For the past several years, Richard Starkings has been self-publishing his offbeat creation Hip Flask through his own Active Images publishing. Thus far the series has been published about once a year, but that all changes this summer when Hip Flask returns in the new series from Image Comics, “Elephantmen.” This is a good time to be Starkings, as just recently he announced the collection, “Hip Flask: Unnatural Selection,” has sold out of it’s initial print run of 26,000 copies.
With the series set to launch in just a couple of months, CBR News caught up with Starkings to discuss the series, why he’s made the move to Image and much more.
Rich, thanks for talking with us today. Let’s start out with a question for those reading this that are new to the characters and the world you’ve created. There’s a previous series starring Hip Flask, so how much of that back story is referenced in the new “Elephantmen” series? Will new readers be able to follow the story? And, is this new series a continuation of what came before, or all-new look at the concept?
The Elephantmen stories are set in the two years prior to the events that unfold in the “Hip Flask” mini series. Ladrönn and I have spent many long evenings discussing what happened in the world of the Elephantmen in between the first two issues of the “Hip Flask” mini series, and you’ll see those stories unfold in “Elephantmen” every month. Ladrönn was also eager to see Hip’s associate, Ebony Hide, who appeared in just three panels of “Mystery City,” take center stage, so we built this first issue of “Elephantmen” around him. New and old readers alike will rediscover the origins of the Elephantmen from Ebony’s perspective, and from there on in, no previous knowledge of the characters is necessary, although I’m sure Hip Flask fans will be glad to know that he’s back in action in the following issue. He is very much the star of the book, but we deliberately chose the title “Elephantmen” so that we could explore the stories of the other characters involved in Hip’s life — including the human characters — Miki, Vanity Case, Sahara, Serengheti and The Silencer.
For those who’ve followed the previous series, the story seems to have developed more of a “social conscience” as it went on. What led to this change in the character?
I get that a lot. I don’t really think it’s a matter of a change in the nature of the story, but a change in people’s perception of the character. When Hip was little more than the poster boy for Comicraft’s line of fonts, people saw a big, goofy, wisecracking lug with a gun, and maybe he was a big, goofy wisecracking, lug with a gun, but I started to see him a little differently. I took away his gun, and tossed away the idea that he was some sort of P.I., and in collaboration with Ladrönn, we concocted his grim origins, including the sinister MAPPO organization and the twisted creator of the Elephantmen, Nikken. Having thrown the character into such a dark, dystopian future, it was only natural that we’d have to look at his place in society and the ramifications suggested by eight foot tall human/animal hybrids walking around Los Angeles.
You worked with Joe Casey on “Hip Flask,” but you’re flying solo in “Elephantmen.” What led you to tackle this one by yourself?
Joe was kind enough to lend his considerable creative experience to the creation of the dialogue for the first two issues. Ladrönn and I put the first two issues together back to front, and then presented Joe with pages and asked him to make sense of them. He provided the harsh, menacing tone that I think the series still carries, and I threw in all the jokes. At some point during the dialoguing of the second issue, I realized that I needed to take over the reins entirely, and Joe happily let me do so. He’s still our biggest cheerleader, and in fact I might not have started putting “Elephantmen” had it not been for a conversation he and I had while eating pizza in Orange County waiting on a press check for the “GØDLAND” trade. I was telling him how much I wanted to launch a Hip Flask monthly, but couldn’t do so until Ladrönn was done with the mini. Without taking his eyes off the TV set in the pizza house, Joe told me “Yes, you can.”
“Whu–?” “Huh–?” “Muh–?” I quite simply had no response, and no excuses… so I spent the next week or two figuring out how I could do it. A couple of stories very readily suggested themselves, and I had a few shorts in the works that I had earmarked for a one shot and before I knew it I had the first three scripts written up. Then, Moritat signed up as the regular artist and I got the thumbs up from publisher Erik Larsen and Executive Director Eric Stephenson at Image and Biff! Bam! Boom!, we were in business!
A monthly series is pretty intimidating, but having had such a ball putting “GØDLAND” together with Joe and Tom Scioli, I knew I just had to step up to the plate.
So, why the switch to Image Comics versus self-publishing as you’ve done before? What’s the benefit to you and to readers?
