I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when my attention was commandeered and diverted to the shelf of my comic shop displaying those beautifully rendered volumes of Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen, but it was as if the hand of a celestial being guided me over and instructed me to thus purchase said books – “Thou shall taketh, readeth, and consume their words, my child. And while you’re at it throw in a couple of Hail Marys, an Our Father, and an Apostles’ Creed (not to be confused with the boxer Apollo). Thanks be to me.” Well, at least that’s how my overactive imagination recalls the event unfolding. But I didn’t listen to the voice in my head at the time. Fast-forward to WonderCon 2015 and there was Mr. Starkings, in his usual spot, surrounded by those beautifully rendered volumes the celestial being had recommended to me previously. But again, I resisted. That is, until I walked over and was given a free copy of the latest issue. I read it while I was in line for a panel; and it hooked me immediately. I decided then and there that I would purchase the first two volumes and see if the title was something my literary sensibilities would concur with. And indeed, they concurred – one-thousand percent. So, while attending this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego, I took the sensible path and purchased all five of the remaining hardcovers. I mean, who really wants to buy one book at a time? That’s for amateurs. However, little did I know how taxing it would be to navigate my way through hordes of people, with multiple blisters on my feet, in the heat, about a mile and a half to my car, carrying about thirty-five pounds of comic-book literature. But my First World struggle was well worth it. I’ve since devoured the second volume in the series and, so far, it’s been some of the best storytelling I’ve come across. There are so many topics – ripe for discussion – woven into the narrative: the horrors of war, war profiteering, genetic experimentation and the morality involved (or lack thereof), prejudice, bigotry, societal acceptance of “unconventional” relationships – these are just a few that called out to me, but I’m sure there’s more to be discovered by eagle-eyed readers. Without giving too much away, the basic premise is this: a corporation (run by a genius who lacks all manner of compunction for the atrocities he’s committing) successfully engineers human/animal anthropomorphic hybrids and trains them (although it’s more like brainwashes them) to be the ultimate super soldiers – killing machines that are immune to sickness, devoid of emotion, and lack any kind of empathy for humans. They are then set upon Europe to eradicate any surviving humans of a deadly virus that all but wiped out the European population. This brings the new species into a direct confrontation with Africa and China, who are also mixed up in this global conflict. The war rages on until the U.N. successfully brings it to an end. But what do you do with 15,000 genetically engineered beings who have been trained to commit genocide? You rehabilitate and integrate them into human society, is what you do; and this is just the prologue. From here, the story only gets better and better – a perfect blend of science fiction and fantasy, with subtle nods to classic cinema. With Elephantmen, Starkings has taken his cue from storytellers of the past (Roddenberry, Serling) and crafted a morality tale, in multiple parts, utilizing the device of science fiction to highlight human behavior and our multitude of idiosyncratic shortcomings as a species.
The mark of a great story, in any medium, is how it orchestrates the ebb and flow of our emotions. How it tinkers with us, setting us up for the inevitable blow to the gut. From the beginning, Elephantmen has presented its readers with a tragic drama – war stories, are after all, not without horrific consequences. As I’ve read, there have been moments of anger, as well as moments of sadness – balanced with the occasional moments of joyful relief we readers have been mercifully given. The journey thus far has been an emotional roller coaster as I’ve traversed the imaginative landscape Mr. Starkings has created. His skill with the proverbial pen and the sadistic way in which he derives pleasure from yanking at my heartstrings was never more apparent than with his tale Captain Stoneheart and the Truth Fairy – a small subplot with emotional beats that will leave you with a desire to watch bad Tyler Perry films just to heave you out of your depressed funk. The fact that I’m reading every issue with a page-turning hesitation and hope that my favorite characters aren’t killed off, is an unspoken testimonial of his ability to craft believable and lovable players within this world of his; and it’s not just his words, but how they’re married with the art on the page. This being a visual medium and all, bad art (as longtime readers will no doubt attest) can easily derail a great story, taking you out of the illusory experience comic books are so deft at creating. Like a horribly-shot film with a terrific script. The confluence of artists he’s assembled to bring his saga to life are no less remarkable than the words themselves. Names such as Moritat, Chris Burnham, Rob Steen, J. Scott Campbell, Ian Churchill, and Greg Capullo. It’s like a Who’s Who of comic book creators.
I’m about to begin the third volume and I can’t wait to immerse myself within Starkings’ future and observe what’s transpired since my last trip. I’m hoping nothing too tragic. I’ve grown too fond of the folks there, who, by this point, feel like dear old friends; but then, that’s the beauty of great storytelling, isn’t it?