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Starking's HIP FLASK

Written by Richard Starkings
Art by Ladronn

Published by Comicraft
The Hip Flask story that creator Richard Starkings has been wanting to tell from the very beginning gets told in July’s Hip Flask: Mystery City – The Big Here & The Long Now.

The Hip Flask series is set in the 23rd century and stars Hieronymous "Hip" Flask - a human/hippo hybrid, one of the survivors of a series of genetic engineering experiments conducted by the sinister MAPPO organization at a secret facility deep in the heart of Africa.

In the first one-shot, Hip Flask: Unnatural Selection, in 2002, we learnt the tragic origin of Hieronymous "Hip" Flask, a human/hippo hybrid created by the sinister MAPPO organization at a secret facility deep in the heart of Africa. MAPPO was run by Doctor Kazushi Nikken, who had devilishly wanted to create superweapons in his image through a series of genetic engineering experiments.

Set 20 years after Unnatural Selection, the second one-shot, Hip Flask: Elephantmen in 2003 was set in Los Angeles and reintroduced Hip Flask and the rest of the Elephantmen, and showed how they were being treated twenty years after being released from captivity. Elephantmen also introduces readers to Serengheti, a rival trader whose envy of Horn’s success is matched only by his hatred for all the Elephantmen, and The Silencer, a former MAPPO employee who somehow escaped judgment for the part he played in the corruption and abuse of Hip Flask and his kind

However, Unnatural Selection and Elephantmen only set the stage to Starkings and Ladronn’s larger story, a story that will now be told in July’s Hip Flask: Mystery City – The Big Here & The Long Now.

“The story I pitched to Ladronn some five years ago began with the events depicted about seven or eight pages into Mystery City,” Starkings told Newsarama. “If you haven't read Unnatural Selection or Elephantmen, you could actually pick up the story with this issue and have no problems following it. The story begins with Hip and Vanity investigating the aircar which mysteriously appeared out of nowhere at the end of Elephantmen and crashed into the Library Tower.”

According to the official solicitation text, “The broken and bloody body of an unidentifiable man sets Hip Flask and Vanity Case on a trail that leads them to Casbah Joe and The Eye of the Needle; the creator of the Elephantmen, Kazushi Nikken, suspects that there are plans afoot to release him from imprisonment and gang war erupts between the forces of Obadiah Horn and Baron Serengheti. Where will Flask's investigation lead him? What dark secrets lie in Sahara's past, and what is the deadly mission of the man called The Silencer? Los Angeles 2162 is Mystery City!”

“Everything readers need to know about the story so far will be clear after they read the first five or six pages of Mystery City,” Starkings stressed again. “That said, I highly recommend that anyone who has not read Unnatural Selection or Elephantmen should swing by and buy copies right now!”

Unlike the first two one-shots, co-writer Joe Casey is not on board this time. “Joe was instrumental in getting Ladronn and I together and although I had the storyline plotted out from the very beginning, I was too busy figuring out how to publish the first issue to gather up the confidence to script it myself. The second issue was as much me as it was Joe and by that time I was starting to feel more possessive about the character and the story. This issue I'm going it alone, with Joe and Ladronn's blessing I'm happy to say.

“What Joe brought to the story, I think, was the dry, dark tone the first issue in particular needed. The grim nature of the story was something that genuinely surprised me at first -- I don't think of myself as someone who is fascinated with darkness, but Ladronn was extremely interested in the more gruesome aspects of Hip Flask's origin and encouraged me to develop a more disturbing story. I sometimes think he sympathizes more with Hip's amoral creator, Nikken, than with Hip himself! Or with me! [laughs]

The artist, Ladronn, hails from Mexico. Yet, his critically-acclaimed artwork is very much a fusion of European and American styles. “Ladronn will admit that he has always have been interested in the European market, and his artwork has always been oriented in that direction,” Starkings continued. “But I'd say that it wasn't until Hip Flask that this influence become more visible. We always conceived Hip Flask as an album for the European market, and it was Ladronn's decision to create the book in the wider European format. I was happy to accommodate him, because it suited the story, and because what I wanted was a book that looked like a movie - hence all the panels that are as wide as the page.

