Starkings' "Elephantmen" Turns 25

Much as MAPPO created an army of genetically-altered human/animal hybrid soldiers to wage unstoppable war, so to has Richard Starkings organized a legion of artists to aid him on his quest - albeit a less violent and more reader-friendly quest.

Starkings has called upon a number of the comic book industry's greatest talents for "Elephantmen" #25, a milestone issue where each page is illustrated by a different artist. The Image-published issue, told from the perspective of Elephantmen sympathizer and Information Agency executive director Hank Gruenwald, is not only visually unique, it also serves as an entry point for readers new to the "Elephantmen" universe. Additionally, the issue contains a five-page preview of "Marineman," an upcoming series created by Starkings' friend and frequent collaborator, Ian Churchill. As if that wasn't enough, "Elephantmen" #25 comes hot on the heels of Starkings' WonderCon announcement that the series has been optioned for film by Zucker Productions.

CBR News spoke with Starkings about hitting issue #25, the origin of Gruenwald as a character, the upcoming film adaptation and the future of the "Elephantmen" comic book series. CBR also spoke with Churchill to learn more about "Marineman" and when fans can expect to see more from the developing series.

CBR News: Richard, can you walk us through the decision to make "Elephantmen" #25 such a multi-artist extravaganza?

Richard Starkings: A few months ago, former Image Marketing and PR ace and all around good guy Joe Keatinge sent an email out to Image creators inviting them to help celebrate the 25th issue of Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo's excellent creator owned title, "Proof." It hadn't occurred to me until I got that email that hitting the quarter century mark was a bit of a big thing. I made a mental note to send the "Proof" boys a congratulatory message and force Moritat to do a piece for them, which I then completely forgot to do because my mental notes aren't worth the paper they're printed on. I'm sure Alex and Riley will forgive me as long as we make up for it when their issue #50 comes around. Even so, I liked the idea of a pinup gallery in issue #25 and made another mental note to work on something similar. Of course, you already know what happens to those notes, so when "Previews" time came around, I completely forgot to make a point of playing up the fact that we'd already passed issue #24, which all guys my age know was "The Song of Red Sonja," the last Barry Smith issue of "Conan the Barbarian" before John Buscema took over.

Two months later, after I'd wrapped up the script for issue #24, I suddenly remembered Joe's email about the pinups and started wondering who we could approach for contributions to a short gallery in the back pages. I'd approached Dave Gibbons for a cover a couple of times since the series began, so he was at the top of my wish list, and in a very short period of time I had a long list of friends and collaborators that had expressed an interest in drawing a cover or pinup - but the list was so long, the question was not a matter of having too few creators, but who could I drop from it? I realized I didn't want to drop anyone, and at this point, I was slowly formulating my cunning plan to tell a story completely composed of pinups. Genius! It was already my intent to recap the story of "Elephantmen" from the point of view of the executive director of the Information Agency, Hank Gruenwald, who first appeared in issue #4. Somewhere along the line I realized that the perfect title for an issue completely composed of splash pages was "The Big Picture." Come on, that's not just regular genius, that's Eisner Award nomination worthy genius!

This series has featured several different artists over the course of its run. As a creator, what do you enjoy about working with so many different illustrators on "Elephantmen" as opposed to one or two consistent collaborators?

Starkings: I love working with a wide variety of artists. The world of the Elephantmen is a very big world, and even though a movie like "Blade Runner" or "Avatar" is regarded as the work of an auteur like Ridley Scott or James Cameron, those movies are put together by hundreds of artists. When I worked at Marvel UK in the 1980s, necessity caused me to become comfortable with the idea of working with a number of different artists with very different styles. Now I do so out of choice rather than necessity. In fact, the next few issues are being put together by artists who worked on this issue, including Axel Medellin, Marian Churchland, Andre Szymanowicz and, of course, Moritat, who's still squeezing "Elephantmen" in between issues of "The Spirit," which debuted on the same Wednesday as "Elephantmen" #25!

Every artist involved in "Elephantmen" #25 drew his or her own page. What did you have to do to maintain a visual consistency from page to page, particularly in scenes shared by different artists? Did this issue require a greater level of supervision to ensure that synchronicity or did you really just let the artists do their thing?

