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Richard Starkings and the Legend of Elephantmen

Elephantmen #27If you’re a regular comics reader, your life has probably already been touched by Richard Starkings–his company, Comicraft, has provided lettering and graphic design for Marvel, DC Comics, Dark Horse, and Image (among others) on some of their most prominent titles, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Marvels, Astro City, Batman: Hush, and many more.

However, Starkings is also very well known for his science fiction/noir/adventure series for Image Comics, Elephantmen! We were fortunate enough to be able to interview this very talented writer (and, full disclosure, one of our karaoke pals) and ask him about the future of Elephantmen.

TFAW.com: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, Richard!

Richard Starkings: You’re very welcome, I always have time for my karaoke friends!

TFAW.com: Can you give us a brief introduction to Elephantmen?

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 1RS: Elephantmen is what I like to call Pulp Science Fiction. The Elephantmen are human/animal hybrids, genetically engineered to serve as Super Soldiers in a monstrous turf war between Africa and China. Europe has been devastated by a virus and the Elephantmen move in to clean up and take Europe on behalf of the Central African Congress. But things did not go as planned and, despite a bloody war across Eurasia, the Elephantmen were ultimately defeated, rehabilitated by the UN, and now live amongst us–Hated and Feared, as they say. Trapped in a World They Never Made! All-New, All Different! With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. Stop me!

TFAW.com: The story of how you created Elephantmen is really unusual–the characters were originally created to advertise Comicraft, right?

RS: Well, yes and no. I wanted to promote our line of fonts at comicbookfonts.com and looking into deals with both Marvel and Wildstorm came to naught, so I decided to create my own character to illustrate and promote use of the fonts. Hip Flask was a name that came readily to mind. In short order he became a hippopotamus/human hybrid, and from there I extrapolated characters and stories. I think that’s pretty much the way most people create characters. I’d always wanted to create and self publish my own comic; creating Hip Flask to promote our fonts was a shortcut in a way and helped raise awareness of the character amongst readers and other creators. We had a poster and a t-shirt before we had a comic book! But writers can write scripts without lettering and artists can draw comics without lettering, but letterers can’t really letter a comic with just letters.

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 2TFAW.com: What made you decide to turn them into an actual comic?

RS: I had written comics in England when I worked as group editor of the Boys’ Adventure titles at Marvel UK. I’d written Doctor Who, Ghostbuster, G.I. Joe, Transformers and Zoids, but when I was working with writer Alan Grant on proposals for a new American-format series for Marvel UK, I started wondering what made a series iconic and self sustainable. It seemed to me that it shouldn’t be difficult, but it proved to be incredibly hard.

Alan submitted a number of suggestions for series, but they seemed to me to be stories involving quests–stories that ended once the quest was complete. I wondered why characters like Batman and Spider-Man were endlessly compelling and I realized that their motivation is internal, so their quests can never end. From that moment on I wanted to see if it was possible to create a character who can never lose his motivation. I think Hip Flask and the Elephantmen are the consequence of that thought process.

TFAW.com: How did you come up with the premise? What inspired you?

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 3RS: A combination of everything I’ve ever seen, read or enjoyed I think. I’ve discovered over the years that, although I don’t consider myself a big fan of science fiction per se, I do like stories with more of a fantastical edge to them, and I don’t confine my comic book reading to super heroes, even though most of the great super heroes have science-fiction origins. I’ve always been a big fan of Doctor Who, Star Trek and The X-Files, and my favourite movies are science-fiction classics like Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, 2001, Alien and 12 Monkeys. But I also grew up in a home where we watched a lot of wildlife and science documentaries, and my parents regularly visited Africa and returned with all sorts of carvings and paintings of African wildlife; most particularly a painting by famous African Wildlife artist David Shepherd called “The Elephant and the Anthill.” We had a print of that piece hanging over our fireplace for years and I remember staring into the elephant’s eyes for hours wondering what he was thinking.

More recently I’ve realized that, in many ways, Elephantmen is something of a cross between three of my favourite comic books of the ’80s–Cerebus, Love and Rockets and 2000AD, which were at their peak around the time I started working at Marvel UK. It’s a mash up.

TFAW.com: So the Elephantmen, after being freed from the MAPPO Corporation, are trying to integrate into normal life. How is that working for them?

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 4RS: As well as might be expected. I don’t think any of the Elephantmen are very happy, and I don’t think human society is, on the whole, happy to have them walk amongst them. Hip Flask is perhaps the most human of all the Elephantmen, and the most content. Horn is the most successful but, I think, the least fulfilled.

He’s just like any human that climbed the ladder of success and found the fruits of that success not to his liking. He is driven by a desire to prove himself to be the strongest one there is, but for what purpose, one has to wonder? He is full of anger and suppressed self loathing and, well, that path can only end one way really, can’t it?

Ebony is the most wounded of all the Elephantmen, he’s much like the Iraq war veteran who comes home thinking that the world has changed, when in fact war has changed him. Ebony embodies the Elephantmen’s haunting past–they all feel pretty much the same way about their creation, but Ebony is the most conscious of his guilty past. He killed a lot of people. They all did.

TFAW.com: It seems like a lot of people fall into two extreme categories: people who hate the Elephantmen and think they should be eradicated, and those who idolize them. What makes the Elephantmen so polarizing?

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 5RS: They were monsters; killers. I think that most people cheer when young men and women go to war to fight for liberty, equality and fraternity, but we eye them a little differently when they come back psychologically damaged, or physically mutilated. War always polarizes people, including the soldiers sent to fight it. Most of the people killed in wars are the poor women and children of cultures that are very alien to us–most soldiers overseas start to come to the shocking realization that those people are really just like the women and children they grew up with at home. I think the Elephantmen represent both the victims of war and the poor souls who fight wars for us but return broken and unappreciated.

