Walking Punchlines: Elephant Man #1

Posted by on August 18th, 2010 at 5:53 AM

Rob reviews the new comic from Greg Houston, Elephant Man #1 (NBM).

There isn’t much that’s subtle about Greg Houston’s new comic from NBM, Elephant Man #1, and I don’t think the artist would have it any other way.  It’s over-the-top, frenetic, and flimsy in concept, though Houston skates by this simply by whipping his way through the book before the reader could notice.  The reason why the book works is that while it has genre parody elements, it’s really an extended love letter to Houston’s home town of Baltimore.  The title character is indeed a grotesque, disfigured costumed adventurer who has no actual powers, but is still beloved as his city’s hero.  That’s because, as his characters note, Baltimore is filled with ugly and fat people, so it’s no wonder that a grotesquerie would turn out to be its hero.

Elephant Man isn’t quite as sharply realized as his first book for NBM, Vatican Hustle.  There’s no single character quite as memorable as Houston’s decadent, depraved and somehow likeable Pope, and it shows in the way he flits from character to character.  The character that comes closest is the Rabbi, the Priest & the Duck–a single, three-headed walking punchline of a villain.  It’s bar-joke as character-concept, fused together by riffing on flimsy supervillain origin stories.  Seeing that character seething in his grimy apartment, wishing revenge on the world, was far more interesting than the superhero metacommentary of Elephant Man’s double life as a reporter, with a secret identity that’s extra-ridiculous because of his deformities.  Houston was trying to riff on this idea and take it to its ridiculous extreme, but the result fell flat.

I would have preferred more time being spent on the oddities of Baltimore, like The Big Hair Tough Girls.  These ass-kicking donut shop workers are exactly the sort of thing Houston does best: a loving caricature of something ridiculous and unpleasant.  The Ralph Steadman/Bill Plympton/Mort Drucker qualities to his line remained in full effect, as the reader was rewarded on page after page with funny & gross drawings.  This is a comic to be looked at more than to be read, other than for conceptual context.  The villains in the story flail ineffectively against Elephant Man, who simply has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and they are repeatedly humiliated like the antagonists in a Warner Bros. cartoon.

Lacking any fully realized comedic characters or the shock value of Vatican Hustle, Elephant Man feels like a pleasant and well-executed but entirely inessential comic.  What made Vatican Hustle such a pleasant surprise was the way Houston took a funny initial idea–the Pope as swaggering badass–and then went way over the top with that idea.  Here, it felt like Houston wasn’t as willing to take the same kind of risks.  Given the impact that his drawings have and his willingness to exploit bad taste for a laugh, I wish he had gone a little further into Johnny Ryan territory.  It’s rare that I would say this about any comic, but Elephant Man needed to be a little grosser, and it needed to be a little smarter about its gross jokes.  If there are further volumes, I’d like to see Houston either tighten things up a bit and go the Trondheim/Sfar route of providing a real story along with the spoof, or else go as far as possible into the realm of shocking absurdity.

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