Animal Instincts

*Adaptation Dept: Apparently, Frank Miller is writing and directing a feature film based on The Spirit. Something tells me it and Darwyn Cooke’s upcoming comics-format revival will not be birds of a feather. “It will be much scarier than people expect,” warns Miller in Variety, all but kicking the door open for ten thousand I’m the goddamn Spirit jokes in the immediate future. I’m sure there’ll be at least a thousand whispered at Comic-Con, where there’ll be a panel featuring the ‘official’ announcement.

*And speaking of movies and Frank Miller, here’s a trailer for something called Renaissance; it’s a new French mo-cap animated film, the feature debut for director Christian Volckman, already picked up for a September limited US release by Miramax, and plainly resembling a certain prior film Miller co-directed. In fact, the first I’d heard of it was when Entertainment Weekly gave it a quick blurb in their new issue (#887), noting “Sin City should’ve looked like this.” The influence is obvious - I’ve read there’s some spot color work too - though the smoothed-over character faces (note how most of the movement in everyone’s expressions wind up being conveyed via eyes and mouth on an otherwise seemingly still countenance) and the emphasis on shooting action put me primarily in the mind of “I’d sure like to play this as a video game” rather than “Reserve my bus ticket to NYC now!” Still, might be something.

Elephantmen #1

Your first clue that creator/writer/letterer Richard Starkings is founder of a lettering/design service provider? All of the fonts used in this book, a new ongoing series from Image, are individually credited, by name. And available for ordering - it’s not just love, it’s business.

Amusingly, not as much specificity in credit is lavished upon the actual talents behind the book - the total package is simply credited to Starkings and ‘Moritat’ (actual name: Justin Norman), with the name of (José) Ladrönn laid down on the book’s two covers, to signify his own contribution to those flippable first impressions. Such a relaxed attitude is understandable after reading through the issue, though; everything between those covers resonates with a personable, idiosyncratic feel. One of the bonus features, for instance, is a two-page interview with Ladrönn concerning his relationship with his father, a Mexican shoemaker, and his childhood hanging around in the family store. There is little connection with anything going on in the book, save for the belief that the reader would like to become a little closer to the people involved. We are told that the sequential art content of any given issue will fluctuate, presumably depending on what everyone thinks is needed, though the total story page count will never drop below 22 - no need to get too rigid with these things. Same goes for whoever the main character will be, month to month; whoever is needed. This issue has two stories, a total of 26 pages for $2.99.

There are more extras: Starkings explains everyone’s role in a two-page essay in the back (Ladrönn, for instance, is also in charge of all character designs), along with his influences, his philosophy for the series, and even the property’s prior publishing history. In case you didn’t know, this book is a spin-off of the Active Images-published Hip Flask series, which has apparently been retroactively dubbed a five-issue miniseries, judging from Starkings’ comments. Unless this was announced before and I simply forgot - three issues of that book have been released since 2002, with Ladrönn as lone artist and Joe Casey offering occasional scripting assistance, though that ‘main’ series’ release schedule is so spotty that this spin-off is all but predestined to replace its parent in Direct Market primacy.

But enough about publishing - what about that philosophy? Starkings mentions as his aim “filling a series of comic books full of implausible ideas and impossible characters” and delights over the idealized vision of heroes who “carry their strength and motivation inside” and don’t resort to killing. And indeed, this first issue does sport all of the absurdity readers have come to expect from a Hip Flask book: the plot of the 22-page main story, See the Elephant, concerns an anthropomorphic trenchcoat-clad proboscid named Ebony wandering the neon urban sprawl of 2259 and getting chatted up by a sweet little girl, flashbacks to the man-beast’s personal history as a genetically-engineered killer duly evoked. Yes, there are sequences of a giant humanoid elephant tromping around North Africa in military gear, firing a huge automatic weapon at screaming tribal folk as Moritat adopts a nice Frank Miller/Lynn Varley look of jutting limbs and rich colors. There’s also the inevitable present-day concerns of adults smothering childlike innocence and hope springing eternal and all that - Starkings is an able enough dialogue writer, though he’s evidently uninterested in evading familiar sentimentality.

But none of that really conveys the particular pleasure that comes from Elephantmen, and indeed all of the Hip Flask comics I’ve read (so, all four). It’s not just the silly concepts and the emotionalism and the pretty art, it’s the unfettered drive of it all that really counts, the sheer sincerity that Starkings and company brings to a comic about humanoid hippos and rhinos traipsing around the noir future and confronting their past as soldier-killers; forget about the simple concept being implausible and impossible, it’s the way these concepts are executed that gives rise to the true boggle, particularly when Ladrönn is lavishing every page with as much grimy detail as one could never possibly imagine working in a comic about an animal detective with a punny name. Moritat here does not deviate much from the established parameters, though he brings a somewhat looser, more flexible cartoon line to the table, and gets some decent mileage out of using somewhat garish color textures to convey the artificiality of the futurist setting.

And yet, not only is the total effect pleasing, it never quite blunders into the trap that’s ensnared some recent superhero comics (and a movie): the bathos of misplaced 'sophistication,' some spandex-kissed sentinel brooding over politics or betrayal or suffering to little discernible reader/viewer benefit, and to the detriment of the storytelling on the whole. Quite a trick, considering that I'm writing about a comic featuring a giant biped elephant attempting suicide by hanging himself with a length of chain - perhaps Starkings and company have effectively insulated themselves from too much trouble by merely devising a concept that drops every story beyond the border of Silly. Peter Parker (just to toss out a random hypothetical) seriously trying to kill himself might give the reader pause to wonder if this whole thing isn't distasteful, but a talking elephant doing the same instantly slaps the reader in the face with how loopy it is, effectively covering for that queasy wave of dissonance.

Or maybe it's just the unpretentious sense of fun that snakes through everything, often laying lower than one would expect from a self-appointed 'implausible' comic, but always there. The four-page back-up story on the flip side, Just Another Guy Named Joe, is barely a vignette of walking life in a human/animal city, but happily prods at city tensions all the while, a mad-as-hell human spouting brash internal vinegar regarding those damned Unhumans, then getting comically nervous when he actually encounters the peaceable Hip Flask (rhinoceros for hire!) by chance. Not a perfect allegory - after all, the Unhumans seem to be uniformly larger and stronger than any type of human - but the play of it all is tantalizing enough that you don't mind as much as you could. That goes for the book as a whole, a nice start.