Comic characters come from all different places. Some are born of necessity like a golden age creator needing to fill pages and dreaming up a new crime fighter. Others simply take up shop in a writer or artist’s brain waiting to be unleashed. Hip Flask and his fellow Elephantmen, came from both. Creator Richard Starkings originally developed the hippopotamus-human hybrid known as Hip Flask — complete with P.I. get-up — as a mascot for his revolutionary comic book font and lettering company Comicraft. From there, though, he started developing the character along with artist LadrÃ¶nn and co-writer Joe Casey.
After a series of “Hip Flask” solo books, Starkings launched the ongoing comic book series “Elephantmen” in 2006 through Image Comics. The comic has been going strong ever since and celebrated its 50th issue in July with an issue featuring a frame story by regular series artist Axel Medellin with the majority of the tale told through splash page-like watercolor paintings by Gabriel Bautista. These images tell the larger tale of the Elephantmen, a group of genetically engineered animal-man hybrids who have been shoved back into a society that isn’t particularly interested in their well-being after being bred for a war they helped win.
CBR News caught up with Starkings to talk about everything from Hip Flask’s earliest days as a mascot and the transition to comic book star to the unique method of putting “Elephantmen” #50 together and the real life experiences that helped shape the book’s social commentary.
CBR News: As the story goes, you were going to use Marvel or DC characters to advertise Comicraft, but they wouldn’t allow it so you created Hip Flask to fill that role. Is there more to the story than that?
Richard Starkings: I think it’s no different to anyone else’s creative process, it’s just that what prompted me to create my own character was necessity. I wanted to illustrate how to use our comic book fonts with a comic book character.
This was at the very early days of digital comic book lettering. We were one of the very first lettering studios — if not the first lettering studio — to make our fonts commercially available and it just occurred to me that the best way to show that is to show them in a comic book which of course we’d already done because we were using our own comic book fonts to letter Marvel comics. At the time, we were doing the lion’s share of lettering for WildStorm Studios. We were doing “WildC.A.T.S.,” “StormWatch,” “WildC.A.T.S Adventures” and “Kindred” and “Grifter” and everything they were doing at the time. So, I approached Jim Lee at WildStorm about the possibility of using the WildC.A.T.S characters to promote the fonts because we had a font that we created called Wild Words for “WildC.A.T.S Adventures” and really they didn’t know what to do with us.
I spoke to Bob Harras and Ben Raab at the time in the X-Men office at the time and they didn’t really know what kind of license that would be. I pitched an idea of a lettering-less issue of “X-Men” with a script by Scott Lobdell that people could then, using the fonts, letter the comic book, almost an instructional comic book. That’s because of my background at Marvel UK where I would always think, “Well, if I have something to sell, how can I sell it in a way that’s useful to comic book readers?” Looking back, I don’t think that was a very good idea, but just the process of feeling I needed a comic book character to sell comic book fonts caused me to create my own comic book character.
I think when you start thinking, “What kind of character would I like to create?” All your influences, all your experience, whether you’ve been working in comics or reading comics, anything you’ve read, everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve experienced bubbles up out of your subconscious. In my case I put pen to paper and designed the character Hip Flask.
The name came first and I wasn’t sure if it would be a human character or a human-animal hybrid. Actually it was my wife who said, “There’s nothing new about a human character in a trench coat and hat, but a hippopotamus in a trench coat and hat is interesting.” So, I went in that direction. From there, having one visual you then say, “Why is he a half-human, half-hippo?” I never pictured him as a Mickey Mouse type character or Bugs Bunny, I never thought of him as a cartoon animal because of his human attributes. I always thought of him as half-human, half-hippo and that’s because science-fiction is my favorite genre.
From there it sounds like you started asking and answering questions to help build up the world around the character. How long was it before you decided to take this character and build a comic around him?
The idea of making it an actual comic book was there day one. I had five years working at Marvel Comics in England developing comic books. I developed “Death’s Head,” “Dragon’s Claws” for Simon Furman, “Sleeze Brothers” with John Carnell and Andy Lanning. I was working on “Ghostbusters,” “G.I. Joe” and “Doctor Who.” Once you’ve trained a muscle to think a certain way, you’re going to find that you’re using that muscle whether you’re aware of it or not. I had a picture of Hip Flask above the entrance of my office, so every time I came into my office, I’d look at Hip Flask and think about what stories he’d be involved in. That’s got to be 1995.
From that moment on, in fact when Ian Churchill did a poster for us, we had Hip Flask’s sidekick Ebony Hide, Obadiah Horn already. I’d already developed a villain, a sidekick and it was just a matter of, “Okay, now I have a human-hippo hybrid, what’s the origin story?” It really does start to write itself if you’re asking the right questions.
