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The Endless Cosmos: New Comics Round-Up!


My friend Jesse, who’s occasionally helped-out with stuff on this blog, started a comics blog a little while ago called The Endless Cosmos. Today, I posted an entry that reviewed a bunch of new comics that came out last Wednesday or last, last, Wednesday, so check it out:

“One of the best scenes in Issue 2 of ‘Batman: Deathmask’ is when Bruce Wayne’s sensei discovers him training in the evening- verifying Wayne’s training goes beyond “spiritual strength”- and respectfully asks him to leave the dojo. Again, it’s basically a scene that’s occurred in Batman stories before, but that same story from the perspective of a Japanese gives it some added weight. Wayne’s not presented as a horrible American or disrespectful guy (even though he kinda is), what matters is his basic drive to train and become a superhero. In our post-’Watchmen’ era of comics, it’s fun to highlight heroes’ flaws and turn every guy in a cape into a self-involved fuck, but it’s great how Natsume retains the Byronic, radical individualism of Bruce Wayne and celebrates the mix of glory-grabbing and selfless sacrifice that turns him into Batman. That duality is also familiar territory but by tossing-in the influence of the Oni-essentially a demon- on the creation of “The Batman”, it adds some complexity and was a way for Natsume to make this very American superhero his own.”

Written by Brandon

May 12th, 2008 at 3:52 am

You Should Read: IMAGE Comics’ ‘Elephantmen’


1. What ‘Elephantmen’ Is About:‘Elephantmen’ is a (pretty much) monthly comic book series from Image Comics, about a group of gigantic human/animal hybrids, crossbred for an essentially corporate war, in the year 2240 or so. But it’s not really about that or it is, but if that description sounds stupid or juvenile to you, there’s a lot more going on to entertain you and if that description sounds fucking awesome well, there’s enough nerded-out ‘Heavy Metal’ bliss to keep you reading.

What has now become the monthly ‘Elephantmen’ series, began as a 2002 mini-series called ‘Hip Flask: Unnatural Selection’ written by Richard Starkings and Joe Casey and painted (painted!), by Mexican artist Ladronn. The ‘Unnatural Selection’ series has since been collected in a pricey but totally worth it hardback “widescreen” style book. It’s pretty much the “origin” issue. It takes place in North Africa in 2218 and shows a Japanese scientist named Nikken developing these human/animal hybrids, growing them in kidnapped African women (disgarding of the women once the Elephantmen are birthed), and then raising them to know nothing outside of the MAPPO Corporation and its ill intentions.

What usually happens in science-fiction is the politically loaded concept, issue by issue, is sucked of its relevancy by ever-devolving dives into adolescent war games and shit being blown-up, making the initially engaging concept feel disingenuous; Not so with ‘Elephantmen’. The “hook” of the story, a sci-fi origin about genetically altered animal/humans being created to fight in a war, whirls around in the background of all subsequent mini-series and issues but is never the focus. Instead, the comic’s focus is after the war, when these anthropomorphized war machines have to assimilate into regular society!

Each issue of the monthly series contains two generally stand-alone stories that nevertheless, build upon one another indirectly, by clarifying some aspect of Starkings’ rarified vision of the future or humanizing the characters. Every story, whether the focus is something as minor as Hip Flask’s Ifrog- a kind of living iPod-ish device that makes your bed and pays your bills- or a story that illustrates crucial information about how the U.N. rehabilitates the Elephantmen, serves to complicate some aspect of the Elephantmen universe.

The lack of a straight narrative also allows the allegorical or metaphorical aspects of the story to be stretched to their limits. Because the near-anthology set-up of the story allows such freedom, every issue can put the characters in some new, interesting situation that ultimately, allows the Elephantmen to function as an ever-changing metaphor for any number of issues relevant to current times.

2. The Elephantmen As a Purposefully Mixed Metaphor:In Issue 001, the Elephantmen becomes a metaphor for a returning solider facing a society unaware of the horrors of war, as well as briefly touching upon issues of miscegenation, homophobia, and illegal immigation.