“Without question, Ladronn's true contribution is the look of the book; the mood and the atmosphere -- and the city, which is as much a character in the story as are Hip and Horn. Ladronn is, I think, a very troubled soul, in that he internalizes a lot of the anxieties which we all of us face in the course of his daily life, feels them very deeply and then expresses them in his work. There were some illustrations of Hip Flask in the last issue which told us so much more about Hip's character than words are capable of expressing. And when Ladronn draws a city, you don't just see that city, you feel it!”

Starkings once said that the biggest influence on him as a teenager was 2000AD during its heyday and Hip Flask was very much the kind of character that he could imagine fitting in amongst Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and Robo Hunter.

For those who’ve been keeping themselves abreast with current news, DC Comics had initially acquired the North American publishing rights to all existing and future comic material from the UK’s Rebellion, publisher of 2000AD as well as Judge Dredd Megazine and others. The publisher had also formed an alliance with European publisher Humanoids. However, it was announced last month that DC has ended its relationships with the European publishers and will no longer publish the 2000AD/Rebellion and Humanoids reprints in North America from July onwards.

In light of recent events, does Starkings think this latest move was a blow to his creation? Would Hip Flask fill the void left by the European publishers? “Well, aside from the fact that I'm very glad that Hip Flask doesn't have any competition in the American market from 2000AD and Humanoids this summer, I'm not so sure that the 2000AD and European titles failed because of any kind of lack of interest,” Starkings, who was also once a group editor at Marvel's UK division, said. “Some of the choices DC made seemed very odd to me – Judge Dred/Judge Death has already been reprinted at least half a dozen times -- most recently by Titan as part of their excellent hardcover line repackaging of “2000AD's Greatest Hits”.

“Personally, I'd have loved to see a 300+ black and white edition of Strontium Dog in the Big Book Of format, with the exception of the also-over-reprinted Portrait of a Mutant story, most of the Wagner/Grant/Ezquerra Strontium Dog stories such as Bubo and the Bad Boys, Max Bubba or Outlaw haven't been collected in trade paperback. Or how about a series of 2000AD Archives -- collecting every ten issues of the weekly in sequential order? That way, lost gems like Shako, Ant Wars and Flesh would get another outing alongside Dredd and Dan Dare.

“I don't buy into the myth that American readers don't like science fiction comics. I've always proudly described the Hip Flask series as "Pulp Science Fiction." To my mind, Spider-Man, FF, Superman and X-Men are all pulp science fiction comics. Hip Flask wouldn't look out of place teamed up with the Thing, and his origin has a lot in common with the children of the atom.”

Back to Mystery City, Starkings said that “Nobody would love to see Hip Flask appear more regularly than I, but I'm bound to Ladronn's schedule and generous talent. It's very clear when you look at his art that each page is a labor of love. Hip has been taking up pretty much all of Ladronn's time for the last four years, but after the last issue I gave him time off to complete the very beautiful The Boy Who Cried Golden Tears by [Alejandro] Jodorowsky for Metal Hurlant. I knew that it was a dream of his for a very long time to work with Jodorowsky and I also knew that he was sitting on the script for three years. I wanted to see the story finished almost as much as he did, but I don't think either of us realized it would take quite so long. I can't believe it wasn't nominated for an Eisner -- it's a chilling tale, incredibly illustrated. Darko Macan has said it best: "It is easy to draw beautiful things well, but to draw the ugly world and make it beautiful... this takes a talent of Ladronn's scope!" His artwork is at once incredibly detailed and yet easy on the eyes.

