Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span.
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.
Poem used by Joseph Merrick to end his letters, adapted from ‘False Greatness’ by Isaac Watts.
Written by Tom Ward
Art by Luke Parker
Letters by Nic J Shaw
Edited by Clare Lenton
Writer Tom Ward describes Merrick like this:
“Merrick: The Sensational Elephantman is a Victorian pulp/adventure/horror/cape gaslamp comic set in 1880s’ London. Based on a fictional version of the life of Joseph Merrick, it steps 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.”
From moment one I absolutely loved this book. It’s a Victorian mystery book with John Merrick at its helm, the Elephant Man of old London lore by way of both David Lynch and Mike Mignola. It’s a spectacular achievement in immediate mood setting and tone: dark but with a sense of black humour. It’s gorey and gritty and looks incredible.
As a new series, it’s one of the best overall packages I have seen for a long time. Issue One, released earlier in the year, was funded through Kickstarter. Issue 2 is about to be released and I was lucky enough to see a copy early. (For those of you who came in late, the good news is that Issue 1 is free to download from the project’s web site).
On first sight the cover is a striking achievement in itself. Immediately giving off that classic Hellboy/Amazing Screw on Head vibe. It’s given an almost sepia colour palette that shows it as almost a document, aged in the 130 years since it’s creation. You are dragged in to an historic story in the same way that Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill do on their League of Gentlemen series. It’s also got a sense of the League‘s literary background and this only adds to the seductive nature of its darkness. You could easily see this next to a Pat Mills or Bryan Talbot 2000AD strip (it’s that good).
The story jumps pretty much straight in at the deep end with a creepy fayre/circus and an escaped real elephant that’s captured by its keepers. It’s an origin story that is told in cleverly constructed flashback sequences. We get a hint at why Merrick is afflicted in such a way and this leads us into a mystery. Merrick has revenge on his mind and it unfolds slowly and creepily.
You quickly sense that this book is in it for the long run. It lets out its secrets slowly and is building in conspiracy. It has some absurd moments (the reason that Merrick is an ‘Elephant’ man) but these only add to the charm.
Some of the pages reminded me of 1970s Bronze Age Marvel Comics Jim Steranko/Paul Gulacy multi-panelled pages crossed with Gotham by Gaslight from DC Comics. They are fit to burst with details and Easter Eggs. The colouring is spot on and carries the whole piece in staggeringly professional sequentials. I’m struck that if this was an Image book it would be selling huge numbers!
It’s easy to sum the book up as a ‘Victorian Hellboy’ (especially in terms of art style) but Merrick has a darker and more immoral point of view. You can’t be certain who is on which side and it has a much dirtier underside than Mignola’s titular character.
Issue 2 doesn’t muck about. Great storytelling leaves you on a creepy high point. I can’t wait to see the third book and will be getting a physical copy as soon as it’s out. This is genuinely great stuff and it’s brilliant to see a book like this jump out of the UK small press scene.
I urge you to visit www.merrickcomic.com and grab yourself a copy.
Many thanks for reading
Antony Esmond is a comic reviewer and writer – his hips don’t lie.