In January of 1989, Comico released The Elementals Special #2 (#1 had been published years earlier and featured a story about child abuse). The issue is written and drawn by Willingham (with script assist from long time collaborator Jack Herman). It’s telling that in the “The Story So Far” recap section on the inside front cover, no issue beyond #22 of the first volume is referenced, because no issue beyond #22 mattered all that much.
There was no better way to get the series back on track than to have Willingham create a special to get things started. His art has a rough, Michael Golden look, and while not groundbreaking, he was a very good storyteller. It was also just nice to see the Elementals look like the Elementals again.
The Special served to focus the title, which seemed rudderless towards the end of volume 1. The fantasy elements were there, yes, but now they were less random and less jarring. This issue also sent the group to Avalon, leaving everyone on Earth to wonder where they had gone, a set-up that would be the status quo to start volume 2.
Willingham was back to write volume 2, but he wouldn’t be drawing it. Instead, the new regular art team was Mike Leeke on pencils and Mike Chen on inks. They were easily the best replacements for Willingham that worked on the book. They handled violence and gore well, which was a big requirement for this book, and they added some extra angry superhero flair. Whereas Willingham’s characters often felt puckish, Leeke/Chen’s character were very serious.
The first 15 issues are solid. The initial storyline involves The Elementals fighting Demeter, a sorcerous who also belongs to the same society as Saker and Ambrose. The Shadowspear has begun sucking energy from other dimensions, disrupting magical powers, including Demeter’s. The prevailing belief is that the Shadowspear will only dissipate after it’s gotten rid of the Elementals. Demeter thinks that killing off the Elementals will solve her problem.
Meanwhile, back on earth, we learn more about The Rapture, a group of super beings created by Reverend Skagg, the typical televangelist. We also learn that the stake that had been placed in Captain Cadaver’s body has been removed, which will only mean one thing…
After the Avalon arc, the Elementals face off against the Rapture, then go back to Philadelphia to fight an army of vampires spawned by Captain Cadaver. There’s also a very intense, well done story involving Morningstar and her boyfriend, but it’s so good that I don’t want to give it away.
Captain Cadaver’s return features another moment that feels like it’s there purely for shock value. We already know that Cadaver is a vicious killer who orgasms while murdering people, but in issue #4 he attacks and man and a pregnant woman. It’s unnecessary. I will spare you the details, but it adds nothing to the story and doesn’t tell us anything about Cadaver that we don’t already know. We know the stakes are high. We know he’s horrible. This feels like the kind of thing teenager boys come up with to try to out dick each other.
Issue #10 starts the Oblivion War, which is might have been a great story had it ever been completed. It opens with a scene from the future, so it seems like Willingham had some kind of a rough plot worked out, but you would never know it by the issues we get, particularly since they are few and far between.
Issue #15 is the last published by the original Comico and it is easily one of the strongest issues of the entire run. It sets up so many potential stories that will never happen. There is something sadly perfect that such a great issue would mark the end of The Elementals as we knew them.
The New Comico
By all accounts, Comico was doing well, so well that they decided to expand beyond the direct market. The problem is that newsstands require periodicals to be returnable, which meant that even if Comico made a lot of money on an order, half that order might come back, and they would have to issue a refund.
That’s not the kind of business that a small company can handle. There’s very little margin for error unless you have a large corporation backing you up. Comico did not, so they went bankrupt. The company was bought by Andrew Rev.
Rev ruffled some feathers after buying Comico and a couple of long time creators decided to leave one way or another. Willingham’s way out was to sell the rights to the Elementals, meaning that he would now be work for hire and could get out of his long term deal with Comico.
It seemed that Rev thought there was money to be made from the Elementals brand and he set about 90s-fying the comic. The book returned with issue #16 seemingly none the worse for wear. But #17 sent the Elementals to Iraq to fight Saddam Hussein. It was written by Jack Herman, not Willingham. The regular story returned with #18. Issue #19 was supposed to be an issue focused on the sex lives of the team.
That’s when Comico began to take a turn.
