The 1980s were the high point, in most opinions, of the independent comic book market. The advent of the so-called "direct market" -- the comic shop -- early in the decade, catered to more mature readers (and their consequently larger bank accounts) and allowed independent, small-press publishers to flourish. Without a doubt, the jewel in the independent crown was Comico ("Co-mee-ko?). Comico was founded in 1982 in Norristown, Pennsylvania by Phil Lasorda, Gerry Giovinco and Bill Cucinotta. Giovinco and Cucinotta had previously worked together on a local, cartoon-oriented art-school newspaper called "Duckwork." Lasorda and Giovinco were high school friends.

Comico's first comic was the black and white anthology "Comico Primer." It's second issue launched the title that would make Comico famous, Matt Wagner's "Grendel." By 1984, it was decided that Comico needed to publish in color to compete in the marketplace. They launched three new books: Matt Wagner's other masterpiece, "Mage: The Hero Discovered," Chuck Dixon's first comic, "Evangeline" and Bill Willingham's superhero tale "Elementals," a creator-owned title which had debuted the year before in Texas Comics' "Justice Machine Annual."

Willingham both wrote and drew "Elementals" (yes, he is an artist), a playfully subversive superhero series. It posited a world where supernatural forces could grant post-mortem superpowers to people of an Earth much like our own. "Elementals" dealt with themes of death, fame, politics, religion (it was at various times accused of being both pro-Christian and anti-Christian) and violence. It also dealt strongly with sex and sexuality, something that even modern comics struggle with. It did all this, fearlessly and boldly, in one series, two years before "Watchmen" was published.

In 1985, Comico would add licensed material to it's line-up, beginning with "Robotech." Over the next several years they would successfully add both new licenses ("Johnny Quest," "Star Blazers" and "Space Ghost") and new original series (Mike W. barr's "Maze Agency," Dave Steven's "The Rocketeer" and Michael Gustovich's "Justice Machine). By 1986, they had one of the most diverse, respected and influential line-ups in the business and they did it all on a creator-owned (or co-owned) basis. Unfortunately, that same year the owners made the decision that would soon doom the company.

They decided to enter the newstand market. The traditional market for comics was still big in 1986. Unlike the direct market, however, newstand distributors required a return program, a system whereby unsold issues were returned to the publisher for a refund. This significantly increased Comico's print runs, but also massively increased returns. The small publisher couldn't bear the financial burden. By 1989, they were in bankruptcy. In 1990, they published their last comic, right on the doorstep of the biggest boom in comics since the golden age, the mid-90s speculator bubble.

In 1991, Comico was sold to Andrew Rev, who planned to relaunch with as many of Comico's existing titles as possible. Though this did not include "Mage" or "Grendel," Rev outright bought "Elementals" from Willingham. It would be the centerpiece of the Comico relaunch. The presses started again in 1992 with various "Elementals"-related comics and one-shot specials. Comico's line finally closed in 1997 when the speculator bubble burst and killed off most of the mid-sized press. The last Comico title to see print was "Elementals Sex Special vol. 2, #2," illustrated by Frank Quitely.

In the period following his sale of "Elementals," Bill Willingham would become something of a journeyman, dabbling in comics and novels. By the late 90s he had established a reputation as a prolific writer (a reputation he lacked earlier in the decade when his work was a bit irregular). He returned strongly to comics in 1999 with Vertigo's "Proposition Player," an excellent and under-appreciated mini-series. This led directly to a great deal of work for both Vertigo and DC-proper, including his masterful "Fables."

Matt Wagner has explained that many of the young artists at Comico were learning as they went, and to a certain extent this can be seen in "Elementals." Yet, Willingham's art is so smooth and detailed, you don't mind when it tends towards the amateurish. As a writer, he emerges full speed. The story is energetic, interesting and obviously unburdened by the constraints that his contemporaries at Marvel and DC labored under. By comparison, "Elementals" stands out from it's superhero peers.

It's hard to know just what the influence of "Elementals" was. On the one hand, it was a flagship title from the major small-press publisher of the time. On the other hand, it came out rather spottily and the small-press is, after all, small. It's impossible to say what, if any, effect "Elementals" had on the later 80s and 90s series that were cut from the same cloth. What is undeniable is that Bill Willingham and "Elementals" managed to capture the 80s comics zeitgeist before anyone even knew there was going to be an 80s comics zeitgeist. It's also just a fantastic read by a young, talented creator.