The immorality of using living creatures as chattel has showed up in fiction time and again, and with good reason: humanity as a whole seems to not be able to learn the concept of treating all of the residents of our planet with dignity. That conceit has been explored for the past 15 years in Image Comics’ Elephantmen, focusing on human/animal hybrids bred solely for war. How they are treated post-war by the humans they now live with side-by-side guides much of the narrative of the series and asks readers to consider weighty moral and ethical questions, while giving fans an exciting, engaging yarn.
As part of comiXology’s new comiXology Originals imprint, the world of Elephantmen has opened a next chapter in a new, five-part miniseries Elephantmen 2261: The Death of Shorty. One of the long-time protagonists of the Elephantmen universe, Hip Flask, is investigating the death of one of his fellow Elephantmen friends while grappling with the memories of a war he never asked to be a part of.
Writer Richard Starkings spoke with me about the concepts behind Elephantmen, where we find Hip Flask in Elephantmen 2261: The Death of Shorty, his influences in crafting his tales, and the emotional resonance that echoes in the Elephantmen universe.
FreakSugar: For folks reading this, what can you tell us about the conceit of Elephantmen?
Richard Starkings: Readers new to Elephantmen might like to think of it as Pulp Science Fiction Noir! It’s War for the Planet of the Apes meets The X-Men! The Elephantmen are human/animal hybrids created to fight a war. That war is now over and the “Elephantmen” – a derogatory term referring to all the hybrids—now live among us. Elephantmen follows the adventures of Hip Flask, a human/hippo hybrid, and his allies and enemies.
FS: Shorty and Hip Flask are the two Elephantmen we are most acquainted with in the first issue. What can you tell us about them and their friendship?
RS: Hip Flask is a likeable, friendly human/animal hybrid, very comfortable with who he is and his place in Los Angeles, 2261. Whether you’re human or Elephantman, you’d want Hip by your side if there was any trouble. As our story begins, Hip is working with his buddy, private detective Jack Farrell, investigating crimes by and against other Elephantmen. The Death of Shorty is their latest case, in which we learn about Hip’s old friend Shorty and how he has lived in the world after the war, how he survived and how his memories of the war affected and shaped him.
FS: While the Elephantmen act much as humans do, I can’t help but think how animals have been treated for human ends in real life—animal testing, for instance—and in pop culture—in such pieces as We3 and War for the Planet of the Apes. Did you have an idea to address animal cruelty as one of the themes in the series?
RS: Way back when Elephantmen was just a twinkle in my eye I read a book called The Ethical Treatment of Animals. That book, alongside The Human Rights Reader, turned me into a vegetarian and informed the development not only of Elephantmen but another comic book I recently completed, The Beef. Elephantmen isn’t about cruelty to animals, it’s about respect for life. I’m a Buddhist, and the central premise of Buddhism, and all humanistic philosophies for that matter, is respect for everyone and every creature that lives and breathes. This new story is very much the story of Shorty’s struggle to live a life of humanism, despite the horrors he has experienced.
FS: The illustrations in the first issue are alternately bigger-than-life and haunting, capturing the majesty and size of elephants and hippos, yet coupling that immensity with the pain in their eyes. What was the process like deciding how to balance that look?
RS: Credit goes to our magnificent artists, Axel Medellin and Boo Cook. Drawing 8-10 feet tall human/animal hybrids is no easy feat, let alone figuring out how to make them work alongside much shorter humans. Shorty’s Droid, Dillon, tells Hip Flask “The eyes are the windows of the soul,” and we very consciously emphasize the eyes of all our characters. Whether we’re talking to friends, watching a movie or reading a comic book, we’re always looking for the eyes, gathering information from them and assessing and perhaps judging people’s motives, it’s human nature. Elephants have the most human eyes of pretty much any animal, big, long-lashed, dark eyes. We readily anthropomorphise an Elephant’s intentions and we mourn their deaths in ways we don’t mourn the deaths of animals we eat. It’s interesting to ask ourselves why that is. Ironically, Dillon has no eyes as such, just circles and light strips, so his intentions are hard to read. I may be telling you too much!
FS: What can you tell us about the human character Yvette in Elephantmen 2261: The Death of Shorty? Will we learn what happened to her family? Will it tie to the war between Asia and Africa?
RS: Yvette’s story was told in full in Elephantmen volumes #0 and #5 – long time readers of the Image Comics series are very familiar with her role in the lives of the Elephantmen, and those stories are always available to read on comiXology. Her appearance in our comiXology Originals series, The Death of Shorty, casts a long shadow over the rest of the series, and you will find out more about her as the story unfolds. I can’t say more than that!
FS: The theater of war can cut combatants to the core, both emotionally and physically. Why did you decide to use a post-war setting as a backdrop to the book?
RS: The idea of human/animal hybrids came to me long before the story of the war. However, once I had human/animal hybrids in a hard science fiction world, I had to ask myself “How were they created?” and “For what purpose?” The story of the war and their survival gradually spiraled out of asking those questions and gave Hip and his friends much greater depth and challenges.
FS: Is there anything you can tease about what we can expect to see in issue #2?
Elephantmen 2261: The Death of Shorty #1 is now available on comiXology as part of comiXology Originals.
From the official issue description:
Issue #1 of the new Elephantmen comiXology Original series – Elephantmen 2261: The Death of Shorty. Elephantmen has been described by J.J. Abrams as “An Awesome and Unexpected Story. You Must Check it out!” and lauded by Andy Serkis as “Bold, Mythic and heartbreakingly cool, Starkings’ universe is a breed apart!”
Elephantmen are human/animal hybrids designed to fight a war. But the war is over, and now they live among us. Debuting nearly 15 years and 80 issues ago from Image Comics, Elephantmen returns here with a new jumping on point. This all-new story is a whodunnit that draws our heroes, Hip Flask and Jack Farrell, into the curious death of an Elephantman known to his friends as “Shorty”.
Part of the comiXology Originals line of exclusive digital content only available on comiXology and Kindle.