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Raising the Bar: Elephantmen #57 Review

Written by David Mitchell on Wednesday, May 28 2014 and posted in Reviews

Raising the Bar: Elephantmen #57 Review

Who'd have guessed that a female writer and a female artist would actually treat female characters with respect?

I'm fairly new to the Elephantmen franchise, but I became rather attached to it very quickly. Thanks to my local library, I voraciously tore through every available collection in short order, and caught up with the remaining yet-to-be-collected issues thereafter. I was instantly grabbed by the series' painterly visuals, and the complex social and political narrative which explored the ethics of genetic experimentation and the treatment of soldiers post-war. 

While I found a lot to love, I've always had a major nagging complaint with the series- horrible handling of female characters. The pin-up proportioned female cast is always clad in ridiculous outfits and is generally written with little-to-no character depth. The ladies of Elephantmen are primarily there to fawn over the brooding male protagonists, look pretty, and otherwise have maybe one additional motivation. 
I'm happy to say that the newest issue of Elephantmen, #57 specifically, is actually one of the best issues of the whole series, and is actually one of the most progressive issues in both the writing and the visual depiction of female characters. A flashback issue taking place during the war between humanity and the Elephantmen, the story regards the revenge-driven vigilante Yvette and her brief time spent with a Scandinavian family surviving outside the war zone. 
Pencils and inks are handled by the talented Marley Zarcone, and colors & letters are respectively handled by the issue's writers, Marian Churchland and Richard Starkings. I'm prone to consider that Ms. Churchland's involvement with the issue may have contributed to its progressive perspective on female characters, who are numerous and diversely motivated in the story at hand. Easily read as a standalone issue, we are given insight into the life of a young farm girl named Agathe who is eager to emulate the legendary guerrilla fighter Yvette, much to the displeasure of her mother, who has already lost a son to the war. All three characters are well-defined, each with clear motivations and tensions. Agathe is presented as a young woman lost while trying to grow up in the war, eager to prove herself an adult but not yet prepared for the horrors of battle. She is resentful of the gender role placed upon her by her own mother, and dislikes that she should be demure and gracious before men. Her mother is more than just a cruel old-fashioned crone, however- she is presented as a woman who deeply cares for her children, and wishes to protect her daughter as she could not protect her son. Yvette is given far more humanity than I've seen in most other issues, still driven by hatred of the Elephantmen but also deeply empathic to Agathe (as Yvette, too, has lost a brother), and at the very same time, regretful that Agathe should desire the same path. Yvette's regret that Agathe should try to emulate her shows a sense of depth that she is often not given- she hates the path that she herself has gone down, knows she cannot change it, and feels guilt that she might inspire others to follow in her footsteps.
Dialog is effective and believable, and the pacing is very good throughout. The quiet and bleak ending is artfully ambiguous. 
The book's visuals are not in line with most of the franchise, but they're very good. Artist Marley Zarcone is less painterly than the usual Elephantmen artists, but her subtle and expressive figures are among the best the series has ever seen. Her lines are confident, and she's quite smart how she can be either very sparse or considerably dense with her line placement. Use of some nice organic brush textures for spot-blacks brings a nice visual anchoring within the lovely, muted color palette. 
I have to recommend this issue highly. Elephantmen is a series I enjoy greatly, but I generally have to recommend it with a heavy warning that the handling of female characters is poor. This issue is an outstanding exception to that trend, and with a near-standalone plot and unique visuals, I feel it may be one of the best issues of the whole series. Highly recommended, even to people who haven't read Elephantmen in the past.


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