Stewart’s Slate: Review of Elephantmen

23 Mar

Review of ELEPHANTMEN Volumes 1-3
Collecting #1-23

Writer: Richard Starkings
Art: Moritat
Publisher: Image comics

Review by Stewart Loud

Lets be honest. Elephantmen is a slightly comedic title for a comic book. And a bunch of 10 feet tall humanoid wilder beast in roles as investigators, crime lords and policemen in L.A. doesn’t sound like a plot with much potential for greatness. So when I started reading the series I was a little confused as to what all the fuss was about, with the back of each graphic novel being emblazoned with five star review scores and quotes from reviews singing it’s praises. Having now read volumes 1-3, I’m definitely a fan of this startlingly original sci-fi epic.

I know I don’t normally do this, but this exceptionally well written story is so impressive in the scope of the characters, locations and time lines that it weaves together during the course of each graphic novel, that I don’t think it would be very easy or fair to review and score each book as a stand alone publication. So I’ve decided to review the series as a whole and then give you an idea of what you can expect from each book.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Probably not a comic for fans of ZAP! and POW! Style action but anyone who likes an immersive story with great characters and often breath taking art to get their teeth into should definitely give this a go.

THE STORY:
To begin with, like the movie Pulp Fiction, parts of the story are thrown at you out of sequence like pieces of a puzzle. Each one telling very different tales involving different characters and locations, some years apart, some days and weeks apart, that slowly begin to knit together into an incredibly rich world with an intriguing history. At the start this can be a little frustrating as you find yourself wanting to know more about story arcs that aren’t explained in great detail to begin with but you soon get into the flow as each separate yarn is gradually fleshed out and you get drawn into all of them as you realise how they are all linked together.
The year the story uses as the present tense is 2259. Nearly 20 years after the war between China and the Central African Alliance for control of Europe after its population was devastated by the FCN virus. During the war, Africa employed the use of the Elephantmen. A race of towering Genetically engineered human/animal hybrids, created by the North African company Mappo, to be the ultimate soldiers. Incredibly resilient to physical hardship, immune to all forms of chemical and biological attack and mentally programmed to be completely remorseless in the carrying out of their orders, they were the perfect weapon to use in the now sparsely populated and plague ridden Europe.

When the war ended and Mappo was shut down for their terrible crimes against humanity committed during the research and creation of the Elephantmen, the remaining 15,000 Elephantmen were rehabilitated through years of therapy and then spread across the globe to integrate as  constructive members of a society that still largely hates and fears them because of their bestial appearance and the stories that emerged of the terrible things they did during the war.

Some are cops, restaurant owners, gangsters even celebrities. Some are good guys and some are bad guys and if you imagine Blade Runner but with Harrison Ford’s part played by a hippopotamus,  you’ll go a long way to imagining what you can expect from a large part of what this comic is like.
Apart from the animal appearance of the Elephantmen, the concept of their creation is almost identical to the Genetic Infantrymen of 2000ads Rogue Trooper comic strip. They too were created in a lab to be emotionless super soldiers hardened to anything physical or biological that might be thrown at them on the battle field, who would follow any order without question so they could be put into service in the toxic environments of Nu Earth. Anyone who liked Elephantmen: War Toys or likes the war flash backs in this series should check out Rogue Trooper: War Machine if they can find it. It was originaly printed in Heavy Metal, not 2000ad so some parts of the story may vary but it’s a great book.

THE CHARACTERS:
Ebony Hide and Hip Flask, an elephant and a hippo who work as crime scene investigators for the Information Agency. Obidia Horn, a rhinoceros and owner of a casino and hotel chain with a criminal reputation. Trench, a hard boiled, leather rain coat wearing, zebra cop. All the Elephantmen characters themselves begin as a novelty, because of their appearance, but fast become every bit as deep and interesting in character as well. Some you’ll grow to like others you’ll grow to like a great deal more.

The Elephantmen are usually accompanied by incredibly attractive, young (in some cases teenage)  female groupies who all seem to be obsessed with the idea of having a physical relationship with the gargantuan beings. Horn is even engaged to a woman called Sahara, who helped with his rehabilitation when she worked with the UN. Apart from the fact that they look like hippos and rhinos and the sheer scale of the creatures would mean they’d have to have cocks like lamp posts, it is mentioned a few times that they were all castrated in the labs at puberty anyway so they couldn’t ruin any of these young girls even if they wanted to. This sub theme of bestiality running through each book is a little odd and it puts me in mind of some questionable Japanese material I’ve seen but it is a comic book I suppose so what the hell.

Even characters that don’t seem important to begin with soon become integral parts of the Elephantmens world who you care for and want to learn more about. It’s them and not just the plot that makes this comic so interesting to read. In volume 3, when more details of the hardships Sahara, endured during her childhood are revealed, I actually felt a physical reaction to how sickening and sad it was as well as a swelling hatred for her father Serengeti. This should give you a good idea of how well written it is.

ART / PRESENTATION
A lot of effort has gone into making these books. The majority of the wonderful artwork is done by Morirat but there’s a lot of sections done by an almost countless list of guest artists in a variety of different styles. From pencils to paints and even one section that looks like it was done using soft water colours, Each different story has a different atmosphere all of its own. The front covers scattered throughout the book and at the back in the gallery sections truly are works of art. With many of them having been drawn in a way that makes them appear old and weathered giving them even more character.

