Ladrönn is a fascinating artist. When the first Hip Flask books were published years ago, he was clearly the lovechild of Jack Kirby and Moebius. Those early Hip Flask books had Moebius’ fine line, defining shapes and themes with the easiest mark, while having all of the pent up power of a Jack Kirby drawing just ready to explode off of the page. The problem, if there has been any, is that for the past seven years, Ladrönn has been working on the latest Hip Flask book while drawing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Final Incal, as well as doing a bunch of cover work for DC. In other words, we haven’t seen much new Ladrönn in a long, long time.
Seeing Hip Flask: Ouroborous is like discovering the artist all over again. The touches of Kirby and Moebius are still there but there’s something simpler and purer happening in his pages. We see more personality shine through each panel as the line becomes the driving element of the artwork and not the moody coloring. Before his artwork had been crisp and maybe just a bit too clean, too clinical. It created the characters and the setting but it still kept the readers a bit at arms distance away from the story. Those earlier books were like looking at the perfect Blade Runner/Casablanca mashup that Richard Starkings was trying to create in his story.
Ladrönn ’s artistic touch shows through so much more in this new book. While there was a bit of initial disappointment that Ladrönn wouldn’t be drawing Starkings’ Elephantmen story, Moritat captured the tone that Ladrönn set while using a personal line that said as much about the characters as anything Starkings could write. Stepping up his game, Ladrönn has captured that character in his pages. Almost every line, every scene and every character is evocative not because of our associations with Ladrönn and Starkings influences but because they have a tone all their own that you don’t see too much in comics. There’s a bit of Paulo Riviera showing up in Ladrönn ’s artwork because both of them use their skills to create simple and readable images that carry the weight of the stories effortlessly.
With his characters and the world that he’s building, Starkings continues to show just how fearless he really is. His story that he started revolved around a time travel experiment but he takes it to Mark Gruenwald-ish levels in this chapter, throwing these characters into the churning furnace of a true time travel caper. It’s jarring at first until you realize that he also has giant human-like animals running around in hats and trench coats like they just stepped out of a 1950s noir movie. Even with a set up like that, diving into a time travel story feels a slight bit out of place in Starkings’ story. It works though in that anything has been possible in this narrative that he has set up. Even if they are dressing up like Humphrey Bogart or Harrison Ford, once you get past the idea that you’re reading a story about walking and talking hippos and rhinos, the gateway to any kind of story is opened up.
While Elephantmen has been expansive with its cast, in Hip Flask he hones in on his main quartet of characters with this issue; Hip Flask, Obidiah Horn, Sahara and Vanity Case. It’s a story of racing against the clock as Hip Flask and Vanity have to prevent the murder of Sahara that we saw in the last issue of this series. See, that’s how time travel works. While Elephantmen has mainly stayed to smaller, more personal stories of the characters, here Starkings paints a larger story on his narrative canvas. The time travel is just an element when it comes back to the story of Hip Flask and one of the few women he loves and who loves him back. Sahara has been the glue in these characters lives, binding such disparate creatures as Flask and Horn, two almost-brothers who hate what the other has become.
Underneath the veneer of science fiction, detective and action stories, Starkings and Ladrönn know that it’s the characters that matter. They give each character a life and a history. This is a cast that are all tied together by a shared origin that makes them something less than family but much more than acquaintances. Hip Flask and its sister book Elephantmen have some of the most human characters that can be found in comics today.