An Elephant Never Forgets: Talking "Elephantmen" with Kelly & Bachalo

In February, issue #7 of Richard's Starkings' Image Comics series "Elephantmen" hits the stands, boasting a powerhouse of a creative team: Joe Kelly, Chris Bachalo and colorist Aron Lusen. CBR News spoke with the writer and artist both about this issue, a collaboration which has been five years in the making.

Back in 2001, when Kelly and Bachalo were still working on the ill-fated "Steampunk" series at Cliffhanger, the team struck a deal with the creator of the Hip Flask universe, Richard Starkings. The deal was this: Starkings would do the lettering on "Steampunk" for free if Kelly and Bachalo agreed to do an issue of "Elephantmen." The story for "Elephantmen" #7, christened "Captain Stoneheart and the Truth Fairy" by Starkings, grew out of a Chris Bachalo sketch.

"Richard wanted Hip in various genre pictures," Kelly told CBR News. "Chris did a pirate shot, and he put in the thing with a fairy in a little cage." Exactly what inspired the artist to draw the trapped fairy seems to have been lost to time, but the image planted a germ of an idea in Kelly's head and the Truth Fairy was born. "Rich and I talked about it, what the fairy can be, what the pirate was, and some of the themes of Hip Flask and what he was dealing with, so I went off and cooked up the story part of it, and it led to this tale of the Truth Fairy," Kelly said. "It's a fairy tale about a mean, stonehearted, Blackbeard type, Hippo Pirate who discovers redemption in the hands of a beautiful Truth Fairy," Bachalo said of the plot. "It's a terrific story similar in style to that of a Grimm's fairy tale." "Joe Kelly turned the script around fast enough, but I was definitely the tortoise in this story. I worked on the book off and on for 5 years," Bachalo admitted. "I was having a tough time with work, floundering really, and was in a bad rut of being late with deadlines and the work I was producing being uninspired." The artist said it was the tragedy of Sam Loeb's death that inspired Bachalo, a new father himself, to get his house in order. "I was crushed at hearing of Sam's passing and suddenly felt compelled to finish the story," Bachalo said. "I was letting Richard down. I knew I couldn't cure everything in a day, but I knew I could do better and proceeded to draw the back half of the book over the last year and a half. As a payment of interest of sorts to Richard for his long wait (he was remarkably patient), I added 7 extra pages, at no extra cost, as well as a cover."

Before the comic saw the light of day, Kelly had the opportunity to go back and revise the final script. "When all the art was in and we finally had this beautiful book in front of us, I did another pass over it," Kelly said. "I did not hand in as complete a script as I thought I did, I had to go back and actually live up to my end of the bargain."

"The nice thing about this particular story was that it came at sort of an interesting time, so all the themes in the story were very easy for me to hook into. They're really themes about anger and your own inhibitions and control over one's domain," Kelly continued. "Really, this is a story about a guy who can't stand being told no, ultimately. Even when he's staring paradise in the face, one little tiny rule just gets under his skin because he can't handle the idea of being told what to do. Once I had that, then I kind of built around it. I just do a plot that's going to ultimately reflect that conflict."

"The original take was that the entire story was to be told in prose form only, like that of a children's storybook, but I noticed with the release of the some of the completed pages that balloons are being added, supporting the floating text," Bachalo said. Bachalo said there is no functional difference between the way he approaches a project like "Elephantmen" and the way he approaches a more high-profile project like his current run on "X-men." "I try and treat each issue I work on as a self-contained story," Bachalo said. "I read the script, examine the genre and make a decision, largely emotionally based, on the best way to relate the story in terms of pictures." "'X-Men' is a very straight forward, soap opera, action title and lends itself to a somewhat conservative style," the artist continued. "'Stoneheart' is much more of a poetic children's fable and invites a little more creative license. Richard shared with me right up front that he thought it would be fantastic to illustrate the story similar to the way I illustrated the flashback sequences in 'The Witching Hour,' Jeph Loeb's and mine's creator-owned project that we published just before I commenced work on 'Steampunk' back in '99. Rather that use traditional panels to define the action, I created a collage of images or sorts, highlighting story beat points within one, large scale double page drawing."

"Steampunk," the duo's last collaboration, ended on a cliffhanger after 12 issues in 2001. "We felt pretty strongly that it had to be done in this 25 issue arc, and I paced it out that way, so if Chris could ever come back and really finish those 12 and we had a [publisher] that would be willing to do it, I would love to do it," Kelly said. "When and where we'll get to see it remains to be seen," Bachalo said. "I figure, if I win big in the lottery, I'll have the resources to pick up where I left off and wrap it up." For now, Bachalo has his hands full on "X-men." "Right now, I'm experiencing comic book artist bliss working on the 'X-Men,'" he said. "It's a monthly and it keeps me pretty busy turning around 22 pages and a cover, not to mention that I color assist as well. There's nothing else that I want to do other than that right now."

Kelly is keeping busy as well. He's currently working on a spec project called "I Kill Giants" with artist J.M. Niimura, pitching a project called "Bang!Tango" with artist Adrian Sibar and, of course, still scripting "Supergirl." "And it's funny, I just wish that if I could've told myself ten years ago, 'Hey, guess what, you're on the 'X-men,' it's your second year of writing, do creator owned projects now,' I would've been a much happier guy in the long term I think," Kelly said. "It's fantastic to do mainstream books, it's great to do superheroes, and it's a lot of fun, but the time to build your other fanbase is simultaneous with that work. You have to vary it up. And sometimes, because of our current market, if your other interests sort of fall outside capes and powers, you kind of have no choice but to do the independent route."

Of "Elephantmen" #7, Kelly said, "I'm proud of it, and it really is beautiful. It's been worth the wait."

Now discuss this story in CBR's Image Comics Forum.

REVIEW: Star Wars: Age of Rebellion - Lando Calrissian #1

More in Comics