In the year 2262, humans jet around in flying cars, communicate via holograms, and have Hippopotami as co-workers. This is the world of “Hip Flask,” an ongoing comic series, shipping yearly, by Richard Starkings and artist Jose Ladronn. The title character, Hieronymous “Hip” Flask works with his human female partner Vanity Case as an advisor for the government’s information agency where he finds himself tackling various mysteries. Hip is one of the “Elephant Men”; survivors of a genetic engineering experiment conducted by the Mappo Corporation and designed to create animal human hybrids for use as suprahuman weapons. The Elephantmen were freed by a UN taskforce and are now part of human society.
“Hip Flask: Mystery City” the third issue of the series is in stores now. CBR News spoke to Starkings about the latest installment of the series, which finds Hip working on a new case.
“New readers can read ‘Mystery City’ and enjoy it for what it is,” Starkings told CBR News. “The first two issues, ‘Unnatural Selection’ and ‘Elephentmen’ were an ashcan and a zero issue that got out of control, and although they do flesh out the back stories of all the major characters, reading them is not absolutely essential. I added the prologue to ‘Mystery City’ to set the scene for new readers and nudge the memories of older readers (yes, some of our readers are literally three years older now!) who hadn’t read the first two issues in a while.”
Starkings originally intended for Hip’s investigation of an aircar that crashed into the Marlowe building, the main plot of “Mystery City,” to be the beginning of “Hip Flask,” but plans changed… for the best of reasons. “Ladronn wanted to illustrate the origin story and show readers Hip’s apartment, and Wagner the robot frog and Vanity’s car and so all that material bubbled up in the ashcan and the zero issue. Before we knew it, we had more than fifty pages of back story and set up.”
In “Mystery City” readers are introduced to a new Elephantman, Lieutenant Trench, an angry Zebra police detective who exchanges some tense words with Hip. Trench and Hip’s confrontational relationship is one of the comment elements between the Elephantmen. “The Elephantmen don’t want to be Human, they just don’t want to be reminded that they’re Elephantmen,” Starkings explained. “It’s very much a recurring theme in the first three issues. Their origin isn’t one of which they’re proud.
“Trench is actually loosely based on some attitudes expressed to me by an old friend, let’s call him William, a massively talented comic book artist who worked for Neal Adams for a short time before penciling a few issues of ‘Daredevil’ way-back-when in an Adamsesque style,” Starkings said. “William is an African American who was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist and would tell me stories of how he’d had to buy about seven copies of The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ because if his mother found ‘The Devil’s Music’ in the house, she would immediately destroy it. Many comics — including Neal
Adams’ ‘Superman/Muhammad Ali’ book suffered the same fate. Although William would laugh about this with me, he held inside himself a dark melancholy. Which at times you could feel so strongly you might wonder if you’d be sucked inside it.
“One day when we were on our way to the movies together he pointed to a homeless man and told me that he was just a rent check away from joining him on the streets. For some reason he then started talking to me about the hatred he felt for his father, and the contempt he felt his father held him in,” Starkings said. “I tried my best to suggest that all fathers love their sons but were not always able to express it. At this point William’s demeanor grew darker and he spoke to me of the hatred he said all African American men felt toward all other African American men. He pointed out to me that all his friends were white and that most of the African American men he knew also befriended white people. ‘It’s not that we want to be white,” he told me angrily, “It’s just that we don’t want to be reminded that we’re black.’ Some short time later another African American friend of mine spoke openly of his difficulties developing friendships amongst men with the same heritage. The conversation between Trench and Hip in ‘Mystery City’ is very much my attempt to capture that feeling of mutual mistrust and suspicion of which William spoke.”
There is one other particular reason why the bond of friendship between Elephantmen is so rare in “Hip Flask.” “They’re also fiercely competitive,” Starkings stated. “Mappo trained them to be lethal, suprahuman soldiers after all. A ‘Kill or be Killed’ indoctrination is not an easy one to shake off.”
Readers will also meet two other Elephantmen in “Mystery City”, Hip’s elephant assistant Ebony, and club owner Casbah Joe, a camel. “They’re survivors,” Starkings stated. “Like all the Elephantmen, they’ve found themselves a niche in the world and they’re doing their best to live in it. Ebony, you can trust with your life, Joe, um… not so much.”
The conflict that had been brewing between businessman and organized crime figure Obadiah Horn, a rhinoceros Elephantman, and his human adversary Baron Serengheti explodes into full scale war in the pages of “Mystery City,” as readers will learn that Horn and Serengheti’s mutual animosity is not business, it’s very personal.
Doctor Nikken, the creator of the Elephantmen, last seen in “Unnatural Selection” makes a brief appearance in “Mystery City”. Nikken’s appearance hints he will be playing a larger role in upcoming issues of “Hip Flask.” “Not in the next issue, no, so you’ll just have to wait a little longer to see what Nikken’s part in the bigger story is,” Starkings said. “Initially I had no plans for him beyond the origin issue, but Ladronn made him much more interesting than I was expecting. When he and Horn exchanged a look at the end of ‘Unnatural Selection’ I knew we had to follow that up — which we’ve started doing in ‘Mystery City’. That’s all I’m saying!”
Joe Casey co-wrote the first two issues of “Hip Flask” with Starkings, making “Mystery City” the first issue written solely by Starkings. “There wasn’t a transition as such. It was always my story,” Starkings explained. “I just didn’t have the confidence to plot AND script ‘Hip Flask’ when I launched the title three years ago. There was a lot more humor in the last issue, ‘Elephantmen’, and that was very much my contribution, but ‘Unnatural Selection’ definitely needed the bleak tone which Joe does so well. I couldn’t have scripted ‘Mystery City’ the way I did if Joe hadn’t helped establish some of the character’s voices in the first two issues. He created Herman Strumm and Rabbi, and I love those guys, who are just voices — they’ll be in every issue and a whole bunch of stories after the mini series for sure.”
Though some artists seem to leave books as quickly as the come, Ladronn, Starkings artistic collaborator, will be part of “Hip Flask” for the long haul. “Even though I am the driving force behind the Hip Flask story, it’s still a collaboration with Ladronn who never settles for less than the best,” Starkings said. “Ladronn loves the characters as if he created them himself, and you can’t buy that kind of involvement.”
“Hip Flask” is intended to ship once a year, but there was a longer gap between “Elephantmen” and “Mystery City” because of Ladronn’s other artistic commitments. “You must also note that Ladronn does not live by ‘Hip Flask’ alone,” Starkings stated. “He completed the beautiful-but-terrifying short story ‘The Boy Who Cried Golden Tears’ with Jodorwosky last year (‘Metal Hurlant’#12) and tells me that he’s finishing a second this month. You’ll also see his cover work at DC on’OMAC’, ‘Flash’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ as well as at Dark Horse on upcoming issues of ‘Conan’ (for “The Tower of the Elephant” storyline natch’!).”
The title of the 2006 issue of “Hip Flask” is “Ouroborous” which is also the name of the mysterious object that appears at the end of “Mystery City”. Readers will learn more about Ouroborous, which Starkings cryptically hinted, may or may not have ties to the Baverstock Foundation, the mysterious scientific think tank that first appeared in “Elephantmen.”
“Mystery City” is part one to a bigger “Hip Flask” story called “The Big Here & The Long Now”, a story that Starkings has been planning for some time. “The beginning, middle and the ending of ‘The Big Here & The Long Now” haven’t changed one little bit since I came up with the story in 1997/98,” he said. “‘Mystery City’ started out exactly as I imagined all those years ago — except for the Nikken prologue of course. Ladronn loves his supervillains! Doom. Apocalypse. Nikken.”