01/02/2009. Contributed by Paul Skevington
pub: Comicraft. 36 page comic. Price: $ 2.99 (US) each.
check out websites: www.comicraft.com , www.imagecomics.com and www.hipflask.com
When an imprint decides to produce a mini-series, I usually become wary as they often seem like little more than cynical attempts to fillet a few more notes from the plump wallets of the comics-loving masses. They are often handed over to a different creative team to the one employed on the parent comic, who handle the characters like a modern theatre director who desires to create an impact by setting Romeo and Juliet in modern day Tokyo. What's more, the content of the series can often be superfluous to the main narrative and serve only as an ornamental flourish on an otherwise fully decorated piece.
'Elephantmen: War Toys' falls into none of these creative traps. The team of writer Richard Starkings and illustrator Moritat remains comfortingly intact. On top of this, 'War Toys' succeeds in fleshing out an era in the Hip Flask/Elephantmen universe that we have only briefly glimpsed before.
This won't come as a surprise to established followers of the series, who will already know that Starkings plays fast and loose with time and place in his books. He creates a collage of images, characters and events that slowly reveal a grander picture, visible only from a distance, like an autostereogram. 'War Toys' fits easily into this established structure.
The comic takes place during the early history of the Elephantmen, a race of genetically engineered human/animal hybrids designed by amoral scientist Dr Kazushi Nikken and mass-produced by the company Mappo. They are created for one purpose only: to wage unholy war on all who are unfortunate enough to cross their path. As the mini-series opens, we are introduced to a vision of a plague-ravaged Europe, inhabited by only a few desperate survivors clinging to life by a thread. Into this nightmare, Mappo sends their bio-weapons to finish the work that the disease couldn't. It is an apocalypse within an apocalypse.
The World War metaphors are obvious and overt, particularly as the story is set in St. Tropez and centres on French resistance fighter Yvette and her relationship to her country's merciless invaders. Issue one ends with a stark image of the last line of defence, a series of trenches dug to slow down the unstoppable advance of the chimerical monsters.
The story then is a familiar one. It is a tale of what happens to people when they stare too long into the abyss and whether it is possible to ever look outwards, back towards the sky again. This is made all the more poignant by the inclusion of familiar characters from the main series, such as the charming river-horse himself, Hip Flask. In the 'Elephantmen' comics, Hip is of course an entirely reformed character, having been for many years free of the mental and physical slavery of the Mappo regime. Here, though, we see him and other familiar figures engaged in wholesale slaughter, seemingly without any moral qualms. They do display glimmers of the people that they will become, such as when Hip spots a young girl, but instead of revealing her location, reports to his comrade that it was 'Just a cat', thereby saving her life. The darkness far out-shadows the light here though.
Appropriately, the grim story is told almost entirely in black and white. This has the effect of making everything seem dirtier and more forlorn until the turning of each page brings with it an increasing sense of doom and despair. Here, Europe is a wasteland of dark earth and forbidding skies, people seem like herded cattle and the Elephantmen like their colossal executioners. They seem only more fearful as we are made to acknowledge that they too are victims of the unseen puppeteers of this orchestrated holocaust. To their creators, they are merely expensive pieces of equipment, as disposable as last year's mobile phone.
All of this is brought to life by Moritat, who here produces some of his finest work on the series to date. His skills are stretched to the limit by the demands of the piece, yet he manages to fill each issue with resonating images that play on the cultural psyche of the audience. The depiction of the Elephantmen landing on the beach is obviously meant to resemble the landings of the Allied troops on the beach at Normandy, but ominously this force is not one of liberation. Then there is the centre-spread that features the Arc de Triomphe, its fabulous statuary hung with much less savoury adornments than usual. It is a visual reflection of the dual nature of the monument itself, which is a tribute to war and yet which also contains the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier, representative of all those who die in anonymity, like the Elephantmen themselves. In the end, Hip realises a fact that Yvette becomes incapable of learning; that in our own way, we are all war toys.
Perhaps the only thing likely to harm the book is the way it fits so well into the established Elephantmen world, making it a fairly inaccessible read for those who have not encountered Starkings's eccentric creations before. 'War Toys' is not a starting point for the novice reader, who may find themselves confused and off put by the subject matter, which would be a shame, for I would not want anyone to miss out on experiencing this title. For those already accustomed to the strange world of Hip and company, it is an invaluable edition to an increasingly fine canon of work.
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