The Bill Willingham Interview (part two of four)

Posted by on April 28th, 2010 at 12:06 AM


DEPPEY: Elementals started out as a fairly standard superhero comic. And as things went on, you started exploring the themes of how superpowered characters would interact in the real world, which is common enough today, but this was even before things like Watchmen or Dark Knight, and you were among the first to think about superhero comics these ways. In many ways, it reads like a modern, 21st-century comic, in terms of the way it deviates from what was then the superhero norm. Toward the end of the series, for example, you had the characters quite consciously thinking of themselves as almost a different species above and beyond humanity. Was this something that you were just toying with in the back of your mind? Did this… I’m not phrasing this properly…

©1990 William T. Willingham.


WILLINGHAM: No, I know where you’re getting at, and there’s actually, I think, two incidents I remember that sparked that. They’re both a case of being, basically, a spoiled guy, not wanting to be told what to do. In the very first Elementals pages, the story that appeared in the backup of the Justice Machine Annual, I did a couple of pages that didn’t get used because I didn’t like the way they were drawn or some other thing. But one of them had this picture of Monolith grabbing up some guard down at the docks, and the guard’s obviously surprised to be grabbed up by this character. Like, “Oh, a big monster.” And the Monolith character, his line was something along the lines of “You have no idea what you’ve stumbled into, human.” And a friend of mine, also a Fantasy Games Unlimited artist and writer, looked at those pages and said, “You know, sure, he’s strange now, but I don’t think any superhero would actually think of himself divorced from humanity in that way.” As a criticism, maybe I should rethink that — and that sort of stuck in my mind to where, well, I don’t know, something that’s basically a big, walking, rocky turd probably would think of himself divorced from humanity, but, you know, if that’s enough to justify it, how could I justify it? And that probably sparked one aspect of it.

The other thing was, after we’d started the series at Comico, Janet Jackson — no relationship to the one with the wardrobe incident, but a colorist at Marvel for some time — was coloring The Elementals, and I asked for a real subdued palette on one of the scenes. It was a very Apocalypse Now, attack-helicopters-flying-out-of-the-horizon-coming-towards-us kinda thing. And I wanted it kind of subtle, so we had these, like, dull green helicopters with a gray, stormy background, so that the helicopters didn’t really pop the way they would in normally colored comics. I was probably showing this around up at Marvel at one point, when Janet had started working there, and one of the editors — I cannot remember who — looked at it and said, “Yeah, that’s real striking. That’s very good. ‘Course, it’s all wrong. You can’t do that in comics. You have to have dark colors against bright or bright against dark, but never dark against dark.” After complimenting me on how nice it looked, he said, “It’s wrong,” [Deppey laughs] and kind of like, “Do better from now on.” Or even said something like, “You’re going to have to learn not to do that if you’re ever going to do Marvel Comics,” or something. That lit another little spark under me as far as “Oh yeah, mister? I’ll show you. You can’t tell me what to do…” So, I suspect a lot of the making Elementals not a typical superhero book was sparked by those kinds of incidents where people kept telling me that there’s an official way you should be doing these things and my reacting against that.

DEPPEY: There were also a lot of fantasy elements in this book. Is this just something that winds up getting dragged into every project that you do?

WILLINGHAM: You know, the sun rises in the east every day. Pretty soon, you get to trust it. So I suspect now, looking back over the books I’ve done, I think that we’d better just realize that that kind of stuff is gonna get dragged into everything that I do in one way or another.

DEPPEY: There’s a point later on, around the same time the characters start explicitly referring to themselves as something other than human, where one of the characters, Monolith, actually holds up a comic book and says, “You know, we’ve just been acting like this.” The book turns into a fairly detailed critique of how superheroes would work as opposed to how they’ve been depicted as working, and I was wondering if that was reflective of any kind of dissatisfaction with the genre on your part or… That came out wrong. That comes out sounding like a sort of standard Comics Journal question. [Willingham laughs.] “Did you begin to realize that you were better than this?” No. No no no. But it does seem to me that there is a very unreflexive way of doing superheroes and, in the time since Elementals, in the late ’90s to now, basically, as other creators have kind of butted against that, it’s become more and more the norm. I was kind of wondering how you came to viewing superheroes from a relatively analytical perspective.

