By Michael Aushenker
Richard Starkings can do whatever he pleases.
Not many people in today’s comic book business can say that. In an industry that has seen its readership become increasingly marginalized, even as comics’ cinematic equivalents in the multiplexes rake in billions of dollars worldwide, many writers and artists have to chase assignments and compete with thousands of peers to try and pay their bills.
Not Starkings, whose creator-owned Image Comics-distributed “Elephantmen” reached a milestone this summer with the debut of its 50th issue at San Diego Comic-Con International in July. The non-super hero, dystopian tale of hybrid safari animals has developed a cult following on the same imprint that gave readers “Spawn” and “The Walking Dead.” In fact, the production company of Jerry Zucker, the director behind “Airplane!,” the “Naked Gun” comedies, and “Ghost” as well as the producer of 2011’s “Friends With Benefits,” has optioned “Elephantmen” for a big-screen adaption. (Sean Penn and Naomi Watts have been attached to the project).
Juiciest of all, as the creator and writer of “Elephantmen,” collaborating with artist Moritat, Starkings, a Westchester resident, does not have to take any editorial flack from any higher-ups. The book continues to remain his pure, unadulterated vision in the industry.
“Richard Starkings has navigated his way through this crazy comic industry since the mid-80s,” said Mike Wellman, fellow comic book writer and co-owner of The Comic Bug, a popular Manhattan Beach comics shop. “It’s so much more than ‘Elephantmen.’ Richard is the father of digital lettering.
“I would say that he’s a legend, but that might lead folks to think that he’s pioneered new territories, both in his creator-owned title ‘Elephantmen’ and with his innovative lettering stylings over at Comicraft.”
Born near Liverpool, England, Starkings headed to London right after college, instituting himself into Britain’s thriving yet limited comic book field. Lettering, he explained, was his quickest way into the U.K.’s scene, where he worked on what some consider the crown jewel of British comic magazines, “2000 A.D.” (the print home of Judge Dredd), and Marvel U.K., a European branch of the storied American comic book company that printed a mix of reprints and original material.
After lettering on “2000 AD’s” “Future Shocks” and on some strips for “Warrior,” Starkings beelined to Marvel UK, where he lettered such books as “Spider-Man Comics Weekly,” “The Real Ghostbusters,” “Thundercats,” and “Transformers,” the latter, he said, actually sold vastly better in England than in America.
“I was working primarily as a graphic designer,” Starkings said. “We were responsible for doing comics on a weekly basis, editorial features and (converting American spellings of words to British style).
At the dawn of the 1990s, he found himself relocating to New York City, the heart of publishing, including Marvel and its super hero comics rival, DC Comics. What Starkings called “a brain drain” took place in U.K. comics, as the American market poached many of its greatest talents, among them Alan Moore (“Watchmen,” “V for Vendetta”), Brian Bolland (“Judge Dread”), and Alan Davis (“Uncanny X-Men”).
“It was a huge risk,” Starkings said of his geographical and professional jump at the time, abandoning his cushy position at Marvel U.K. “I considered going back to London when later that year, I was offered my job back. But I felt that the opportunities (in America) were greater.”
As a freelance letterer, Starkings worked on the revered and controversial Alan Moore/Brian Bolland one-off “The Killing Joke” – a book that is among the influences of film director Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy – and with Davis on the long-running (and original) Batman title, “Detective Comics.”
“Because of that work, I got other work at Marvel and DC,” he said.
After anticipating a major trend in 1992, Starkings created Comicraft, a digital lettering company that inspired several rival companies and some say, changed the speed and the quantity of comic book lettering.
“I was ahead of the curve,” Starkings said, bluntly. “I had to fight for two or three years (to convince the big companies) to allow me to letter digitally.” The practice did not even become commonplace until the late 1990s.
Self-taught in designing the software, Starkings said he designed his digital fonts after learning from his peers.
“I’ve never read a manual for any computer program. With a Mac computer, you don’t need one. When you’re passionate about something, you will sit there and learn it.”
With a team that at its peak in the 1990s ran about 16 people, Starkings’ Comicraft, out of a Santa Monica studio on Colorado Avenue and Fifth Street, was able to maintain word-balloon quality and “double and quadruple my productivity,” he said. Comicraft took on scores of assignments from the industry’s biggest companies.
“We worked really hard to get to the place in the industry we were at,” Starkings said. “We earned that reputation.”
In 2006, the writer in Starkings launched his “Elephantmen” saga, which continues a tradition that includes “Hellboy,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Fables” going back to the seminal long-running 1980s self-publishing success story, “Cerebus.” Blending his longtime affection for “Fantastic Four” comics, “Blade Runner” and “Planet of the Apes” movies, and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” Starkings’ series has become a vehicle to address societal issues, whether intentionally or subconsciously.
“It’s about prejudice, racism, homophobia,” Starkings said. “You’ve got interspecies mixed-marriages, post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Starkings’ fans, the cartoonist believes, are not the middle-age folks devouring Batman or Spider-Man, but younger folk: “They’re reading ‘Saga,’ they’re reading ‘Chew.’”
Starkings prides himself on snagging that hard-to-hook, more discerning female readership, adding that today’s mainstream super hero books have lost younger readers via opaque and convoluted storylines.
Starkings said working with Janet Zucker, Jerry’s wife and production partner, on the movie’s treatment has “helped me define (‘Elephantmen’). She didn’t feed me story ideas but she asked the right questions to help me figure what my story is about.”
As early as October 1989, Starkings had relocated to the West Coast, at first living in Santa Monica just north of Montana Avenue before relocating in 2001 to Westchester, a community that he says suits him.
“I always liked this area; I used to live in El Segundo,” said Starkings, calling it something of a secret pocket in L.A.’s tapestry of neighborhoods. “We’re near the beach, about a 10-minute bicycle ride away. It’s much more affordable here than in Santa Monica.”
Starkings, who once created a humor strip for the El Segundo Herald, now sits at the top of his Westchester driveway and comes up with ideas for his comics. He lives walking distance from his beloved K.C.’s Crepes, a breakfast favorite where “all the comic book cognescenti have been to. They have my books displayed there.”
It’s also a short drive to the Comic Bug, where he often has signings and mingles with the other regulars.
Wellman employed Starkings to edit his latest comic book, the genre-mashing time-travel yarn “Guns A Blazin,’” a six-issue mini-series drawn by Rafael Navarro that debuted at Comic-Con International in July.
“He’s one of the few people I would consider a role model in comics,” Wellman said, “both by the execution of his work and the way he treats others around him.”
The Bug is one of numerous stores nationwide carrying Starkings’ seven “Elephantmen” trade paperback collections.
“I work on ‘Elephantmen’ full-time,” he said. “An awful lot of energy is required (to create and promote the series). It takes up 90 percent of my time.”
Twenty-five years into a career, Starkings, who still maintains Comicraft and has launched an online font store at ComicBookFonts.com, said he is not one of those people who gets up every morning and dreads going to work.
“If you stick around in comics,” he said, “it’s because you enjoy what you’re doing.”
Starkings does not differentiate between lettering and writing comics, saying it’s all part of the creative process.
“To me, I just get to make comics,” he said.
With “Elephantmen” #51 pending in September, and a slew of conventions to sign at before year’s end, including in Edmonton, Canada, and at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco, Starkings shows no sign of wrapping up his socio-political yarn anytime soon.
“I keep my life interesting to keep ‘Elephantmen’ interesting,” he concluded.
A man of letters: Westchester’s Richard Starkings discusses hit creator-owned comic ‘Elephantmen’
By Michael Aushenker