Nerd City Interview: Richard Starkings

June 5, 2009


Richard Starkings is, without a doubt, a visionary.  He’s the man behind Comicraft, the company that’s spearheading a philosophical revolution in the way that graphic design plays a part in the creation of comic books.  He’s also the man behind ELEPHANTMEN, an intensely sophisticated comic of intertwining, deeply human, tales of giant ex-soldier animal men in a dark sci fi future.

Having just released the second collected volume of ELEPHANTMEN just last week, Richard was kind enough to chat with Nerd City about the book, the importance of design in comics, and the possibility of ELEPHANTMEN action figures.

The ELEPHANTMEN: FATAL DISEASES hardcover collection is now out and, apart from being an outstanding read, is another design masterpiece!  What sort of work goes into putting together a collected volume such as this and how much creative control do you personally have in the overall design?

Complete and Utter! Image are very gracious to us and we have free rein to design the collections as we see fit. Comicraft’s Secret Weapon, John JG Roshell likes to find a hook for each collection — the first, WOUNDED ANIMALS, had a dirty, militaristic feel and for this one we went for a sense of degradation — rust and infection… as if the book itself was diseased. JG soaked copies of the single issues in water and then dried them out before scanning the covers for the chapter dividers! The world of the Elephantmen is not a utopia, so the gnarlier and dirtier the design, the better it reflects the tone and content of the stories!

The story collected in this volume probes a little deeper into the story behind the story of the Elephantmen — the titular FATAL DISEASES unleashed on Europe prior to the war between Africa and China that spawned the Elephantmen soldiers. Whereas volume 1 focused on introducing all the key characters, this collection brings the characters together and reveals more of the conflicts and tensions that are now developing in the DANGEROUS LIAISONS series. It’s a solid package and includes our first proper story arc — WORLDS COLLIDE which featured work by Moritat, the Incredible Ian Churchill and Boisterous Boo Cook!

Your company, Comicraft, has really lead the campaign for the signifigance of the overall design/ book layout in the industry.  I know that, in the past, you’ve talked about the need for the return of things like the letters page to the comic book “package”. Do you see the status quo of comics becoming far more design savy in recent years or do we still have a way to go?

We’re fortunate in that we get to work with a number of fellow comic book creators who really appreciate our contribution. Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, Kurt Busiek, Joe Madureira and Jeff Scott Campbell always ensure that we are part of the collaborative creative process when we work together. JG has been an essential part of the look and feel of ASTRO CITY since the very beginning and I have worked closely with Tim Sale on all his projects for both Marvel and DC — including KRYPTONITE and, more recently, the new HULK GRAY hardcover. Jeph Loeb made sure that we were brought in on HEROES before the series aired, so that we could bring a sense of cohesion to the 9TH WONDERS website, the custom comics, the weekly strips and the DC collections. When you’re working with talented creators who respect your input, working doesn’t seem like work at all. Unfortunately not many publishers have the budget for our involvement, so I guess we have to put out more of our own books! If the status quo is going to change, we have to lead from the front, right? ELEPHANTMEN is very much a lead, follow or get out of the way book!

Much has been made about the fact that the main characters in ELEPHANTMEN are anthropomorphic, yet have their stories are deeply human in nature.  How do you feel that having stories based upon giant Hippo and Rhino people influences your characterization of them?

Well, In his excellent series ”How to Write for Comics” in the British fanzine FANTASY ADVERTISER, Alan Moore suggested that the best way to write was to write what you know, and if you didn’t know, you should find out. He felt that the ideal research for a SWAMP THING writer would have been to lie in a tub of mud for a month. I didn’t take to wallowing in the Nile, of course –back then, I didn’t realize there weren’t many hippos left in the Nile — but I did start reading up on the hippopotamus.

Not a lot of people know this, but hippos have killed more people in Africa than Lions, Elephants, Rhinos and Crocodiles combined. They are a fiercely territorial species and incredibly strong and swift. Never get between a hippo and water, trust me. Even so, look in a hippo’s eye — you can do this at the LA Zoo, in the rear enclosure at feeding time as part of certain special events, but be warned, they have terrible breath — and there’s a soft and wise, more-human-than-human twinkle that can give you the impression that maybe they know something you don’t, and that suits them just fine.

Although hippos are not endangered, their biggest enemy is still man. Hippos only attack men when they themselves feel threatened — as do most large African animals. Rhinos, for instance, are incredibly gentle, skittish vegetarian creatures who have terrible eyesight and only become aware of men when they can smell them. Their beautiful horns are the envy of poachers who can sell them on the black market for perhaps just ten or twenty dollars — a fortune in certain parts of Africa — to wealthy men in Yemen who believe that daggers made out of Rhino Horn bestow social status upon their owners. Yemenites pay hundreds of dollars for these items. Certain endangered Rhinos must now have their horns removed, under sedation, by conservationists so that poachers won’t kill them for the fast buck. Unfortunately, Rhinos have been hunted and killed for so many years now that they may not make it through another century. Regular readers of ELEPHANTMEN will already know this because a large part of issue #10 was fueled by my research.

So I think it’s true to say that the characters of Hip Flask, Obadiah Horn and Ebony Hide are very much informed by what you might call their ethnic origins. Relating their human story to the plight of the species that they represent certainly makes them more unique.

Is there any chance that we’ll ever get action figures of Hip and the rest of them?  Those would be the coolest toys ever!

I’m in complete agreement with you there… and the rights ARE available!

What does the future hold for Comicraft and ELEPHANTMEN?

I’m very proud of this second volume, and the plan is for series of ten gigantic hardcovers — Volume 3 will collect issues 16-23 and Volume Ø will collect WAR TOYS, the YVETTE one shot (out this July) and the second WAR TOYS mini series, coming later this year. So next summer there will be four ELEPHANTMEN hardcovers on comic book store shelves. In the meantime, we collected the sell out Marian Churchland issues in trade paperback — ELEPHANTMEN: DAMAGED GOODS for late July.

On the regular monthly title, Boo Cook is currently turning in what HE calls QuackZoomBollox art for issue #21 and it couldn’t be more different than the three previous issues by Marian Churchland. It’s a testosterone fuelled slug match. It really IS QuackZoomBollox. Definitely. We then have Moritat and Andre Szymanowicz working on #22 and #23 which tie together many of the threads of the DANGEROUS LIAISONS storylines and then Moritat starts work on WAR TOYS 2: ENEMY SPECIES. ‘Nuff Said!

Thanks, Richard!

For more info on all things ELEPHANTMEN, check out the official site here.

For more info on Comicraft, check out their site here.

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