Having had his way with blaxploitation flicks and the Catholic hierarchy in his debut GN Vatican Hustle, cartoonist Greg Houston now goofs on his hometown of Baltimore and superhero comics in the cheerfully grotesque Elephant Man (NBM). If the results don’t seem as fresh as they were in Hustle, put it down to the fact that superheroics have been a steady target for parody ever since Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood tackled Superduperman in the old Mad comics. Still, the cartoonist’s take on the subject has its sweetly offensive moments: like Amber Von Tussle gently barfing on the Tilt-a-Whirl in Hairspray, the gags in EM may be PG-13, but they’ve got a healthy helping of impoliteness.
The silly conceit behind Houstin’s graphic novel is that a 21st century version of John Merrick (as visualized in the David Lynch movie) is doing the dual identity superhero thing in the city of Baltimore. Though he has no discernible powers and is so distinctly misshapen that his “normal” identity as reporter Jon Merrick is a (heavily hammered) joke, the city loves him. As depicted by Houston with his overwrought caricaturist's pen, Baltimore is a city so crammed with homely citizens, it’s no wonder the populace embraces him. Though why gorgeous lady journalist Tracie Bombasso is attracted to our hero is a joke best left for the end of the comic.
EM’s nemeses prove to be equally outlandish: a pompadoured TV anchor jealous of our hero’s popularity, plus a walking punchline known as the Priest, the Rabbi and the Duck — a three-headed villain fused together by a dumb accident of science. Their sinister designs are foiled, of course, less through Merrick’s actions and more from the efforts of such B’more stalwarts as a quartet of pimply hair-hoppin’ donut waitresses known as the Big Hair Tough Girls. If ever there was an artist suited to do the graphic novel adaptation of Female Trouble, Houston is your man.
I know: that’s the second John Waters ref in this short review. What can I say? The two Baltimoreans share a campy affinity for pop trash and outcasts. Must be something in the city water.