The first story, ‘See The Elephant’, involves one of the Elephantman named Ebony, encountering a cute white girl (race and well, species is very important in the series) named Savannah innocently asking Ebony questions about his life. At one point, Savannah says “I bet you were a big baby” to which Ebony replies “Oh Yeah…” and then, like a dramatic, cinematic cut, the next frame is Nikken’s lab in North Africa many years before, baby elephant Ebony being torn from the stomach of a African woman. A few pages later. Savannah, knowing that elephants (the animals, at least) stampede, asks Ebony if he’s ever stampeded and killed somebody. Once again, we go back, now to Ebony the Warmachine, red-eyed, huge gun in-hand, being struck with a rock by an African and retaliating by blasting the guy away. At the story’s end, Savannah’s mother yells at Savannah for talking to one of those Elephantmen and pulls her away.

The other story in Issue 001, ‘Just Another Guy Named Joe’, follows an angered white blue-collar everyman and his thoughts as he bitches about the way the “munts”/”unhumans”/”Elephantmen”- all presumably, derogatory slurs of varying harshness for these hybrids- have taken jobs and much more from well, regular Joes. The story ends with Joe bumping into Hip Flask- he’s confronted with that which he hates- and Hip Flask tips his hat and politely says “Excuse me”. The immigration connections are explicit and although Joe spits hatred for the Elephantman, the simple act of a comic entering the head of a guy like this, is fairly empathetic. Furthermore, there’s a point where Joe says “Don’t think about all the jobs taken away from honest Americans to provide those…animals with a livelihood.”, which points towards the way no program or plan, no matter how good-intentioned, won’t screw somebody (in this case, poor Joe).

In later issues, there’s a particularly affecting subplot about the announced marriage between Obadiah Horn, an “elephantman” who has assimilated well (he’s a Donald Trump-like business man) and Sahara, an African woman (human). Of course, people are outraged, one frame shows an outraged Preacher speaking about this as a violation of the sanctity of marriage and it becomes a comment on the Gay Marriage issue and yet, it’s still also about the paranoia of miscegenation. Yeah, this sounds a little simple but its not, because its handled so well and because, a right-minded sense of reality and cynicism is at the core of ‘Elephantmen’.

The reality of human (or animal or humanimal hybrid…) nature is never avoided even if it makes the Elephantmen as metaphor a little mixed or confused. In fact, it’s better than the metaphor is sort of ever-changing or temporarily shifting because a perfect metaphor for the crazy racial and cultural issues of our times wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

One of the best examples of this “pulp science fiction”’ series’ somehow feeling grounded in reality is the way each Elephantman chooses to assimilate. Hip Flask is a private detective who tries his best to mind his own business, while Obadiah Horn is a take-no-prisoners capitalist- he’s done “the most” with his assimilation- but he’s as cold and uncaring in Los Angeles as he was fighting World War 3 as a brainwashed killer. It reminds me of Fassbinder’s movie ‘In A Year with 13 Moons’ and the character of Anton Saitz, a man who as a child suffered the Holocaust, but has come out of it having learned nothing and is a ruthless business man. This kind of multi-directional critique is rarely seen in movies or books, let alone comics and its all the more exciting in a comic that smuggles all this heavy, smart shit into a like, classic sci-fi meets TMNT storyline.

3. ‘Elephantmen’, Africa, and Colonialism:“Smuggling” might be a good way to define Starkings’ approach to ‘Elephantmen’. Start with the title. “Elephantmen” is the kind of attention-grabbing super-heroish title that would pique anybody’s interest but it really doesn’t accurately describe the series and within Starkings’ futuristic universe, “elephantmen” is an almost derogatory term for the victims of Nikken’s experiments. It recalls Native Americans being called “Indians” or even simple terms like black and white, which you know, don’t really describe skin color and don’t do us a whole lot of good. Very few of the “elephantmen” are elephants, most are some other animal indigenous to Africa, but it’s just what people call them. The label works like so many other pragmatic but often damaging labels put on a given group of peoples. And so, this bad-ass title, one that might bring to mind some conflation of the X-Men and Spiderman into one supercomic, is proven, within two pages of the actual comic, to be a kind of offensive slur to the main characters.

