‘Elephantmen’ is a comic series that hadn’t crossed my radar before, which is a real shame if this collection is anything to go by. Although this is the second collection of ‘Elephantmen’ stories, comprising issue numbers 8-15, there’s a brief story-so-far section at the beginning as well as plenty of flashback sequences that make the story pretty easy to understand. In short, the story is set a couple hundred years in the future and the Elephantmen are genetically-engineered human-animal hybrids designed for use on the battlefield. Stronger and more durable than humans and with the wars over, they’ve had to be settled into regular civilian life but, inevitably for a comicbook series, that doesn’t mean their lives are entirely peaceful.
As the title of this volume suggests, the central plot to these stories is the appearance of a man-made disease of some kind, originally designed for biological warfare. When a satellite carrying this stuff crashes into a Californian city, it not only drags the horrors of a past war into the present, it also sets several Elephantmen characters onto collision courses with one another…
Two things make this collection of stories worth reading. The first is the richness of the characters, particularly but not exclusively the Elephantmen themselves. For example, one of the main characters in this collection is Obadiah Horn, a rhino-human hybrid, who’s become a very successful and, perhaps not entirely legitimate businessman, since the end of the wars. Several different aspects of his character are shown in this book, including his distrust for humans generally but also his intense love for one human in particular, a woman called Sahara. Inevitably, his relationship with a regular human causes friction in some quarters and someone who tries to photograph Horn with Sahara comes to a rather bloody end. The writers of ‘Elephantmen’ don’t simply use this aspect of his character at face value, they also play with the mythological history of the unicorn as well, contrasting the beauty of the unicorn with the ugliness of man’s desire of its horn.
The second thing that really stands out about this collection is the quality of the artwork. It’s positively sumptuous in its depth and richness and the artists employ a range of styles right across the strips, including sharply drawn action scenes, lurid fantasies and sepia-toned flashbacks. The panels conjure up atmospherics skilfully and, at all points, there’s a realism to the artwork that might sound improbable, given the fact humans are interacting with giant half-elephant and half-hippo characters! Indeed, while the premise might sound a little daft, the resulting stories are actually very convincing, drawing the reader into a distinctly dystopian world that seems to be on the brink of catastrophe.
Fuelling the suspension of disbelief is the central conceit, the idea that in war-time, morals are thrown aside and someone promising super-soldiers might well get the resources necessary for their work. In this case, it’s quite starkly shown how expendable human life became, so that even if the Elephantmen seem to have been unfairly treated since the war, certain humans weren’t treated all that well during the war neither, including the women who ‘mothered’ the Elephantmen themselves.
There’s moral ambiguity throughout the book, most notably in the first story in the collection where an innocent bystander is killed, apparently as collateral damage, by one of the Elephantmen during a shoot-out with some low-ranking hoodlums. While one of three Elephantmen in the group is upset by this, their boss, Trench, a zebra-hybrid and police officer, grimly comments that no-one is really innocent and moves on.
In short, this is an amazing collection of strong stories, presented in hardback format with lots of extra goodies including three extra standalone stories, collections of cover art and sketches and pages and pages of notes on the development of the ‘Elephantmen’ series. So while the $34.99 price tag sounds a little steep for a collection of just seven comic books, it’s actually pretty good value. Highly recommended.
(pub: Comicraft. 224 page graphic novel hardback. Price: $ 34.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60706-088-8)