The Webcomic Overlook #160: Adventures of the Floating Elephant
Tim Hamilton’s Adventures of the Floating Elephant, which was already blessed with a name too curious to pass up, opens up with one hell of a beginning sequence. We see a man with a slash across his face. He’s adrift in a black, turbulent sea. He’s riding in what looks like a damaged cage atop a floating elephant… specifically, a fiberglass statue you tend to find a retro drive-ins or in the Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure movie. It looks vaguely Indian. Its forehead is decorated in what looks like a jeweled headcovering. Special attention is given to the the eye, which will be subject to loving close-ups later in the story.
It’s a fantastic visual. I’m reminded of Farishta and Chamcha plummeting through the sky and holding a conversation as they descend into the ocean after hijackers blew up their plane. There’s a touch of danger, a touch of surrealism, and a touch of whimsy. It’s the sort of scene that makes you want to know more.
But, best of all, it gives me an excuse to shoehorn an awkward Kurt Vonnegut reference like an awkward Liberal Arts major. Why? Well, other than making me sound smart and pretentious, the reason should become apparent later.
I will begin my review like this: “Listen: Jackson Beckerman has come unstuck in time.”
It ends like this: “And that’s the bottom line, because El Santo said so.”
Listen: Jackson Beckerman has come unstuck in time.
It was not always so. He starts Adventures of the Floating Elephant as a troubled teen. He’s at odds with his mom. He’s at odds with his neighbor, whose daughter he’s dating. Well… not really. He’s only pretending to be a boyfriend to his friend Shami. Really he’s accepting cash to secretly drive her to a secret rendezvous with an abusive boyfriend. He’s also an alcoholic, a habit he may have picked up from his mother.
At home, he takes care of his grandfather, Sherman, who is likely senile. He always talks about his old movies, and when arguments get heated, he asks for his shotgun. Sherman Beckerman is perhaps the only person in the comic Jackson in not at odds with. Perhaps it’s because Sherman is the only person who really spent time with Jackson when he was younger. Sure, the time was spent watching terrible black and white movies from the 1950’s that he starred in, with grandpa providing a rambling, running narration, but at least Jackson was not alone. One such movie was about two WWII soldiers — played by Sherman and his brother, Wallace — who are swept away on the titular bouyant elephant attraction into German occupied waters. It was called Adventures of the Floating Elephant.
Jackson’s life turns upside down one night with visit from his mysterious Uncle Wallace, a man who everyone assumed was dead. He, like the young man in the title sequence, has a slash across his face. He also does not have the best intentions for Jackson and his family. It turns out when Sherman kept asking for his gun, it’s because he knew Wallace was coming. Jackson soon finds himself drugged as Wallace rifles through their possessions to find the prints of the old movies. Things go from bad to worse when Wallace kills grandpa Sherman.
And so it goes.
After which… Jackson in sent back in time. Which, frankly, was probably the last thing I expected. Up until now, Adventures of the Floating Elephant had been cultivating a mood of modern noir. The blue collar setting felt like something out of Elmore Leonard. The artwork, at times, looked like something out of Frank Miller’s Sin City books.
But now, we’ve introduced time travel to the equation, as Jackson (and his mysterious pursuers) gets sent to the far off time of 1992. Ah, yes, the halcyon days when Pearl Jam and Nirvana were dominating the charts and rumors were running around that Intel was releasing a Pentium microprocessor. Though, you wouldn’t know it from the setting in Floating Elephant. The comic takes place in a rural town that seems to have escaped time, where a fiberglass elephant stands sentry over a grassy field. It could be taking place in the Great Depression or the 1950’s. In fact, the 1990’s seem like the least likely period in time for Jackson to end up.
Time travel, though, is only scratching the surface of the weirdness that is to come. Like the hapless hero in a Lovecraft novel, Jackson discovers that the silly Z-grade movies his grandfather made might not have been fiction after all. Suddenly, Jackson is palling around with circus freaks, visiting a mythical White City, and experiencing wicked voodoo magic. Jackson also starts manifesting some strange powers of his own, like when he starts seeing ghosts that no one else — not even the more mystically inclined denizens of the White City — can see.
