Created by Comicraft's Richard Starkings, Image Comics' "Elephantmen" is a stylish and unusual detective story set in a "Blade Runner"-like noir future, starring an anthropomorphic, edgy hippopotamus. But in mid-2007, the series temporarily set aside its usual storylines to present a special issue. In the seventh installment of "Elephantmen," guest creators Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo teamed to represent the series' main character, Hippopotamus Hybrid Flask #7A, or simply Hip Flask, as a pirate known as Captain Stoneheart. Written in a storybook style, the tale was well received by fans and now, Starkings' Active Images studio and Image Comics are representing the tale in a special hardcover format replete with extra features, including oversized pages and an audio disc containing a dramatic reading of the entire story, which is now known as "Captain Stoneheart and the Truth Fairy."
The origins of the Captain Stoneheart tale begin with a real world matter of business. Writer Joe Kelly told CBR News, "We owed Richard a lot of money, and when he sent his bodyguards to my house with baseball bats of persuasion I thought... Oh, wait, I shouldn't tell you that... um..."
Joking aside, Kelly, continued, "[Bachalo and I] were working with Richard on 'Steampunk,' and during the course of the run he proposed a trade - lettering for a story. Clearly, this worked in our favor, so we said yes, and Richard zeroed in on a piece that Chris had done for him of Hip Flask carrying a fairy in a bottle, under attack by a pirate skeleton. So he asked us to play the story out, and from there, the idea of the Truth Fairy came to life.
"At its stony heart, the story is about a ruthless pirate who has lived a life of malicious abandon, and is given a shot at redemption by a fairy whose only agenda is to be kind and tell the truth. Captain Stoneheart is forced for the first time in a long time to look inside of himself and make a choice about how he wants to live...but unfortunately, his scars run deep, and even with paradise within his grasp he struggles with demons that ultimately lead to his undoing."
While the story originally appeared in the "Elephantmen" series, readers need no familiarity with the title or its main character, Hip Flask, or the dystopian future he normally inhabits. "The story is so allegorical that anyone can come to it sight unseen," Kelly said. "However, if you do know the 'Starkingverse', then the book takes on another layer. It's a story that Hip is telling, working through some of his own inner demons. I think it personalizes it more, although, it's pretty clear to me that any adult can find something to relate to in Captain Stoneheart. We all struggle with those demons."
In his normal continuity, Hip Flask is something of a private detective/secret agent noir character. In the guise of Captain Stoneheart, Hip Flask is quite something else. "Captain Stoneheart is the baddest hippo-pirate ever to set sail on the seven seas," said Kelly. "He wants treasure, power, glory, but most of all, he wants to live a life where no one tells him what to do ever. Uncompromising.
"The Truth Fairy, on the other hand," Kelly continued, "wants to return to her home, which is paradise. She believes that there is good in Stoneheart, in all people for that matter, and tries to get him to see that there is another way for him to live. Where the compromises are minor in exchange for true happiness."
Though depicted in a classic storybook style, the themes of "Captain Stoneheart" are a bit darer that typical storybook fare. "Depending on how you read it," Kelly said, "this is a story about the destructive power of anger, a warning to those unwilling to compromise, or a cautionary tale about alcohol and addiction. I think Stoneheart's journey means something a little different to everyone who reads it, depending on where their personal struggles lie."
Of the decision to release "Captain Stoneheart" in a stand-alone hardcover format, the writer said, "We'd always thought it would be fun to release this book 'storybook style' so that it might reach an audience outside of the comic shops. Then Richard kicked it into the stratosphere with the CD and the script and pencils, etc. It's very flattering to think that he believes in this story so much to give it those props. I've always been proud of this story, and hope that people do come to it in this new format who might have missed it before."
However, even those who did read the story in its original form in "Elephantmen" #7 will find plenty that is new to them. Said Active Images' John Roshell, "The book is much larger -- similar to the oversized editions of our Ladronn 'Hip Flask' books. We brightened up the colors a bit, and fixed typos and areas where the text ended up hard to read. The print quality is just extraordinary; combined with the larger format, it's an incredible presentation of Chris Bachalo's artwork, and the story as a whole.
"Then we take it a step further," Roshell continued, "and provide the whole behind-the-scenes process. We found the original script Joe Kelly wrote for us, entitled 'The Stone Pirate and the Fairy Maid,' and present it in its entirety. Incredibly, Joe spun this entire story from a single drawing by Chris, and in the script you can see just how instinctive and collaborative their creative relationship is. Joe's panel descriptions range from detailing the exact shape of Stoneheart's sword, to simply asking for the most glorious spread ever. And Joe made plenty of revisions in story and dialogue between the first draft and the finished book."
"It was weird seeing the script," Kelly added. "I wrote it so long ago and when I did it was pretty open to interpretation. I didn't put in half of the dialogue until I saw the finished pages!"
Roshell continued, "Next we present every page of Chris's raw pencil artwork, in complete double-page spreads. His style is so cool, and the detail on some of these pages is just mind-boggling. Plus, comparing it with the finished story reveals what an amazing job Aron Lusen did! He wasn't just adding color; it was more like he turned pencils into paintings."
The single biggest addition to the new "Captain Stoneheart" package is that of an audio version of the story, read aloud by Roshell's father-in-law, actor Doug Rowell. Said Roshell, "Back when 'Elephantmen' #7 came out, I was creating a Flash movie trailer to promote it, and when my pathetic attempts at the voice-over failed, I humbly asked him to read a few bits of the story. Well, as soon as Richard and I heard it, we knew that someday we wanted to hear him read the whole thing!"
The pleasure of seeing this project's outcome is two-fold for Roshell. "It's rare to see every detail of a project come together almost exactly or even better that you imagined it, and this is definitely one of those times!" he said. "Plus, I'm thrilled to have an 'Elephantmen' story that I can hand to kids without any reservation. Most years at Comic-Con, they see the big animal guys and come rushing up to our table, and I have to say, 'Um, no, sorry, this is more for teenagers." So I'm really looking forward to being able to hand them not only a fun story, but also a window into the whole process of creating comics."
"I can't wait to show it to my kids," said Kelly. "Richard said his daughter really got into it."
While the Captain Stoneheart story stands alone, Kelly did not rule out a return to the character one day. "Only the whispers in the wind know for sure," he said. "Seriously, it would have to be the right story that would truly justify bringing him back, but I'd be up for it if Richard was!"
"Captain Stoneheart and The Truth Fairy" is available now from Active Images and Image Comics.
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