Self-publishing is enormously exhausting, especially when you consider that I have two other businesses — Comicraft and comicbookfonts.com — to run, and I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to dedicate the amount of time and attention it requires. I’ve worked with Eric Stephenson on a whole bunch of books over the years and have immense respect for him and head honcho Erik Larsen, and not just because we all like the British band “The Beautiful South.” Both Erik and Eric had asked me if I wanted to bring “Hip Flask” to Image over the past couple of years, but when you’re only putting out one book every one or two years, it doesn’t seem like that much work — but I’m not sure I could juggle all the balls I’d need to juggle to put out a monthly book. All the guys over at Image — Allen, Jim, Joe and Drew — are a breeze to work with and if they weren’t doing what they were doing for “Elephantmen,” I’d have to do it myself, and there are only so many hours in the day! The most important thing for me is creative control, and Image gives me that. I’ll still be putting out a couple of graphic novels, trades and “Art of” books under the Active Images banner in the next year or two, but I want to concentrate on the creative side of putting “Elephantmen” together every month; dealing with distributors and printers is business I’m happy to leave to Image!
As a reader myself, I like nothing better than seeing my favorite books come out monthly — when I read about the problems of scheduling a book, or financing a book, I just don’t want to know — where’s my book?! Handing over the publishing issues to Image means I can focus on the stories, and turning the book in on time. And I know how to do that.
Tell us a bit about your artist, Moritat, and where you found him? He’s got some pretty big shoes to fill! What convinced you that he was the artist for “Elephantmen?”
Moritat sometimes operates under the unlikely alias “Justin Norman” — he illustrated SOLSTICE for Steven Seagle over ten years ago and, funnily enough, my company Active Images collected it into trade paperback last year. Moritat ‘s not just penciling the book, he’s inking and coloring it! If all you’ve seen of his work is “Solstice” then you ain’t seen nothing yet! But most importantly, Moritat matches me in enthusiasm and ambition. He told his lovely lady, Jamie, that he’d probably be on the title for about ten years, and that’s just fine with me! Moritat’s been on the fringes of the mainstream for years and I know that his ability and range will surprise a lot of people — check it out at http://moritat.deviantart.com/gallery/
You’ll be seeing Moritat’s work in just about every issue, but we already have some terrific story sequences by guest artists, including Henry “Dredd/Aliens” Flint (issue #2), Tom ” GØDLAND ” Scioli (issue #3), Duncan “The Nightmarist” Rouleau (issue #10), David “The 198” Hine (issue #6), and a whole issue (issue #7), by Joe “Supergirl” Kelly, Chris “X-Men” Bachalo and Aron “Dead Samurai” Lusen, all of which mesh with the issue-to-issue continuity. And, each issue features not only a painted cover by Ladrönn, but also flip covers by the likes of Steve Skroce, Brian Bolland, Ian Churchill, Pascual Ferry, Tim Sale and David Lloyd.
That’s quite a line-up you’ve got there and you’ve still got Ladrönn working with you, even if it’s only on covers. How’d you convince him to squeeze room into an obviously busy schedule?
I knew that people who have become familiar with Ladrönn’s definitive take on Hip Flask would be concerned that the book wouldn’t be the same without him, and so I was very happy when he agreed to come onboard as cover artist, character designer and cheerleader for every issue. His role on the new title is very much like Alex Ross’s involvement in Kurt Busiek’s “Astro City” title. Each issue of “Elephantmen” will sport a painted cover by Ladrönn, as well as a peek at his sketches and concept art for the series.
How long will this series run? What’s planned for Hip Flask’s future?
Action, Adventure and Really Wild Things! “Elephantmen” is an ongoing monthly and I plan to work with Hip, Ebony, Horn, Vanity, Miki and Sahara for a long, long time. “Elephantmen” is to me what “Astro City” is to Kurt and “GØDLAND” is to Joe. Why should they have all the fun? There have been just three issues of “Hip Flask” in the last six years, and two more still to come. Meantime, I’ve been backed up with stories and can’t wait to tell them. I’m quite sure there’s at least 24 issues to take us up to
All in all, “Elephantmen” is going to be one big long roller coaster ride. Strap in tight!
The 32-page full color ongoing monthly “Elephantmen” (Image Comics, $2.99, Diamond Order Code: MAY06 1710) is a Gem of the Month selection in Diamond’s May Previews.