I’ve been trying on and off for years to break into reading comics. Apart from some of the isolated volumes of note, like Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns, I haven’t had much success. When I was growing up the comics world was going through a phase of gritty, dark, violent and salacious themes and stories, the period now called the Dark Age of Comic Books, making them inaccessible, as well as undesirable, to a straight-laced and stiff-necked pre-adolescent.
I enjoyed the spinoff cartoons and films, but actually accessing the source material is very challenging because you’re talking about entering an entire medium separate from novels, television shows or movies, and that has had a parallel existence as old as, and more prolific than any of those.
That said, a stroke of luck a few years back led me to stumble upon one of the long-running comic arcs that I actually have managed to experience in its majority.
Available online, ElfQuest by Wendy and Richard Pini began in 1977. Independent from the big labels like DC and Marvel, it stood out in an era filled with caped superheroes, hardboiled detectives, and constant action. Into the midst of this, the Pinis brought forth a character-driven sword-and-sorcery series that owes a good deal, visually, to the then-obscure Japanese manga.
ElfQuest takes place in an alternate world, usually referred to as the World of Two Moons for its most unique feature, and centres around a tribe of small, pointy-eared primitive forest-dwellers named the Wolfriders. Living alongside their wolf companions, these elves are persistently hunted and tormented by their stone-age-level, religious fanatic human neighbours. They claim descent from ancient otherworldly beings called the High Ones, but have dedicated their tiny culture to living in the nocturnal wilderness and the ‘Now of Wolf-Thought.’
When their obsession with destroying the elves drives the humans to burn down the forest, Cutter, Chief of the Wolfriders, leads his people on a desperate search through the desert for a new home. They find another community of elves living in a settled, agricultural society in an oasis. After nearly breaking out into open warfare with each other, the two cultures begin to face challenges of re-integration; both elf cultures thought themselves to be the only elves in the world. Their complex relationship centres around the ‘Recognition’ of Cutter with Leetah, magic healer and de facto princess of the Sun Folk. Recognition is an effect of the elves’ telepathy, where two people with fundamental compatibility become psychically linked and caught up in a drive to mate and have children. If you’re a Trekkie, then this is a situational version of Vulcan pon farr. Outside of Recognition, it’s almost impossible for elves to get pregnant, and so this is usually considered a joyous occasion. It does eventually drive the reconciliation of the two cultures.
Eventually, with the threat of humans looming again, Cutter, his friends and young family lead a quest to find out if any other elf tribes split off from the ancient High Ones, with the aspiration of reuniting elfkind and reclaiming their shared heritage.
There are limits on how much more I can say because I don’t want to spoil too much and because there’s several decades of work to cover. In short, the Wolfriders and Sunfolk begin to make themselves part of the greater world, confronting the dark side of their own people, the complexity of humans, and the ancient grudges that stem from their origins.
On the face of it, ElfQuest is hard to take seriously. The title is corny, no doubt. The Wolfriders all have names like ‘Treestump,’ ‘One-Eye,’ ‘Dewshine,’ and most egregiously ‘Strongbow’ that ring pretty ridiculous. The art style, while lavish, comes across, at first impression, as an unsettling blend of a Saturday morning cartoon with the campy musculature and cleavage of a Conan the Barbarian illustration. Think He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and you have the general picture.
Having said that, the writing, while quite pedantic at times, is, I would argue, the positive, emotionally satisfying kind of camp, if camp it is. The stories overall are well-constructed, although the archetypes driving them are pretty straightforward and flat. The Quest, obviously, is one. Harmony in difference, traditions vs. progress, and the importance of the ‘little picture’ not getting lost in the ‘big picture’ are some of the most obvious. Really, ElfQuest is a tale of adventure, grandiose heroism and melodrama, and is not pretending to be anything else. As far as that goes, it’s fun but perhaps a bit shallow.
The world-building is really nice. There is here a nice marriage between science fiction and fantasy, or perhaps a case of putting a fantasy paint job on a science fiction premise. Ancient aliens leading directly into sword-and-sorcery works surprisingly well. The Pinis also took the concept of elves in fiction in a different enough direction to avoid looking like a Tolkien clone. The elves aren’t much more advanced than humans, they aren’t esoteric nature-communers, not all of them are absolutely good, and only a few are absolutely evil. The dark side of the proud, haughty elf is made very clear, and, most strikingly, they’re actually about the size of Hobbits!
Character is where the series shines. Wendy Pini put an astonishing amount of effort into making every character, main or secondary, very visually distinctive and their basic personalities are also well-established, so that secondary characters remain very tantalizing to hear from when you get the chance. Character development and drama drive a lot of the story, especially in later arcs like Kings of the Broken Wheel, my personal favourite. The Pinis also did an absolutely superb job of putting male and female characters on equal footing.
The best illustration is the Wolfriders’ B-couple, Redlance and Nightfall. Redlance is quite a buff fellow, though his wife would be called Amazonian if she weren’t three feet tall, but she’s shown as being the dominant, more outspoken one of the pair, and this is done without the slightest implication that Redlance is stifled or emasculated by her in any way. Indeed, one of the early B-plots shows just how much they adore one another. Neither they nor anyone else is uncomfortable with Redlance being the more passive half of the relationship.
Which brings me neatly to the subject of sex. One is inclined to roll one’s eyes and dismiss sex in comics as pornography for underage boys. Indeed, this is a brush I myself once used to deride the entire medium. Sex is in no small quantity in ElfQuest; apart from the story’s many happy couples, the Elves have open relationships and engage in sex for pleasure with their friends, regardless of gender (although this is just implied; this was the 70s after all), and forming three-way relationships is considered a perfectly acceptable way to deal with Recognition-induced love triangles. Toward the end of the first ElfQuest arc, an orgy is even used as a character-building set piece.
Cynic that I am, my first instinct is to write this off as pandering to the lowest impulses of readers. However, one of few things I’d be willing to assert with absolute certainty is that if you find this content low, gross or exploitative, then you’re the one bringing those hangups to the table because the Pinis definitely don’t see it that way. It’s definitely erotic, mind you. That plus the bloody and costly battles might make it unsuitable for the under-twelves. If your kids are reading this, even if it is under the cover of night and possibly one-handed, then they are reading about sexual relationships that, while unconventional, are totally consensual, mutually satisfying and affectionate even when they aren’t flat-out romantic. They aren’t fetishized, excessive or degrading to any of the participants. Recognition does on at least two occasions force a bond between unwilling persons, but in those cases, it’s treated as a crisis, a tragedy, and part of the dilemma of the elves’ precarious existence. Furthermore, the participants may need to consummate the bond, but they are never treated as having any obligation to one another afterwards.
ElfQuest is one of those things I feel embarrassed telling people I like. The title itself is so cliché that makes you feel silly to say it. For all that, however, it is fun. The art style is vibrant and beautiful, even if it is pretty retro. The emotional arcs of the stories hit just the right notes for me. The characters are really fascinating people and there are enough of them that you can probably find at least one to root for especially, and the powerful, deep and sex-positive nature of their relationships give their story a lot of punch. There’s enough of the franchise itself that if grand quests, fantasy lands, high romance and adventure are your cup of tea, then there should be at least something in here for you. It’s kind of campy, but that’s not a sin, and there are plenty of nitpicks to make, although you’d have to go arc-by-arc to analyse them. Best advice I can give is to give it a try and see what happens.