As I heft the pile of issues and drift into a reverie, to see how Elementals fits in my mind, it emerges as a brilliant disaster. But I want to apply some historical perspective on why I might see it that way, maybe to consider it differently.

The context for me – this is 1987-1989, between college and graduate school, which I’ve written about in Who is Coyote and The orgasm that saved the world. It’s also my second step into “the river” as I described in, surprise, The river. Addled by mainlining eight years of X-Men at once, I was buying that and related titles, but my real commitment was to the new companies – First Comics, Eclipse Comics, and Comico, for which, in addition to Elementals, I bought Mage, Grendel, and Fish Police, and the odd issue of this-or-that if I was interested. Very few were firmly rooted in the bright-outfit superhero concept. I didn’t know anything about Marvel ownership or editorship at the time, but I sure saw the effects – as I watched the X-titles descend into the textual equivalent of a schizophrenic break, these few became the only such comics I was reading, in desperate hope.

Furthermore, as described in Moses and the Mosquito, I’d returned to the role-playing hobby via Champions, and encountered the tie-in between Elementals and the game Villains & Vigilantes. I knew about the game since its release five years previously while I was in high school (see Vee and Vee). Its earliest supplemental materials included Deathduel with the Destroyers and its sequel, written and illustrated by Bill Willingham. All of us in that scene bought as many supplements for both games as we could afford, and Willingham’s contributions here as well as his earlier work for Dungeons & Dragons were gamer faves. [For the sort of thing we ‘zoids find endlessly fascinating, see also the contemporary Champions adventure module, The Island of Doctor Destroyer.]

Elementals as the comic was therefore very exciting to role-players. A full fathom of its appeal, no pun intended, was that to quite a few readers, Willingham was one of us. [Quick note: co-creator and frequent writer Jack Herman clearly needs to be acknowledged as well, but aside from the credits, I don’t know to what extent and in what details.]

Don't even imagine what 15-year-old gamers found to admire in this image

Don’t even think about what 15-year-old gamers admired in this sequence

Also, the geeking-out gold standard is to play role-playing games based on a favored medium, generate brilliant content, and then take it to the medium in question and produce it there which will astonish the world and make it sorry it didn’t appreciate role-playing. Frankly, the result is typically dreadful, but the subculture’s optimism thereto knows no bounds, and back then we did not have the putrid Wheel of Time and its wretched ilk to show us what could go wrong. Bill Willingham had provided intriguing, well-drawn, original-looking superhero and supervillain work in these modules, with just enough homage to existing characters to curl readers’ toes, and then – O Mamie mama of God ! – was now doing his very own comic featuring clear derivations of those characters!

Now I’ll put gamerdom aside and stick with the comic as such. Consider this twofer:

  • It had utter independent sensibility and credibility: created, written, and drawn by these one or two guys; published by a creator-ownership type company, given the standards of 1985.
  • The concept stayed with unitard-wearing, high-powered superheroes without trying to demolish it, especially in the aftermath of The Dark Knight Returns.

I had been badly let down by my first pulse-pounding issue! experiences of “the Marvel Age of Comics” in the mid-late 1970s, and I had no investment in – none of the entrainment by – the Official Universe. Therefore upon returning as a comics customer in 1987-1989, my desire re-surged to see “this is the first issue of the Fantastic fucking Four” happen in my reading-lifetime too, completely within my generational way of seeing and referencing things. As things turned out, it was that feeling’s last gasp.

If you don’t know, here are the basics – four relatively ordinary if vivid people are super-powered, cleanly and understandably based on the four elements, with perfectly excellent names (Vortex, Fathom, Morningstar, and Monolith). They’re mystical in origin, having been resurrected from elementally-appropriate deaths by the Earth Spirit to oppose a villainous sorcerer-guy, more on him in a moment, who commands a bevy of similarly-costumed and thematic villains. Everyone’s named using solid Lee logic (Shapeshifter, Ratman, Annihilator, Behemoth) and characterized by distinctive personalities, quick screentime bits, and understandable responses. I stress again: if this were merely “dark supers,” you wouldn’t be seeing those Kane-Kirby leaping fights, blazing powers, and bright spandex-y outfits for everyone, middle-aged Saker included. This isn’t opposing traditional super-comics, it’s delivering them.

It’s easy to focus on how the content deviated from then-standardized details of superhero comics, specifically the fantasy/magical context, the crunching-splatter violence, the medical details, the occasional nod to Newtonian physics, and lines like “You bitch!” However – to me and everyone I knew who was really into this title, these weren’t deviations at all, but exactly how we were already positioning costumed superheroes vs. costumed superheroes in our games. Willingham was our age or a hair older, writing in ways that the older Boomers could not. This was our early-twenties role-players’ superhero idiom.

