Thee Comic Column #113: Elephantmen

2089608-elephantmen_036__2011__pagecoverOne of the most difficult truths for me to accept is that due to the nature of our perceived reality, to money and, increasingly, time, there is simply no way I am going to be able to read everything I want to during my lifetime.

First world problems, I know. Still…

And I’m not just speaking about comics here, because there is only so much time in any given day one can allot to the reading of anything. Regular readers may have noticed in the almost two-and-a-half years since I began writing this column that I have a voracious appetite for comics, however that particular addiction has to share my time with a slightly more ambitious but considerably slower-moving agenda: books. Literature –  I want to read it all. Well, not all, but a very large portion of it. Several years ago I took three months and chewed through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – it was well worth my time and I consider it a work of art that changed my life for the better. In other words, it was worth the time I spent with it. And there’s a lot more books, thick and thin, that I spend my time and money amassing, waiting for the moment to be right and, well, available. In the meantime, on the comics end of the spectrum, there are many series on my radar that I’ve just not been unable to get to yet. Elephantmen was on that list. Was, because about a week ago I finally had the confluence of time and money to pick up two hardback collections of the series and dive in. What I found, of course, was that I love it.

Since the first time I saw Moritat’s artwork on the stands Elephantmen has occupied a weird space in my greedy little comic book awareness. Much like Brian K. Vaughn’s Y the Last Man, Brian Wood’s DMZ and Joe Hill’s Locke and Key I have always known that one day I would read Elephantmen. I’d also known for sometime that when the time and money presented itself I would begin Richard Starkings‘s epic with the now outdated hardcover collections of the series. Outdated because this gorgeous piece of work was released during SDCC this year. However, despite the draw of this newest edition I’ve looked through the older hardcover collections many times at my beloved Comic Bug, and the gorgeous printing, complimented so exquisitely by the heavy stock paper and coupled with the exhaustively annotated “bonus features” was simply too much to pass up. Thus, Elephantmen 00: Armed Forces and 01: Wounded Animals came home with me via some of my Christmas bonus this year and I’ve spent nearly every moment of calm I could snatch from the busy holiday season entering for the first time the world of Mappo and its soldiers. Elephantmen is a story that is as intricate and moving as it is enormous in scope, and I have pretty much became obsessed.

For those who don’t know, Elephantmen follows the remainder of a species of bio-engineered animal-men; creatures birthed in a laboratory by a geneticist named Nikken who supplies the African Government with the perfect solider – hybrids spliced into the wombs of sacrificial women, birthed in their mothers’ deaths and raised to be cold, clinical cogs in the perpetual wheels of war. If you’ve been reading Elephantmen monthly you’ve had a different experience from those of us reading it for the first time collected, as part of the way Mr. Starkings has released the history of the world of the Elephantmen is, like David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, out of traditional sequence. These first two volumes of the collection then go back and collect the story in chronological order. The regular monthly series, begun in 2006, begins with a core group of the Elephantmen – actually a colloquial slur to the species in the world of the books – as they make their way in the human world post-war. Hip Flask (Hippopotamus hybrid), Obadiah Horn (Rhinoceros hybrid) and Ebenezer Hide (Elephant hybrid) are three of the main non-human characters and, as the series begins, find themselves circa the year 2259, trying to live within the human society they were created to combat. It’s fascinatingly human, the first issue especially, and a very emotional place to begin the series. The collections however, take things all the way back to a juxtaposition between the beginnings of the hybrid race in Dr. Nikkon’s laboratories, circa 2218 and the creatures’ initial campaign against the people of Europe. Neither approach is better than the others, both ways to read a story like this have equal merit, and for my approach it’s awesome to begin Elephantmen with the benefit of the author’s hindsight.


I should also point out that if you’re interested in Elephantmen you don’t necessarily have to begin with the collections. About a year ago the series underwent something of a soft reboot and initiated a new chapter in Hip Flask’s life. This re-positioning of the story is a wonderful jumping on point, as it really plays up the book’s already noir-ish leanings and takes a pulp-like private investigator angle to offer a new entry point into such a vibrant and fertile world. I had originally begun the book here, at issue 51, and it’s just as engaging and not necessarily dependent on knowing what came before, although I’m betting if you do start there it won’t be too long before you’re buying the backstory just like me. There’s a scene in issue 52, the second chapter of this restart, where Hip Flask and his reluctant partner Jack Farrell find themselves in Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance, a troubled Hip Flask reliving the history he has tried so hard to put behind him. The level of depth and emotion that come out in this scene – emotion not just from the characters but from the tone of the world Mr. Starkings has created here, is among the most potent I’ve seen in modern comics, and it was the point that I knew I had to go back and sink my teeth into the world of the Elephantmen from the beginning. Or, I guess, one of the beginnings. This scene is also indicitive of the absolute grandeur with which this world has been created. Reading War Toys, among the earliest stories of Hip Flask and his comrades, I found my love of literature was happily sated in the pages as well. Each chapter begins with a historical quote that applies to the situation of the story – the horrors, both physical and psychological, of war. What’s especially interesting about War Toys as opposed to the more recent storyline is that in War Toys the story is told from a human perspective in the guise of Yvette, a pretty young French girl who loses everything she has to the Elephantmen and then spends her life trying to eradicate them. In subsequent arcs we see the emotional gravity of the war and the horrors Hip Flask and his people perpetrated, how it affects the humanity they were bred not to have. The dichotomy is endlessly fascinating and has me absolutely in need of the rest of the series!


Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

2 Responses to Thee Comic Column #113: Elephantmen
  1. […] integrated into the world at large. I previously spoke of my love of Elephantmen about this time la...
  2. […] a few books that I haven’t read that Mike has trouble understanding: Hellboy, Elephantmen (rem...

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