TFAW.com: Is Obadiah Horn good or bad? What drives him?

RS: Horn does not think of himself as bad–bad guys don’t think of themselves as villains. Horn is a survivor and has taken steps to ensure his survival all his life; it was what he was trained to do. He is driven by his fear of death, as most people who care little for the consequences of their actions often are. In a way, like his “father,” Nikken, he seeks some kind of immortality . . . his desire to kill Yvette in the War Toys miniseries was very much “Kill or be Killed,” and his success in avoiding death at her hands set him on the course he has followed ever since.

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 6TFAW.com: Why is Sahara so drawn to Horn? Because he can protect her from her crimelord father, or does Horn somehow remind Sahara of her father?

RS: I think you’ve answered your own question. Sahara is a dichotomy, she genuinely loves Horn but clearly has so many reasons to fear him, or rather, men like him. I think she needs to believe that even a monstrous creature like Horn is capable of love. Maybe that means she wants to believe that her father was capable of love. But he’s not. He’s a complete bastard.

TFAW.com: What makes Hip Flask such catnip to the ladies? Both Vanity Case and Miki have crushes on him.

RS: He’s gentle and kind, but he’s also muscular and strong . . . and he doesn’t make a big display of his strength. He’s sexy but not overtly sexual. I think both Miki and Vanity feel safe around him and I think he genuinely loves them. Of course, he also loves Sahara. Are you watching closely . . . ?

TFAW.com: Now he’s back under the control of MAPPO–what happens next?

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 7RS: Well, he was, but as our monthly readers know, his reactivation didn’t last very long. The Elephantmen are more than just a social experiment. The world in which they live is not a safe place to live, it is a world out of balance, dominated by fear of the unknown and fear of the future. It’s ironic that some of the most trustworthy characters in the series are Elephantmen. They have to be, they live amongst many people that do indeed resent and despise them.

TFAW.com: If MAPPO can do this to the Elephantmen, can they ever really be trusted?

RS: Can anybody? Can any soldier who returns from fighting terrible bloody and brutal wars overseas, where he has seen women and children–as well as his own friends–dismembered or turned inside out, ever be the same again? Just asking.

TFAW.com: What role is the FCN virus going to play in the future?

RS: I can’t really address that without giving too much away. How about this–it will play a role, although I’m not sure viruses are very good actors.

TFAW.com: Something I’m curious about: Miki thought she had an abortion, but it looks as if her fetus was saved and will be brought to term after all. Why, and when we will see him/her again?

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 8RS: Criminy, it does look that way, doesn’t it?! What’s up with that? I guess I’ll have to keep reading.

TFAW.com: What is it like working with Moritat as your regular artist? How do his strengths contribute to Elephantmen?

RS: It was great–but as many readers know, he’s moved on to The Spirit and I’m now working with the Mighty Axel Medellin. His first complete issue is #27 and he blew me away with the versatility he displayed on that issue. He has been a fan of the series from the get-go and it shows on every page, it’s hard to realize I’ve barely even scratched the surface with him. Moritat will be back working with rising star, Marian Churchland, over breakdowns and script by Marian. I can’t wait.

TFAW.com: Issue #25 showcased character Hank Gruenwald. What can you us about him?

RS: Hank first appeared in issue #4, but we didn’t really learn a lot about him until #25. He’s a lot like Skinner in The X-Files in that we will never really know whose interests he guards most closely . . . he is very fond of Ebony and Hip and likes to think that he has their best interests at heart, but he is an employee of the Information Agency and eventually we will learn more about his employers real concerns, and how that affects Hank.

TFAW.com: He’s the partial namesake of famed Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald. What was your relationship with him like?

Elephantmen #27 Preview Page 9RS: Mark was great, a lot of fun, but he often seemed to carry a weight on his shoulders that belied his easygoing manner. He taught me a lot about comics and he always made a point of having fun at conventions. He was frequently referred to as the guardian of Marvel continuity so when my story called for someone who knew pretty much everything there is to know about the Elephantmen, he was an easy fit. Mark died in his 40s, so I also wanted to keep his memory alive. Mark and the late, lamented Archie Goodwin were two of the good guys in comics, and they should never be forgotten.

TFAW.com: So what’s next for the Elephantmen?

RS: Miki has to come to terms with her feelings regarding Hip’s actions under MAPPO’s control. issues #25-29 are not easy for her but her feelings become very clear in issue #30.

TFAW.com: What else do you have coming up that you’re excited about?

RS: Boo Cook is currently at work on an all-new Elephantmen: War Toys original graphic novel, which should be available early next year. It’s called Enemy Species and features the return of Yvette, who was revealed to have survived her encounter with Hip and Horn in Elephantmen #26. Marian and Moritat tell the story of her recovery in their one-shot; Boo Cook shows her back in action, kicking Pachyderm butt and taking no prisoners. It’s The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine! And, of course, I’m working on the treatment for Elephantmen: The Movie! Soon to be a Motion Picture! There, I said it.

Thanks, Richard! Now please learn the Lionel Richie part of “Endless Love,” okay?

Elephantmen #27 is out September 22: check out our nine-page exclusive preview. Need to catch up? Our Elephantmen trades and hardcovers are part of our Back to School Steals Sale–pick them up at 50% off while supplies last!

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Written by Elisabeth@TFAW

Elisabeth has been reading comics since we was a wee girl. She's obsessed with John Byrne, Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and making the perfect scrambled eggs. Follow her on @Twitter to get bonus conversations with her cat!