Rev decided that the issue in question should be released as a special, which made some sense since it was going to be bagged when it was released. It was called The Elementals Sex Special; not exactly subtle, particularly for a comic that was about characters who also had sex. The book sold well so Rev decided there needed to be more. There would be 6 specials in all over two volumes, but they also no doubt played a part in the creation of the Lingerie Special, the Sexy Lingerie Special, and the Swimsuit Special (really).
That was just the start. While only 5 issues were released of the main title in 1991 and 1992, Vortex and Monolith both got limited series. The Fathom got a second one (her first was during volume 1). Volume 2 ended with issue #26 in 1993.
But the full court press for all things Elemental was just starting.
To the Extreme!
In June of 1996, Comico were to release these comics: Elementals: The Vampire’s Revenge, Elementals Swimsuit Special, Elementals: How the War Was Won, Elementals volume 3 #3, Elementals Lingerie Special #1, Oblivion #3, and Elementals Babes: Photo Multi-media Bikini Special #1 (of 3!). That’s SEVEN Elementals comics.
Most of the comics were labeled as “collector’s issues” and prominently featured the name of any artist associated with the title that may have worked on some other relatively popular book. Books were announced but never released, like Avalon or Ratman. Strikeforce: America at least got one issue out.
The publishing plan seemed to be “puke out as much Elementals content as we can and hope the people who were buying one title will buy all the titles.” It’s a standard technique from the Big Two, but they have lots of money backing them. Comico did not.
I remember being really excited when Elementals #16 came out. Comico was back and the Elementals were going to be okay. But that didn’t last long.
Where are they now?
Then in 2017 it became clear that Dynamite Entertainment had registered the name with the intent, one would assume, to publish new comics.
If Comico 2.0’s attempts at expanding the Elementals brand has taught us anything, it’s that the Elementals aren’t the Elementals without Bill Willingham being involved in some capacity.
That’s not necessarily a good thing, though.
The Controversy (aka The Big Stupid)
In the letters’ page of volume 2 #9 of the Elementals, one of the readers chastises Willingham for not drawing the book, claiming that he has a responsibility to do more than just write it. It is, without question, a ridiculous complaint, as Willingham has no responsibility to the book he created. He can do whatever he wants with it. Acting like he owes it to the fans or to his creation to keep drawing it is entitled nonsense.
In the editorial section of that same issue, Willingham responds to the letter.
Elementals was always a serious book and it would be easy to make the case that Willingham, in his editorials, took both the comic and himself much too seriously. But he was never offensive. That, as you can see, changed.
It wouldn’t be until issue #21 that a letter would be printed calling out the editorial. Willingham answered the letter himself, although Comico also added their response.
At this point, given that Comico owned the Elementals and Willingham was, in theory, work for hire, it’s amazing that the didn’t fire him on the spot. Or, rather, it’s ridiculous that they didn’t fire him on the spot.
Willingham’s point in the original editorial is that he’s not at the beck and call of his fans and that he will do what he wants with his creations. To put it colloquially, he was not the readers dancing monkey. And I get that. I agree with that.
But that’s not what he actually said.
The fact that he would decide to use the N-word is shocking. The fact that he also seems to believe that it’s okay to use it in a specific context is even worse. The level of ignorance and stupidity to make such a choice and then to claim that it’s perfectly fine blows my mind. It becomes hard to read the comic, even, after getting a glimpse into the thought process of the person who created it.
That editorial was published in November of 1989. Could you imagine it being published today? Do you think Willingham would have gone on to create Fables? Would that have been so bad?
It doesn’t seem like something that is ever brought up in interviews with him, either, and I’ve seen no comment from him about it aside from that one letters column decades ago. I would love to think that he’s seen the error of his ways and regrets what he wrote. It would certainly make reading (and writing) about the Elementals a bit easier to reconcile.
Still, the Elementals certainly deserves a place in superhero history. It was a predecessor to so many comics that would become famous ostensibly doing the same things. It was dark and serious and scary and exciting and it deserves to be collected in a fancy omnibus…
…ideally with an apology from Bill Willingham for his shitty editorial.