“You'll also be seeing Ladronn's work on the covers of the regular Conan book for The Tower of the Elephant adaptation by Kurt Busiek, as well as on the covers of the new DC OMAC Project series. But all being well, we will have the next issue ready to go earlier next year. He has the script!

“The next issue, Hip Flask: Ouroborous is episode two of the three part The Big Here & The Long Now. And all I'm willing to say is that shock follows shock!”

Other than these, there is also the Hip Flask one-shot, Captain Stoneheart & The Truth Fairy by the creative team behind Cliffhanger’s Steampunk, Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo. “Well, Joe penned the script for that nearly four years ago and at this point there are seven pages penciled, and Chris has promised me it'll be wrapped up in the next couple of months. Although it is a Hip Flask story, it is quite different from The Big Here & The Long Now. More than that, I cannot say!”

Hip Flask: Mystery City – The Big Here & The Long Now is scheduled to be in stores in July.


Hip Flask: Mystery City is a story that Richard Starkings had the initial impetus for almost eight years ago. He wanted to take his hippopotamus lead on the trail of a grand mystery, complete with arch enemies, death-defying situations, and ... cute sidekicks. Starkings teased the story begins when "the broken and bloody body of an unidentifiable man sets Hip Flask and Vanity Case on a trail that leads them to Casbah Joe and The Eye of the Needle."

Starkings said he came up with the name first and then the rest of the story. "I thought it suggested a hard boiled Hippopotamus," he said. "I always loved all the play-on-words names like Varius Flavius in Asterix or Tracer Bullet in Calvin and Hobbes. Originally I thought of Hip as a Jim Rockford in hippo form. But over the course of the story Hip has developed a personality all of his own. He is kind, strong, well meaning and thoughtful and he is at peace with what he is. He cares a great deal about Vanity and is very patient with her questions and faux-pas regarding the Elephantmen. I had thrown in the name Vanity Case as a foil for "The Sleeze Brothers" when I edited that book at Marvel UK and Hip Flask sounded like a suitable companion for her when I decided to take the name back. Of course, Vanity ended up being Hip’s companion. She’s just 19 and doesn’t quite understand the Elephantmen or their relationship with each other. She truly cares about Hip, and she’s learning, and she knows she was assigned to work with Hip at the Information Agency because no one else wanted to work with him. She’s the Scully to Hip’s Mulder."

"The Elephantmen are the experimental creations of Kazushi Nikken and the MAPPO organization," he continued. "They are suprahuman creatures developed from both human and animal DNA, designed to fight the wars man no longer cares to fight for himself. The UN put an end to MAPPO’s experiments and rehabilitated and relocated the Elephantmen. Obadiah Horn and Baron Serengheti are arch enemies! Horn is the most celebrated of the Elephantmen. He has exploited man’s interest in his uniqueness and built himself a business empire. Serengheti is a rival African businessman who hates all the Elephantmen and is determined to bring Horn down."

These eclectic characters and situations grew out of something Starkings originally thought might just be 24 pages total. He explained, "The first two issues were intended as a three-page ashcan (Unnatural Selection) followed by an eight-page prologue which we had hoped to offer to Wizard (Elephantmen). Ladronn and I kept adding bits and they developed into more than 50 pages of set up!"

Set-up that might actually not have appeared under this title from Starkings, Joe Casey, or artist Ladronn; especially since Starkings suggested the title "Mystery City" to another pair of dynamic creators. "I had been pestering my friends Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale to create a creator-owned title of their own for a couple of years and had even gone so far as to suggest a title -- 'Mystery City'," Starkings explained. "But Jeph and Tim were constantly being signed to exclusives at either Marvel or DC and even though they liked the idea in concept, they couldn't seem to make the time to even talk about it. I felt sure that a Loeb/Sale book would be a hit even without a mainstream super hero. Then one day I realized that rather than encourage my colleagues to create their own book, I should be creating MY own book. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I called Ladronn and asked him if he was serious about drawing Hip Flask for me and he said yes. I'm still waiting for that Loeb/Sale series ...."