It was attractive reading, too – the art was possessed of that energy that only comes across from someone who means it, but up to professional grade in clean execution. Exactly how good, issue by issue, was flatly a matter of the time he was able to work on it prior to deadline and who was available to ink it. More on that in just a minute as well.

Here’s a good summary of what the first issue (not counting the characters’ first appearance in Justice Machine) looked like in Year of the Artist, Day 134. I’m seeing some retrospectives which explain how it’s not mere homage and retread, but took certain things for which Marvel had dropped the ball for the prior decade and brought them where we knew they should go. The story focused strongly on the daily life, unusual physiology, and varying degrees of disconnectedness for the heroes. The big hit for me was the notion of superhero-dom as celebrity or at least cultural phenom which the characters simply could not avoid, and had to adopt out of pure expectation, for which this Retro Review nails it despite my quibbles with its final paragraphs.

There remains so much interesting 80s-ness to talk about, from the contemporary music references (Jethro Tull, Golden Earring) to the all-white cast (Becky is Jewish, that’s about the only ethnic or culturally-specific touch) to the great mix of determination with touchy vulnerability for both men and women protagonists. Now that I think of it, that latter – an absolute staple of modern superheroes – may have been represented best in this one title than in any other media output I can think of from the time.

I always did like Shapeshifter ...

I always did like Shapeshifter … for some reason …

I’ve been saying for a while that sex and relationships were big parts of the superhero stories long before anyone acknowledges, but it is true that the 80s brought us more open visuals about it. The larger matrix for discussing this is too much to go into at the moment. Suffice to say there were two big trends:

  • The standard version of dialing all such things back for the acknowledged “really superhero” material, with a fetish-y, winking undercurrent, and not in a good way.
  • The oh-so-edgy version which took the visuals and cussing up to OMG PG-13 levels and posed a dichotomy of relationships neatly divided between confused vs. abusive.

Elementals has its place in the latter trend but I submit it did so with a valiant attempt to write reasonably dramatically: first with the three-cornered not-quite-happening triangle among Fathom, Ratman and Porter Scott; and second with the fraught very-much-happening between Shapeshifter and Morningstar. The latter became more complex when the story jumped into the future a couple of times to show that their current-day violence and torment would somehow become a committed relationship. But hold onto that whole “in the future” concept for a moment.

The 80s are also with us in Lord Saker, who isn’t alone in tapping into Magneto, with his minion villains who even more literally owe their existence to him. But the politics are different and very important, embedded as they are in religion – specifically, the shock and horror experienced by many Americans during Reagan’s first term regarding his evangelical base and the corresponding administrative staff picks. Willingham’s case is important due to his relatively conservative politics – to understand this decade, you must grasp that many conservatives, counter to current stereotype, were no less shocked by these things than anyone else.

Briefly, Saker is Lazarus, not only resurrected by Jesus Christ but also inadvertently made immortal, now resentful and jaded to the point of ushering in Armageddon to get the whole fucking thing over with. He’s always been a horrible person, gravitating toward the Inquisition and the Third Reich, so superficially one might pose his hatred of Jesus as part of his evil- dom … but it’s subtler than that. In this construction, Jesus was blasphemous, effectively a sorcerer, whose miracles were against the natural order, and also irresponsible – whether Lazarus was a horrible person to begin with or became that way because he’d been used and ignored, either way. The whole point of the Elementals’ existence is to stop Saker, but in the larger picture, to restore the metaphysical world back to where it was before Jesus messed it up. It’s really pagan.

Keeping it going proved troublesome. After the initial “final battle” storyline is over, the stories refine the characters’ psychological and social situations, then resort to wumpus hunting, with the weak justification that the Shadowspear weapon unleashed by Saker causes anomalies. This is common among 80s titles too: a strong opening story with a showdown climax, then casting about for some reason to keep going.

I have to de-romanticize a little to admit this, to remove the “genius title” fan-vapor from my mind and see the danger signs from the beginning. Saker lacked real-world relevance; his secular activities were strange and incoherent, resembling a G.I. Joe level blend of Qadafi and Castro, leaving no content to deal with following the metaphysical climax. Focusing on the heroes’ psychological “deadness” was interesting but ultimately numbing, yielding little plot. It’s possible that the on-again-off-again multi-contributor credits for writing and pencilling were no big deal, but such things often indicate stress at the production level.