Starkings: I really wanted to give each and every artist a page worthy of their talents. I didn't write a script as such, much to the frustration of my brilliant colorist and old friend Greg Wright. Instead, I conjured up strong images from the series' rich history and imagined scenes that could be reinterpreted by some of the industry's greatest talents. Everyone got reference material, of course, but I tried to keep it as simple as possible. Most important of all were the drawings of Gruenwald from "Elephantmen" #4 by Moritat. If the artist had to draw that character, they got those shots as reference as he is the glue that holds the issue together.

I'll admit that I was worried about the book holding together, and initially I hoped that Greg would color every page in order to maintain that visual consistency. However, if you've seen the book, you'll notice that there are a few pages colored by the artists themselves. In retrospect, I'm glad they insisted on doing so. Marian Churchland and her husband, Brandon Graham, do their best work when they're in complete control of the art, and I think their pages look great and don't jar with the others at all. The same is true of the magnificent Shaky Kane, whose Image series "The Bulletproof Coffin" debuts in June. His collaborator on that series, David Hine, wanted to color his stark drawing of our villain, Nikken, in flat tones to underscore the bleakness of his situation and the coldness of his mind - not his heart, he doesn't have one! Nikken, that is - not Dave.

I'll also confess that I was worried about the task of tying all the pages together with Gruenwald's narrative. I had only the first page scripted and was working "Marvel style" on the rest of the issue. I'm glad to say that it turned out to be the easiest issue I've ever scripted this way. I had the whole book lettered in just two days. Unlike writers who, sadly, don't know how to letter their own work, I actually script as I letter, so the process is considerably easier for me than comic creators who prefer not to multitask.

Speaking of Gruenwald, the issue is told from his perspective - a character that perhaps isn't quite as iconic as Hip Flask, Ebony Hide and Obadiah Horn. Who is Gruenwald as a character and what led you to focus issue #25 on him as opposed to some of the book's other central characters?

Starkings: For me, Gruenwald is as important as any of the Elephantmen that you mention. For me, he's a strong presence in the series, whether readers are aware of him or not. He functions in much the same way as the character Skinner functions in "The X-Files," or Rip Torn in "Men in Black," or Jeffrey Tambor in "Hellboy." Gruenwald is effectively a government employee who has the Elephantmen's best interests at heart. Hip and Ebony cause Gruenwald a lot of grief, and he has to keep them on a short leash whenever he can, but his heart is in the right place. I think you get a sense of that in this issue, and I think readers will feel like they've gotten to know him a little better. He will be playing a much bigger part in the storyline as the series progresses, but I can't tell you more than that.

At C2E2 last weekend, you revealed that Gruenwald is based on late comic book editor Mark Gruenwald. Can you talk a bit about him and how you came to devote this character to your friend?

Starkings: Mark was a really, really nice guy, second only to Archie Goodwin in the roster of genuinely good guys who worked as editors at Marvel. Like Archie, he loved comics and wanted nothing more than to produce comics for the rest of his life. Mark was one of the healthiest people I knew - he didn't smoke, he didn't drink and was always eating the right food. Whenever San Diego Comic Con rolled around, Mark would round up comic creators and take us all jet skiing or drag us over to Coronado Beach where he'd jog with anyone who could keep up with him.

Tragically, he died in his mid-forties from a genetic heart disorder, which caused him a massive heart attack. It was very sudden and a shock to all that knew him. Many people, including me, thought of Mark as the warm heart at the centre of Marvel Comics, and I think the comics world would be a little bit better today if Mark hadn't passed away.

When I found myself looking for a character who knew more about the world of the Elephantmen than anyone else in that world, I thought of Mark, who in many ways knew more about the Marvel Universe than anyone else. I suspect that, if he were able to approve of inspiring a character in a comic book, he would.

In addition to the multi-artist approach, "Elephantmen" #25 has a unique backup feature in the form of "Marineman," a new series created by your friend and colleague Ian Churchill. Ian, can you tell us a bit about the premise of "Marineman?"

Ian Churchill: Sure! The basic premise is that Steve Ocean, Marineman, is a guy who can breathe underwater. Steve lives in the seaside town of Ocean Point and works for the Ocean Point Institute for Marine Research as a marine biologist. He's also the presenter of a wildlife documentary show called "Ocean Encounters," and through the success of the show, he has become a minor celebrity. His whole life is centered on the ocean and its issues. The general public isn't aware he can breathe underwater and swim exceptionally fast, and he's still discovering his other abilities on a day-to-day basis.

