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Comics You Should Own – Elementals #1-5

Ah, let’s set the way-back machine for 1984, and check out a creator who achieved overnight success just 18 years later!  How does that work? (Hey! I’ll warn you that I tend to SPOIL things in these posts!)

Elementals by Bill Willingham (writer/penciller), Michael Wolff (script, issue #1), Jack Herman (script, issues #4-5), Rich Rankin (inker, issue #1-5), Bill Anderson (inker, issue #1), Jeff Dee (inker, issue #1), Sam De La Rosa (inker, issue #1), Keith Wilson (inker, issue #1).

Comico, 5 issues, cover dated 1984 (issues #1-3), June, December 1985 (issues #4-5).

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 clichéd “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.

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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.

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Willingham’s pencils are beautiful, partly because he fills each panel with such detail.  His fight scenes, particularly, do a very nice job accomodating 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.

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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.

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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.

26 Comments

Elementals is one of the great forgotten indie books of the 80′s. Most people remember the Image-lite version of the book that Comico put out in the early 90′s, if they remember it at all. It’s one of my favorite books and one I proudly own the complete run of (yes, even all the sex specials…)

But for awhile there, Willingham really captured lightning in a bottle. Before Watchmen, before Dark Knight Returns, he did a great take on “superheroes in the real world” as you call it. His writing was mature and intelligent, much like his more recent Fables work.

It’s a shame the book is trapped in rights limbo. If I remember correctly, the last owners of Comico are the people who still own the property and have just basically sat on it since Comico went under. I’d love it if Dark Horse, Image, or IDW could get their hands on the property and give it a proper chronological reprint.

Tom Fitzpatrick

February 5, 2007 at 4:05 pm

Actually, if you read the prose fable at the end of FABLES vol. 1 tpb, you’ll see Willingham’s art for that story.

I agree, some great comics; worth the hunt.

Here are somewhat dated comments from Bill on the rights issue:

209.198.111.165/willingham/faq.htm

“When the publisher, Comico, self-destructed in the late Eighties, I felt it was a good time to leave the Elementals and go on to other things. So I sold all rights to the Elementals, permanently, to the new owner of the supposedly resurrected Comico. Little did I know at the time that the new owner would never follow through on any of his announced plans for the series … ”

Bill drew the first two issues of Shadowpact, which I’d hoped he would be able to continue, but alas …

Elementals is definitely an unappreciated classic. Definitely worth picking up if you haven’t read them. And don’t get put off by the roughness of the first five issues; it gets even better. Well, except for the issues at the end of the first run. They were so lackluster that Willingham declared them non-canonical when he started the second run (which, by the way, is mostly outstanding, despite the fact that Willingham didn’t do the artwork). On the other hand, the less said about the third run the better.

Even if the rights reverted back to Willingham tomorrow, it doesn’t look like he’d do any more Elementals stories. He said in a recent Comics Journal interview that he didn’t have anything more to say about the characters.

I’d love it if the original issues were reprinted, though. They certainly deserve it.

Yeah, I forgot that he drew the first two issues of Shadowpact. He can still draw, but I guess it takes too long.

I never knew he was an artist as well. Pretty decent-lookin’ stuff for the era, if a little on the derivative side.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

February 6, 2007 at 3:00 am

“Yeah, I forgot that he drew the first two issues of Shadowpact. He can still draw, but I guess it takes too long.”

He also did a few issues/pages of his pre-Fables Vertigo mini Propsition Player.
It’s a good fun take on religon – a card player jokingly buys beer in exchange for his friends soul, and unwittingly becomes a new player in the battle between heaven and hell, and we get to see him form his own non-religon religon – and got collected a few years ago as a trade.

I’d reccomend it to all.

Yeah – Proposition Player is good.

I had the TPB of the first few issues of The Elementals, but it didn’t really grab me and I sent it into the ether by way of eBay

If your in Austin, you can pick up a lot of these at the 1/2 price books on Lamar.