Each one of the three volumes has its own specific art theme for the backgrounds and borders for the covers and quotes between each issue and credits and columns at the beginning and end of each book. This may seem like a small thing but it all adds to the overall richness of the experience.

Each issue is preceded by a quote or out take from a poet, intellectual, historian, important document or historical figure that may bare some relevance to the story at that point. Some of these are welcome and interesting bits of information about current laws regarding genetic experimentation or pearls of wisdom from Albert Einstein or Napoleon. Some on the other hand are meaningless, asinine little bits of nonsense that represent some of the worst examples of what happens when you give idiots who think to much of themselves a platform.
Examples:

“Any one who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” Marshal McLuhan.

I get that he’s trying to say that education can be fun and entertainment can be educational but the way he’s said it is arrogant and doesn’t make any sense if you think about it for 10 seconds.
Here you go then, jackass. If you call something entertaining it’s because you enjoy it. Anything that entertains you does so because it is interesting and/or fun. Education can sometimes be interesting and fun but not always. Like learning how to bleed a radiator or mix cement. Is that entertaining? No it isn’t but those two things put two massive ticks in the education box.
I honestly don’t know who Marshal McLuhan is. Or was. Or whatever but if he said this then I’m not interested.
Another one:

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent: That’s the essence of humanity.” George Bernard Shaw.

Again, I see what he’s getting at. It’s a shame when people don’t give a shit about the suffering they see. But seriously? Were the Nazis indifferent to the Jews during the second world war? If you could choose between a crowd of people being indifferent to you or punching you in the mouth as hard as they could, which would you choose?

I think the reason it makes me so angry is that some people, hopefully not many, but some people will read these things and think that they’re incredibly clever without questioning them, just because they were printed on a page. I’m as open minded as the next guy, and I swear to god I’ll punch anyone who says otherwise, but I know bullshit when I see it and some of these steamers should really have been left out.

A slightly weird thing I wanted to point out is that, as each volume is about as thick as your average telephone directory, you may think you’re in for a mammoth read but appearances can be deceptive. The pages are so high quality that they’re three times as thick as that of a normal comic and at least 20% of each volume is devoted to sketch galleries, front covers, short comic strips about robotic frogs and French monkeys, essays written about how great Elephantmen is or miscellaneous quotes and out takes. So each book wont take you any longer to read than an average graphic novel. Make of this what you will.
Still. Very nice looking, high quality books. A feast for the eyes!

Now I’ll attempt to give a brief description of each volume without giving too much away.

Volume 1: WOUNDED ANIMALS

Introduces all the main heroes and villains and the roles they play in human society as well as outlining the history of the Elephantmen, how and why they were created and tells the story of their liberation from Mappo by the UN through a series of flashbacks.
Interesting and intriguing throughout, as the story begins to take shape in the well written, wonderfully drawn series of scenes shown out of sequence, apart from the large section at the end devoted to a story about some pirates and a fairy that Hip, tells to a small girl. Although this section is beautifully illustrated, it has a lot in common with the pirate story in Alan Moore’s, The Watchmen. It’s crap, boring and it should have been left out. I read through this entire section in case it mentioned something important, but it really doesn’t, so feel free to skip this bit, if it bores you.

Volume 2: F AT AL DISE ASES

Introduces Trench, the uncompromising, one eyed tough guy of the piece before descending into a  couple of issues worth of fictitious comic strips, written within the Elephantmen universe, telling wild and fanciful stories of the comics main characters having science fiction and action orientated adventures that have absolutely no bearing on the main story whatsoever. You could skip these bits too and you wouldn’t be missing anything. At this point I was begging to question whether or not this comic was in fact the literary masterpiece it had been billed as. But then…..Shit gets real!
As more and more of the story is revealed and fleshed out, I began to see just how expertly all the different characters and arcs link together. I found myself not being able to get enough of character story lines that previously I didn’t much care about. At this point the pace seems to change quite dramatically too, becoming far more exciting as meteors crash to Earth, hit squads attack hospitals and it starts to look like certain characters might get killed off.
Even the flash backs get more intriguing as more of the unpleasant, gritty details of the stories history get revealed. After I finished this one, I couldn’t wait to start the next.

Volune 3: DANGEROUS  LIASIONS

The series hits its stride in this volume! With a  couple of gut wrenching stories about Tusk and Sahara, Hip becomes closer with some of the female characters who all want to sleep with him for some reason. He’s a hippo for gods sake! And the reader is walloped in the face with yet more intrigue and unanswered questions as it transpires that the North African company Mappo may not be as out of the picture as first thought.
This volume really does end on a cliff hangar and there’s a brilliant epilogue which just raises more questions !

This is a great series. I honestly don’t think things really get going until about half way through volume 2 and there’s definitely a few bits they didn’t need to put in there (although I’m sure there’s a few people who’ll disagree with me) so it’s a bit of an investment to get there, but it’s well worth it. Once you’ve finished all 3 volumes, and events in the flashbacks have been more thoroughly explained, you’ll want to re-read the early stories armed with the knowledge you’ve gained.
Another thing I liked about this series, is it’s nice to know people are still coming up with really original ideas to write comic books about. I will definitely be getting the next one!

OVERALL SCORE 8/10

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