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Year of the Artist, Day 134: Bill Willingham, Part 1 – Elementals #1

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Bill Willingham, and the issue is Elementals #1, which was published by Comico and is cover dated November 1984. Enjoy!

Bill Willingham doesn’t do a lot of art anymore – in fact, in the past decade or more he’s barely drawn anything – but he’s a pretty good artist, and back in the day he used to draw some stuff every once in a while. He didn’t evolve too much, but that’s not going to stop me from checking out his work! Elementals, of course, is his creator-owned book that he started after he had been working in comics for about a year, but it’s the earliest work by him that I own. So I hope his pencils in Batman and the Outsiders aren’t too different than what we see here, but if they are, oh well!

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Willingham was 26/27 when he drew this, and we can see how well he draws already – he had been working as a staff artist for TSR for years, so it’s not surprising he knew what he was doing. He draws in a slightly cartoony fashion, but with a good sense of what’s effective in each panel and with an attention to detail that helps add some realism to the work. Elementals is a early example of the “superheroes in the real world” genre, and so Willingham’s blend of cartoonishness and realism helps bridge that gap pretty well. He pays attention to details, so Porter Scott, the FBI agent who comes to see the Elementals, is wearing a heavy jacket to hold out the Seattle chill (although he shows up at the house driving a convertible with the top down, so it can’t be that cold). Jeanette, the red haired woman, and Becky, the green skinned woman, are in different outfits (Becky is wearing her “official” uniform, but Jeanette isn’t), because Scott has shown up at their temporary home (which is Becky’s father’s house). Willingham and his inkers (five are credited – Bill Anderson, Jeff Dee, Sam De La Rosa, Keith Wilson, and Rich Rankin) help with the “realism” by using hatching fairly liberally. We see this most clearly in the final three panels, where Scott describes the unusual natural disasters. The rough lines on the smoke rising from the fireball, the smooth brush strokes on the wave, and the blurry lines on the tornado all make these things more tangible, adding a layer of urgency to Scott’s words.

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Willingham is pretty good at action, too, which is always nice to see. Annihilator bursts through the window of the restaurant on top of the Space Needle, and Willingham does a good job with it. He uses motion lines well, as he goes slightly against the grain by moving Annihilator from right to left, but it links up nicely with the panel above it, and his motion lines lead us into the panel from the right and expand outward, so that we’re led to Scott and Becky moving away from the spray of glass. However, Porter’s long leg leads us back to the right, where Tommy falls backward toward the page turn. It’s a nice sense of movement within the panel. Once again, Willingham’s details are quite nice, as he painstakingly draws every shard of glass (which might explain why he stopped drawing so much). I don’t know if he designed the letters or if Keith Wilson, who lettered the book, did, but it’s pretty cool how they’re angled, because they form a funnel for Annihilator and for our eyes, making us move where Willingham wants us to before we circle back to Tommy. It’s pretty clever.

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Chrysalis shoots Scott with some goop, and the Elementals have to rescue him! This is another nicely designed page, as the first two panels take place within seconds of each other, and Willingham puts the inset panel of Annihilator telling Chrysalis to react, which she does very quickly. The amazing hatching on Scott in Panel 3 gives us a very good idea of the weird goop he’s been encased in, and notice how, behind the inset panel, Willingham draws the stuff spurting past Porter’s head, and below him it affixes him to the floor. In Panel 4, he begins to show how Jeanette transforms – she controls fire – as her hair becomes wilder, her eyes become red, and Willingham draws her hand becoming fuzzier while he adds some Kirby Krackle around it. It’s a clever way to show a transition – she doesn’t turn into a human torch quite yet, but she’s getting there.

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Willingham has, I guess, always had a healthy appreciation of the female form, and I wonder if that’s why Becky is suddenly in her underwear halfway through this comic. I kid you not, she’s fully clothed in one panel, and the very next time we see her, she’s not wearing anything but her unmentionables. Why? Willingham doesn’t need to explain it to you, fanboys! Anyway, we get more good action here, as Willingham just knows how to move people around the page, even in panels – like the second one – where he cuts off Annihilator and Ratman as they get swept away. We saw with Walt Simonson, of course, that this can be a good choice, and it’s not bad here, but I think the problem with Panel 2 is that there’s a real sense of downward motion, but Annihilator and Ratman aren’t going down, they’re moving parallel to the floor and Willingham is showing them from above. At least I think so. See, it’s even a bit confusing whether they’re swirling downward or not. Willingham shows us Jeanette going full “Human Torch,” with flaming hair and dark ashy lines along the folds of her clothes (she’ll soon be a bit more naked, as well), and as usual, we see the preponderance of hatching to give the cartoony art a rougher feel to it. The flames that engulf Chrysalis look angry and aggressive, which is a nice touch. In Panel 5, Jeanette runs to help Jeff, her teammate, whose face was covered in Chrysalis’s goop, and Willingham and colorist Eric Merill do a very good job showing how powerfully she lights up the area. Merill uses just a touch of yellow to highlight some of the objects in the room (and Jeff), while the rest of the background fades to white. Willingham gets rid of holding lines so that everything becomes starker as Jeanette shines so strongly. It’s a really nice panel.