It sounds like it started unfolding naturally from there.
I’d like to think it was natural. If writing was natural, it would be as easy as breathing. You have to ask yourself questions and you have to start designing characters and working with artists. I’m more of a cartoonist myself. Brian Bolland did an image for me, Ian Churchill and I wanted to see it look like an American comic book, which had been one of my goals when I was working at Marvel UK working on “Death’s Head” and “Dragon’s Claws.” We wanted to create 22-page stories that sold in the American market. That muscle was still working for me and I wanted something that would work in the American market rather than the kind of books that sell in England like “2000 AD” which is an anthology comic, weekly comics. Having worked first at Marvel UK and then working on every Marvel and DC character in the U.S., I was looking at developing something along those lines. The moment you know you’ve got 22 pages, you better have some ideas.
Even coming at it as an experienced comic editor, did you ever think you’d not only have two books coming out, but also reaching the half century mark?
No. [Laughs] When I first came up with Hip Flask it was just going to be a four-issue miniseries with LadrÃ¶nn. Joe Casey was scripting it originally from plots. Basically once LadrÃ¶nn said he wanted to be involved and he started talking about, “What’s the origin story and who’s the creator?” he really wrapped his head around it and we got into lots of discussions about what age range we were shooting for — we were definitely going for 18 and up — the tone which was definitely “Alien”-slash-“Blade Runner,” both graphic and gory, that it was sexy, that it was violent, that it was something you might turn away from because the images are disturbing.
Being on the same wavelength with LadrÃ¶nn was enormously helpful in developing it. I had a story with a beginning, middle and end. I still do. It’s still not finished more than ten years on. 1999 is when LadrÃ¶nn started getting involved. When I did issue one of “Elephantmen,” originally I’d been thinking of doing an anthology of one-shots. Eric Stephenson at Image persuaded me to do an ongoing series and I’m very glad he did. I thought, “Maybe I’ve got one trade paperback in me, maybe two,” and we just put our seventh collection to press.
Once you had the basics for the character and the world, did the stories themselves start flowing naturally from there?
Once you’ve got characters who make decisions, cause and effect comes into play. Once you’ve got characters making causes you have to follow up on the effects and once they react to those effects there’s more causes to follow. You’re mapping out a character based on decisions you think he’d make or she would make. Certainly, one of the revelations with the character of Miki who I thought would be in one or two issues and is still a major character and one of the most popular characters in the book into issue #50. Her involvement with the Elephantmen was something I didn’t foresee. The character of Yvette who was in the Moritat volume zero series “Armed Forces,” she was much stronger than I expected her to be. It becomes very, very interesting when you add characters into the mix and you put one with another and see how they react. It’s like when you’re at a party in real life, you never know what’s going to happen. You never know who’s going to fall in love with somebody else or start a fight. It’s the magic of chemistry between the characters.
You finished a major story arc with #49. How did you begin to plan for the next one with an anniversary issue coming up?
It’s actually a 64-page issue because we’re running issue #1 in the back because it’s a great issue. I’m really proud of issue #1, it’s one of the best issues I’ve written and I think, because I was writing it as an introductory issue, it obviously still works well. It’s very self-contained but it gives you the idea that there’s more to come.
I do like writing stories that anyone can pick up. I think anyone could pick up issue #50 and get an idea of the world of the Elephantmen; not just from the reprint of issue one but from issue #50 itself which is a series of watercolor paintings by the amazingly talented Gabriel Bautista. He’s been the artist on our back-up strip “Charlie Loves Robots” which is written by John G. Roshell. He’s our designer secret weapon. There’s a framing sequence by Axel Medellin. The previous storyline was 10 issues long. It was the longest storyline I’ve put together and #49 was a big climax for many of the story threads that have been running back to issue #1. Issue #50 I wanted to be, not restful, but sort of an eye of the storm starting place for some people.
Certainly, the Frank Quitely cover is going to bring some new, interested readers in. Even the fact that we’ve reached issue #50 might make people go, “Wait a minute, if it’s been around for 50 issues, why aren’t I reading it?” That was my experience with books like “Preacher” and “Y: The Last Man” which reached issue #60 I believe. “Y: The Last Man” #1 came out the same day as “Hip Flask” #1, so I’m trailing behind, but we’ve done 11 other issues so we’re actually at issue 61 because there’s been four “Hip Flask” issues and various one-shots and miniseries of “Elephantmen.”
I would describe it to people as, don’t be afraid to pick it up and start reading from issue #50.
You mentioned that “Elephantmen” #50 features water color paintings set in this world. How did the idea for that come about?
