Brand Echh: Justice Machine Annual #1

As the Direct Market first established itself as a viable venue in which to sell comic books directly to consumers with mitigated risk, there was a bit of a gold rush from new publishers, all attempting to eke out a slice of the marketplace for themselves. This made it an exciting period in which to be following comics–though for every outfit that established a toehold and hung on to produce some great work, there were others that only managed to release a few issues before the demands of publishing took their toll and they vanished without much of a trace. This describes both Noble and its successor, Texas Comics. Noble had launched in magazine format with the publication of the first issue of Mike Gustovich’s JUSTICE MACHINE in 1981. A total of five issues were produced, the latter two taking standard comic book dimensions before the strain of production became too great and Noble bowed out. Their final release, this JUSTICE MACHINE ANNUAL, was licensed to new start-up Texas Comics, who had some big dreams. Those dreams would go unfulfilled, however, as this was the only book they ever brought to market. And it’s not really noteworthy for the Justice Machine appearance, nor the fact that the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents guest-starred, but rather for the back-up series, a preview of what would have been Texas Comics’ next release.

The Elementals were the creation of writer and artist Bill Willingham, a new and exciting talent at the time. He’d first gotten notice as the illustrator of a series of Dungeons and Dragons advertisements that ran in the Marvel and DC books and elsewhere. And in fact, many of the characters he originated for The Elementals came out of work he did on the super hero table top role playing game Villains and Vigilantes.

The Elementals were a quartet of super heroes: Vortex, Morningstar, Fathom and Monolith. They had each suffered a violent death in civilian life and had been resurrected by the Earth as a sort of failsafe in the midst of a supernatural event and each granted dominion over one of the four elements. Pretty basic stuff as far as super hero mythologies go.

Two things made The Elementals stand out. The first was simply Willingham’s art style, which contained echoes of the work of such fan favorites as John Byrne and Michael Golden. As he wasn’t working for either Marvel or DC, the fact that he could produce visuals that were on a par with the best of the big two’s output was immediately impressive. Secondly, and more importantly, Willingham attempted to bring a more adult sensibility to a super hero story. It may be tough to recall just how regimented everything in the mainstream was under the dictums of the Comics Code. But in the Direct Market, the Code held no power, and so Willingham was able to follow the dictates of his conscience alone. Rather than simply increasing the levels of blood and violence (although he did that on occasion as well) Willingham instead used this freedom to attempt to tell stories that dealt with subject matter that was a bit further afield from what super hero comics had been permitted to address.

All of this, though, was still to come. While the inaugural story did see print in this JUSTICE MACHINE ANNUAL, Texas Comics folded its tent shortly thereafter, leaving The Elementals homeless. But Willingham was undaunted by this, and within a year he had hooked up with Comico, who would publish THE ELEMENTALS for just over a decade.

When it debuted, ELEMENTALS #1 was a runaway hit–I can clearly remember its instantaneous sellout and the immediate back issue spike of readers and dealers thinking that this might be another modern day equivalent to the launch of the Marvel titles in the 1960s, a book whose value would only grow greater and greater as the property and the company flourished. Things didn’t really work out like that, but for a brief period of time, ELEMENTALS #1 was a hot, much sought-after book.

In later years, Willingham would shift his focus, becoming primarily a writer (though he would still draw a project on occasion.) His largest mainstream hit was likely FABLES for Vertigo, a series that virtually propped up that entire imprint during the latter half of its run.

At a certain point, conditions grew dire enough between Willingham and the publishers of Comico (though not the original publishers, I should say–the company had been acquired at a certain point) that he sold all rights to the Elementals to the owners and walked away from the series. Since then, there have been infrequent attempts to revive the title, but these have all come to little.

And ultimately, while the potential for something wonderful still exists there, that’s just as well. Because what made ELEMENTALS noteworthy was Willingham’s work, both with keyboard and pencil. Without him, the series was always a shadow of its former self.

4 thoughts on “Brand Echh: Justice Machine Annual #1

  1. Tom, if you’re praising this Elementals story, should it really be under a “Brand Echh” entry? Maybe a BHOC would’ve been more appropriate? I read this story years after it was first published, reprinted as part of a collection from Comico. The script holds up. Tommy (Monolith) talks a bit formal for a 14 year old. The art doesn’t seem as strong as the comparisons you made; “on a par with the best of the Big Two’s output”. Rather than John Byrne (on a bad day, with deadlines on 4 books looming that month) and Michael Golden, I see Pat Broderick (not among the very best artists of the Big Two, but capable of some memorable covers and panels, and storytelling) and a watered down, less consistent “echo” of Michael Golden.

    Mike Chen and Mike Leek were among some of the artists who’d eventually work on the series at Comico, while Willingham still wrote it. I met Mike Chen during an interview at the Joe Kubert School in 1988. Super nice guy. But his competent art wasn’t what many would describe as on par with the best in the industry, either. The very best looking Elementals story I bought was drawn by newly rising, soon to be superstar Adam Hughes. Holy Moley, if he’d stuck around, Elementals might’ve needed multiple print runs. But he was too hot to stay on the book. I followed Adam on Mike W. Barr’s “The Maze Agency” (also at Comico, I think), and then of course, on to “Justice League”, after Kevin Maguire left that book.

    Willingham remained a good writer for along time. His post-Elementals art of Justice League, the Outsiders, and other characters didn’t really appeal to me, either. I liked the black & white series he wrote, “Pantheon”, drawn by Paul Ryan. Another indie comics with a shaper edge than most mainstream superhero titles. Bill recently did that “Legenderry” imprint for another smaller publisher, taking existing characters and turning them Victorian Era steampunk-ish (wasn’t my thing). I don’t know what he’s up to, now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I bought this book when it first came out, but it was destroyed along with dozens of other books in an accident in my apartment. Took me me close to a decade to finally replace it in ’01. I initially bought it because I’m a huge T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents fan, but was immediately hooked by The Elementals and picked up most of the early run. Thanks for reminding of this.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m not sure of the chronology, but when I was working for First Comics (I was doing WARP) Mike Gold announced to me that there were two artists from TSR that were going to be working there. I was going to get one guy by the name of Bill Willingham and my buddy John Ostrander was going to get the other by the name of Tim Truman. Bill started pencilling Outrider, the back-up strip in Warp (Taking over for the amazing Lenin DelSol.) He graduated to doing the main Strip in Warp #16–which is still one of the books I had the most fun doing. It was a combination of being very late on the book, the book not selling well (which was probably my fault), and the general collapse of First that made it his only issue. Warp ended with issue #19. The artist? Mike Gustovich.
    Every so often I wonder what would have happened had those assignments been reversed.


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