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.