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Pirates of Dark Water: A Missing Link

I’ve said before that we 80’s-90’s kids are a nostalgic bunch, and when it comes to cartoons, we have much to be nostalgic about: Gargoyles, the DC and Marvel Animated Universes, and for us unironic leftists, Captain Planet.

For the longest time, I’ve had a vague memory in the back of my head of a program from my early childhood, but I couldn’t remember what it was called; I could only recall one scene, and that it was about sailing ships and questing for a bunch of treasures. After a while, I began to wonder if a couple of unrelated childhood memories had just blurred together in my mind.

A couple of weeks ago, a passing reference on Zero Punctuation finally kicked my mental stars into alignment. I wasn’t even paying full attention to the video when I heard the title, and my eyes widened in recognition of the words: Pirates of Dark Water.

This animated series by Hanna-Barbera, running from 1991-93, takes place on an alien water world known as Mer. Young Ren is the keeper of a lighthouse on the shores of his former home, the ruined realm of Octopon. Destroyed, like much of Mer by the spreading plague of Dark Water, a vile, devouring horror of the seas.

The evil pirate Lord Bloth sails to the ruins in pusuit of a castaway prisoner, who reveals with his dying breath to Ren that he is the former King Primus of Octopon, and Ren’s father!

Prince Ren takes up his father’s broken sword and magic compass, to complete his quest: to seek the magical Thirteen Treasures of Rule. These treasures have the power to restore the ruined lands of Mer and drive back the Dark Water.

Ren brings together, to use the show’s phrase, “an unlikely but loyal crew of misfits” including the cynical pirate Ioz, the beautiful magician-warrior Tula and Lord Bloth’s former slave, the monkey-bird Niddler on the good (stolen) ship Wraith. Together they seek for the Treasures, fighting off sorcerers, sea monsters, barbarians, cultists and the unrelenting Bloth, who covets the Treasures and their power over Dark Water for himself.

The funny thing is, I don’t actually have a lot of nostalgia for Pirates of Dark Water; as I said, up until now I thought I might have imagined it. Watching it on the Internet, though, I can certainly understand why people would be.

It evokes a lot of things for me. The sleek, ornamented ships, Arabian Nights clothing and sea monsters make it look like a cartoon version of Ray Harryhausen swashbucklers like the Golden Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts. The sword-and-sorcery setting evokes Krull, Dungeons and Dragons, or sci-fi/fantasy adventure writers like Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. The menace of an ancient evil sealed beneath the seas evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

It also stands out in the quality of its visuals. Keep in mind that Hanna Barbera was known at the time for limited-style cartoons like Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, Scooby Doo and the Jetsons. It made for efficient and economical production, but the consequence was that their characters never moved more than the minimum necessary. This resulted in characters whose heads seem only informally attached to them, and who run like Riverdance, with upper bodies stock still above legs cycling like windmills.

Pirates of Dark Water looks startling by comparison, but at this point that really is faint praise. In fighting scenes, for example, there’s seldom a sense of impact, of force transferred from one person to the other. Although the ‘choreography’ is pretty good, it looks more like rehearsing a fight, not having one. Similar to this are things like Niddler lazily flapping his wings while carrying a person three times his size. The animation also didn’t maintain well; as the series went on it got less and less subtle. Characters’ physical ‘performace’ sometimes didn’t sync up with intense emotional dialogue. It looks way better than Transformers or Jem a few years before it, but not as good as Captain Planet or Batman: the Animated Series which followed after. The lavish watercolour backgrounds are lovely, but when compared to the bright flat colours of the characters, the effect is that they’re in front of the scenery rather than part of it.

That said, it’s really nice scenery to be in front of: the designs of buildings, ships and landscapes are marvelously variable, and brings across a sense of a huge world of widely-dispersed civilizations, a little bit like Earthsea. Whole ranges of creatures and sea monsters and ships delight the eye. Bloth’s giant ship the Maelstrom, constructed entirely of bone and transporting a pirate army with riding dragons and support craft is particularly magnificent. The show also has catapult-launched gliders, balloons, and bristles with exotic swords, boomerangs, crossbows and esoteric weaponry using venemous sea creatures as ammunition.