In a comic book environment that includes heroes with every conceivable power, it's easy to become dismissive of marine-based characters. But when you think about it, how cool would it be to be able to breathe underwater? Most of us have enjoyed a day at the beach, gone for a swim and come running out when it got too cold - but what if you didn't get cold? What if you could slip beneath the surface with no fear of drowning? What if your body was resilient enough to resist the crushing power of the ocean floor? What if you could swim fast enough to outrace the swiftest sea creature with ease? When you start to think about it, it's a pretty cool ability to have!

How did the idea for "Marineman" as a series and character first come to you?

Ian Churchill: I created Marineman when I was eight years old - he was the first superhero I ever created! Originally, he was an eight year-old's crude combination of the Sub-Mariner and Aquaman with a touch of the TV shows I liked at that time, such as "The Gemini Man," "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "The Man From Atlantis." His look was modeled on an actor called Richard Egan who I knew from a Jane Russell movie called "Underwater." I used to watch the old Jacques Cousteau documentaries with my grandpa and the word marine kept cropping up, which stuck in my head and led me to calling my underwater hero Marineman. His look and concept went through a few changes over the years and I eventually settled on his current look about ten years ago.

Beyond the preview seen in the back of "Elephantmen" #25, when can we expect to see and hear more of "Marineman?"

Churchill: "Marineman" is a labor of love. I'm doing everything on it except the lettering, which is being handled by Richard and JG at Comicraft. As a result, it's taking longer than I anticipated and I'm finding my way as I go along. I want to get at least three issues complete before soliciting it, as I know how late books upset readers! As it stands, I'm aiming at October, which I think is a realistic goal.

Ian, you're one of the many artists who contributed to "Elephantmen" #25. Can you talk about your contribution to the issue, your thoughts on the series and your time working with Richard over the years?

Churchill: I've known Rich for about 15 years now and we got on well from the get go. Maybe it's the whole British thing, I don't know. As he mentioned in "Un-human - The Elephantmen Art of Ladrönn," I was instrumental in generating the look of Hip Flask's nemesis, Horn, as well as Sahara and her father Serengheti back in the Elephantmen's formative years.

It's funny, I've never been a huge fan of sci-fi in comics. I've always been a superhero guy through and through, but somehow anamorphic talking African animals set in a "Blade Runner" like landscape really seems to work! I thoroughly enjoy drawing Hip and his supporting characters, which Rich knows, so I'm always a soft touch when Rich comes calling. Most recently I did breakdowns for a couple of issues of "Elephantmen," and like you said, I contributed a page to issue #25, all of which took me away from my "Marineman" schedule. But when Rich comes calling, it's hard to say no - he's a lot like Jeph Loeb in that respect!

I admire everything that Richard has achieved with "Elephantmen" and if "Marineman" can garner half the success and readership that "Elephantmen" has, then I'll be more than happy - I just hope it doesn't take 15 years! [Laughs]

Hey! That's a bit of a dig! How about if "Marineman" can garner half the success and readership that "Elephantmen" has, then "Elephantmen" will be twice as successful as "Marineman!" [Laughs]

Richard, beyond hitting issue #25, the other big news is that the movie rights for "Elephantmen" have been optioned by Zucker Productions. How did the movie deal come about and why do you think Zucker Productions is a good home for your creation?

Starkings: I was at my local comic book store, The Comic Bug, as a guest speaker at their making comics workshop one Saturday afternoon and I was approached by [film producer] Uffe Ziemelis, who was looking for a comic book that might make, in his words, "a great summer blockbuster." Uffe took my books to Janet Zucker, who is best known for her work with husband Jerry Zucker, director of "Ghost" and "First Knight." Her most recent project is "Fair Game" with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, debuting at Cannes next month, so I didn't expect Janet to be interested in a science fiction concept like "Elephantmen."

But Janet is a big fan of science fiction and, more importantly, she and Jerry put Proposition 71 on the California ballot in 2004. At a time when Bush was seeking to put an end to stem cell research, the Zuckers fought to preserve it. So more important than the Zuckers' formidable body of work, I have immense respect for them as human beings. So she had an eye on "Elephantmen" because I had done my research on stem cell research, and when we got together, I knew that she knew what she was talking about and she knew that I knew what I was talking about, and that was what I was looking for in regards to anyone looking to bring "Elephantmen" to the big screen.

