Elephantmen #17

Richard Starkings's Elephantmen has been around long enough for there to be a real danger of the series falling into one of the many traps that can kill a once great and original comic. That the series still feels fresh and new speaks volumes for Starkings's abilities, not only as a writer, but also as an architect of narrative. Throughout the run of the series, Starkings has remained surprisingly true to his intention of largely avoiding long, multi-issue story lines in favor of a series that is accessible to new readers no matter what issue they start with. This is a risky strategy, since a large portion of the comics-buying public stick with a series precisely because they get wrapped up in an intricate plot line. The upshot of this strategy, aside from the ease with which new readers can become engaged with the series, is that it has forced Starkings to be particularly creative in finding ways to keep the series interesting for those readers who've been with it since the beginning.

Having said that, since the completion of the three issue "War Toys" miniseries, the series has been tending toward longer narrative arcs. Issue 17 recounts the death of Tusk, the most tragic of the Elephantmen, and can be viewed as something of a coda to the events related in the "Worlds Collide" narrative that comprised issues 13-15. The story is bookended by several pages at the beginning and end of the issue which show mourners at Tusk's funeral. This framing technique at once highlights the real and very sad tragedy of the pulpy Monster-on-the-Loose story it surrounds and also Tusk's position as the dross of the dross--symbolic of the peculiarly human cruelty inherent in the whole Elephantmen enterprise.

There has always been a little bit of the cinematic Frankenstein in Starkings's book and issue 17 simply makes the reference explicit. From the EC-esque font on the "Monster is Loose!" banner to Tusk's encounter with the kindly, if incidentally offensive, old woman--one can almost see a little of the absurd old grandmother from O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in the way she apparently nagged her son to death, but that's another story altogether--Starkings's tale is structured on the stuff of pulp. As Susan Sontag has noted on the subject of the problematic history of literary adaptations, "it became a dictum that cinema was better nourished by pulp fiction than by literature."

The same can be said for comics and this is a big part of what makes Elephantmen extraordinary. Despite the series's explicit identification as "Pulp Science Fiction," Starkings makes use of the entire panoply of pulp genres to create exciting and atmospheric stories in which he can explore the various social issues that are at heart what the book is about.

Starkings may be giving in somewhat to reader demands that his series feature longer narratives, yet the stories are never so reliant on plot detail that a new reader wouldn't be able to pick up an issue and have a sense of what is going on. As an experiment, I handed my copy of issue 17 to a friend who had never read a single issue of Elephantmen and as I suspected she was able to engage with the story and with the underlying themes without feeling as though she lacked some critical information that would help her make sense of the story.

Brandon hit the mark when he described Elephantmen as Starkings's "slowly-growing masterwork." Having laid an ample foundation by his gradual development of the series's characters and their stories, Starkings now has a vast field in which to play with the literary forms and social issues that mean so much to him. Couple this with his recent branching out to welcome the contributions of new illustrators to the series--recent issues and covers have featured Boo Cook, Erik Larsen and Ian Churchill, while the next few will feature illustrations by Marian Churchland--and readers can look forward to more great "Pulp Science Fiction" for years to come.

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