Strange Times, Stranger Heroes in ELEPHANTMEN

Elephantmen Cover
Credit: Image Comics

Last month, the sci-fi spectacle Elephantmen reached a landmark – 50 issues. It’s a rare feat for comic books, especially outside the corporate world of Marvel and DC. For that special issue, writer/creator Richard Starkings and artists Gabriel Bautista and Axel Medellin showed a very real, Rockwellian life for these animal/human hybrids and the end of a major chapter in the life of Hip Flask.

And now as Elephantmen takes a month off before it’s next issue, Newsarama spoke with Starkings about the 50th issue achievement and his future plans for the title which includes guest art by Shaky Kane, the return of Jose Ladrönn and a unexpected crossover from Judge Dredd.

Elephantmen Cover
Elephantmen Cover
Credit: Image Comics

Newsarama: Thanks for doing this, Richard. last month we saw the release of Elephantmen #50, a milestone for you and this sprawling story. What's it like reaching this point?

Richard Starkings: Very satisfying -- I'm particularly happy with the story we told in #50, which featured beautiful watercolor art by Gabriel Bautista as well as a wraparound sequence by Axel Medellin. The fact that it made it to the top of so many reviewers Pick of the Week spots was the cherry on the top of the anniversary cake.

I think Elephantmen is the first Image title to hit the issue #50 mark since Invincible. And I wonder when the last Image title that wasn't initiated by one of the Image partners passed that milestone? Answers on a postcard please!

Not only that, but if you add in the War Toys miniseries and various one shots and Hip Flask issues and we've actually put out an astonishing 60 issues all told! We're seven volumes strong and still many stories to be told! I'm very grateful to all the creators and Image luminaries that have helped me along the way -- especially Eric Stephenson for his continuous support and belief in Elephantmen, Erik Larsen who invited me onboard in the first place, Robert Kirkman for giving us a big push on the flipside of The Walking Dead #86, and of course Moritat, now taking it easy on All-Star Western every month, Ian Churchill, who's working on a supersecret new Image project, Marian Chuchland, Shaky Kane, Chris Burnham -- whatever happened to him? -- and, of course Ladrönn, Boo Cook, current series artist Axel Medellin and Comicraft's Secret Weapon, John Roshell!

So, yes, it's nice to look back on six years of solid work with a sense of achievement, but the best is yet to come. The stories that ran in #40-49, collected in volume 6, came to something of a close and we'll be jumping ahead a few months to catch up with Hip Flask and a new partner of sorts. We also have a new story coming up with art by the very popular Shaky Kane and a script by newcomer Mark Schweikert, a special crossover with a well known 2000AD character, who may or may not be Judge Dredd, in this year's Thought Bubble Anthology which features full color art by Boo Cook. Ladrönn also has one more issue of Hip Flask up his sleeve as well! That's an epic conclusion to the Hip Flask story and will be a new jumping off point for all the characters in the future!

Nrama: Elephantmen returns late next month issue 51. What can you tell us about that?

Elephantmen Cover
Elephantmen Cover
Credit: Image Comics

Starkings: 51-54 is a story arc entitled “Picking Up The Pieces” by myself and Axel Medellin and debuts in September. In August, Image has solicited a new edition of our first oversized hardcover Hip Flask: Unnatural Selection which I self published in 2003 and had recently fallen out of print. It makes for a nice break between arcs and is a standalone widescreen edition of the Origin of the Elephantmen with lick-every-page art by Ladrönn.

Nrama:And after that you’re having a guest writer with the aforementioned Mark Scweikert.  Other writers have come in to tell Elephantmen stories before, but seeing Schweikert come in the main series seems something special. Can you tell us about stepping away for someone else to tell the story?

Starkings: It's a one shot, a story based on Mark's own experience as a police officer. It's pretty chilling and I figured it needed Shaky's disquieting style to make it so creepy all over that it wouldn't be too shocking. Perhaps Shaky will make it even more so! I hope he does!

Nrama: Before we get too far in the future, let’s talk about the present. Elephantmen #50 acted as a one-off story that really cast a new light on the human/animal hybrids and their uneasy inclusion into modern civilization, for Hip, Miki and everyone else. How long has this take been bouncing around your head waiting to get out?

