Elephantmen #19

What’s cool about Elephantmen is that it’s for nobody and everybody: Too “smart” for the average comics fan, too “dumb” in style for the guy constantly citing Sacco or Spiegelman. So when Starkings handed over the art to Mariah Churchland for three issues, it would appear to be an attempt to “sophisticate” the comic or at least, make it a little less bro-heavy, but it’s really just the ideal collaboration for these female-focused one-shots.

This latest issue stretches Churchland’s work further outside of the readers’ relative comfort zone. There was something even a rock-headed reader could grasp when issue #18, with Churchland’s significantly softer art told the tale of a confused twenty-something but when the new issue outline Sahara’s unfortunate upbringing in Africa, in Churchland’s style--well, we’re back to this whole unexpected tension thing.

In these Churchland issues, there’s been a spiral from the minor problems one has living in a privileged society--mom’s mean, depression, unwanted pregnancy—to the immediate, inescapables Sahara experienced in Africa (separation, rape, genital mutilation). Less a line being drawn between two disparate experiences than an artist and writer taking both on bravely with the same passion, empathy, and artistic aplomb.

There’s just nothing seedy or condescending about an issue that step-by-step outlines every sexual and mental violation Sahara’s experienced and it has a lot to do with Churchland’s sensitive pen (Starkings’ writerly sensitivity is by now, a given). In the past, the hook was it would look like a typical comic and reach into these heavy emotions, here, it’s just reaching into them, free of the series’ usual in-quotes, hoodwinking of readers.

Starkings takes the cross-cutting hinted at in the previous issue further, with the basic structure of the issue jumping between particularly horrific moments in Sahara’s childhood and her, current day, rushing through the hospital—back to issue #15—to find lover Obediah.

Visually, Churchland doesn’t force the cross-cutting, so there’s not a bunch of clever connectors between past and present—no parallel imagery or anything--but it still feels seamless or at least, intentionally jarring, never sloppy. There’s no narrative or visual logic for leaping from a close-up of a lion biting into an antelope to a Kubrick-like image of Sahara rushing down a hallway but it just works. The connection’s implicit, like two sense memories jammed together: The fear of uncertainty she had as a child, the same uncertainty she has now.

When the issue does end on a clever visual connector, young Sahara, arms out running into a van to escape her father to present-day Sahara, arms out-stretched ready to hug Obediah, the connection’s earned.

Following the visual connection, the issue’s last page is an image of Sahara hugging the hulking Obediah and there’s a subtle parallel drawn between this final image of the issue and the first image of the issue (a beautiful, bizarre close-up of a lion)—as if, she’s escaped the slinking fear that moved through the issue from page one—but again, it’s clever second, and emotional first. And there’s something additionally heart-warming about Churchland’s version of Obediah. I think it comes from the fact that Churchland’s default style of art isn’t “uglify and bad-assify everything” (though she doesn’t cute-ify everything either) and so Obediah appears something closer to how Sahara sees him: Warm, sensitive, and kind.

That he’s naked only underscores the vulnerability (we’re used to seeing him in a suit) and the look on his face is like an affectionate puppy reunited with its master. It’s a scene of pure affection and really, not something previous Elephantmen artists could’ve fully achieved. This palpable affection is important because it helps in working-out the inter-species attraction Starkings has been developing since early in the series.

The inter-species issues started out as a challenge to readers: Are you, like the characters, creeped out by a women marrying a giant Rhino? It moved to a symbol and thematic concept: This is no different than earlier uproars about miscegenation or homosexuality. But now, it just makes sense…The series is about the evil that men do and though, all the while, the evil that Elephantmen do hovers in the background, that too’s the result of man’s hubris and nihilism, and so, given Sahara’s rough treatment by fellow humans, it isn’t a surprise she’d find something beautiful in another species.

1 comment:

Adam Katzman said...

I'm glad you're approaching this in a careful and sensitive manner, where despite the matter of factness with which you present it, you're extending the sensitivity and care that have gone into the writing and the artistry.
I'm not sure about whether or not it's intentional, but despite the comic's intention of righteous indignation at the use of women for their procreative abilities in a way that in spite of religion replicates its compartmentalization, the actual female characters in the comic book tend to have a particular aesthetic that one would associate with typical femme fatale bombshell caricatures.

So enlisting the aid of a female artist that exists entirely within the realm of comic books and isn't doodling on fanzines dissociatively could be seen as a ploy to deflect criticism. Now, the reason i said intentional/unintentional is because i'm pretty sure that was not even on the table and resides entirely in my head.

But, what's great is that it's not, it's actually just a reconfiguration of the sympathies and righteous indignation that existed in the comic beforehand, now carried over aesthetically. And it's great that you point out the intertextuality between sahara's plight and miki's, in that one is a terrifying physical imposition and the other a more subtle psychological and emotional plight. In doing so, though, not only do these ask you to look beyond the fantastically rendered artwork, but it shows a commonality between subjugation of females within the first and the third world, things still existing within the elephantmen's future universe. And while showing these kind of disparate events there's still the intention of engendering sympathy in multiple contexts, kind of analogous to the way third wave feminists revolted against the white, bourgeois tendencies of the first and second wave, without negating the palpable objections existing within those.

Also, it's miki's mother that's causing her a lot of her problems (so women aren't monolithically representable), and it also seems to suggest that her romantic pursuits are shameful not because of her mom or because of her accidental pregnancy but because of the disinterest in her partner and herself. (Unless i'm forgetting something)

Sahara's story is great, too, because here are some real world horrors, suggesting the only reason her relationship with obadiah is taboo-breaking is because it's the only healthy thing in a fucked up world.

Any ways, i also like that you're reviewing this issue by issue (which i totally missed out on as a central component of the blog) because then it forces one to reflect on the minutiae that's just as important as the arc. I mean, you've given plenty of reasons as to why starkings has to work at making it interesting, but it could be missed (by me).