Written by: Tom Ward
Illustrated by: Luke Parker
Lettered by: Nic J. Shaw
Edited by: Claire Lenton
Self Published…click here for a free digital copy of this comic!
When I was a little kid growing up in New York City there was a time when I would be walking around the Big Apple with my mother or whatever adult guardian would have been entrusted to taking care of me and I would see posters for a movie called The Elephant Man pasted around everywhere. I have a specific memory of those posters. They were haunting and somewhat frightening to a little boy like me but they peaked a certain curiosity as well. I didn’t know who this “Elephant Man” was…why was he called “The Elephant Man”? Was he a super hero? It looked like he wore a mask…but he appeared in the posters to be somewhat sinister. Was he a monster? Again, I had no idea what the movie was about but for some reason I asked my mother if I could go see The Elephant Man and I’ll never forget the look she had on her face when she turned to me in shock and told me in no unsure terms that I would not be seeing The Elephant Man. I also remember that when I asked her why I couldn’t see it she very emphatically told me that it was because,”That is for grownups!”
It wasn’t until many, many years later that I understood what my mother had meant by that statement. I had in my tiny mind assumed that I couldn’t see David Lynch’s masterpiece because it was too scary or violent or maybe because there were naked women in it. But that wasn’t it. Beyond what the obviously frightening physical appearance of Joseph (John in the film) Merrick might do to a boy of around five years old, The Elephant Man is a movie that is very adult in its tone and its themes. It’s a beautiful piece of cinema with a look and a narrative that would be too intense for a sensitive boy of my age and I’m forever grateful to my mother for having the wisdom of making the call to know that, yes, some stuff is definitely “for grownups.”
While this comic doesn’t have the emotional maturity or intensity of the aforementioned film it’s still a somewhat entertaining read. It’s unfair to make the comparison between David Lynch’s film and this comic being that they are two completely unrelated works. Any story that uses the somewhat tragic yet inspirational tale of David Merrick’s life as a backdrop is bound to run into being measured up against that movie. This take on “The Elephant Man” tale is less of a historical examination of his life than it is a re-imagining of it. This introductory issue sets the stage for Merrick to emerge as some sort of metaphysical super adventurer ala Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. In this author’s universe, not only was Merrick horribly disfigured but like some unconventional X-Man from the past his disabilities provide him with abilities far beyond those of his mortal ken.
Yes, you read that right: this comic plays out “The Elephant Man” as less of a historical drama and kicks it up into action hero mode. Now, you can debate the tastefulness of that idea amongst yourselves. I know that when I mentioned the concept to two different friends of mine their first reaction was one of complete shock. One of them even stated, “Why would anyone want to read something like that?” It’s a statement that I somewhat identified with as I began to read the comic and while I do have to say that I do have some issue with possible insensitivity and marketability of the subject matter, I will say that Merrick The Sensational Elephant Man is an extremely well put together and professionally made comic book.
I guess what I’m saying is that if you were going to do a comic book about “The Elephant Man” as an Indiana Jones type adventurer you could do a lot worse than this. A whole lot worse. All in all this comic is a somewhat tasteful affair. Nothing within the book is out of bounds in any way and Tom Ward actually crafts a pretty entertaining origin tale. I found the whole thing an enjoyable read and was actually surprised as to how well the creators made it work as well as it does. This is pretty much the genesis of Joseph Merrick as an adventurer in the vein of old time Saturday afternoon movie matinees .
As a matter of fact, what makes this book work so well is the style that it is illustrated in. I don’t know if it’s possible to actually plagiarize an artists’s style but artist Luke Parker has gone a long way to appropriate Mike Mignola‘s illustration technique. So much so that when I first looked at the book I thought that Mignola himself had drawn it. Call it what you will, but Parker’s art goes a long way towards making Merrick the Sensational Elephant Man as compelling as it is. The method of art used in this comic keeps the visuals of Merrick’s appearance from being too appalling and the negative space of the blacks employed adds the appropriate mood to the piece. I’m more than convinced that it is the somewhat simplified rendering style of the comic that keeps the story from becoming visually unappealing. If a more realistic style of art had been used I’d imagine that many readers would have possibly had the same reaction to this comic that my two friends did.
I understand what the creators of this book were going for…they were trying to take an actual historical figure and put a twist on his story. The comic works really well and is a worthy enough clone of Mignola’s Hellboy that I found it an interesting read. I just personally found it a bit hard to separate my own feelings on the actual man that existed from the tragic hero that I discovered in this book. This take on “The Elephant Man” is a bit different than something in the vein of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It takes an actual man’s life experience that all of us can look to as an example of rising from adversity and attempts to make a common superhero tale out of it. The problem with something like The Sensational Elephant Man is that the actual real life story of Joseph Merrick is going to be more compelling and powerful than any made up adventure story about him. Right out the gate this comic has a lot to live up to and, unfortunately, it just can’t. Which is a major bummer because the people behind this thing are obviously extremely talented I feel that maybe they could have applied their talents towards a completely original fictional character that wouldn’t have so much baggage attached to him. I’m willing to admit that my own personal prejudices toward the subject matter may have colored my perception of this book. I will say, in closing, that despite my misgivings about the comic’s subject matter that I hope to see much more from the talents behind this book. If anything, hopefully this comic will give them a springboard to showcase their impressive abilities wherever they may choose to apply them.