Review: Elephantmen: Mammoth Book 1 trade paperback (Image Comics)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

Richard Starkings is a rarity in the comic book world: a letterer who doubles as a highly-regarded writer (others include Stan Sakai and Chris Eliopoulos). After pioneering digital lettering with his Comicraft company, Starkings decided to make his own comics based on “Hip Flask," an anthropomorphic hippo he created for Comicraft advertisements. The Hip Flask series, in turn, gave rise to a much longer-running series about its world. Thus was born a bridge between American and European comics: Elephantmen. This first “Mammoth” edition collects the first two trades -- which are actually 00 and 01 -- and most of the third trade in a surprisingly affordable package. Most six-issue trades of Elephantmen cost thirty dollars, and Elephantmen: Mammoth collects three times that amount for the same price, making it an enticing entry point.

I started reading Elephantmen with the first trade, Wounded Animals, after Starkings visited Tate’s Comics last year. While the main series of trades collects the series in publication order, “Mammoth” goes the Grendel Omnibus route and puts the stories in chronological order. The result is two different stories defined largely by context. With only the first six issues, you get a gradual reveal of the bizarre future in which genetically engineered animal-men left over from a devastating war now walk the streets and try to fit into humanity. It’s paced rather slowly and is dragged down early on by some now dated references to celebrities like Howard Stern and Today hosts Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. It does have an advantage in its portrayal of the truly horrible origins of these poor creatures.

Putting the Elephantmen: War Toys mini-series and its related issues in front of the contents of Wounded Animals completely changes the tone for the better. Much more of the backstory is explained, including an epidemic which killed off a majority of the population, causing nations to commission the Elephantmen as replacement fighters. We get to see the main characters in their “prime” as they go out and fight rebels opposed to MAPPO, the company owned by the Elephantmen’s creator, the sinister Dr. Nikken. The story primarily follows a young girl named Yvette as she goes from an innocent caught in this awful world to the rallying leader of the rebels. She reminds me quite a bit of Katniss Everdeen in her role as the Mockingjay, even though the War Toys mini-series came out a year before The Hunger Games novels premiered.

Some of the power of War Toys can only be felt after you’ve made some headway into the series. Eventually it comes to light that the mostly anonymous Elephantmen are the main characters. One of them, an actual elephant named Ebenezer “Ebony” Hide, is portrayed as having strong PTSD, and you can see why that happens here. Obadiah Horn, a rhinoceros, is first introduced as a rampaging killer, leading up to his eventual development into a sinister businessman. Hip Flask himself has a major role as the first Elephantman whom Yvette sees as an actual person; this end with the Elephantmen getting rehabilitation instead of being annihilated wholesale. The ties between human and modified animal are further elaborated as the poacher Joshua Serengheti is revealed to be connected to Obadiah’s human wife, Sahara.

Mixed into the unfolding main story are some clever uses of myth and legend to portray how the Elephantmen come across to humans. A battle between Hip Flask and the crocodile Elijah Delaney is done entirely in quotes from the Book of Job instead of dialogue. In a cute touch, God is given the writing credit. The Horn/Sahara relationship is matched with a retelling of Asian legends about the unicorn (called the Chi-Lin in China and the Kirin in Japan). Issue five of the main series had some breakaway success as a children’s fairy tale called Captain Stoneheart and the Truth Fairy. In-story, this is presented as a story Hip tells to a little girl while he recovers in the hospital; she envisions him as a pirate captain. Richard Starkings’ lettering enhances Joe Kelly’s script and Chris Bachalo’s artwork, filling up much of the empty space on the page with clever word placement.

Of the artists featured in Elephantmen: Mammoth, Bachalo is one of the few well-known to American readers. A few like Ladrönn and Moritat have had some success in the US, but they and most of the other artists draw in a grittier, darker European style found in magazines such as Heavy Metal. Even though their styles differ -- Moritat has smoother edges, Boo Cook adds more detail, Ladrönn goes with a multi-technique approach -- it all feels consistent. There isn’t a lot of advanced technology due to the disease and wars, but we do get to see some of the Elephantmen equipment, including one of the greatest concepts ever: powered armor in the shape of a hippo-type Elephantman, complete with a massive shoulder cannon and nostrils the size of a human torso. There are lots of great visuals along those lines, especially in War Toys, including Obadiah Horn riding a horse and the invasion of the Chinese army, which has a great twist to it.

With the world-building, the variety of talent (where else can you find God and Ladrönn sharing trade’s credits?) and the immense savings this omnibus provides, the “Mammoth” edition of Elephantmen is an excellent pick-up. I eagerly await the release of the second volume next year and fervently hope that rumors of a TV series or movie will come true soon.

Meanwhile, next week I’ll jump over to a story that I didn’t even know existed until I found the trade this weekend at PalmCon. Let’s just say that it involves three of my favorite things: Walter Simonson, pulp literature, and Predator.
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