Starkings: Readers who've been following the series since the beginning won't be surprised by this sideways look at the Elephantmen. It's been there for me since the very beginning. Early on Moritat told an interviewer that ELEPHANTMEN was about me, coming to America as an immigrant and figuring out the American way of life. The Elephantmen live and work in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, as I did, so there's a great deal of truth to that -- we all write about what we know. I do remember, several years ago, a week before July 4th, that my wife and I were putting up American flags at my kids' pre-school. A friend of ours, a born and bred American woman, laughed and said to us, "Typical -- it's the foreigners putting up the Stars and Stripes for American Independence Day!" I don't think she realized that her comment came across as in any way insulting or hurtful; both my wife and I had been American citizens for some time and we didn't think of ourselves as "other" or "foreigners" any more than do the Mexican Americans, African Americans or any of the Iranians, Armenians, fellow Brits or Irish nationalized immigrants that I know. When I lived in New York in the 80's, comics legend Archie Goodwin told me I was a true American; I asked him why and he told me that as an immigrant I would have to work harder than Americans born here to earn my place. That was just after I'd moved from London but now, over twenty years later, I understand exactly what he means. A lot of those considerations have informed Elephantmen over the years.

Nrama: I remember seeing Hip Flask ages ago in the backs of early Image books, but when did Hip andElephantmencoalesce for you as a cipher to tell stories about your relationship withAmerica?

Starkings: I write ELEPHANTMEN because it's FUN. The ads we did in the back of Image and Acclaim books, promoting our catalog served the same purpose -- we wanted to have FUN. If, in amongst that, some social commentary bubbles to the surface, that's great, but I love having a book where I can channel all my love for comics -- Sword and Sorcery! Science Fiction! Horror! I love it all. That's what the book is really about.

Nrama:Why do you think you chose elephants to tell these stories?

Elephantmen Cover
Elephantmen Cover
Credit: Image Comics

Starkings: Well, I didn't. I chose a hippo at first but in order to sprinkle some variety and make distinctive characters, I pitted Hip Flask against a rhino, Obadiah Horn and gave him a buddy, Ebony Hide, and elephant. The name "Elephantmen" came to me when Dave Gibbons was doing a piece for me and it stuck. It's easy for people to read the title and get the concept, which in the world of our heroes is a derogatory term referring to all human/animal hybrids.

Nrama: The art on Elephantmen has always been uncommonly good, and behind this Frank Quitely cover for #50 you've got regular series artist Axel Medellin but also the return of Gabe Bautista, but doing watercolor splash pages to tell the story. How'd you hatch this artistic plan to do it this way?

Starkings: Well, yes, I really have to give credit to artist Gabriel Bautista who has accompanied me to many shows and signings over the years and created some incredible watercolor images for fans. I noticed that many of his drawings cast Elephantmen in blue collar roles in society and so I encouraged him to create paintings specifically for issue #50 that showcased Elephantmen in menial roles in society. He did a great job, I think, and made it a little easier for me to script over his work. There were some that didn't make it that we'll feature in the back matter of volume 7.

Nrama:For doing this story, did you do full-script, marvel style or did Gabe come up with some of these paintings first then you scripted over it?

Starkings: I didn't write anything down -- I talked to Gabe at shows and on Facebook over the course of a year. He threw me ideas, I shot some down and asked him to tweak others. It's always important to look at an artist's strengths and play to them. I didn't write the narrative until the whole thing was done -- although I did ask for the last two pages of paintings specifically. It's fun to work different ways with different artists, it keeps everything fresh.

Nrama: At the end of this issue you have a teaser with the words "Next: 2260." We’ve talked earlier about the next arcs, but pulling back to a more “big picture view,” what does the future hold for Elephantmen?

Starkings: Even though we've created a sprawling chronology in Elephantmen that stretches from contemporary times all the way to 2262, issues 1-50 took place in a maybe six month period in 2259. Now, Sahara is pregnant, Miki and Hip may or may not have split up and we know a lot more about the workings of the Promethean organization and their plans for the Elephantmen and the goings on the Moon and Mars!

I wanted to jump ahead a little and throw Hip Flask into a new situation that might allow new readers to come onboard, especially after the stand alone stories in 50 which a lot of people picked up on either because we hit that milestone or because it sported a beautiful Frank Quitely cover. Either way, I wanted to take a breath and pull readers back in so that they can get to know hip and the Elephantmen from a whole different perspective.

Nrama: How have your views of this series changed as its developed since you started in 2006? Have any characters surprised you and become more close to you than you thought they'd be?

Starkings: Yes, the character Miki was a revelation, she kind of jumped into issue #3 and took over. Her exposure to the Elephantmen became the reader's slow introduction to the characters and she is clearly the most popular human character in the book. One fan in Mexico City was upset about recent relationship developments and insisted that Miki belongs with Hip. Miki won't go away but I think they'll be on a break for a while.

The other thing that surprised me was how many women read Elephantmen. Perhaps Miki is responsible for that, but it did take me a bit by surprise. We have a big crossover readership with titles like Y, The Last Man, Fables, Saga, Preacher and The Walking Dead, which are also very popular with female readers. We also appeal to 2000AD readers in the UK, so my demographic is somewhat unique!

Either way, I'm still having a lot of fun building the world and exploring the characters. Expect a lot more of Hip in the next ten issues and some new characters who might not be exactly what they seem to be at first glance!

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