Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today I’m taking a look at the superhero story of some young dude named Bill Willingham. This post was originally published on 5 February 2007. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Elementals by Bill Willingham (writer/penciler), Michael Wolff (script, issue #1), Jack Herman (script, issues #4-5), Rich Rankin (inker, issues #1-5), Bill Anderson (inker, issue #1), Jeff Dee (inker, issue #1), Sam De La Rosa (inker, issue #1), Keith Wilson (inker, issue #1; letterer, issues #1-2), Eric Merill (colorist, issue #1), Bain Sidhe Studio (colorist, issue #2), Janet Jackson (colorist, issue #3), Kurt Mausert (colorist, issues #4-5), and Bob Pinaha (letterer, issue #5) (no letterer is credited for issues #3-4).
Published by Comico, 5 issues (#1-5), cover dated June, September, and November 1984, and June and December 1985.
Some SPOILERS, but it’s a big superhero fight, so there aren’t too many surprises. I’m not here to talk about the plot!
The biggest problem with some of the comics in this category is that we have become jaded, and the freshness of them doesn’t seem obvious any more. If I were to talk about how Willingham created a series with “superheroes in the real world,” you might yawn and say, “So what?” It has, after all, been done to death. But this was 1984, remember (1983, if you count the first appearance of the group, which I don’t own), and this idea hadn’t been done to death, so Willingham’s little comic was an interesting experiment, one that had a far greater influence than it’s usually given credit for.
The Elementals first appeared in a Justice Machine Annual from Texas Comics (with a Michael Golden cover!), which went under shortly thereafter. So although Elementals #1 isn’t their first appearance, Willingham catches us up easily enough. The Elementals are four people who have come back from the dead with elemental powers. Rebecca Golden is Fathom (water), Tommy Czuchra is Monolith (earth), Jeff Murphy is Vortex (air), and Jeanette Crain is Morningstar (fire). Naturally, the minute they show up, other super-powered individuals show up to fight them. Isn’t that always the way?
The bad guys, called the Destroyers, hold Becky’s father hostage so that the Elementals come with them. They fly to Nacht Island, where the big bad guy, Saker, has his hideout. The Elementals escape and fight, but are eventually captured by Saker. They spend a year (!) as his prisoners, but eventually Fathom escapes and rescues the others, and they thwart Saker’s world domination plans. Yay, good guys!
That is, of course, the barest rudimentary reading of the plot. It’s relatively standard superhero fare, but Willingham makes it something special. It’s a long-held dictum that rulers have more in common with other rulers than people of their own country, and Willingham brings this idea into the world of superheroes. In most superhero books, the implication that even the heroes don’t really care about the “commoners” during their fights and would rather just engage in these big slugfests, but Willingham goes further than that. The most interesting issue of this arc is the fourth, when the Elementals spend a year as Saker’s prisoners on Nacht Island. Beyond the fact that time rarely passes so quickly in comic books, this issue brings the two opposing sides together for an extended time and allows them to get to know each other. Saker’s interactions with the Elementals show a man who is evil, sure, but not completely uncivilized. He explains throughout the book that he was brought back to life by a preacher in the Middle East a few thousand years ago. It’s a neat concept, because we never exactly find out what happened to Lazarus after Jesus brought him back. Saker takes on the Lazarus role, and we come to realize that being raised from the dead, while giving the raiser a great deal of cachet, doesn’t do much for the raisee. Saker cannot die, and in the instant he came back, he saw the utter vanity of humanity and rejected it. He explains that he has become a “lodestone for mystic energies,” which have been building within him. When he releases those energies through a “shadowspear,” it will bring about Armageddon. It’s an old plot, but his backstory makes it interesting. All Saker wanted to do was rest in peace. The preacher needed a miracle or the mob would have lynched him, so he wrenched Saker back from the great beyond. He didn’t have to become pure evil, but we can’t blame him because he’s a bit pissed.
