By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu
I’m a latecomer to the world and characters created by Richard Starkings in his famous Elephantmen title. I’ve been meaning to dive in for years, but got cold feet because of my impression that there’s a ton of material out there. But last year at Comic-Con, I got gifted a copy of the first volume the Elephantmen Mammoth Collection, which contains a whopping 18 issues of the series, including a key mini-series and some one-shots. So my journey began.
Boy, what a journey it was! Smooth and rough, ugly and beautiful, happy and sad…you get the picture. It’s an extremely well-realised universe, unfolding via many complex, well-penned stories and gorgeously drawn vistas. Some of the stories have direct connections, while some don’t. Even a supporting character like the iFrog (don’t ask, find out) can stand its own in back-up tales.
Who’d believe Elephantmen began life because Starkings couldn’t get permission to use Marvel’s characters to advertise his famous comic lettering fonts? He created now-famous anthropomorphic hippo Hip Flask, and after a series of one-shots the creator plotted the first two issues with superb artist Jose Ladrönn after tapping Joe Casey to co-script.
In 2006, Image Comics debuted an ongoing series, a prequel to Flask’s tale which would see all subsequent issues plotted and scripted by Starkings and illustrated by many, many stellar artists. The basic story goes: Two centuries from now, the MAPPO Corporation, headed by Japanese mad scientist Dr. Kazushi Nikken, breeds human/animal hybrids in a North Africa-based facility. Composed of African animal species like Elephants, Hippos, Crocodiles, Lions and others, each hybrid child is branded after birth marking them as the property of MAPPO and their mothers, local women, are disposed of. Nicknamed Elephantmen, they are trained from birth to be soldiers and killers.
After the UN discovers the experiments, an army is sent to storm the secret base. A battle ensues, with severe casualties on both sides. However, the UN forces defeat the Elephantmen, who get rehabilitated and released to establish their own lives in the outside world. Their being treated with distrust, disgust and even horror from humans forms the background of many of the stories, giving a well-rounded backdrop for high drama.
Then there are the romance-tinged tales, told via women who befriend, and become romantically involved with the former killing machines. The interaction between the titular genetic adventures and humans sometimes evolves at a sublime, yet frenetic pace, making for a believable, well-structured fictional universe. Sometimes, though, it’s brutal.
The structure of the Elephantmen universe, too, makes it pliable enough to work into various genres and/or sub-genres. Hard-core sci-fi, action, romance, comedy, adventure, spy, horror and so on. Starkings must be spoiled for choice!
Needless to say, I became hooked after the Mammoth Collection. I proceeded to acquire as much as I could and became up-to-date on Starkings’ magnum opus. The current issue, #64, is a bit spare on action, but can be described as heavy-hitting anyway. Drawn by Carlos Pedro doing his first American work, an adorable cover by Pia Guerra frames the entire affair aptly. Starkings’ writing, too, is on point here, showcasing his skill for weaving tension, even in simple things like what is supposed to be an easy conversation between friends.
Headlined by hippo-headed Flask, issue #64’s title is also a lovely nod to the Beatles (‘Will You Still Need Me?’) and has our hero on house arrest after a wedding straight out of Game of Thrones, being comforted by feisty-yet-gentle human babe Miki. The story, via a conversation, explores Flask’s fears and provides excellent character development for Miki. At the end of the story, Flask opens a closet, revealing something that’s bound to be ground-shaking. Few can pull off what Starkings and co. have with this issue, starting and going with reflection and ending with the threat – or promise – of something wicked on the way. And that’s just one of the reasons why I’m glad I’ve discovered the world of Elephantmen!
Abdulkareem Baba Aminu is a newspaper editor, award-winning journalist, cartoonist, comic book creator and painter. The Nigeria-based writer has reviewed comics, novels, movies and music for a variety of platforms. He is currently the Editor of the Saturday edition of the Daily Trust, one of the most influential newspapers in his country. You can follow him on Twitter @KareemReal
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