It sort of reminds me of Lost. That show mixed together several elements from a wide range of niche genres, especially the later seasons where the show was less about getting off the island and more about weird sci-fi devices, a mysterious global cabal, mystical creatures, ghosts, and, yes, time travel. However, I think that Adventures of the Floating Elephant falls into a lot of pitfalls that several Lost clones — like V, FlashForward, and The Event — fall into. The reason we accepted all the weirdness of Lost is because we, the audience, really liked the characters, and we cared about what happened to them.
Don’t get me wrong: I like the character of Jackson. Mr. Hamilton sets him up well as a kid who’s at the low point in his life and who has very little to lose. You can’t go wrong with your standard Campbellian hero! Yet, I think his character development felt a little rushed. Jackson’s got strategic advantage over others in this strange, freak-filled world due to the wealth of knowledge he has stored up from from his grandfather’s movies. However, when he does start implementing his skills, it feels like a deux ex machina.
There’s a scene, for example, where he’s meeting with Mother Morgan. She tried to scare him by using some fire magic, but Jackson brushes it off as just some illusion. Now, I know that this was foreshadowed some time earlier that Jackson had learned about this while watching movies … but that doesn’t make the scene feel any less convenient… especially since, it was only a few pages ago that Jackson was feeling disoriented and acting, understandably, unheroically. It looks like the guy just needed one boat ride to complete the transformation from being a naive wanderer to being clever enough to outsmart a wily old lady, eh? (Using the old, “This cellphone can capture your SOUL!” trick on the Luddites, no less.)
Sadly Jackson and his grandfather Sherman are the only two characters that get any development at all. Most of the characters are on the page for too short a time to make any impression beyond their looks. And even that’s a bit tricky.
I generally like Mr. Hamilton’s artwork. He nails the looks of his environments. The town at the beginning oozes with subtle touches of hopelessness and urban decay. The White City is suitably otherworldly, like an old-timey carnival preserved in amber. The dark inks strengthen the mystical mood, and they contrast well with the brighter styles of the flashbacks and the movie footage. Appropriate, since both are dedicated to preserving the memories of the past.
His character designs, however, are a little tricky. Take, for instance, the physical similarities between Mr. Notes and Mr. Brutus. The only stark difference is that Mr. Notes is a little person. However, it’s often hard to separate the two, and you have to pay very close attention to which is which. And neither looks that much different from either grandpa Sherman or his brother Wallace, two of the most important characters in the story.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to tell these character apart. However, it’s one of those things to keep track of in a story where there’s already so much to keep track of. The Adventures of the Floating Elephant is a very dense story thick with dialogue. (Not a complaint, by the way. I like the way characters like grandpa Sherman tend to ramble on matters that, at first, don’t seem to be tied into the plot.) I personally had to read it twice — and even then, at a slow, measured pace.
All told, though, I’m not quite convinced it seamless integrates the different genre elements into a cohesive whole. The story is packed with mysterious circus freaks, time jumping, and fantasy realism after all. That’s a lot of stuff to unpack in only 88 pages! By nature, then, Adventures of the Floating Elephant is a webcomic that needs to breathe. I need to absorb and be bowled over by the latest twist before we’re thrust into yet another strange flight of fancy.
That’s why I felt that the first time travel reveal did work. There was plenty of set-up and foreboding beforehand that something strange was brewing. You just didn’t know what, exactly. So, when Jackson wakes up in 1992, you’re thrown into a not unpleasant tizzy over its ramifications. After that, though, further descents into strangeness felt a little perfunctory. I think there’s a point in the comic where an event of great significance (which I’m trying to to spoil here) may have altered Jackson’s future. That brief moment of anxiety gets undermined, though, when we’re whisked away over the next few pages into a magical fantasy world.
For all its surreal trappings, Hamilton does a great job reflecting the despair of everyday life incredibly well. The opening chapter of Jackson’s everyday life and his reconnection with his grandfather in the past were some of the best parts of Adventures of the Floating Elephant. However, the cacophony of high-concept ideas felt a little rushed and cluttered, and it kept me from finding the comic to be wholly satisfying.
And that’s the bottom line, because El Santo said so.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)