WILLINGHAM: Well, I think part of the fault for that lies, first of all, in having a lifetime devoted to thinking entirely too much about superheroes. I guess, if you’re going to do that, hopefully you’re not just regurgitating the same tropes all the time. I suspect it was, to a certain extent, a critique on superheroes in general, but also, a kind of a mission statement in that if you’re going to posit that this kind of silliness really does exist, then the first thing that would happen is that it would get bureaucratized and stratified and there would be rules and regulations on how people conducted — and this is something that probably came out of my military days that never had showed up in comics before: that they would have things like rules of engagement and policies on how to deal with what we’re dealing with. Rather than the standard superhero template of the type and, I think, still the most common one now, which is “We’re just a reactive force. We sit around, if something happens, we run into the crisis with no plan or whatever other than let’s try and fix things and then hang around until something else bad happens.” I guess the approach I wanted to take was, “Well, if that’s what these guys are gonna do with their lives, they would probably try and find out intelligent ways to codify what they do.” I don’t know that it was an open rebellion against the superhero norm of the day, rather than just trying to add some of my thoughts as to how this would occur. I went through my stage thinking of myself as one hot young Turk then, so maybe there was an element of “Oh, yeah? I can do this better than you, and here’s my statement to that effect.”

DEPPEY: The Elementals also struck me as a series that was very explicitly not written for kids, which again, is standard almost today, but for superhero comics at the time was almost unheard of. I mean, I suppose, aside from the more thoughtful approach to superheroes in general, there was also the addition of sex, which… eventually culminated in “Sex Specials” in the book.

WILLINGHAM: If I’d known that that’s what they were gonna do with it after I left, I probably wouldn’t have laid those seeds early on, but yeah.

DEPPEY: Can I assume then that those Sex Specials were not your idea?

Painted cover by Gould, dated 1991.

WILLINGHAM: Well, yes and no. What ended up being the first Sex Special was actually just going to be one of the regular issues, I forget which number it was, but it was just gonna be put in the numbering along with everything else. And there were people stretching the boundaries of comics then. I mean, Chaykin had just come out with his Black Kiss and stuff that said, “Here’s more things you can do with comics than just what you’re getting.” And, you know, that sort of inspires the rest of us to see where we can go with the same material. But Comico, when they got it in, they said, “This is great. We might have to bag this issue.” I said, “Fine.” But at the same time, Comico was very visibly going out of business without mentioning it to us, and the fellow Andrew Rev, who took over Comico and started it up again, this thing was already completed. It was ready to be published, printed. He was adamant that it not be just part of the regular series numbering and made the first Sex Special out of it, which got some attention. I guess it sold more than the regular issues, so that decreed that there would be a second and a third and fourth and so on. All of which I thought was pretty ridiculous. It’s almost like they take one element of the story, “Oh, it’s sex, so we’re having a Sex Special.” And, you know, if there were others that had, like, the kid Tommy’s ugly cereal recipe for what he liked to eat in the morning, it made as much sense to me to just put that out as the first Elementals Food Special, because there’s an actual recipe you can follow in there if you wanted to.

DEPPEY: [Laughs.] What exactly happened to Comico? The Journal reported on it, but I’ve never actually heard anybody really describe that company’s devolution.

WILLINGHAM: It’s long and complex and even being sort of on the inside of it, there’s probably lots I don’t know. But Comico was one of those companies that kind of grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory, I think much the way First Comics did, which was: They were well-financed, they had a good serious business plan in the sense of not getting carried away with itself, not doing the “we have a couple of books come out, they do OK, they make a little profit, we suddenly decide that we’re invincible, we’re obviously geniuses, we can publish anything, and go crazy about it.” When First Comics was starting up, and I was visiting them trying to get work, Mike Gold sat me down and explained their business plan, which was a pretty serious: “We’re going to have a line of six books,” I think it was. Maybe it was four, but the idea was, “We’re going to have four successful books. We’re not going to add that fifth book until the four books are successful, meaning that… certain stories might work out, certain stories might not, but we’ll just keep switching out until we have four that are selling and then think about adding the fifth.” A very cautious business approach. Comico’s was not quite so codified, but it was very similar: very conservative, very cautious. Having come out of two comic companies in a row that went belly-up with pie-in-the-sky ideas, that was what attracted me to Comico.

