Two weeks ago at WonderCon in San Francisco, Image Comics announced that the Eisner Award-winning monthly comic series Elephantmen had been optioned by Zucker Productions for major motion picture development. Elephantmen, which was created by writer Richard Starkings as a spin-off of his popular series Hip Flask, is a dystopic science fiction story featuring a unique cast of anthropomorphic human-animal hybrids. Here is a brief summary of the series.
“The story of the Elephantmen takes place in Los Angeles in the not too distant future — in a world where human/animal hybrids were created to fight a war between Africa and China. Scarred by their experiences in war and seeking to somehow find their own humanity, the Elephantmen are now scattered throughout the world amongst the humans they were created to kill.”
This past weekend at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, I had the opportunity to talk with Richard Starkings about the film adaptation of his series, why he’s excited to be paired with Zucker Productions, and his thoughts on the current world of film and comics.
Screen Rant: What are some of the difficulties you see in bringing Elephantmen to the big screen?
Starkings: I don’t think that the difficulties are as great as they once might have been. I remember when I saw Phantom Menace, there was a character talking to Obi Wan in a diner and he was a CGI character, and, at that moment, I realized that CGI technology had developed far enough that a character with weight and substance could function. I’m not talking about Jar-Jar, because Jar-Jar is a whole other kettle of fish, but that particular character I thought, “Well, I could see Hip Flash and Ebony Hide brought to life that way.”
We’ve talked also with the movie producers about men in suits, and I would have been very hesitant about that until I saw Where the Wild Things Are, which was a combination of men in suits and CGI, and it was extremely effective. The expressions on the faces were clearly part-animation (physical animation) and part-computer animation. And again, the weight and substance was there. So, I don’t think the difficulties are as great as they might have been 15 years ago.
But I did create Elephantmen with the idea that, if it was brought to the big screen, that there wouldn’t be too many characters to use up all the CGI budget. I think the only difficulty would be if it was overambitious. And I remember when I saw Chronicles of Riddick, I thought, “Okay, I get where you’re going, but you’re overambitious.” There’s too much CGI, and I fell asleep in the middle of the movie. As my mind often does when you’re in overload, too much is sometimes worse than not enough, so I really sought to strike the right balance.
You know, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Blade Runner, and Blade Runner was created before CGI was possible to the extent that it is now. So I don’t think there will be difficulties other than there are typical difficulties when you translate something from one medium to another.
Screen Rant: It seems like the comic book industry is very ripe for filmmaking. Hollywood studios swoop in and they lock up comic franchises as quickly as they can. Do you feel that, in general, that’s a very good thing for the comic industry?
Starkings: Yes, I do. I’ve said many times that I think the geek have inherited the earth, because Star Wars was 1977, so anyone who was born when Star Wars was released is 33 or up now, so you have a lot of people in the movie industry who have a great respect for the material. Science fiction and superheroes are not necessarily off to the right-of-center or left-of-center anymore, they are very near the center because people are pop culture enthusiasts. They are pop culture literate. It is part of their DNA.
You know, I grew up on the TV series Doctor Who. It’s still my favorite TV series. It’s part of my DNA. I can’t not love it, I can’t not watch it, and it’s so gratifying to see it taking off in America now. Because a series like Doctor Who was revived by people who grew up on it, it has this depth and resonance and respect that might have been missing during some of the periods in its history when it was made by people who were jobbing – writers and producers – and I don’t think you get that in comics anymore. People come here because they love it, they love their work, and that connects with people in Hollywood who also love their work. I don’t think there’s a movie producer who wants to make a bad movie.
Screen Rant: Could you talk about your relationship with Zucker Productions and why you thought they were the right company to option your series?
Starkings: I’ve been extremely fortunate to connect with Janet Zucker, who I have a lot of respect for because she was behind Propostion 71, which was a stem cell research proposition in California. More than I respect her body of work, which is great in and of itself, I respect her as a human being. She connected with Elephantmen because I did my research on stem cell research, so when we spoke for the first time, 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 someone who wanted to bring Elephantmen to life.
I wanted to be able to look that other person in the eye and know them and want to work with them. I had held off and I had brushed off other offers. Hip Flask, when it was called Hip Flask, was optioned 10 or 12 years ago by my friend Jeph Loeb and KISS frontman Gene Simmons, and I felt that was wrong. Jeph was my friend and he was very happy to return the rights to me. But now I feel that I know my property much better. I put it out there for people to enjoy.
As people often say, no matter what the movie is like, the book is on the shelf. You can take it down and read it, and you can see what I intended. But Janet is keeping me involved at all levels of the process. She’s surrounded by wonderful people. I have not had the typical Hollywood experience where I feel like they’re trying to steal my baby out of my stroller when my back is turned. So, I’m very hopeful. I’m involved in the treatment for the movie. I don’t necessarily want to write the script. I’m very busy putting the book out. I’m on Volume 3 already, there will be a fourth one next year, and a Volume 0 next year also.
Screen Rant: For those who may be coming to your series for the first time when the film comes out, what are the main themes that you want to communicate?
Starkings: I think that’s for other people to judge. I write from my life experience and I’ve sometimes been surprised at the themes that people have picked out, and then I realize that, “Yes, that is something that is of concern to me.” People have picked out themes of racism, hegemonization, even homphobia and xenophobia. But I’m trying to write characters that feel real. I don’t necessarily look to touch on themes, but I think it’s impossible to live in a multicultural society like America without those themes touching you.
I live in Los Angeles which is quite a melting pot. I have a lot of friends of many different cultures. I’m a Buddhist. Buddhism is humanism, and I would like to think that after practicing Buddhism for 22 years, that humanistic philosophy emerges from my work, which is important to me, but it’s not what I sit down for. I sit down and say, “How am I going to tell my story today?”
While I’m excited for the big screen adaptations of comic book movies like Green Lantern, Captain America, and Thor, I think that it’s a great to see Hollywood showing an interest in more independent fare like Elephantmen.
What do you think? Does Elephantmen sound like something you would enjoy on the big screen? What do you think of some of Starkings’ insights into the comic book and entertainment industry in general?