Victorian sideshow phenomenon Joseph Merrick (aka the Sensational Elephantman) might not seem the obvious choice for a comic book hero but writer Tom Ward and artist Luke Parker manage to achieve just that in Merrick: The Sensational Elephatman. With issue #4 of the ComiXology Submit sensation hitting the stores this week, we look back at the first four instalments.
Writer: Tom Ward
Artist: Luke Parker
Price: £0.69 for #1 £1.49 for #2-#4 from ComiXology
Based on the title you’d be forgiven for thinking that Merrick: The Sensational Elephantman was a post-modern mash-up, in the vein of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, however unlike these equally sensationally monickered series, Merrick is a much more considered and intelligent read. Instead of creating a superhero pastiche, Merrick’s creative team of Tom Ward and Luke Parker have gone down the occult Victorian mystery avenue, cherry picking some of the key moments from Merrick’s life and giving them just enough of a fantastical twist to make them seem larger than life, while augmenting the whole tale with a sinister Masonic sub plot.
Tonally, Merrick clearly owes a debt to Alan Moore and his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, as Ward weaves real-life characters and urban legends from the Victorian era into the story, keeping things both historically accurate and also delightfully dark. We delve into Merrick’s early life and see his traumatic arrival into the world before learning about his time in the circus and his mistreatment at the hands of evil circus owner Carlos Ferrari. After he returns to London (despite being left penniless and beaten in Belgium), we begin to see the flourishing of Merrick’s relationship with Dr Treves, who rescues him from the docks and takes care of him under the pretence of looking after him, but he is also keen to find out more about his rare condition. As this first arc develops things begin to take a more occult and action-packed turn as Merrick goes after Ferrari thanks to a tip-off from Treves’ Masonic brothers Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Hardy, who are looking to use Merrick’s unique skills to help further their shadowy activities.
As well as using the language and style of Victorian Penny Dreadfuls to help tell their story, Parker and Ward are also not afraid to portray Merrick as more modern ‘superhero’. For example Merrick’s birth in the fairground in issue 2, where his mother is spooked by an elephant and the impact is deemed to have created his condition as a result of maternal impressioning, it reads like classic Lee and Kirby ‘origin story’ with some dodgy science and an imposing animal antagonist giving us our hero and his powers. While Merrick’s assault on Ferrari in issue #3 and #4 while covering his face with a mask feels like pure Dark Knight, as he dishes out his own brand of revenge while also heroically rescuing his fellow circus freaks from the clutches of the nefarious Ferrari. It’s this smart mix of genres that makes Merrick such a compelling read and helps it to truly stand out in a very crowded market place.
It is also helped here by some strong artwork and exceptional colouring from artist Luke Parker. If Ward is channelling Alan Moore in his writing, then Parker is paying tribute to the world of Hellboy and Mike Mignola with his angular artwork and heavy use of shadow (not to mention a hulking leading man with a giant right hand). Visually Merrick feels very much like a kindred spirit to Mignola’s son of Satan series and artist Luke Parker manages to keep his work just on the right side of homage to make the style really work for the book. By mixing this strong visual identity with some classic Victoriana and Lovecraftian sinisterness, Parker creates a really compelling look and feel for Merrick. Although some might say it is derivative, we prefer to think of it as like a band who take a classic song and reimagine it in a different genre. They aren’t copying the original, rather they are taking a great source and executing their version so well, that they manage to create something which is both familiar and original at the same time, which isn’t easily done!