The problem is they were a victim of their own success, and I think they got to the point where they thought, “We’re a successful company. The books we do sell. So therefore, let’s abandon that caution and just start doing all sorts of stuff.” Part of that is you hire editors and things, and different editors want to bring in different projects and we’re getting attention and so lots of people that would not have been willing to work with a small company like Comico are now willing to see it as a legitimate company with fellows like Art Adams coming through the door. Of course, you want to publish them because they’re people that get work at real companies. So I suspect that had something to do with it, and then it was exacerbated by the fact that Comico thought they could put together a newsstand distribution deal that just sucked money out of the company like nobody’s business. So lots of mistakes. It finally reached that critical mass where, you know, the money guy, Dennis Lasorda, whose money came from his physical-therapy practice, I think, finally realized that continuing to underwrite the company that was bleeding money the way it was by now was just throwing good money after bad, and finally opted out.

DEPPEY: One final question: I’m assuming that you still own Elementals…



WILLINGHAM: No. The final act of Comico, when Andrew Rev came in, he was gonna bail out Comico. All I knew about him was he was a money guy from Chicago, a comics fan, and he was going to refinance Comico, come to the rescue, all that kind of stuff. By this time, I had decided that I didn’t want to just hang on to another company that’s fighting for its life, that I actually want to attempt to work with publishers that kind of have a better idea of what they’re doing. So I wanted out of Comico. Elementals was still contracted and if Andrew Rev bought out the company, he was going to buy the existing contracts as well. There were two ways to get out of it. One was the way Matt Wagner took with Grendel, which was just to fight tooth and nail for years at a time to finally wrest his property away from Andrew Rev. I went the other route. I thought, “Well, I’m probably done with Elementals, anyway. I’m a little tired of it. I’m not gonna continue.” By this time, I’d gotten some bad vibes from this fellow that I did not want to work with him as the new publisher. I thought, “Well, I bet he won’t try to hold me to a contract if he can keep the rights.” So I sold him the rights to The Elementals. The original Comico people were being pretty cagey about what the buyout deal was. The impression they gave me was that Andrew Rev was just going to be a new partner, like the Lasordas and the other original partners, and this was a way I thought that I could leave him in good faith with not taking my toys with me. Saying, “Look, you can have The Elementals. I’ll get a little money out of it. We’ll leave on good terms. No harm, no foul.” What I didn’t realize was that the deal was actually that the original partners were gone and Andrew Rev would be the only owner and publisher. A little bit regretful, but Andrew Rev now has the rights. Has had ’em since he bought out Comico and has never protected the rights, and Andrew Rev has dropped out of sight in the years since this happened, so I suspect that, for all time, Elementals is a dead property.

DEPPEY: Have you ever contemplated hunting him down and trying to get them back, or do you care?

WILLINGHAM: Well, for a while, like every year as kind of an anniversary joke, I’d call him up and offer him a buck for the rights back. I stopped doing that when I realized that every time it started a new conversation where he thought that we were speaking to each other again, and would try and get me to do more stuff and talk me into whatever his latest scheme was. So I stopped doing that. I understand from Jim Lee that he attempted to buy the rights to The Elementals from Andrew Rev a couple of times, and found the fellow impossible to deal with. You might have to check this, but the story I was told was that Jim Lee would offer a stack of money so high, and Rev would conclude because of that, “Well, if he’s offering me this much, it must be worth this much,” and come back with an outrageous offer that, if Jim Lee met that, then, of course, Rev would heighten it again. [Lee] found him just as impossible to deal with as I did and gave up.

As of now, no one knows where Andrew Rev is. He no longer maintains a publishing office in Chicago. I’ve heard various rumors, including that he’s a guy on the streets now, but yeah, those rights are gone forever. I don’t think, even if people were to track him down, that anyone would be able to get those rights from him.

DEPPEY: I suppose the big question is: Do you have anything that you still want to do with the characters?

WILLINGHAM: No, not really.


Be Sociable, Share!

Pages: 1 2 3

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.