"Many professionals couldn't believe what I saw in the [hippopotamus] character -- Jim Lee, Jeph Loeb, Rob Liefeld, Scott Lobdell all pretty much patted me on the head and humored me!" Starkings continued. "Ladronn was the first creator I came across that understood that the character could come to life if we handled him right. Even so, it would never have occurred to me to pitch Hip to Marvel or DC, I just don't respond well to editorial involvement. I’m not a big fan of other people’s opinions! I considered Image briefly but some of my friends were having a rough time there so I decided that self-publishing was the only solution. Had I thought of the character 15 years ago, I might have wondered if 2000AD would be interested ."

Starkings is handling the writing chores solo on Hip Flask for the immediate future. He enjoyed collaborating with Casey and is thankful that Casey was able to bring he and Ladronn together. But Starkings finally felt confident enough in his scripting and in the direction of his creation to be the sole writer. "The second issue was as much me as it was Joe and by that time I was starting to feel more possessive about the character and the story," he said. "This issue I'm going it alone, with Joe and Ladronn's blessing I'm happy to say. What Joe brought to the story, I think, was the dry, dark tone the first issue in particular needed. The grim nature of the story was something that genuinely surprised me at first -- I don't think of myself as someone who is fascinated with darkness, but Ladronn was extremely interested in the more gruesome aspects of Hip Flask's origin and encouraged me to develop a more disturbing story. I sometimes think he sympathizes more with Hip's amoral creator, Nikken, than with Hip himself! Or with me! Heh!"

Starkings admitted there was a long interval between releases of each issue, but also said the wait was definitely worth it. He doesn't want to rush Ladronn. "People forget that the last two issues of Dark Knight Returns missed their ship dates because the work was worth the wait," Starkings said. "I think the same is true of Ladronn's incredible art -- and let's not forget that he pencils, inks and paints it all himself, not like that slacker Frank Miller who only wrote and penciled Dark Knight!"

"The story was designed to be episodic, with cliffhangers throughout," Starkings continued. "I daresay that, when the series is finished, we’ll re-release the series one issue at a time over the course of five months so that any new readers who were babes in arms when the first issue came out, can read the story as teenagers. They just won’t believe how quickly the issues appear! I don't intend to collect them into trade paperback until the whole story has been made available in hardcovers. It just doesn't seem fair. Waiting for the trade is killing comics! I love comics -- I love the serial nature of them, the title pages, the subplots, the cliffhangers, even the multiple covers! Even thought balloons! The first issue, and 11 pages of the second are already in a hardcover collection available at all good comic book stores and The story has been designed to fit five US comics and three European style albums. We're available in hardcover editions in France, Italy, Germany and Spain, and the second volume, which will collect the rest of Elephantmen and all of Mystery City, should be available this time next year."

Starkings said, "The basic framework of Hip Flask has remained the same for six years. Ladronn has the next script but I've not yet written the last one, issue #5. I like to wait to see if Ladronn puts anything in the previous issue that might need following up before pacing out the next episode. For example — Flask’s creator, Nikken, was originally only in two panels of the Ashcan and now he's in almost every issue! That was something unexpected yet welcome that grew out of Ladronn's interest in the origin of the Elephantmen. [I really enjoy] seeing my story brought to life by the inestimably talented and massively under-appreciated Ladronn. He cares about the character and the story just as much as I do, and you can see that care on every page."

