Or – “Life In The Fast Lane?  No, Life In The ONCOMING Lane.”

Waaay back before Fables, Bill Willingham was part of the independent comics boom of the 1980s with The Elementals, a seminal comic that presaged nearly all of the trends of modern comic book storytelling.  The concept of superhuman-as-celebrity is one that gets a lot of play these days, but Willingham was one of the first to examine it.  Your Major Spoilers Retro Review awaits!

ELEMENTALS #9
Writer: Bill Willingham (plot); Jack Herman (script)
Penciler(s):Keith Wilson/Mike Harris/Arnold Pander/Jacob Pander/Steve Bissette/Mike Mignola
Inker(s): Rich Rankin/Keith Wilson
Colorist: Kurt Mausert
Letterer: Bob Pinaha; Keith Wilson
Editor: Diana Schutz
Publisher: Comico
Cover Price: $1.50
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $2.50

Previously, in The Elementals:  Four ordinary people (a police officer, a coast guard pilot, a child of privilege and the brilliant young son of gifted scientists) each were killed by natural disaster, then resurrected, each possessing a power that corresponds with the classic four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  Believing themselves to be tasked with defeating a powerful mystic called Sake, the team was rather soundly thrashed in their first outing.  Eventually defeating the dark wizard, they began using their powers to defeat menaces unleashed by his power, now running rampant around the globe.  Of course, this has also given them somewhat of a high profile, and Fathom, Morningstar, Vortex and Monolith have become unwilling celebrities..  Luckily, Fathom’s father is well-versed in business and media dealings, and has made certain to cash in on the heroes’ fame…

Heh.  The joke there, of course, is that Comico published OUR world’s version of the Elementals comic, and those are caricatures of the editor and publisher of the very issue in our hands.  It’s a very 80’s comic book experience, from the pastel cover with the Aviator glasses, to the public’s reaction to the team members.  Monolith, aka Tommy Czuchra, has a few thoughts on that subject, which he shares on an Oprah-like talk show.

Of course, this sort of deep discourse (while certainly accurate and astute on Tommy’s part) goes right past the vapid hosts and the first caller’s question isn’t about his deep thoughts, but about his partner Morningstar’s recent appearance in a certain magazine for gentlemen.

Willingham’s cast is a very diverse one, and Tommy (who was physically 12-ish upon his death) blushes visibly and responds that he hasn’t been allowed to look at the issue.  It’s a lovely scene that really defines the Elementals comic for me, as it’s all about the character and his world.  Of course, not all of the team’s television appearances are quite as defanged, as Vortex discovers to his dismay…

I always found the shape of Jeff’s cowl/helmet to be fascinating, taking into account as it does the presence of hair under the mask, the kind of realistic touch that makes Elementals such an interesting read, even decades later.  Things are turning ugly for our heroes, as fans cause a riot outside their home while trying to sneak a peek of the heroes.  This being the 1980s, the decade of Chapman and Hinkley, Vortex finds that the shock of being media ambushed isn’t the worst part of fame.

The rapid-healing powers displayed here are part of the unique handling of super-abilities in Willingham’s Elementals world, as all powers are pretty much developed out of raw magic, and since Jeff and his partners are already dead, a few gunshots don’t inconvenience him much.  (Indeed, Vortex actually grows his eyes back after a particularly unpleasant battle injury during the series.)  Then, we have a moment that I think Stephen will remember fondly, as we get a battle for the ages:  Fathom vs. Larry “Bud” Melman!

This page is brimming with irony, in retrospect, from the Jay Leno reference to Dave’s stand-offishness, but the last panel is very important for Elementals readers.  Though the general public finds them fascinating, their presence is discomfiting to normal humans, probably due to their being really, most sincerely dead.  The “creepy vibe” is barely tolerable by Mister Golden (Fathom’s Daddy) and Lawrence (her long-time housekeeper and father-surrogate) but direct contact with most any of the supers of this world leads to that feeling of disconnection and discomfort.  The tabloids have a field day discussing Fathom’s love life, while even Lawrence gets an endorsement deal for breakfast cereal, but it should be noted that not EVERYONE shares the expectation that real-live superheroes should be America’s darlings.