This focus on issues of labeling moves towards the series’ true focus: colonialism. Yeah, it’s about immigrants and homophobia and lots of other stuff, but the basis for the series is a scientist’s creation of human/animal hybrids using animals indigenous to Africa and African natives as vessels for birthing the hybrids. Starkings is British and its quite refreshing to see a white dude bravely and explicitly addressing colonialism’s effects. One of the weird things that has happened- as a sort of weird byproduct of multicultural awareness- is that white authors and artists pussy out of addressing their nation’s involvement in atrocities under the guise of letting the once-Other-ed “finally” tell their side. Starkings is on his Joseph Conrad shit; I say that advisedly, knowing the positive and negative implications of such a comparison…

Starkings plays on our initial like, first-grade impressions of Africa, as a place of exotic animals and jungles, and twists and turns it into an ever-evolving metaphor for issues of race and colonialism. The Elephantmen themselves, despite the very-real art by Ladronn in ‘Hip Flask’ and now, Moritat and others in the monthly series, maintain a cuteness that recalls the oft-discussed racism and imperialism implicit in something like Babar and it’s hard to think the guys behind ‘Elephantmen’ didn’t intend this. Again, we’re back to this concept of “smuggling”…these characters, at times cute, at times absolutely bad-ass, be it blowing people’s heads off in futuristic war or pacing down rainy L.A streets in hat and trenchcoat, also manage to echo a century of racist caricature and problematic portrayals of the dark continent. It’s the actualization of Chris Ware’s assertion in one of the recent issues of ‘Acme Novelty Library’ that comics have more in common with racial caricature than fine-art, but minus Ware’s didactic self-loathing. Ware, for all of his accolades, never ventures into issues of race deeper than “people are racist and it’s fucked up.” This kind of assertion sides steps complex issues about race connected to white privilege, supremacy, complacency and others. Indeed, Ware’s work just looks more like the comic worthy of praise in places like ‘The New Yorker’ than an allegorical sci-fi action comic, but it’s worth pointing out that none of the celebrated “graphic novelists” do much with race besides digestible white guilt.

Oh yeah, and I haven’t even gotten into the aspect of the doctor doing harsh experiments on the Africans…I’ll just say- because this thing is getting really long- that I happened to be reading ‘Medical Apartheid’ by Harriet Washinton as I was going through every issue of ‘Elephantmen’ and the book greatly complemented the comic series…Professor Griff’s half-crazy ramblings about Jews doing AIDS experiments on blacks in the Congo made vividly real.

4. ‘Elephantmen’ Is Also Fun to Read, I Promise: Unfortunately, I think I’ve made ‘Elephantmen’ seem like it’s not that fun to read or like it just gets points for addressing themes most comics- especially “dumb”-type comics- don’t, but that is not the case. ‘Elephantmen’ is first and foremost an enjoyable comic book. In addition to the endless amount of ideas moving through each deceptively simple story, there’s a genuine focus on artistic craft and design. The art, first painted by Ladronn and now drawn by Moritat, is hyper-realistic but as kinetic as the best comic book art; it feels like an amalgam of any and every great artist that ever worked on ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Epic Illustrated’ without being derivative of any and every one of them either.

Currently, it seems like the regular ‘Elephantmen’ series is on a brief hiatus, not because of typical comic book lateness or laziness, but to re-introduce another aspect of the origin, this time in a three-part series called ‘Elephantmen: War Toys’ (see below for the trailer). The series elucidates the war the Elephantmen fought, the atrocities they committed, and the long-term affect it has on each of them. With the first issue of ‘War Toys’ on the shelf of any decent comics store and the second issue due out fairly soon, it’s as good of a time as any to get into ‘Elephantmen’.
One of the best things about ‘Elephantmen’ is the way it recalls the best comics and sci-fi of my youth; not that the stuff was actually that good in retrospect, but it’s immersive universe and Starkings’ focus on fanboy-ish stuff, be it variant covers and hardbound editions or his occasional essays on the sci-fi of his own youth, make the series even more enjoyable. Since I’ve gotten a little nostalgic for the in-retrospect-pretty-awful comics of my 1990s youth, I got thinking about the way all those IMAGE comics used to have an entertaining ‘Fan Art’ page where uncreative comics fans- that’s why they read Image, right? Because they’re not very creative?- would pretty much copy a random frame or cover from like fucking ‘Deathblow’ or something and send it in…bored the other day, I did this “fan-art” on Monique’s white board in her room (she then added the disembodied dick busting on a girl’s face…). Oh yeah, and here’s the ‘Elephantmen: War Toys’ “trailer”:

Written by Brandon

January 14th, 2008 at 8:03 am