The fourth issue, as I mentioned, is where the two sides interact. Saker speaks to three of the Elementals, and he tries to recruit some of them to his side. He doesn’t do this with threats, but through simple conversation. He speaks to Jeff Murphy about their shared experience of being dead. Vortex is recovering from horrific injuries inflicted by Ratman, one of the Destroyers, and he and Saker discuss the terror they both went through. Saker implies that he and Jeff are far more similar than the regular humans Jeff protects and Saker attempts to destroy. When Saker talks to Morningstar, she thinks about escaping, but he reads her thoughts and, as punishment, puts her through the experience of drowning (like Fathom) or being crushed (like Monolith). In that instant, we see Saker’s true side – he enjoys causing people pain, just because he can. Saker actively tries to bring Monolith over to his side. Despite being the youngest of the Elementals, Tommy is a genius, and Saker feels most comfortable with him. He appeals to Tommy’s intellect, but Tommy rejects him, as he has before. Unlike most super-villains in this situation, who would rant and rave about how they must join him or die and then moves on, we can tell that Saker is genuinely disappointed that the Elementals reject him. He believes that humanity has grown weak and needs to be culled before it can move on (a theme prevalent in many comic books, from Ra’s al Ghul to Morrison’s recent epic), and he can’t understand why beings as powerful as the Elementals would stand against him. It’s interesting to read Saker in this issue, because despite the evil things he does, he isn’t incomprehensible.
The interaction between the Elementals and their captors is handled well, too. Morningstar is dragged back to her cell by Shapeshifter, who’s, well, a shapeshifter. Shapeshifter is very cruel, and even without the knowledge of what happens between the two of them in the future (which isn’t important for this story), we get the sense that she has some special hatred in her heart for Morningstar. In issue #5, we get a brief but intense battle between the two of them that is weirdly sensual. The relationship between Fathom and Ratman is far more congenial. They share a similar taste in music and they even take the time to laugh together when a group of Saker’s foot soldiers (all women, interestingly enough) run past, with the hulking Behemoth, one of the Destroyers, trailing behind. It’s a nice uncomfortable moment, because they both quickly realize they’re enemies and shouldn’t be so friendly with each other. Fathom escapes soon afterward and sets the stage for the final battle, and it’s partly because Ratman has come to trust her because he sees her as a human being and not as an adversary.
Another point that makes this an interesting comic and raises it above the level of simply a megalomaniac trying to take over the world is that Willingham gives each character in the book a distinct personality. In too many superhero books, the characters are carbon copies of each other with little “quirks” added so we can distinguish them from each other. That’s not the case here, even though Willingham is dealing with a pretty big cast. His four heroes exhibit typically “heroic” behavior, but they also show that they’re people. Jeff Murphy is a Vietnam vet, and although a few rare times Willingham allows him to devolve into the cliched “crazy vet guy,” it also means that Jeff understands the necessities of combat, and when the Elementals fight the Destroyers on Nacht Island in issue #2, he doesn’t exactly take over, but he shifts most easily into “fighting” mode. Jeanette was a police lieutenant, and she’s the most hard-nosed of the group. When Becky bemoans the loss of life in the fight, Jeanette tells her that they’re in a war, and in war, people die. This is interesting, because the first casualty of the war is one of the Destroyers, named Annihilator, and Jeanette is the one who finds him. The look on her face is pure despair, even though he was an enemy, and we understand that something within Jeanette shifts at that moment. That moment is in issue #2, and by issue #3, she’s telling Becky to “get used to the killing,” because she’s “likely to do a lot more of it before we are through.” In issue #5, she has no problem melting Shapeshifter, who has beaten and tortured her for a year. But even then, she thinks to herself that it’s a war, and in war, you have to do what you can to survive. Becky goes through perhaps the most fascinating character arc. She’s the spoiled daughter of a high-priced lawyer, and revels in the adventure of her powers. She is also the least knowledgeable about what powers of her kind can do to people (even Tommy, who’s younger than she is, knows what he can do when he becomes a giant earth-monster): when the fight the Destroyers in issue #1, at the top of Seattle’s Space Needle, she blasts Annihilator and another foe, Electrocutioner, out the window without even thinking about it. She knows Annihilator can fly, but doesn’t concern herself with Electrocutioner. She never thinks about the consequences of her actions, and she gets a rude awakening in issue #3, when Morningstar is killing Saker’s soldiers. She tries to defeat them without killing anyone, and she does once, but in issue #5, when she rescues her fellow Elementals, she creates a tsunami that wipes out much of the island’s defenses. She never considers that she’s killing hundreds of Saker’s troops until their FBI liaison mentions it at the end of the book. Becky’s arc is most interesting because we can understand her aversion to killing (unless, of course, we’ve killed people before) and we sympathize with her desires to keep everyone alive. Jeanette makes a good point, though: it’s war. In war, people die.
