Elephantmen Vol. 3: Dangerous Liaisons by Richard Starkings and Monitat (graphic novel review).
The ‘Elephantmen’ series of comics is set about 250 years in the future, where genetically engineered human-animal hybrids, the ‘elephantmen’ of the title, live among ordinary humans. This collection of Elephantmen issues # 16-23 makes a lot more of the elephantmen origins clearer now, in its grim detail. They were genetically implanted in abducted women, three-hundred thousand of them taken by the MAPPO Corporation for use as incubators for elephantman embryos. When the time came, the hybrid was removed, killing the mother in the process and the artwork suggests the process here was even less delicate than it sounds. While the mother’s body was dumped somewhere, the baby elephantman was taken away to be reared, brainwashed, trained and then sent off to the battlefield.
This flashback scene quite early on in this collection, in issue # 17, follows a funeral scene where one of the elephantman characters, Hip Flask, speaks to a human friend, Miki, of his regret about not knowing a mother’s love. It’s part of three-handed issue that typifies the non-linear cleverness of the ‘Elephantmen’ series generally. The issue starts with the funeral scene, skips backwards to the origins story and, from there, we find out a bit more about an insane elephantman character called Tusk. Essentially, one of the failures of the programme, we see that MAPPO locked him up, apparently for use in experiments. He gets loose somehow (we don’t find out how until issue # 19) and then we fast-forward to the present day, finding him living a feral existence in the city. The authorities are attempting to recapture him, but we see glimpses of Tusk’s innate innocence through his relationship with a nearly blind old woman he rescues from a fall. Eventually, shot in her apartment, we then go back to funeral scene which is, of course, now revealed to be Tusk’s funeral.
Comicbooks are often criticised for being written by men for men and young men with limited real-word experience at that! ‘Elephantmen’ does play a little bit to that side of things, with almost implausibly bloody combat scenes and extraordinarily curvaceous female characters. But there’s much more depth to ‘Elephantmen’ than this would suggest. In issue # 18, Miki has to deal with unrequited love, a disapproving parent and an unplanned pregnancy, this latter incident not being resolved in the way Miki believes. Issue # 19 is even less traditional in its content, essentially being about how the life of a young girl somewhere in North Africa. She grows into one of the lead characters, Sahara, but what’s important in this issue of the series is the back story that sets up her motivations as we see them in the present. Again, MAPPO comes into play here, abducting her mother (presumably to turn her into an elephantman incubator) and burning down her home. Eventually, she’s reunited with her father via a refugee camp, but things quickly get worse for Sahara, including female circumcision and use as a child prostitute. It’s a grim story, but the pastel colours suffuse the illustrations with optimism that’s eventually justified when we see parallel scenes from the past and, from today, of Sahara running in the first panel away from her enemies and in the second panel into the arms of her close friend and perhaps lover, the elephantman Obadiah Horn.
While these aspects of the series are relatively brief in terms of number of pages, they are important to the ways the characters work, not superficial frippery. In fact, what ‘Elephantmen’ manages to do extremely well is balance drama with action. There are some amazing action set pieces to be sure, including pretty much all of issue # 21, which involves one of the elephantman characters reverting to his aggressive, MAPPO-controlled soldier state thanks to a remote-controlled chip in his brain. This issue also makes clear where the series is going, with the return of MAPPO mastermind Nikken straight-out declaring their intention to rule the world.
As with previous collections, there’s a lot of bonus material in the book including character sketches and development notes, alternate cover art, artist biographies and even a non-canon strip about aliens and sushi. It’s hard to fault this collection even at the $35 price tag. The ‘Elephantmen’ universe is surely one of the richest of recent years and the storytelling here is complex and character-driven, and doesn’t just rely on the gimmick of animal-headed heroes or extreme acts of violence. It’s certainly readable as a standalone book, but inevitably the best experience will come from reading the previous two ‘Elephantmen’ collections first.
(pub: Comicraft. 280 page graphic novel hardback. Price: $ 34.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60706-250-9)
check out websites: www.comicraft.com and www.hipflask.com