RETRO REVIEW: Elementals #9 (August 1986)


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!

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