Posted by Don MacPherson on September 1st, 2008
Elephantmen: War Toys trade paperback
Writer: Richard Starkings
Cover artists: Boo Cook & Ladronn
Publisher: Image Comics/Active Images
Price: $9.99 US
Reprinting the three-part War Toys limited series set in Richard Starkings’s world of Hip Flask, this story features a plethora of science-fiction elements, the powerful visuals of some well-designed anthropomorphic animal characters and unrelenting action that’s bound to grab the attention of many readers. But the more fantastic, over-the-top aspects of the book, no matter how many of them are, can’t hide the true nature of the story. This is a war story, and in many ways, it’s an old-fashioned war story, the kind of fare one would have found in DC’s Our Fighting Forces, G.I. Combat or Men of War decades ago. It’s about how a conflict that started out as political can become personal all too easily for those forced to fight. It’s about how each soldier is both a hero and a villain; the difference simply falls to perspective.
It’s the 23rd century, and China is at war with Africa. It’s a brutal war, and no rules seem to apply at all. France has become a casualty of a biological weapon, its populace devastated by disease, with a fraction managing to survive the plague. Now, the Elephantmen have been sent in to finish the job to ensure the biological weapon doesn’t escape the country, carried unknowingly by a survivor. Just as it did in the Second World War, a French resistance movement arises to fight against impossible odds. At the heart of the carnage is Yvette, who’s seen the Elephantmen kill her friends and loved ones. She’s determined to get even. But how can one human being pose any threat to the unstoppable juggernauts genetically engineered for war?
The strength of Moritat’s artwork is nothing new, at least as far as Elephantmen readers are concerned. He proved he was equal to the daunting task of filling Ladronn’s shoes as the main artist for the property, and he continues to exhibit some fascinating, engaging visuals with War Toys. There are times when his art here reminded me of Frank (Sin City) Miller’s and Howard (American Flagg!) Chaykin’s styles, and at others, one can see the influence of such legends as Moebius and Ladronn in the meticulous detail. Moritat makes the most of the black-and-white format, and the European backdrops, especially in the third chapter, are absolutely stunning. Yvette, the tragic heroine at the heart of the story, is depicted as being buxom and beautiful, but I never got the impression the artist was presenting her as a sexual object. Instead, his purpose seems to be to demonstrate that war corrupts, that it taints. By the end of the story, Yvette is consumed with hate, not survival. The ugly rage within eclipses her external beauty.
The cover for this collected edition is a bit puzzling. I don’t understand why Starkings and company opted to emphasize the robotic/armored Elephantman on the cover when that element played such a minor role in the story. It merely served as a strong visual, perhaps summing up the notion that the Elephantmen were designed to be war machines; here, one is presented as a war machine literally. Yvette’s eyes and her rage (represented by the red color) are a much more prominent element in the story; in fact, with her and her hatred, there really wouldn’t be a story. The brighter colors are an odd choice as well, given the starkness of the visuals found inside the book.
When you consider the fact that this book’s writer is also the president of Comicraft, an industry pioneer in digital lettering, it should come as no surprise that the letters often add to the storytelling experience. There are panels in which sound effects blend into the art. Letters take the places of bullets and bombs, and larger effects make for a “surround sound” kind of feel, just with a visual bent. There’s also a nice balance between traditional letters and sound-effect representations and an effort to enhance the harshness of the war story with more inventive approaches.
While the main Elephantmen series is a color book, War Toys is presented in black and white, and I think I see the reason. That’s how most of the characters — from Yvette to Horn — see each. There’s black and white, day and night, good and evil. Yvette sees the Elephantmen only as monsters, just as the genetically engineered soldiers see her as a savage beast in need of eradication. Only Hip Flask (named in this story only by a number) deviates from such limited perspectives. Though the elements are over the top and fantastic, the central message — of the wasteful and spiritually devastating nature of war — is clear and quite down to earth. 8/10