That issue was put together in one of the strangest ways I’ve ever worked because Gabe Bautista has joined me at many comic book conventions and shows throughout the United States and he does these incredible paintings for people. He’s trained in watercolor. He has a sort of Moebius-esque quality of being able to feel information from somebody who wants a watercolor sketch. He has a sense of humor, but he’s also a man of the street and his drawings always posited the Elephantmen characters in very ordinary situations but with great heart and great humor.
I’d be watching him do these little paintings and I’d say, “That’s how we should do an issue together.” I’d written a script from three or four years ago and he couldn’t quite get started on it because I think he was trying to draw like Moritat and I think he felt intimidated working on “Elephantmen.” So, I made it less intimidating by giving him little ideas as to characters he could draw in situations that everyone’s familiar with. I wanted to see how the other Elephantmen fit as part of modern society in their future world. He did each painting over the course of more than a year. Sometimes he did them sitting at shows. There’s more paintings than we could fit, but I feel like each one is a work of art and tells a story in itself. The quality of the watercolor makes them so touching and endearing. I think he did a great job, a really inspiring job. My job was to stitch it all together which hopefully I’ve done in a satisfying way that makes sense when you read it.
When I was looking at the characters, I got a more realistic and honest Norman Rockwell kind of a vibe from them. The pieces are clean and well composed, but the subjects aren’t always pretty or happy.
That’s really interesting because I’ve got some of Gabe’s paintings on a bookshelf behind me and right next to them is “Norman Rockwell’s America.” Maybe that was in my subconscious or in Gabe’s. Stan Lee used to always say that, to make a fantastic character believable, you have to surround him with believable, mundane things. I think that works for the Elephantmen just as much as it works for Spider-Man or the Hulk. Or the Thing. If you care about Alicia Masters and the Thing’s love for her, then you can relate. When you see the Thing standing in the rain in “This Man, This Monster” you’ve stood in the rain and felt lonely, everybody can relate. It’s a question of context and if we’re familiar with the context then we’re more accepting of the fantastic characters.
A big part of this issue revolves around the Elephantmen trying to fit into a society that’s not really built for them and doesn’t fully accept them. Did you do any research into minority memoirs or things of that nature for the story?
Yes, I moved to America in 1989 and spent the last 25 years of my life here. That was the research. [Laughs] Anyone who’s an immigrant in any country has a different perspective on the country they move to. That was definitely my experience moving to America, not quite understanding racial tensions in Los Angeles of which there are many. I lived in New York for a while and there’s a lot of racial tensions there. Just the way men and women regarded interracial relationships of which there are many in New York and Los Angeles.
If there’s any degree of social commentary, it comes from a lot of my observations which are bound to apply to anyone with a brain. Anybody that moves from one country to another is going to think, “Oh, this isn’t quite right. This is weird.” Racism and social stereotyping, sometimes it’s so ingrained in us that we don’t even know it. Everyone of us knows a bigot that doesn’t think they’re a bigot. Everyone thinks they’re just stating the obvious when they express their prejudice, but prejudice is prejudice if it holds one group or such back.
I’m well aware that there’s a lot of social commentary in “Elephantmen” and probably more in issue #50 than previously, but that’s what makes characters interesting. I was watching “Raging Bull” over the weekend. It’s about a group of Italian-Americans, but it’s racial stereotyping in a way, but Italian-Americans in the boxing business are probably like that. It feels authentic and you feel like you’re watching aliens with the way the men treat the women and the men treat the brothers, the way boxing fights were fixed, the way a boxer comes out of that punch drunk and probably brain damaged. These are all stereotypes that we’re familiar with that are often true.
We often make judgements about other ethnic groups based on what we’ve experienced, what we’ve seen on television, what we’ve seen in movies and what we’ve read. Everybody does it. Bigotry and prejudice are everywhere you just have to take a step back and think, “Wait a minute, is this hurting me and the people I’m prejudiced against. And why am I prejudiced?”
Another aspect of the book’s social commentary and the Elephantmen specifically is the fact that they are soldiers returning from war and trying to reassimilate into society. Do you have personal experience with veterans as well?
I know a lot of Vietnam vets. Just their experiences and their behavior and the fact that so many of them are minorities. I don’t know what the percentage is, but we send an awful lot of black and Latino men and women overseas. It tends to be people from poorer communities that sign up because the training is so attractive and the training might be attractive, having school paid for is attractive. The guys that I know that were in Vietnam are in their 60s and I do know that they are constantly medicated because they have PTSD, they have injuries, some of them are mentally scarred for life, bad dreams. It affects their family lives, their relationships, how they’re perceived by people.
