Elephantmen (Vol 01): Wounded Animals by Richard Starkings (writer) and Moritat (artist) and other artists
Hip Flask, one of the main characters of Elephantmen, has been around for over a decade now, and the first images I saw did not immediately appeal to me. However, after reading the first issue, I realized this reaction is essential to the entire point of the series, because we are led to see how these Elephantmen, who have been terribly mistreated, continue to be discriminated against by humans. So, if you also are put off by the appearance of a humanoid hippopotamus dressed in a trench coat, then you still are likely to enjoy this series: You are being invited into this fictional world by being asked to respond as any human would. The goal of the author and artist is to make you care about these creatures after your initial difficulty in empathizing. However, as you begin to empathize within the very first issue, you’ll be quickly pulled into the world of Elephantmen. I’d be surprised if most science fiction fans don’t like Wounded Animals, the first collected volume of Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen, with art by Moritat, Jose Ladronn, and others. This series should be read by the SFF community with as much enthusiasm as Saga is read.
The backstory of Elephantmen takes place in our future: In 2218, the evil, rogue geneticist Kazushi Nikken implants genetically modified animal embryos into kidnapped women in order to create intelligent, talking animals. After the women give birth to this new breed of animals, Nikken disposes of the women so that he can be father, in addition to god, to these poor creatures. Along with a team of doctors, nurses, teachers, and combat instructors, Nikken raises the Elephantmen, trains them, and brainwashes them so that they become brutal killers who follow his orders without question. These “Elephantmen” carry heavy artillery and are trained in hand-to-hand combat; their names, however, are a bit misleading, since there are crocodiles, elephants, hippopotamus, and zebras in addition to other recognizable, but modified, animals.
The first issue starts in 2259, long after Nikken and his MAPPO compound have been shut down, and the Elephantmen have been incorporated into mainstream society as best as seems possible. The first issue, which you might want to sample for 99 cents at Comixology, is what hooked me, even though I knew nothing about the series. The elephant Ebony, a well-dressed Elephantman, is smoking a cigarette while he stands outside a restaurant in downtown Santa Monica. A young girl, Savannah, approaches Ebony and starts a conversation while her mother is in a shop. Their short conversation is heartbreakingly sweet and ends, not surprisingly, with the mother coming out of the store yelling at Savannah to come to her. Savannah’s mother, like most humans, know that the Elephantmen were designed and trained to be killers, and we can see the terror in this mother’s face. I won’t reveal what happens after Savannah walks off, but it’s not an ending you’ll soon forget. It’s so perfect an ending to a single issue that I’ll probably teach this one issue in future college English classes even if I don’t have time to teach the entire collection. So, at the very least, read this one issue. More than likely you will be buying the entire collection after doing so.
Part of what makes this first issue so good is that Ebony keeps thinking about his past as a killer: As he talks with young Savannah, Ebony has flashbacks about stalking down and killing vulnerable and unarmed humans. These flashbacks are shown by using single-panel images of war that interrupt his conversation with the young girl, and those images of war usually are presented in ways that offer ironic counter-points to the innocent comments Savannah makes. The emotional punch is incredible and offers a perfect example of what comics do so well as an artistic medium that cannot be achieved as well or with as much economy compared to a novel or short story.
The flashbacks within the first issue also prepare us for a narrative pattern that will be repeated throughout this first volume: Often we get a flashback within a single issue, but just as often, entire issues take us into the past. Ultimately, I’m not sure how much of the entire series (over fifty issues now) takes place in the “present” and how much takes place in the “past.” We are shown the moment of the first Elephantman inception; we see when the Elephantmen are born, how they are raised, how they are schooled, and how they are trained. We also see the battle that results in the shutdown of MAPPO, the secret military compound where this Elephantman project was conducted. There’s even an issue about the women who gave birth to the Elephantmen.
Though it may seem as if I’ve revealed too much, I’ve actually told very little since most of this single volume focuses on several stories that are being developed in the present. We find out what kind of discrimination the Elephantmen face from the human population, but we also find out what the varying loyalties are among the Elephantmen themselves. We aren’t led to empathize with all of them. We meet multiple characters who will keep returning. Savannah shows up again, and in more than one issue, we meet two human women — Sahara and Miki — who take care of and/or fall in love with Elephantmen.
One of the best ways to describe the series is to compare its visual world to the movie-version of Bladerunner, a comparison the author makes in some notes at the end of the collection. First, the cityscape itself resembles the setting of the movie. Secondly, the look of the characters has a haunting familiarity that looks forward as well as back, just as Bladerunner does. The human male characters and many of the Elephantmen, particularly Hip Flask, have a noir look; however, many of the women are dressed in more futuristic designs. This strange mix of the old and the new, a pulp-like noir story placed in a futuristic city, is a major attraction of the story for me. These noir, pulp roots are further emphasized by much of the cover art that is included in the collection. Any fan of old pulp magazines will love these covers.
As I’m beginning to realize, science fiction and fantasy stories told through the medium of sequential art take advantage of how a good writer and artist can develop extremely quickly, without sacrificing detail, a rich, complex new fictional world in which readers can become fully immersed. As I’ve already mentioned, the first issue was completely satisfying and manages to stand alone as a fantastic science fiction short story. That this perfect little story is followed up by what becomes comparable to a multi-novel series of books makes me incredibly pleased. I write this review on the same day that I started and finished this first volume, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to sleep tonight without reading volume two, not to mention volumes three, four, five, six, as well as the issues that have NOT been collected into trades yet!
Another reason to get this volume is for the bonus material, which is probably of the highest quality and value I’ve ever seen in a trade collection: Starkings grew up in England and his influences come from the a variety of sources, most of which we fans of American comics are completely ignorant. He features multiple English artists by writing a short biography and including images of their artwork. This section is over thirty pages long and would make for a worthy little book on its own. That it is included in this trade makes Elephantmen: Wounded Animals a must-buy for any SFF fan.
The more SFF comics I read, the more I am amazed at the amount, the variety, and the high quality of what is available. As I’ve said in previous columns, a reader of SFF could stop reading novels and fill all her time reading only comics in this genre. However, I’m beginning to believe that it might be true that a reader of SFF could stop reading novels and fill all her time reading only GREAT comics in this genre without running out of material to read. And as I mentioned in my review of The Wicked + The Divine, Image is the publisher to keep your eye on if you are a fan of SFF (and horror). Elephantmen is an Image title that’s been around for a long time now, just like The Walking Dead has, but Image is rapidly building up their catalog with even more high-quality SFF comics. So, keep checking back here frequently as I continue to feature both new and old Image titles. Until then, go read Elephantmen. You’ll thank me for that advice. It’s a promise.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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