I was still buying mainly out of sunk-cost loyalty when a solid reason to keep going arrived, consistent with the book’s deepest conceptual underpinning: the Rapture, introduced in #22. It may strike you as old hat now, but this is the first time supervillains were named after Bible verses, which was kinda shocking then.  All of us creative-type readers were deeply engaged in whatever evangelical villainy we could find, e.g. Brother Blood in The New Teen Titans, Reverend Stryker in God Loves, Man Kills, Reverend Hatch a bit later in The Question, and many more. They were ubiquitous in superheroes role-playing, with my games no exception. Conceivably the Rapture was just what the Elementals needed: ruthless, righteous villainy born in modern Christianity, just as Saker had been born in its origins.

However, it went nowhere. The Rapture turned out to be a dud, quickly beaten in a fight, over before it began. It’s contra fan-fave thinking, but Elementals‘ driving content had run out of gas by the mid-teens or so, such that new ideas and conflicts became completely isolated and usually dropped. By this point the character conflicts had simply fallen too far apart; any structure and momentum for plot was gone. There’s some parallel with my points in Fizzle: it was never as good as “it was about to be.” You can click through the credits issue by issue to see the scripting and art tasks bounce around. You can see the universal signs of super-writing starting to flail – the intimations of a far-future conflict among the protagonists, the appearance of a vast menace using a soon-in-the-future introductory piece, the revealing of hordes of super-characters not hitherto-seen, and the death-knell of crossovers with other inch-from-cancellation titles.

I’ve extensively criticized the over-planning and the Universe-izing at Marvel (the New Universe, Stillborn), Eclipse (the Liberty Project, Give me liberty), Innovation (the Hero Alliance, Striking twice, some day), and DC (Impact, I, said the Fly). But look, Elementals is the one example of the Right Way According to Ron! It started with a bang and then added stuff and refined it to see how it goes. And it falls apart too.

What’s going on? Is there is a terrible pit awaiting between “plan it all out from the beginning” and “start with just one thing and trust your gut?” Is it unavoidable? Must we resort to the Back When Magic Worked argument and say that Stan-and-Jack-and-Steve were at the mythic origin, never to be repeated?

No, because economics and ownership matter a lot, and again, this is the 80s we’re talking about. Comico had initially been an investment by an owner of health clubs, if I understand correctly, and by 1988 or so the investor decided it wasn’t returning. The property was picked up by the inimitable Andrew Rev, whom I’ve mentioned before. Let’s see, might there be any more internet info on … ah yes, there we go, This is what happens when you work for a cocksucker. I find myself reevaluating, with sympathy, the consistent negativity, bitterness, and crankiness in Willingham’s scripts and text pieces in that period. It puts a much simpler light on the “fizzle,” too – you’re gonna expect a guy waiting on a three-pay-periods-past check to keep putting out 22 monthly pages, plus special bonus fan materials whenever?

I briefly met Willingham at about this time, 26-27 years ago (I guess?), and I recall that he was very nice and easy to talk with. Maybe it was because I didn’t demand “more Elementals!” or go on about “why isn’t it as good as it was,” or try to debate what he chose to write in the editorials, which some of you might remember. I know now that he would soon be almost homeless, with no ownership over the property!

1993With Rev in charge, Elementals continued to appear more-or-less regularly from 1989 through 1992, with pinch-hit appearances until 1997 when Comico folded and Rev found a rock to scuttle under. Its most visible presence from this time was in the Sex Specials, which I disliked, not morally (not from this reader of XXXenophile) but purely aesthetically. Most of them were simply lousy work, e.g., that 1993 cover’s crap anatomy and off-model faces, with Becky looking curiously Asian and Jeanette looking … dead. I don’t know whether the notion played into Willingham recovering his situation with Ironwood. His saga since then seems like a triumph of raw determination, and his success with Fables is well-deserved after a long hard road, regardless of my disagreement with the politics.

People really ought to talk more about that success thing in comics, which has seen several re-definitions and bizarre cognitive twists during my reading lifetime. Willingham would be a primary source for such a conversation. Elementals was a beloved cult title for all the right reasons, and if you know it, you also know where a lot of features in more well-known comics came from. It also left him destitute, relying on the last check for the ink and paper to do the next pages, not knowing when the check for that might come in, and as a property, it ended up on the scrapheap of Ponzi scheming, bankruptcy, and IP limbo.

I wish it were true, even axiomatic, that being a good comic would be good for the comic and also the creator. But it isn’t.

Links: A bit of 1974 to consider, In the shadow of Comico’s sins, and very informative, an extensive 2006 Comics Journal interview 1, 2, 3, 4

Next comics: Sword of God, Friends, p. 6 (Nov 22); One Plus One, Two, p. 9 (Nov 24)

Next column: God’s privy parts (Nov 27)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on November 20, 2016, in Supers role-playing, The 80s me, The great ultravillains and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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