Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Written by Tom Ward
Illustrated by Luke Parker and Nic J. Shaw
"Merrick: The Elephant Man" tells the true(ish) story of Joseph Merrick, a man living in late 19th century England who suffered from an extremely rare condition that caused his unusual appearance. The story of his life has (as you are probably aware) been previously told in other media, including a play, and a 1980 movie directed by David Lynch. However, none of that is necessary to appreciate the story being presented here. This is a well-told, gorgeously illustrated story, which effectively conveys the fear, sadness and general somber tone befitting the tragic life of the protagonist.
Merrick's tale is a lonely one, as he is an outcast in society and is reviled and feared for his appearance. We first see him lying injured in the street. He is found by a Dr. Treves, who knows him. We then jump backwards in time to when Merrick was the featured performer (specimen) in a freak show. He comes to the attention of Dr. Treves, who wants to study Merrick. Merrick is resistant, but eventually comes to be under the Doctor's care. The relationship is a somewhat difficult one, as Dr. Treves has a clear sense of entitlement and privilege towards Merrick. There's another jump, forward this time, and find that Merrick and Treves parted company for some period of time, where Merrick and others traveled to continental Europe to perform, but Merrick was treated poorly. Unfortunately, these jumps around in time are a bit confusing at times. As the issue ends, we can see that there are other forces, sinister forces, who also have an interest in Merrick.
This is a very well put together comic. The art is extremely strong here, and I don't think it would be unfair to describe it as fairly Mignola-esque (which I and most others would consider a good thing). You have the same striking dark colors, a lot of gray, sharp contrasts, and a "comic" style that nevertheless conveys a great deal of human emotion.
There are some sequences and facial expressions that are more stylized, but I found the art very compelling. The characters here are strongly portrayed as well. Merrick himself is something of a gray Hulk-like character, but the art and story convey his emotions effectively. He's a sympathetic character; even though he comes across as somewhat passive in the story, we get to see his humanity and his unhappiness at his treatment coming through.
Doctor Treves is also a figure whose complexity comes across in this story. He genuinely seems to care for the "Elephant Man" and believes that he is helping, but he is also not above treating the Elephant Man as simply one of his experiments (as when he shoots Merrick without notice for the cause of science). When you hear the Doctor's annoyance at Merrick at having been rude (As an aside I personally don't think it's rude if you want to avoid being shot!), you get a real glimpse into Dr. Treves' regard for Merrick, namely that he should be grateful for whatever regard he gets.
This is the first issue of a Kickstarter Project, and it is the stated goal of the creators to step "between historical facts and turn of the century folklore juxtaposed with the American superhero comic conventions of super powers, masks, secret identities and fantastic adventures." There's a lot of complex motivation and emotion in this story. Combined with the hint of a larger mystery, and gorgeous, memorably atmospheric art, this is a very strong debut and worthy of being backed, if you are able to do so.