Starkings teased the contents of Hip Flask: Mystery City.
"Following the crash of an aircar through the time portal developed by the Baverstock Foundation, Doctor Whitaker’s experiments have been brought to a halt. Hip Flask and his associate, Vanity Case, are brought in to track down the owner of the vehicle. Their investigations lead them to an old acquaintance, who is perhaps not all he seems. Meanwhile, Obadiah Horn and his consort, Sahara, face troubles of their won as Horn’s business interests come into conflict with those of his rival — Serengheti -- a conflict with deadly repercussions!
Hip Flask: Mystery City is available at the Active Images booth #2007 in the Independent Publisher Pavilion. Also exclusively available at the booth will be a new Ladronn Hip Flask sketchbook. In July Hip Flask returns in episode one of The Big Here & The Long Now: Mystery City"



In the year 2262, humans jet around in flying cars, communicate via holograms, and have Hippopotami as co-workers. This is the world of "Hip Flask," an ongoing comic series, shipping yearly, by Richard Starkings and artist Jose Ladronn. The title character, Hieronymous "Hip" Flask works with his human female partner Vanity Case as an advisor for the government's information agency where he finds himself tackling various mysteries. Hip is one of the "Elephant Men"; survivors of a genetic engineering experiment conducted by the Mappo Corporation and designed to create animal human hybrids for use as suprahuman weapons. The Elephantmen were freed by a UN taskforce and are now part of human society.

"Hip Flask: Mystery City" the third issue of the series is in stores now. CBR News spoke to Starkings about the latest installment of the series, which finds Hip working on a new case.

"New readers can read 'Mystery City' and enjoy it for what it is," Starkings told CBR News. "The first two issues, 'Unnatural Selection' and 'Elephentmen' were an ashcan and a zero issue that got out of control, and although they do flesh out the back stories of all the major characters, reading them is not absolutely essential. I added the prologue to 'Mystery City' to set the scene for new readers and nudge the memories of older readers (yes, some of our readers are literally three years older now!) who hadn't read the first two issues in a while."

Starkings originally intended for Hip's investigation of an aircar that crashed into the Marlowe building, the main plot of "Mystery City," to be the beginning of "Hip Flask," but plans changed… for the best of reasons. "Ladronn wanted to illustrate the origin story and show readers Hip's apartment, and Wagner the robot frog and Vanity's car and so all that material bubbled up in the ashcan and the zero issue. Before we knew it, we had more than fifty pages of back story and set up."

In "Mystery City" readers are introduced to a new Elephantman, Lieutenant Trench, an angry Zebra police detective who exchanges some tense words with Hip. Trench and Hip's confrontational relationship is one of the comment elements between the Elephantmen. "The Elephantmen don't want to be Human, they just don't want to be reminded that they're Elephantmen," Starkings explained. "It's very much a recurring theme in the first three issues. Their origin isn't one of which they're proud.

"Trench is actually loosely based on some attitudes expressed to me by an old friend, let's call him William, a massively talented comic book artist who worked for Neal Adams for a short time before penciling a few issues of 'Daredevil' way-back-when in an Adamsesque style," Starkings said. "William is an African American who was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist and would tell me stories of how he'd had to buy about seven copies of The Beatles' 'White Album' because if his mother found 'The Devil's Music' in the house, she would immediately destroy it. Many comics -- including Neal Adams' 'Superman/Muhammad Ali' book suffered the same fate. Although William would laugh about this with me, he held inside himself a dark melancholy. Which at times you could feel so strongly you might wonder if you'd be sucked inside it.

"One day when we were on our way to the movies together he pointed to a homeless man and told me that he was just a rent check away from joining him on the streets. For some reason he then started talking to me about the hatred he felt for his father, and the contempt he felt his father held him in," Starkings said. "I tried my best to suggest that all fathers love their sons but were not always able to express it. At this point William's demeanor grew darker and he spoke to me of the hatred he said all African American men felt toward all other African American men. He pointed out to me that all his friends were white and that most of the African American men he knew also befriended white people. 'It's not that we want to be white," he told me angrily, "It's just that we don't want to be reminded that we're black.' Some short time later another African American friend of mine spoke openly of his difficulties developing friendships amongst men with the same heritage. The conversation between Trench and Hip in 'Mystery City' is very much my attempt to capture that feeling of mutual mistrust and suspicion of which William spoke."

