Genetically bred human/animal hybrids, the Elephantmen were created for war. Imagine hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses that walk like men tearing through the countryside, trampling everything under their feet. Sent into Europe to wipe out the last remnants of a deadly virus, these living and breathing tanks roll over the continent, killing every living thing. Richard Starkings’ Elephantmen Volume 00: Armed Forces is actually the fifth volume of his epic (is it still too early to call Elephantmen an “epic”?), serving as a prequel to the previous four volumes. In Elephantmen, we’ve come to know characters like Hip Flask (a hippo) and Ebony (an elephant) as cops and detectives, investigating crimes by and against their fellow Elephantmen but in Armed Forces, Starkings shows us these creatures as the war monsters that they were created to be.
From time to time in the Elephantmen series, which takes place roughly 10-20 years after this prologue book, Starkings has tried to show the true nature of these creatures. No matter how much they are nurtured or shown love, there are these back doors into their nature at weapons that have been briefly but dangerously exploited. Armed Forces focuses almost solely on what these creatures were made for; destruction and battle. A brief introduction to the origin of the Elephantmen, with oft seen but wonderful Ladrönn artwork, sets us up to remember the nature of these characters. They weren’t created to be the cops and businessmen that we know them to be. They were meant to be missiles, tanks and WMDs for a new generation of war. Starkings has spent years building up these characters but here we don’t see the characters we know. We see mostly unrecognizable soldiers and killers.
The characters have been a big part of Starkings’ larger story so to make them into these unknowable blank slates takes away part of the charm of the series. Instead of knowable characters, Starkings gives us a much broader sense of the world that he’s been creating The subtext running through the series has been one of mistrust- mistrust between mankind and the Elephantmen and mistrust between the Elephantmen themselves. That’s just the way that Starkings’ world has worked but in this book, he builds the foundations for that uneasiness between everyone. Starkings takes his characters who have seemed basically kind and gentle in past stories, if not a bit too easily manipulated, and gives us a reason to fear them as they are clearly the villains of this story. They’re big, scary weapons made even a bit more terrifying because they’re also big, wild and dangerous animals.
Starkings has a cadre of artists working on this book. The singularly named Ladrönn and Moritat are joined by Boo Cook and Axel Medellin, with a bit of Rob Steen and Doug Braithwaite thrown in for good measure. Starkings’ eye for artists creates a wonderful canvas for his stories. Each artist has a different style, from to Moritat’s wavy line to Cook’s scratchy pencil work. They have to blend realistic looking war stories with these incredibly outrageous creatures, making it entertaining and horrible in the same panels. Moritat and Cook, the main artists of this book, have this free and easy style. Their art looks quick and immediate, capturing the spontaneity and brutality of war.
Neither Moritat and Cook’s artwork has a finished or polished look to it. Moritat always seems more interested in getting the image down on paper than he does over noodling every line until it reaches some improbably perfection. Even on DC’s The Spirit and All Star Western, which he’s done more recently, his artwork looks quickly done but not rushed. Cook’s scratchy artwork, reproduced from his pencils, is similar to Moritat’s but looks more labored over. But since neither artist polishes, shines and rubs out all character from their art until it’s lifeless, they create a urgency to their artwork, like they are trying to draw the war atrocities as if they were happening right in front of them.
It’s obvious that Starkings thinks war makes monsters of all of us. As well as seeing the characters he’s spent so long building up reduced to killing machines, he doesn’t make the opposition appear much better either. In the opening of the book, he introduces us to Yvette, a French girl who should be doing anything else with her life other than fighting a war. She should be in university and spending her weekends hopping from one Parisian bar to another. Instead, her brother Gaston is introducing her to the hard facts of war. Starkings shows her changing from being an innocent girl into being a terrorist, carving her name into the heads of dead Elephantmen. She may actually be harder and crueler than the Elephantmen in this book.
At least with the Elephantmen, we get to see slight glimpses of the characters we know that they’re going to become. Starkings gives us brief moments where we see the Hip Flask we know trying to connect with Yvette or when Ebenezer sounds and acts like the calculating businessman we know he becomes. There’s hope in these characters because we know their future. There’s none of that for Yvette. Her trajectory is just the opposite because we see her transformation into a soldier and killer. We see the scared girl at the beginning who quickly grows up and almost suicidally hunts and fights the enemy at every chance she gets. In the Elephantmen series, Starkings shows us how war machines become human but in this book, it is about how a girl becomes a killer.
Even with all of the character work and questions of morality that shore up the story in Elephantmen Volume 00: Armed Forces, Starkings writes a story that’s ultimately a huge adventure. It’s a comic book war story in the great tradition of Sergeants Rock and Fury but fought by rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses. Thanks to Richard Starkings’ excellent lettering fonts and skills, it’s a loud comic that works in really subtle ways. It’s full of brash characters and actions but Starkings always manages to work in just enough nuance with the characters and their world. He gives this story just enough subtext so it works as more than a monsters vs. humans story.