As silly as it may seem today, there was a time when a televangelist of this stripe was a strong bellwether of the moral majority, and the holding up of The Elementals as subverting “family values” is one that I’m quite certain still holds water today (though he’s probably be a political pundit on a cable network rather than a televangelist.)  Fascinatingly, the team disagrees on how to respond, as Morningstar believes that they should have stayed under-the-radar, Vortex wants to rebut the attack, and Monolith blows it off, stating that “no thinking person” would ever listen to such rubbish.  The 80s were a different time, indeed.  Oh, and remember that comic book deal that Papa Golden was shopping around?  The first issue has arrived…

*Sad Trombone*  I love that part, as the Silver Age storytelling model was just barely sliding out of use by 1986, and a lot of the reason this comic exists was to create a more realistic model of comic storytelling.  Thirty years down the line, I’m happy to see Bill Willingham still working (and widely respected with a couple of popular titles under his belt), as this book was a revelation to me teenage self.  Superheroes as PEOPLE, with sex lives and pet peeves and such was a very fresh concept, and this issue addresses a lot of the complexities of celebrity without ever trying to offer a pat answer or a quick resolution.  The art this issue seems to have been a jam session of half a dozen of Comico’s freelancers, but the changes in style work to the issue’s advantage, delineating the passage of time or change of setting easily.  Elementals #9 is a blast from the past that’s still relevant (and influential) today, and it’s easy to see this books’ themes and ideas in the comics of 2012, earning this one a lovely 4.5 out of 5 stars overall.  The truly fascinating part of reading Willingham’s Elementals comes in realizing that the close spiritual child of The Elementals came in 1991, with Rob Liefeld’s ‘Youngblood,’ which springboarded the Image Comics resolution, and changed comics forever…

Rating: ★★★★½

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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7 Comments

  1. August 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm — Reply

    Great review, this is one of my favorite issues of the series. Thanks for doing one of my requests, by the way. This is a series that I always felt, “superheroes in the real world” thing done right. I really need to finish out my run of at least the first volume of this series, maybe the second if there is a good stopping point. I liked the touch in this issue that even the butler gets endorsement deals. Elementals, one of the best recommendations my comic shop owner ever gave me.

    • August 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm — Reply

      Volume II of Elementals has some high points, especially as it kicks off with Bill Willingham again, with the team battling The Rapture, a team whose origin has to be seen to be believed.

      Things really get rolling again with the Oblivion War, but then stall just as quickly near the end, as the 1990’s and speculator mentality (combined with Willingham’s exit) turn the book into another Youngblood knockoff. But there are a LOT of gems in there, as well, including Vol II #20, and bits and pieces of the various “Elementals Sex Specials.”

  2. Zombi
    August 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm — Reply

    The Elementals is still one of my favorite series of all times!

  3. Space Cadet Juan
    August 7, 2012 at 2:29 am — Reply

    It’s too bad the rights to the Elementals seem to be in some kind of legal limbo, as the early issues at least deserve reprinting in a nice tpb collection.

  4. b003
    August 7, 2012 at 10:59 pm — Reply

    I totally missed this!

  5. Moishe Pippick
    August 8, 2012 at 12:07 am — Reply

    What’s even more ironic about the Letterman scene is that Willingham himself was on Late Night with David Letterman as a member of the audience that Dave interviewed about something in a bit (if I remember correctly, a previous audience member had referred to a baseball player as ‘mint’ (she meant attractive) and when Letterman jokingly asked Willingham – who was wearing a Batman t-shirt – about the remark he explained that he worked in comics and that ‘mint’ was a term used by comics collectors).

  6. November 20, 2016 at 3:04 am — Reply

    […] 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 […]

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