Part of an introductory feature for "Are You A Serious Comics Reader" in which canonical comics that maybe need reevaluation are um, reevaluated...
When it comes to comics that deal with genocide and atrocity and roll around with issues of race and identity and do it with anthropomorphic animals, chin-stroking types reach for Art Spiegelmen's Maus. Those who really get it though, dash to their comic store every month to pick up the latest issue of Richard Starkings' Elephantmen or heft around the "Wounded Animals" and "War Toys" trades.
While Spiegelman's work declares itself serious and intellectual from the get-go, Starkings' slowly-growing masterwork begins as a big, fun, loosely political sci-fi conceit--a scientist breeds half-human/half-elephant hybrids for the express purpose of fighting a corporate war--and continually unravels into a series of ever-changing or at least, temporarily shifting metaphors for homophobia, xenophobia, miscegenation, and racism, all caught-up in the fog of war.
This is perfect--and in sharp contrast to Spiegelman's compartmentalized complexities-- because a perfect metaphor for the crazy racial and cultural issues of our times wouldn't make a whole lot of sense. Dave Sim expertly described Elephantmen's "bait and switch" on his blog. The "bait" is "this GIANT BAD HEAVY METAL MEETS JACK KIRBY RIFF war between humans and these mutated anthropomorphic creatures" and the "switch"?:
"The switch was that it wasn't going to be about the war. The war was just the set-up, the actual story, the actual series of anecdotal stories, was going to be about What do you (you, as a society, that is) do with these creatures now that the war is OVER? Where and how do they fit in since they pretty obviously don't, you know, fit in anywhere? "
And so, the Elephantmen are both--to borrow that popular phrase from Holocaust Studies--victims and perpetrators. The comics primarily deal with the Elephantmen's assimilation and it's fascinating how Starkings develops the individuals characters' version of fitting-in. 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.
But then, there's a particularly affecting subplot about the announced marriage between Horn, an "elephantman" and Sahara, an African woman (human). Of course, people are outraged, one frame shows a fired-up Preacher speaking about 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 and a weird way for readers to almost sympathize with this rich fucker with mob connections and hot-ass human girlfriend.
The war permeates every story in Elephantmen but only the initial Hip Flask mini-series and the more recent "War Toys" three-parter explicitly dealt with the war and even than, it was as much about cool violence and sci-fi insanity as it was the fucked-up details of how these creatures were created and the atrocities they committed. The most apparent and poignant detail of Hip Flask is the "origin" of the Elephantmen: African women were abducted and their bodies used to incubate the baby Elephantmen.
One of the most intriquing aspects of Maus is Spiegelman's dealings with his father and guilt over that relationship and it's clear connection to the Holocaust experience. It's the most affecting aspect of the book--and the least cloying--but again, it doesn't compare to the kind of guilt the British Starkings takes-on in his series: his nation's guilt and continued awareness of their role in colonizing and exploiting Africa. The thinking-man of 2008's burden over "white man's burden". It isn't that Starkings should or presumably does feel directly guilty or troubled by his nation's dealings in Africa, but he's still confronting it head-on and it's in a big, dumb adolescent "pulp science fiction" comic book with violence and tiny-waisted girls and just plain awesome space shit.
The recent "War Toys" series focused on a resistance soldier named Yvette who slowly sees her family and boyfriend killed by the Elephantmen soldiers. She ultimately uses the tragedy to stop giving a fuck and slice-up as many of these Elephantmen as possible. The third issue shows parts of France graffiti-ed by her name, in dark red--the only dash color in the black-and-white book--and most shockingly, branded across the forehead of a tied-up Elephantman and across the stomach of another. Once again, although it's more sympathetic and understandable, Starkings blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. Spiegelman's portrayal of his father is certainly in the same vein, especially the very-honest portrayal of his father as a racist, but it's sort of dangled out there as an "isn't that interesting/a little infuriating?", it's not something we have to directly wrestle with, Spiegelman the character does it for us.
The lonely red amongst black and white is an overt corrective aimed at another sentimental-realist Holocaust work: Schindler's List. Starkings flips the meaning of that very famous and very obvious image of the girl-in-red. In a sense, Yvette is that little blonde girl grown-up, bitter and angry. The red in a sea of black and white images no longer represents victimhood and eventually death, but perseverance and revenge, emotions more base and less fun to think about than late-in-life worries about family and artistic struggle.
Spiegelman, clouds his comic in equal parts quirk and confession while Elephantmen's based on the premise of constantly wrestling around with every ugly aspect of race, war, and genocide. It's interesting that Maus is popular as a teaching device and popular amongst non-comics minded intellectuals because it's actually not complex at all, it's incredibly obvious. The cute and frankly, distracting assignment of animals to nationalities, the meta-autobiographical qualities, the whole presentation of a comic book that's about something serious is one big hook that satisfies the intellect of any reader not sensitive enough to be offended by the whole enterprise's simplification of tragedy. Maus looks smart but it's actually pretty stupid; Elephantmen looks stupid but is really smart.