Saturday, January 10, 2009

Opiate of the Masses


Yeah, I'm taking a while between these reviews, but I'll ask you to cut me some slack as I'm working on a special project and it was the Holiday season, after all. I decided that I was overdue to review some Bill Willingham work after all this time given that I've been a fan of his work since I graduated from High School.

See, on graduation night, I had gotten my diploma and was on my way to the county graduation party to have one last blast with friends, and so I stopped by the Mall to pick up a tee-shirt with the name of the University I was going to attend (I dropped out before classes started) and swing by Waldenbooks and grab a few comics. At the time, Comico had entered into a distribution deal with DC that got their comics into outlets like Waldenbooks. Entrigued by the cover, I picked up Elementals #2, the second series, not the first. I was hooked, as Willingham was writing super-heroes in a way that I hadn't seen before. 

This issue is from the first run from Comico, and it was the last for a long hiatus that Willingham had any hand in. Michael Eury told me that Willingham had upped and moved on them, but that's third hand knowledge, so take it with a grain of salt. 


While the Elementals finish their battle against Chrysalis, we're treated to the story of Reverend Jeremy Skagg and a project he's started to recruit 1200 followers with military or police training to work against the perceived forces of evil, namely the Elementals.  As the project proceeds we're treated to the hypocrisy that Skagg is having an affair with the woman helping to run the project while arranging merciless abandonment of an adultrous son-in-law.

Skagg's project is at the behest of a glowing "angel." Who directs him to bring in torturers who find bizarre and unique ways to kill the follwers that volunteered for his project. This is done in the suspicion that a few will be resurrected with special powers like the Elementals were. Skagg takes a perverse religious pleasure in observing many of these executions, and indeed six emerge with powers and renamed after Bible verses and christened "the Rapture."

The Elementals, after capturing Chrysalis find  the scientist that led them to her that she had cocooned has been transformed into a pulpa form.


Bill Willingham was known in the 1980s as the creator of the Elementals, one of the first superhero comics to be for grown-ups, and this is one those issues that points out why.The situations the characters found themselves in were mature, there was cursing and there was sex, and in this comic there's nudity and religion. Willingham took these particular shots at religion, and especially televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, whom Jeremy Skagg was obviously modeled after, at least visually. The story breaks between two scenes taking place at different times, completely unconnected, but it flows very well. I should also mention that Chrysalis remains, in my opinion one of the most original characters in superhero comics. The elements added in this comic only strengthen that opinion.

Willingham's artwork is very organic, and is at it's best when expressing the human form. When he pulls back and works less from reference, there's the occaisional slopiness, but overall, the art hits more than it misses. 

If the story has a problem, it's that it's not very nuanced. If the character of Jeremy Skagg has a redeemable quality at all, it's his devotion to his faith, but the Christians within the story are viewed as stupid or desperate enough to go willingly to a horrible death or participate in torture and mass murder.


Like most comics I've been reviewing, this issue has never been collected. It's very likely never to be reprinted, as the rights are tied up in the hands of the former owner of Comico who raises the price constantly whenever someone tracks him down and tries to purchase them. Look for this issue in back issue bins, as well as other issues of this fine series. Don't pay too much, as the series is not sought after too highly, as while it's done by the creator of Fables, it has nothing to do with the Vertigo series.

FINAL RATING: 8.5 (out of 10)

It'd be higher if the book was one of those life-changing issues. It's not, and the shots Willingham takes aginst irrantinally fundamentalist Christianity are heavy-handed and completely too easy. Today, I imagine he would do the story very differently. Then again, the Bill Willingham that did this comic is very different from the Bill Willingham that writes Fables today.