There is one other particular reason why the bond of friendship between Elephantmen is so rare in "Hip Flask." "They're also fiercely competitive," Starkings stated. "Mappo trained them to be lethal, suprahuman soldiers after all. A 'Kill or be Killed' indoctrination is not an easy one to shake off."

Readers will also meet two other Elephantmen in "Mystery City", Hip's elephant assistant Ebony, and club owner Casbah Joe, a camel. "They're survivors," Starkings stated. "Like all the Elephantmen, they've found themselves a niche in the world and they're doing their best to live in it. Ebony, you can trust with your life, Joe, um... not so much."

The conflict that had been brewing between businessman and organized crime figure Obadiah Horn, a rhinoceros Elephantman, and his human adversary Baron Serengheti explodes into full scale war in the pages of "Mystery City," as readers will learn that Horn and Serengheti's mutual animosity is not business, it's very personal.

Doctor Nikken, the creator of the Elephantmen, last seen in "Unnatural Selection" makes a brief appearance in "Mystery City". Nikken's appearance hints he will be playing a larger role in upcoming issues of "Hip Flask." "Not in the next issue, no, so you'll just have to wait a little longer to see what Nikken's part in the bigger story is," Starkings said. "Initially I had no plans for him beyond the origin issue, but Ladronn made him much more interesting than I was expecting. When he and Horn exchanged a look at the end of 'Unnatural Selection' I knew we had to follow that up -- which we've started doing in 'Mystery City'. That's all I'm saying!"

Joe Casey co-wrote the first two issues of "Hip Flask" with Starkings, making "Mystery City" the first issue written solely by Starkings. "There wasn't a transition as such. It was always my story," Starkings explained. "I just didn't have the confidence to plot AND script 'Hip Flask' when I launched the title three years ago. There was a lot more humor in the last issue, 'Elephantmen', and that was very much my contribution, but 'Unnatural Selection' definitely needed the bleak tone which Joe does so well. I couldn't have scripted 'Mystery City' the way I did if Joe hadn't helped establish some of the character's voices in the first two issues. He created Herman Strumm and Rabbi, and I love those guys, who are just voices -- they'll be in every issue and a whole bunch of stories after the mini series for sure."

Though some artists seem to leave books as quickly as the come, Ladronn, Starkings artistic collaborator, will be part of "Hip Flask" for the long haul. "Even though I am the driving force behind the Hip Flask story, it's still a collaboration with Ladronn who never settles for less than the best," Starkings said. "Ladronn loves the characters as if he created them himself, and you can't buy that kind of involvement."

"Hip Flask" is intended to ship once a year, but there was a longer gap between "Elephantmen" and "Mystery City" because of Ladronn's other artistic commitments. "You must also note that Ladronn does not live by 'Hip Flask' alone," Starkings stated. "He completed the beautiful-but-terrifying short story 'The Boy Who Cried Golden Tears' with Jodorwosky last year ('Metal Hurlant'#12) and tells me that he's finishing a second this month. You'll also see his cover work at DC on'OMAC', 'Flash' and 'Wonder Woman' as well as at Dark Horse on upcoming issues of 'Conan' (for "The Tower of the Elephant" storyline natch'!)."

The title of the 2006 issue of "Hip Flask" is "Ouroborous" which is also the name of the mysterious object that appears at the end of "Mystery City". Readers will learn more about Ouroborous, which Starkings cryptically hinted, may or may not have ties to the Baverstock Foundation, the mysterious scientific think tank that first appeared in "Elephantmen."

"Mystery City" is part one to a bigger "Hip Flask" story called "The Big Here & The Long Now", a story that Starkings has been planning for some time. "The beginning, middle and the ending of 'The Big Here & The Long Now" haven't changed one little bit since I came up with the story in 1997/98," he said. "'Mystery City' started out exactly as I imagined all those years ago -- except for the Nikken prologue of course. Ladronn loves his supervillains! Doom. Apocalypse. Nikken."

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