I’ve talked to some and I do know what’s going on in some of their heads, but I wouldn’t want to be there. I can’t imagine how difficult it is when you’ve been two, three years in another culture having to take lives, having to save your own life, having to look out for the people around you, sometimes fearing the people you’re around because you never know what might set somebody off. I didn’t think I was writing a series about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or veterans, but no one in America hasn’t seen the effects of our wars overseas at home. Everybody’s driven past somebody on the street with a cardboard sign saying, “Vietnam vet. Please help. Money or food.” Everybody’s seen that way breaks people on both sides of the equation.
In the coming months and year, you’re continuing “Elephantmen” past #50 and there’s also the last issue of “Hip Flask” in the works. What can you tell us about those?
We’ve got one more issue of “Hip Flask” which closes that miniseries. LadrÃ¶nn will be working on that very soon. Issue 51 is set sometime a few months after the events of the last 10 issues. I’m introducing a new character who’s a human private detective called Fowl and it’s going to be his introduction to the world of the Elephantmen which of course he lives in anyway. He’s going to be teamed up with Hip Flask. It’s going to be a different tone to the previous 50 issues. It’s going to be a short serial followed by other short serials. Having told over 60 issues of stories and having had people draw parallels with “Blade Runner” which is one of my favorite movies, I felt more confident about being more pulp science fiction. That will be the tone of the next dozen issues. It will be much more pulpy, much more dark and dystopic.
One of the nice things about working on your own comics is that you can make shifts in tone like that without having to ask anyone for approval. I imagine that must be very freeing for you creatively.
It’s such an exciting time to be in comics and at Image Comics in particular. I watched the debate about “Man of Steel.” I went to see it at a DC screening and it’s really been interesting to see how much ownership creators, fans, retailers and professionals feel that they have over Superman. I have to feel like if you’re Zack Snyder, Mark Waid or Scott Snyder, getting on board with a character who’s almost an octogenarian, there’s so much baggage and really you could only be the thousandth person to write Superman. You’re not the creator of Superman, but I’m the creator of “Elephantmen” and Robert Kirkman is the creator of “Walking Dead” and Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are the creators of “Saga” and Jonathan Hickman is the creator of “Manhattan Projects” and so on. No one has ownership over their characters except themselves so no one can ever stop you and say, “Well, this character wouldn’t do that.” Well, yes he would, he did it. This is the way the character behaves. That doesn’t stop people starting to think, “Well, Rick Grimes wouldn’t do that. He didn’t do that in the TV series,” but I think people are attracted to Image books and before that Vertigo books.
The current crop of Image titles inherited the mantle from Vertigo because Vertigo used to be pretty envelope-pushing and it’s become a little tamer now that you don’t have those creators. A lot of those creators have moved from Vertigo to Image to have more freedom, to have better paper stock, to have better royalties, to have control over the ancillary rights.
I love seeing new issues of “Saga” because it’s two creatives having so much fun with their own characters. Same with “Manhattan Projects,” you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. These are some interesting characters being put through some interesting situations by the people that created them. We’ll never be happy with Superman or Batman or Avengers or Iron Man. Someone will always have the feeling that Warren Ellis did it better or David Micheline did it better or the John Byrne run on Superman is better than the Curt Swan run. But with Image books, we’re the creators and that’s what is attracting people to pick up Image comics.
Some people describe Marvel and DC books as kind of training wheels for comic reading. You find books you like and read them. Some people are okay with just that while others realize the characters have gone about as far as they can and want something with more creative freedom. Do you agree with that?
I think that’s the perspective from a Big Two fan. The truth of it is, my readership doesn’t read a lot of Marvel and DC mainstream books. My readership have come to me from Manga, they’ve come to me from Vertigo, they’ve come to me from movies and TV shows that are turning people on to science fiction now. I would say my average reader is in his or her mid-20s. I don’t think I have a specifically male or female readership, I think it’s about 50-50. When I talk to them about the other books they read, they mention “Fables,” “Y: The Last Man,” “Walking Dead,” “Saga,” Prophet,” “Manhattan Projects.” Very few come to me from “Fantastic Four” or “2000 AD” or some of the more established characters that are out there. That’s extremely refreshing. I think Manga trained people to read trade paperbacks from volume one to 10 to 12 and 28.
“Hellboy,” that’s another series that’s been guided by the creator and had built up a loyal readership. Mike [Mignola] works with different artists just the way I do. I wish I could draw just as well as Mike. Creators are now nurturing their own franchises as opposed to handing it over to Marvel or DC for a fat check and it’s such a great time to be in comics. There’s so much talent being magnetized to comics as opposed to being turned away and working in advertising or doing storyboards.
“Elephantmen” #50 by Richard Starkings, Axel Medellin and Gabriel Bautista is on sale now from Image Comics.