World Comic Book Review

13th April 2024

CBLDF Presents ELEPHANTMEN! SHOTS (revisited)—”Don’t look away look around”

SOME THINGS SEEN will not be unseen. It started a short time ago when I fell into bad company. A box of comics arrived from some other lost soul’s basement with a few issues of ELEPHANTMEN tucked into its unfiltered recesses. The title had a long run in the 2000s that I missed all together. I found the prescient mood of the writing by Richard Starkings in tandem with other writers and a variety of stellar artist contributors in segments and small side stories absorbed my attention.

Prescient is the right word for the moody reporter style, everything past tense, narrated over the action and dialogue in the panels, sometimes hopping centuries or planets with ease, often falling into memories of war when the Elephantmen were genetically modified from a variety of animals to become super-soldiers to fight and survive the viciousness of humanity to save humanity—something like that, it’s a long story—now living in Los Angeles in the year 2259, how many not sure, how many different species not sure, all individuals coping with scarred souls and a racial enigma bonded in their bodies that remains pretty much a perpetual social issue. Wounded warriors do not relate well to the mindsets of others anyway, especially children. Leave it alone. Move on.

“We spend every day of our lives trying to forget the things we’ve seen, the events we’ve experienced,” says the narrator in one issue.

For all that, the general atmosphere in Elephantmen stories, bits, and sidebars is pert and attractive, granted with a sometimes acned humor, these are genetically modified animals after all, so one can take a lot of leeway how to treat them, but strangely their lives feel authentic, pathetic, passionate; as well as experienced and calm, or calm enough. Warming to talking animals in clothes this side of toonsville is odd for me. Like I said, bad company.

Thus it was, when ELEPHANTMEN! SHOTS (2015) fell into my hands, presented by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), with again a talented array of writers and artists surrounding the sombre wit of Richard Starkings in a variety of stories and sketches, it was no surprise, even a delight to find Elephantmen hero Hip Flask suited up like Judge Dredd from 2000 AD, warning the reader to get the irony in this issue, creeps, or else. CBLDF annual collections published in the 2010s featured controversial strips by a variety of star talents. The organization is still active. Elephantmen! Shots stories are more sedate, keeping a characteristic moody style, spiked with punch and pathos.

The main features are startlingly good Judge Dredd pastiches. Among other sketches, Dave Sim contributes to an elegant episode in black and white, an engraved, unmoving scene that shifts perspective only as a narrative thought-stream breezes overhead.

Then I came upon the naked hippo and other animal heroes and their human female partners on a three-page spread of paper-doll cut-outs, with tags on the bottom of each figure to fold to make them stand upright, after and only after you cut out and fold their clothes onto their bodies. The purpose is plainly shock value, but not too much shock. The art is like a medical encyclopedia. The accompanying text is hilarious. Do not look at the elephant penis. Close your eyes!

Hysterical conservatives banning public discourse is a long-standing issue. Church doctrine is the classic example, as when Bishop Johann in Strasbourg in 1317 warned of dangerous people spreading harmful ideas: “All laypeople were to stop listening to their songs and to their preaching.”

Pushing limits on what we can say and portray without prosecution has obvious merits, but there is no basis for supposing anything goes. In this case, the semi-grotesque nudity of genetically modified hippo, rhino, and elephant men, with attendant paper-doll women, is actually in the realm of decency, as you know a real-life hippo, rhino, or elephant penis, especially beside your young daughter at the zoo, is not. Look away!

Advocating total freedom of expression is from the first disingenuous. Some things we really prefer to have not lodged in our memory forever on. Believing anything should be allowed indicates a failure of selection. Are we really so unintelligent we cannot direct the general experience living in society with good results? Proposing we want no one to guard us ends up with a landscape plastered by billboards and invasive advertising at every turn in public media, making us first a society of slutty consumers. Thank goodness for the hard-won standards we do have. Without standards, free choice cannot solve a glut of bad merchandise, shoddy practice, crappy conditions, and a depraved people.

As a parody, I had to laugh at the elephant penis gag. Generally, though, I prefer not to know so much about the sexual aspects of my heroes. Or yours. How do we get away from all the attention to sex life in public these days, supported by banks and major institutions, including major comic book companies as well as independent creators? This is the height of dialogue in our present calamitous condition? Leave it alone. Move on.

It seems to me, a dose of veteran Elephantmen and Judge Dredd continues to appeal as an antidote to the high regard for license and licentiousness we see so frequently applauded as a supreme virtue. Artists want complete freedom of expression? So do a lot of individuals with big bucks and mega-weapons. Everyone seems to agree, except those on the other side. Those are the exposed ones I am unable to unsee.

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Quote from Joel F. Harrington (2018) Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within