yesterday’s Best Shots column at Newsarama:

Copperhead #1
Written by Jay Faerber
Art by Scott Godlewski and Ron Riley
Lettering by Thomas Mauer
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The Western-in-space is almost as worn-in and familiar as the Western, and it has a similar durability. The genre makes sense not just because we imagine space to be a frontier, but because the American West really was like another planet to non-native settlers. Copperhead hasn’t separated itself from the pack yet, but it could develop into something interesting. In this first issue, the story doesn’t put on airs and lives to fight another day.

As the story opens, Sheriff Clara Bronson and her young son are on a train in dusty badlands. In the first scenes of this faded retro future, the people wear 19th-century dress and it’s still a hazard to be an unaccompanied woman on a train. When Clara arrives in the mining town of Copperhead, the anachronisms shift a century forward in time. The police hover-car has the late 1970s feeling of the first Star Wars movies, and the police station interior has a console like something from the control room of a long-decommissioned nuclear power plant. Around town, artist Scott Godlewski creates dusty, textured scenes that feel barren and utilitarian. Here and there, the townspeople are drawn in a brighter, more playful style. Ron Riley’s colors make the electric green or candy pink of some of the non-human inhabitants pop cartoonishly against the browns and tans of the background. This contrast reminded me of taking my toys outside to play in the dirt when I was a little kid, and is probably the most unique thing about Copperhead #1.

You can tell how much fun writer Jay Faerber and his team are having with the classic Western archetypes. Godlewski draws Clara as tough, pinched, put-upon, and not unduly pretty. Copperhead is a man’s world, but most of the new sheriff’s problems are the same ones she’d have if she were a man — getting respect from the locals, gaining her disgruntled deputy’s trust, and learning the power structure of her new surroundings. The deputy is the book’s most likable character, a large, cheeky capybara-looking creature named Budroxifinicus, who Clara calls Boo. Making the sheriff’s deputy a large rodent doesn’t make these tropes any less dusty, so execution will be everything for this team going forward.

Soon after meeting Boo, Clara learns that he was passed up for the sheriff job. He says, “You people talk about how we’re supposed to be fully assimilated, but I can’t help noticing my people are never in charge.” The insertion into the dialogue felt a bit unnatural, and signaled that there will be themes explored that go beyond Clara’s individual struggles in a strange land. It takes agility to maintain a light tone while also navigating broader themes of race (species?) and social injustice. If Faerber can manage it gracefully, he’ll make Copperhead into a richer story. So far, all the human characters in Copperhead are white and everyone else is a weird-looking alien, a large animal in clothes, or an artificial human with limited rights. The gray-skinned artificial humans seem indentured to the rich mine owner. On one page, Riley goofs up their skin tone and makes it a very human brown instead of gray. It’s back to gray on the next page, but the gaffe felt like a reminder of how dicey it can be to write about race and power dynamics, and that making characters green, pink or gray doesn’t keep a story safe from potential pitfalls.

Lovers of Westerns will want to check out Copperhead and give it a few issues to develop. I think the story is operating competently within this beloved genre, and time will tell if it really lifts off and differentiates itself. Clara and Budroxifinicus both have the potential to develop into strong characters, and the fun visual details, hints of mystery, and plot-thickening twists will make readers curious to find out what happens next.

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