When you see the cover of Elephant Man, by Greg Houston, you will realize you’re in for a rather surreal experience. In this send up of the superhero genre, the art is the main show, the plot definitely being secondary to Houston’s madcap illustrations, and Houston’s story of the superhero of Baltimore doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
As the book opens, we see Elephant Man being honored by the Mayor of Baltimore, Thunder McPeeHee, who declares the start of a series of odd celebrations in Elephant Man’s honor. Throughout the book it really feels as if Houston is trying very, very hard to be weird and purposely off-putting. Obviously Elephant Man, complete with his secret identity of Jon Merrick, is an all-too-thinly veiled reference to the actual historical Joseph (sometimes called John) Merrick, the sufferer of neurofibromatosis in the late 19th century who became famous for his physical deformity and dubbed the Elephant Man. And Houston’s superhero is drawn with all the physical flaws of the actual person.
The running joke throughout the book is that Elephant Man has no super powers, nor, in all honesty, is any good as a superhero, a fact to which all of Baltimore seems oblivious. That is, except for the two villains of the piece, TV commentator Handsome Dick Denton and the ‘supervillain’ the Priest, the Rabbi, and the Duck. Yes, that’s all one entity. Houston explains the origin of this three-headed character in a parody of the typical super-origin story, until, as Houston puts it “… the holy men (and duck) are little more than a walking punchline!” This sort of long-winded setup and payoff of a rather obvious joke are typical of Houston’s writing. As hard as he tries to be funny, the humor is labored and unsubtle. But with character names like Crappy the Fly, (you guessed it, a talking fly-headed man) it’s obvious that lowbrow and scatological humor is about the only kind of humor you’re going to get.
I wish I could say that Houston’s art saves the book, but again, it seems to be a case of trying too hard. To say Houston is a stylist would be an understatement, as he seems to go to great effort to make most of his characters as contorted as possible. That’s not to say there’s not talent there. Elephant Man and all the others are consistently drawn and it’s obvious Houston has a good sense of the construction of his figures. However, his alternative comix style distracts from, rather than enhances, the story. The effect would be improved by the ‘camera’ being pulled back slightly so that the sometimes cramped panels gave the characters room to breathe, but it’s often the dialogue that squeezes them out. The balance between words and pictures seems off, where each element seems to compete with the other and not compliment it. I would like to see more of his art, as it does have unique style and vibe, but used with more restraint in service of his story rather than just trying to be as weird as possible.
In short, Elephant Man is a near-miss. Houston’s tale of the superhero-that-isn’t falls rather flat, with dead jokes and frenetic artwork. It’s easy to see the talent and vitality Houston could bring to the right project. But Elephant Man isn’t it. If it was less over-the-top it would find an audience with young adults who are fans of Mad Magazine-style parody. But as it is, it mostly likely would only be appropriate for the adult shelves. Adults will get it, however, and most likely be slightly disappointed by what they find.
Elephant Man #1
by Greg Houston