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Jeanette, you’ll notice, has lost a good deal of her shirt, but at least there’s a reason – she turns into a human torch. I just wanted to show this page because of the nice work Willingham does with the figures – I suspect Becky is his favorite character, and he draws her very well in Panel 2, without being too cheesecakey but still showing her as a sexy woman. His body language is well done – Becky is a bit more optimistic than Jeanette, so Willingham draws her with wider eyes than Jeanette, whose thinner eyes and sharper eye brows give her a slightly more devious look. When she takes out Ratman, Willingham draws her tilted with her arms akimbo, a classic position of superiority, which she of course feels. Little things like this make the art work very well with Willingham’s and scripter Michael Wolf’s plot, because they want to give these characters a lot of personality in a short time.

Willingham kept drawing Elementals for a while, but a few years later, he was drawing some stuff for DC, presumably to pay bills so he could keep doing Elementals! So we’ll check out some of that art tomorrow. Hey, have I told you about the archives? Man, I must be slacking.

19 Comments

I’ve really been enjoying this series of posts, and am very happy to see Willingham’s work given the spotlight here. I have always admired his pencilling work and am slightly dismayed that he rarely utilizes those skills. Seeing him talk at various conventions, it seems he thinks his work is not that great, but I sorely disagree.

Looking forward to seeing what and who comes next in The Year of the Artist.

Wait wait wait. Are you telling me there’s an opportunity for yet another Year of the Batman and the Outsiders Artist post, and you’re just letting it slip away? I call shenanigans.

Scott: Thanks for the nice words. I do wonder why Willingham doesn’t draw more, but if he really thinks he’s not any good, that might be it.

I’m only doing 4 days of him, though, because as much as I like his art, it really hasn’t evolved all that much. But I have some neat-looking comics lined up!

buttler: You can be sure that if I actually owned those issues, I would have shown them! :)

tom fitzpatrick

May 14, 2014 at 2:49 pm

You know, I was afraid you were gonna showcase Frank Miller, but Bill Willingham – I’d go along with that.

Of course, BW has a “healthy appreciation of the female form”. Just check out any of the Elementals Sex Specials, and Ironwood. ;-)

You know, now that BW is finishing up with FABLES and FAIREST later on this year or early next year: maybe he can go back and do some more ELEMENTALS and come full circle!

Wouldn`t that be fun!

This was a pleasant surprise. Elementals was a damned good comic.

Stephen Conway

May 14, 2014 at 4:22 pm

The most recent artwork I can recall by Willingham was in Fables #100. Mark Buckingham did a text piece that was accompanied by a couple illustrations by Willingham.

Elementals was a fantastic series…especially the Shapeshifter stuff.

Jenos Idanian #13

May 14, 2014 at 7:59 pm

I remember both Willingham and Jeff Dee from their days at TSR, and remember them fondly. Their artwork blew away my teenaged brain. Now you’re making me remember Larry Elmore and Erol Otus from those days, too.

I will be very, very impressed if you use any of his work from Ironwood. It was considerably more… developed than what you show here, but I wonder if you can find enough samples that aren’t… um… NC-17, shall we say.

tom: Why are you scared of Miller? I’ll get to him eventually!

Jenos: I don’t own Ironwood, unfortunately. I really don’t have a problem showing NC-17 stuff, and I thought about showing the Elementals Sex Special, but I decided against it. I’m planning on doing at least one artist who has hardly drawn any NON-NC-17 stuff, so we should all be prepared for that! :)

I was hoping to see one of those old Dungeons & Dragons ads – Valerius, Saren, Indel & crew, and the green slime!

I seem to remember that Willingham lost all rights to Elementals when Comico was bought and then warehoused. He’d sold the rights to the original regime who had kept publishing it with a relaunch with art by Mike Leeke and scripts by Willingham. After the buyout he wrote a few more issues but they were beset by delays and spinoffs written by other hands. He reunited with Leeke a few years ago for a series called PANTHEON which was supposedly a reworking of some of his ideas for Elementals with an entirely new cast. I only ever found a couple of issues but I now see it’s all available for 99c per issues on comixology.

tom fitzpatrick

May 15, 2014 at 3:20 am

Mr. Burgas: I’m not scared of Miller, I love his Daredevil/Elektra/Batman/Ronin/Sin City books.
It just seems nowadays, he’s all Hollywood and not Comicwood. ;-)

Miller’s work has changed so much over the years, he’s perfect for this column. Besides, I don’t think Miller as an artist is discussed enough.

B.W.’s art is all over many of the old super-hero RPG books (and non-super books) as well.

Jenos Idanian #13

May 15, 2014 at 11:09 am

I’m planning on doing at least one artist who has hardly drawn any NON-NC-17 stuff, so we should all be prepared for that!

Well, there goes Phil Foglio, another TSR veteran… he’s done a LOT of NC-17 stuff, but a lot of more… “family-friendly” stuff, too.

Oh, God… not CHUCK AUSTEN!!!!!

Sure looks like John Byrne’s art to me.

Jenos: Ha, not Austen. Fret not!

@ Kenozoic:

Good call on those D&D ads. I loved those, as well as the work that Willingham did for the modules and manuals at the time.

Willingham actually created a lot of the characters in Elementals in the Villains and Vigilantes RPG modules. The Destroyers are straight from “Death Duel with the Destroyers” and Saker and his island is a reworking of “The Island of Dr. Apocalypse”. I don’t know if anyone remembers, but the delays between issue #3 and 4 of Elementals was literally about a year and a half, and it didn’t get a lot better than that as the series went on when Willingham was doing the art. So, I’m sure that had something to do with his not drawing much.

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