Willingham gives us nice bad guys, too. The Destroyers are people, and they aren’t all cut from the same cloth. Shapeshifter is evil and cruel, but Behemoth, to give an example, is just a guy doing a job. Behemoth is scared of sharks, even though he’s a big guy who is almost invulnerable. He’s still a bad guy, but when he gets mad in issue #5, it’s because the Elementals humiliated him in earlier issues – it’s an understandable reaction, even though he’s not very nice. Ratman, as we’ve seen, forms a bond with Becky, and his infatuation helps her escape. He also isn’t very nice – he almost tears Vortex to pieces at the end of issue #2 – but he does have a soul, and when he sees Fathom’s tidal wave coming down on the island, his pathetic cry “Becky! You came back!” makes us almost feel badly for him. He does manage to escape at the end, and although we’re not happy he’s still at large, we still don’t think he necessarily deserves to be locked up. It’s an interesting switch from the end of issue #2, when he emerges from the rocks where he left Vortex covered in blood with gleaming red eyes.
Willingham’s pencils are beautiful, partly because he fills each panel with such detail. His fight scenes, particularly, do a very nice job accommodating all the characters while still managing to convey a sense of fluid motion. The battle scenes in issues #3 and 5 are especially stunning. When Shapeshifter changes into a snake to fight Morningstar, the transformation is almost erotic, due largely to Willingham’s clean lines and style. It’s not groundbreaking art, but he has such a good sense of composition that the art is elevated above standard superhero work. Although it’s detailed, it doesn’t feel cluttered, and his women are attractive while still managing to be anatomically to scale – they’re athletic, which is nice to see. Willingham doesn’t do art anymore, which is a shame, because I’d love to see an issue of Fables with him doing the pencils.
Elementals always had problems with scheduling, even though it got better after these issues. Willingham drew some more issues, but gave it up to concentrate on writing, and some truly awful artists followed. The regular series lasted 29 issues, and then a second one (even Comico wasn’t immune to launching new series with new #1 issues!) lasted 28 issues. There were a bunch of tie-in specials, including some sex specials, two of which I own. The focus on sex in later issues of Elementals actually made them somewhat interesting, although the quality of the book declined after these first five issues. Comico, of course, went out of business, and Willingham no longer has any control over the property, if I’m remembering correctly (it came up recently somewhere online, and the word was that he sold the rights – anyone know the story?). It’s a bit of a shame, because these five issues are a very neat take on “superheroes in the real world” – which we’ve seen a lot of since, but this still sets a good standard.
These issues have been, surprisingly enough, collected in a trade paperback called The Natural Order, which I’m sure is long out of print. But it might pop up somewhere online at times. The individual issues are probably not that hard to find, and they aren’t expensive – my #1 cost $8, but the rest were $5 or less. If you’re a fan of Fables, they’re a neat look at Willingham’s work from over twenty years ago. If you’re a fan of superheroes, here’s a book that, at least for five issues, did them in a fresh and intriguing way.
You may peruse the archives. That’s why they’re there!
[Well, it’s another entry where I don’t write about the art enough, and it’s too bad, because Willingham is really a good artist. The art in this is clean and gorgeous, and whenever Willingham pops up to do artwork, it’s a treat. Willingham has been quiet, it seems, since Fables ended, and he is not as young as he used to be, so maybe he’s taking it easy. Beats me. Anyway, ownership of the Elementals is still, it seems, up in the air, which is too bad. I still haven’t read much of the rest of the series, but it could be a nice book if Willingham would write it (and draw it, of course, but that’s probably not going to happen). The trade of these issues is out of print, not surprisingly, so it’s time to dive into the back issue boxes, either in the real world or on-line! Have fun!]