RICHARD STARKINGS On Comics' ELEPHANTMEN in the Room

RICHARD STARKINGS Talks ELEPHANTMEN

In a future 150 years from now, a mad scientist creates man/animal hybrids with the DNA of elephants, rhinos, camels, giraffes and more to act as his own personal army. After the United Nations finds out about these atrocities and liberates the animal/human hybrids, these victims-refugees are left to try to find a life for themselves after slavery. But while they were rescued from one threat, they find a new kind of threat living in the modern world where racism and xenophobia make them outcasts in human society.

Over the course of several miniseries, one-shots and an ongoing series, comics veteran Richard Starkings as created a dystopian sci-fi classic in comics form dubbed Elephantmen that mixes Island of Dr. Moreau, Blade Runner and timeless societal struggles in a far-flung future. After a legendary career in lettering, Starkings wrote Elephantmen and companion series Hip Flask to tell a story – a story he’d been carrying around for years, influenced by his childhood in England and everything he’d seen and read over the decades.

Earlier this month, Image released the ongoing Elephantmen series 27th issue, midway through the current “Desperate Things” story-arc and featuring the full-issue debut of the series new artist Axel Medellin. Later this year, Starkings and Image are releasing a revised and expanded edition of the sold-out inaugural volume of Elephantmen complete with an all-new sketchbook, the out-of-print #0 issue and extensive backmatter on the series.

Wr recently chatted with Starkings about this signature creations…

Newsarama: Richard, Image just announced you’re doing a new edition of the first Elephantmen trade, Richard. What led you to expand on the first volume in this new edition, and what exactly has been added?

Richard Starkings: Well, the most obvious reason is that the first trade paperback printing of volume 1 has sold out – and the hardcover edition of volume 1 is close to selling out too! Added to that was the fact that we'd redesigned the cover graphics for the subsequent volumes in the series and we wanted a new edition that reflected the redesign.

When we put out the first edition of Wounded Animals three years ago, I was in the middle of writing the Elephantmen: War Toys mini-series, and the covers I commissioned from both Ladrönn, for the first hardcover, and Boo Cook, for the first trade, were more relevant to that series than they were to the first volume itself. It's sometimes hard to get your head out of one frame of reference and into another!

Also, now that I've hand-sold a couple of thousand collections at shows, I'm keenly aware of the fact that almost 50% of our readers are female, and I wanted the covers of the collections to appeal to those readers as much as they appealed to our male readers. In retrospect, both the original covers to volume 1 look more appropriate for Warhammer than Elephantmen, so we've created a series of covers now that are more representative of the content inside.

Plus, my daughter, Savannah, is so much happier now that the character based of her seven year-old self is on the cover, where she belongs. Center stage!

As to the extras – well, I very much wanted volume 1 to match the page-count of volumes 2 and 3, which weigh in at 312 pages. Putting in a sketchbook, as we've done in the other volumes, was a no brainer, but as this was volume 1, I wanted it to be more than just a collection of convention sketches. So I dug through a bunch of folders on the Elephantmen hard drives and I couldn't believe how much work Moritat had put into those first issues – work which I'd taken for granted at the time. I could easily fill a hundred pages with his preparatory work for each issue, but designer, JG Roshell and I decided to focus on issue 1, which has so much to do with the success of the series overall, and that way, we pared the material down to just 16 pages. Maybe when we do our oversized ‘Pachyderm’ edition in five years, we'll fill those hundred pages!

We've also included the ‘English & Media Studies’ back matter from the first dozen issues of the ongoing series. It's a series about the comic books I grew up with, and the creators who influenced me when I was a slip of a lad in England, but as those back issues went out of print I realized that the articles were lost for new readers, so we set aside 36 pages to re-present that material, with a few polishes, tweaks and additions!

Finally, not only does this edition sport a new cover by Boo Cook and an introduction by Turf's Friday-night-with Jonathan Ross, it features the now equally sold out issue #0 of Elephantmen which tells the origin of Hip Flask and Obadiah Horn, beautifully illustrated by Ladrönn. It's nice to plug that issue back in-between issues #4 and #5, which were designed to segue in and out of the origin story. Readers who already have volume 1 who feel they're missing out should be aware that the #0 issue is available to read, for free, on comixology.com.

Nrama: Elephantmen has shown you do long partnerships with artists such as Ladrönn, Moritat, Ian Churchill, Boo Cook, Marian Churchland and others. What’s it like to keep such a close-knit crew for the series?

Starkings: It's exciting! Working at Marvel Comics in London on about a hundred pages of original comic strip material every month taught me to juggle stories and creative teams. Although I envy the steady and productive creative relationships of, say, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard on The Walking Dead, I also know that Robert secretly envies my wide variety of creative partners. Ladrönn, Moritat, Marian and Boo all made uniquely different contributions to the series, and now I'm totally psyched to be working with Axel Medellin, who won the competition to draw Frank Cho's forthcoming Image series, 50 Girls 50. Just two issues in, it feels like Axel knows the characters inside out and that we've been working together for years.

