Saturday, January 02, 2010

Out of the Vault- Elementals

I know I had issue #1 of this back in the day, but it seems to have come up missing. There have been times when I have gotten desperate enough for cash to sell off some pieces, so it may have been sold. That makes me sad. So the cover image here is from issue #2.

Elementals #1 was published by Comico in 1984. The Elementals were four people who had died in unrelated accidents at the same time and were then brought back to life by the elemental powers of the earth to protect the natural order from an impending threat to all existence. They were Morningstar (fire), Vortex (air), Fathom (water) and Monolith (earth). The book was pencilled and written by Bill Willingham, who had spent most of his career up to that time doing illustrations for game companies, including some artwork for Dungeons and Dragons. In 1982, he wrote and illustrated an adventure module for the Villains and Vigilantes game titled "Death Duel with the Destroyers." This was followed up by a sequel adventure, "The Island of Doctor Apocalypse."

And in 1984, the Elementals got their own book (they had appeared once before as a back-up feature in Justice Machine before Texas Comics went out of business), in which they faced off with (guess who?) the Destroyers. They lost that first battle and were then taken off to the island of Doctor... Saker, an immortal sorcerer who has been gathering supernatural energy for two thousand years and plans to release it in the form of a devastating weapon called the Shadowspear. The opening arc spanned five issues, in which the Elementals learned just how powerful they were and just how difficult their job was likely to be.

Unlike a lot of the mid-80's independent comics I've featured here, Elementals was a hit from the first issue, mainly due to Willingham's dynamic and detailed art. Willingham's style was distinctively his own, although it was in some ways similar to Michael Golden's. And apparently like Michael Golden, Willingham had trouble meeting deadlines. Guest pencillers were a frequent feature of the book.

But Elementals was also interesting from a story standpoint, because it was a superhero book, but a totally unique one. I don't know if any other American comic book combined such disparate elements as central features of their storyline.

On the one hand, Elementals was a book that took place in the more-or-less "real" world, so superpowered violence was often deadly, and bloodily so. The violence and its consequences were often depicted with a realism not seen in other superhero comics. For instance, the infamous "vomit page" from issue 3, in which one of Saker's soldiers yaks up her lunch after seeing Vortex's mutilated body, described in clinical detail by her companion (I am proud to have the original artwork for this page gracing my wall at this moment, BTW).

In another issue, Vortex and Fathom attempt to quell a fire in a skyscraper, only to run into the pesky problems of physics, which cause their efforts to make things worse rather than better. The Elementals also encountered problems of fame and politics and love, depicted more realistically than the histrionic melodrama that was Marvel's usual fare.

But on the other hand, the powers of all the super-powered characters were supernatural in origin. Not only that, but all the characters with powers had died and been resurrected, making this perhaps the first super-zombie book ever. It also provided a handy explanation for why characters could be killed and yet return later. Death for a superhero is not just impermanent, but a prerequisite.

And one thing that made the depiction of the supernatural stand out in Elementals was the distinctly Christian nature of it. Not that Willingham's book was a Christian tract; exactly the opposite. Willingham's antipathy to Christianity was a central feature, from Saker's origin story (Saker was a thinly-disguised Lazarus, raised by a vain, demon-sired Jesus for the sake of his own vanity) to the multiple depictions of TV preachers as hypocritical villains. Saker's reference to himself as the "Prince of the power of the air" is a quote from Ephesians 2:2, which is usually interpreted as referring to Satan.

I eventually stopped reading after 22 issues. The first five-issue story arc had been fascinating, but then the series devolved into a succession of one and two-issue stories, some of which were excellent and some less so. But eventually the inconsistency and bitter tone of many of the stories got to me (along with the frequent guest artists who just didn't have the same flair with the characters as Willingham did). When Willingham in issue #22 introduced the Rapture, a Christian supervillain team who took their code-names from Bible verses, I decided enough was enough and quit.

That was in 1988. The series continued, first under Willingham and then under publisher Andrew Rev, who purchased the rights from Willingham, for another 8 years. Not a bad run for a comic inspired by an RPG supplement.

1 comment:

DB said...

I randomly was sent Elementals #2 along with an order from Mile High (I think). I'll have to check it out. I do like the cover.