This isn't your first opportunity to adapt "Elephantmen" - at C2E2, you said you've turned down opportunities in the past, including one that would have turned "Elephantmen" into a Saturday morning cartoon show. Can you talk about some of those experiences?

Starkings: Before "Elephantmen" was called "Elephantmen," it was known as "Hip Flask." Both Rob Liefeld and Jeph Loeb expressed interest in pitching the concept to studios and production companies, and quite a few big names and studios were approached, but I had only eight pages of strip by Ian Churchill and a handful of pinups by various artists that really didn't give much shape or substance to the ideas I had for the characters. So Jeph Loeb and "Kiss" front man Gene Simmons optioned the book but couldn't really tell people what it was about, and over time, I realized I wanted to make a comic, not a movie. Gene had a buyer interested in making a Saturday morning cartoon, much like his "My Dad The Rock Star" series that played in Canada, but I didn't want to start with something that played to kids. I was seeing "Blade Runner" or "Planet of the Apes," not "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" or "Great Grape Ape."

You're in the process of drafting the film treatment now. How hard is it to think of "Elephantmen" in movie terms having worked for so long on the comic book series? What are some of the biggest differences you have to consider when approaching "Elephantmen" as a motion picture?

Starkings: Beginning, middle, end - all at once. "Elephantmen" is a serial and it doesn't have to end, and it doesn't need a three act structure every issue. The "Hip Flask" story I've been working on with Ladrönn does follow that format and may be the story in the series that lends itself to adaptation. We're talking about various different characters and situations, but I can't really say more than that.

When it comes to characters and story, how similar will the movie be to what we've already seen? Can we count on seeing most of the regular players like Hip, Obadiah, Sahara and more, or are you planning on new characters for the movie?

Starkings: Yes - Hip, Ebony, Vanity, Horn and Sahara will definitely be in the movie. We have talked about a new character, but he or she may actually appear in the comic first. There's certainly a lot of cross-pollination going on in my head.

What are some of the things you're most excited by when considering the prospect of an "Elephantmen" movie, and on the flip side, what are some of the things you're a bit nervous or cautious about?

Starkings: Funnily enough, Janet ran "Elephantmen" past Ridley Scott, and even though "Alien" and "Blade Runner" are my favorite movies, I wanted him to pass on it - and I got my wish! I'd personally like to see a younger director making his or her first science fiction movie rather than an established auteur. But if Scott had wanted to make it...well, that would have been hard to say no to. It's all very exciting and all problems relating to the movie are good problems.

Looking ahead in the "Elephantmen" comic books - clearly, the soldiers of MAPPO are trying to mount a comeback. Both Ebony and Hip have been reactivated to varying degrees, while the Simm robots are on the move. Tiny is in a coma and both Miki and Vanity are shaken up. The FCN virus-infused asteroid remains largely unexplained. As things truck along with the "Questionable Things" story-arc, what can we expect in terms of story, format, art-wise, and more?

Starkings: Each issue is always as much a surprise to me as it is to the reader - issue #25 was no exception. I do have the bigger stories in the back of my head, but how I get there is not always the way I expect. I've never been one to stop and analyze what I'm doing; I prefer to just do it. I'm sure all the questions you've brought up will be answered, but not in the way you might expect. Yvette is coming back, that much I know. "Elephantmen" #30 is going to raise some eyebrows, but more than that, I cannot say. To be continued!

When you think about having hit this milestone 25th issue, are you at all surprised that "Elephantmen" has made it this far? How much further do you feel you can take it, and more importantly, how much further do you want to take it?

Starkings: Oh, I still have a lot more stories to tell. I sometimes throw out issue #80 as an issue number that seems far enough away to be a good endpoint, but here at #25, I sometimes feel like I've barely scratched the surface. There will be at least eleven collections, one for every letter in the title of the book - check the spines of the trades, kids! If their are more stories to tell, I may switch to doing a series of miniseries much like Mignola does on "Hellboy" and "B.P.R.D." But it's hard to see that far ahead. It's still challenging for me to write each issue, and I enjoy that.

"Elephantmen" #25, written by Richard Starkings and illustrated by a wide variety of guest artists, is on sale now.

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