I also have Marian and Moritat working together on a special one shot and Boo Cook is halfway into the second War Toys story, which hits stores in January next year as a standalone original graphic novel. Just a little way beyond that, 2011 will see the 4th installment of the original Hip Flask series with Ladrönn!

Nrama: More Ladrönn is always a good thing.

In the ongoing series, you’re about halfway through the seven-part series “Questionable Things”; what are Hip, Horn and Sahara up to here?

Starkings: The title of the arc is a tip of the hat to my favorite movie, Blade Runner – when Roy Baty confesses to his maker that he has done “questionable things..." I always wondered what those things were, or rather, what Roy Baty – the replicant who then pushes his thumbs into his maker's eyes – considered "questionable." The android that was introduced in issue #15 is still out there, and we've discovered that he is in fact, a repurposed "pleasure model..." I think we can be pretty certain that he is intent on doing some questionable things... and of course all the characters have things on their minds that might be considered questionable. We'll see many of those issues played out toward the end of this arc, and a couple of the characters are going to act on something very questionable in the world of the Elephantmen.

Nrama: You also mentioned earlier some sequels to the Elephantmen: War Toys spinoff. Can you tell us about that?

Starkings: We’ve got War Toys: Agathe by Marian Churchland and Moritat, followed by War Toys 2: Enemy Species by Boisterous Boo Cook. It was revealed in issue #26 that Yvette survived her encounter with Hip and Horn in the first War Toys arc. Marian tells the story of her recovery and the effect she has on a small group of virus survivors in Norway. Boo and I pick up from there, with Yvette on the trail of Hip and Horn, bent on vengeance! She's not a happy girl; the Elephantmen have taken everything away from her and her survival has only made her more determined to keep fighting.

Nrama: This whole series got started four years ago, but these are characters you’ve been carrying around for sometime. What’s it like to be over twenty-five issues in to an ongoing series with these characters with some miniseries and one-shots to boot?

Starkings: Just fantastic! I've actually been carrying Hip and Horn around in my head for fifteen years, and seeing them grow and change and being brought to life by such high caliber artists is just fabulous. This is easily my best experience in comics to date! Image Comics has been extremely supportive and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Erik and Eric, as well as Tyler, Betsy, Todd, Branwyn, Drew, Jonathan, Monica, Vincent, Sarah and all the unsung heroes, past and present, of production over there. Image Comics makes a lot of amazing comics possible and I think sometimes people forget what a tight ship Image runs... if they didn't, many of those books just wouldn't be possible.

I was courted by another publisher earlier this year and I could tell that many of the freedoms I enjoy at Image would be lost elsewhere, so I've come to a greater appreciation of what a privilege it is to be following in the footsteps of so many fantastic comics, characters and creators. We have a lot of great things planned for Elephantmen next year and I don't want to give away too much here, but I think the book will be drawing a lot of attention. Hmm. If I tell you more, I may have to kill you.

Nrama: Gulp. I’ll mind my words here, but I’m not done with you yet.

Although you’re best known for lettering American comics, your work on Hip Flask and Elephantmen show your true colors being brought up in the UK on Eagle, 2000AD and Trigan Empire. What do you think your big influences were from your childhood, and alternatively, now?

Starkings: I think it's no accident that I gravitated toward African animal totems for my characters. The British and the European countries that once had empires are endlessly fascinated by African wildlife; a fascination most Americans don't seem to share. When I compiled the ‘English & Media Studies’ features for Elephantmen, it amazed me how easy it was to find examples of my favorite strips that featured African animals in the stories. Elephants especially crop up again and again. I've said elsewhere that I had completely forgotten all the African souvenirs and books that fill my parents house in England. How could I have not been influenced?! I used to stare for hours at one particular painting that hung above my parents' fireplace – “The Elephant And The Anthill” by famous African wildlife artist David Shepherd. So I guess my subconscious was at work for years, mixing up all those British SF comics, the Marvel reprints, all the movies I grew up watching... and African animals. So now I watch wildlife documentaries as research! And they're a great source for ideas... the setting of issues #27 and #28 was actually very much influenced by a whole bunch of documentaries I was watching recently about factory farming.

In American comics, the people that have influenced me are the real risk takers. Dave Sim. The Hernandez Brothers. The Image founders. Kirkman. The Luna Brothers. Paul Grist. Jeff Scott Campbell. All the guys who did or are doing something new and different -- they're the ones to watch.

Nrama: A couple of months ago there was news of Elephantmen being adapted to the big screen – what can you tell us about that?

Starkings: Not much at all really, or I'd have to kill you.

Nrama: Uh oh. More threats of bodily harm. Can you give us a little bit?

Starkings: I am very closely involved right now and I'm very happy with the production company that has optioned the rights. Zucker Productions' Janet Zucker is the perfect fit for me and her and husband Jerry's pro-active stance on the issue of stem cell research during the Bush administration sort of sealed the deal for me. We both want to make a positive film, a film about humanity and what it means to be human in a world that's constantly diminishing our humanity and taking away our rights as human beings. We live in a country where corporations now have similar legal rights to human beings. How did that happen?! Elephantmen will be a big budget summer blockbuster, but hopefully one with a heart of gold. And babes.

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