One of my all time favorites. The atmosphere of these five books is a mix of horror, action, tension and the inane boredom that the characters feel from being in captivity for so long. I followed the series for a while after this, but as Greg said, some of the artisit were just awful. It’s a shame because I had always hoped that ol’ Bill would come to his senses and start the series up again.

Willingham was a revelation back in the 80s. The Elementals looked so bright and shiny, but the stories were so dark, the villains so corrupt. I’d love to somehow see reprints of these, esp. volume 1, even in black and white.

I’ve been confused about the second volume of the Elementals for a while. Were there 26 issues published? Or 28? Or 29? According to Mile High Comics, there were 29. Wikipedia says 26. On this page I’m reading 28. Has anyone actually got issue 27, 28, or 29 on hand? Thanks for any info you can provide.

I remember waiting for each issue. The stories were like nothing else at the time. Great stuff!

How much are the Elementals worth by now

Hi Greg,

I’m looking to help a good friend of mine locate some of the issues he is missing to complete his collection on this Elementals series. I’ve been doing a lot of research and that is how I found your blog. It has a lot of info and I really can appreciate the comic even though I’m not a collector after reading your blog. Well I need your help. I’m trying to purchase the issues he is missing, any suggestions on where to find this series. (Any price it doesnt matter)
Thanks in advance for your help :)

Clint Adams mentioned a store in Austin, if you have the location and the stores phone number maybe I can arrange to purchase and have them shipped.

I was the colorist on Elementals from issue 4 to Special 2–the end of the first series. It was my favorite book to color when Willingham did the pencils. It is too bad that he didn’t do every issue and do it on time. The book could have been huge. It was nice to see people are still interested in the book.
Yours,
Kurt Mausert

Hey Kurt,

So nice to hear from someone that worked on this excellent series. I have a question for you. Do you know how many Sex Specials were published? That would help me know if my search is complete.

Denshai: Sorry I missed your first comment last year. I honestly don’t know how many Sex Specials were published. Did you try the Grand Comics Database? I don’t know if they have those covers scanned, but it’s usually a pretty good resource. I know there were at least two, but that’s all I know.

I hope you find what you’re looking for!

Dear Denshai,
I have no idea. I left the book before those issues were published. Comico folded (ran out of money) in 1988 or 1989. I colored the book from issue 4 thru the 2nd special. I also recolored an issue or two for reprint in their reprint volume. But my involvement ended before the tawdry stuff came out.
If you know of any other Elemental fans that would be interested in purchasing original colored pages (color guides), I am trying to sell mine. I give to a charity that educates the poor in northern India (see: http://www.fflvrindavan.org) and would donate some proceeds there.
Yours,
Kurt Mausert

Willingham’s “Elementals” was amazing.

Elementals has always (since I discovered the first issue on the stand and recognized the villains we’d fought in the V&V module “Death Duel with the Destroyers”) been a personal favorite of mine, and I’ve got just about every issue (missing a few of the Sex Specials, though).

Kurt, how much are you interested in for those pages?

The_Skycutter

May 19, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Bill Willingham is the Greatest! I have the complete collection of The Elementals and all of the mini series crossovers except, Monolith mini series issue #4….

Can someone help me complete my collection with a CBR or PDF!

Willingham is and was one of the revolutionary writers. He also had great collaborators in Jack Herman and Jeff Dee. I was lucky enough to work with Jeff on some RPG supplements and have met and spoken to Willingham and Herman on a number of occassions. Bill is a great guy. He even took the time to review some of my own published stories. Elementals is probably my all time favorite comic with “Ratman” Eddie Fink, Ambrose and Shapeshifter as some of my favorite characters of all time.

I colored Elementals from issue 4 until the end of the 1st series (including 2 specials). Elementals was a good book when Willingham wrote and drew it. There were times when he didn’t pencil it and some fairly poor talent was brought in. Bill also didn’t produce well on a given schedule. That left the other people who worked on his book and were dependent upon that income in a rough spot. If Bill had kept penciling the book and produced it on a monthly schedule, I think that it could have been huge.

I have the entire first run (all the issues) of the first series in excellent condition in plastic bags w/ acid free boards

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