The Elementals, Part 1: The Forefather of Superhero Realism

Writing about Bill Willlingham’s The Elementals is a tightrope walk. On side, there’s the fact that this series was well ahead of its time, dealing with mature themes and realistic portrayals of superheroes in ways that, when it was being published, had yet to become commonplace. On the other side, there was a growing movement towards pushing the envelope further and further, to the point where shock would sometimes seem like the primary guiding force for the series. This was applicable to what was in the book and behind it.

The Elementals was a deadly serious book from a deadly serious creator and that mix could become overwhelming.

The Elementals first appeared in the Justice Machine annual published by Texas Comics in 1983, although they would soon move to Comico for their regular series. This was as the direct market was growing and independent publishers were finding success that had previously been unattainable; the idea of producing a superhero comic in the shadow of Marvel and DC wasn’t so crazy.

The series would run for 58 issues across three volumes, but that number doesn’t count numerous one off specials and multiple limited series. Those three volumes were spread across nearly a decade, which is an impressive lifespan for a non-Big Two superhero comic.

The Elementals is the story of Jeanette Crain, Jeff Murphy, Rebecca Golden, and Tommy Czuchra, four people who died in ways related to the four elements. They all came back, gifted with powers, calling themselves, respectively, Morningstar, Vortex, Fathom, and Monolith. Beyond their elemental themes abilities, each of them also had an extreme healing factor that was essential to the series, as extreme violence played a prominent role.

Art by Bill Willingham and Keith Wilson

The Elementals weren’t heroes. Their actions were usually based in self-preservation more than altruism. They killed when they had to and sometimes when they didn’t. They often said horrible things and occasionally did horrible things. They were all very flawed and not at all what anyone would consider role models.

Art by Bill Willingham and Keith Wilson

The Elementals was grim and gritty before grim and gritty had become a thing. They were superheroes for mature readers before such a thing became commonplace. Years before the Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, Willingham was addressing superheroes as if they existed in the real world, both physically and psychologically.

Art by Bill Willingham and Keith Wilson

The Elementals themselves were clinically depressed, although it’s never stated as such. The fact that they were undead created a barrier between them and the living, preventing them from forming real connections from anyone other than other supernatural beings. It’s a simple and clear way of establishing that characters with superhuman abilities wouldn’t be able to live among the rest of us.

Art by Bill Willingham and Keith Wilson

Willingham wrote and penciled the majority of the first volume of the Elementals and it’s hard to disassociate the book from his art. There are a handful of fill-in artists, particularly in the later issues of volume one, and none of them manage to justice to the team. This isn’t because any of them are bad artists; the issues feature early work from Grant Miehm and Jill Thompson. But neither of them is Willingham. Apparently by design, these issues are also more or less removed from the main narrative, classic fill-in issues, which makes them feel even less significant.

The issue of Willingham drawing or not drawing the book will come up again later and it won’t be pleasant.

The Natural Order

The Elementals were resurrected and empowered by the spirits of the four elementals, specifically to battle a man known as Lord Saker, who was using a machine called the Shadowspear to harness all the supernatural power in the world. It is later implied that Saker is Lazarus of Bethany. We also learn that he is a wizard and that he belongs to a council of wizards, but that comes later on.

To help him, Lord Saker has his own team, The Destroyers, make up of Shapeshifter, Annihilator, Chrysalis, Behemoth, Ratman, and Electrocutioner.

Art by Bill Willingham

This is the conflict from The Elementals’ first appearance in the Justice Machine annual though the first six issues of their regular series. They would eventually defeat The Destroyers and send Saker to hell, while falling into the hands of the U.S. government.

Saker’s Shadowspear, however, would be released into the atmosphere and the Elementals would spend years trying to contain it.

The Shadowspear is a fantastic narrative tool, as it can infuse anything and anyone with supernatural power, giving the series a limitless supply of potential villains (and heroes).

The series is concise and focused for the first 17 issues or so, as every story stems from either Lord Saker’s island of the supernatural or the government trying to establish an organization that can deal with the Elementals. Even the introduction of a vampire to the series works because it was created by the Shadowspear.

The introduction of Captain Cadaver (the vampire) is the first time we start to see Willingham push the envelope, but it’s off to the side. Cadaver apparently orgasms while murdering people. He never rapes anyone, supposedly, but he does view his killing as a sex acts of sorts. Why? I have no idea. And the concept is introduced off hand without much follow up, at least in volume one.

Fantasy Land

The back half of volume one is uneven, in part because Willingham begins to introduce new concepts that don’t seem to be a part of the Elementals world and because there are a string of guest artists.

Art by Bill Willingham and Keith Wilson

The book push comes with the introduction of Avalon, a fantasy world home to wizard Ambrose, who is on the wizard council that Saker is also a part of. Willingham worked on Dungeons and Dragons before creating The Elementals and he would later produce an adults only book called Ironwood that was based in a sword and sorcery world. This was a genre that he was clearly interested in.

It seemed too soon from a storytelling perspective, particularly considering that we’d yet to really see what the Shadowspear could do. The world of The Elementals had plenty of room for growth without adding another fantastical element to it.

That was part of why the addition of Avalon was so jarring. The Elementals had been entrenched in our world. Consciously or not, the realism of the series is part of what made it unique. Adding wizards, elves, and dragons after just 17 issues seemed like a step further than the book needed to go.

The guest artists didn’t help, either. The fantasy stories felt like they were separate from the rest of The Elementals run, different in both story and art.

Perhaps Comico felt the same way or maybe Willingham realized that he wanted to take The Elementals in a different direction and so they needed a fresh start. Regardless, the first series ended with issue #29; six issues after the last time Willingham had worked on the book.

Next: Volume 2 starts strong, Comico goes under, and everything goes to hell

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