Character design deserves great credit; the villains are all so weird and deformed looking they may not even be human – and there are many non-human races on display – Bloth in particular is ogre-like, and Morpho, the Cthulhu-inspired Dark Water cultist genuinely unnerved me.

Better still, none of the three human leads are styled as lily-white Europeans. Ren admittedly looks like a deeply tanned Scandanavian, although a quirk of the art style makes his eyes look somewhat epicanthic, like maybe he had a Japanese grandmother or something. Tula and Ioz are definitely not Western European in appearance. Ioz looks sort of East Asian and Tula, going from her dress sense as well as her looks, could be from just about anywhere between Turkey and Thailand if those places existed on Mer.

What really stood out for me as I watched the show was that the dialogue is startlingly naturalistic and polished, with lots of banter and little character moments. For comparison I watched clips of episodes of She-Ra and Captain Planet, from opposite sides of Dark Water’s era, and their dialogue is comparatively clunky, pedantic and, as I’ve said of Captain Planet before, more like it was written by a child rather than for children. In other words, Pirates of Dark Water doesn’t talk down to kids like many of its contemporaries.

The main characters themselves are surprisingly nuanced. Ren is the Hero, always running to the rescue and doing the right thing, but in a way that brings him across as naive as much as principled. Ioz is a bit of a chauvinist and rogue who proves the line from Curse of the Black Pearl, that ‘piracy itself can be the right course.’ Tula wouldn’t be caught dead acting like a damsel in distress, and has cunning and gumption enough for the whole crew. Niddler stays consistently a step above the annoying, comic-relief team pet by having genuine traumas in his backstory. Bloth is smart, pragmatic but affable and with an honourable streak that makes for a more complex villain than, say, Megatron. The protagonists generally do develop, subtly, as time goes on, with Ren getting more savvy, Ioz more softhearted, Tula more trusting and Niddler more courageous, though the arcs are still very slight and unambitious.

This is backed up by the voice actors: Ren is voiced by George Newbern, later Superman in the DCAU’s Justice League series and beyond. Tula’s actress, Jodi Benson, had previously voiced the star of Disney’s Little Mermaid. Bloth is played by Brock Peters, known to Trekkies as Captain Sisko’s dad and Admiral Cartwright in the fourth and sixth movies, and has henchmen played by Tim Curry and Peter ‘Optimus Prime’ Cullen! Roddy MacDowell played Niddler in the pilot episodes, whereupon Frank Welker took over. Hilarious, considering Welker would much later hold the role of ‘Nibbler,’ another ravenous alien creature, in Futurama! Since, as usual, he also plays a ton of supporting characters and animals you can play ‘Spot Frank Welker’ while watching if you know what to listen for.

In general Pirates of Dark Water is working toward the state of later shows like Batman: the Animated Series, in that it’s aimed at kids but can also resonate with adults. Notably, it occasionally uses words like ‘die’ and ‘kill’ which were utterly off-limits in many contemporaries. To give the show a bit of grit, the writers created a set of fantasy-language curses. There are several blasphemies against Mer’s gods but also words that are clearly taking the place of ‘damn’ or ‘shit.’ It reminds me of one of my favourite shows: Farscape, which is famous for its alien swears. A key thing to remember though, is that Farscape’s fake swears were mainly meant to be funny; Dark Water’s were meant as a worldbuilding device and to darken up the setting, but some of them just sound goofy to adult ears. ‘Noy-Jitat’ sounds like an honest foreign language, but when Ioz exclaims ‘Chongo-Longo!’ the dramatic tension abruptly turns to dust. Not helping is that, as the show went on, these went from occasional punctuations to every second word of the dialogue. The dialogue is further undermined because, although well written, the short episode length often requires the actors to speak their lines quite quickly, making them seem rushed and halfhearted.

The worldbuilding is undisciplined. Part of what pulls you into Avatar: the Last Airbender is a clearly defined world for you to explore and learn about. In Dark Water, though, while there are one or two places revisited, we never see a world map and get a sense of the scope of things. Every island seems to have a completely different ecology and civilization, which is usually seen once and never again. There are so many one-off sapient creatures that the world seems overstuffed, vague, and less real.

But Pirates of Dark Water’s biggest drawback is that it didn’t finish. The show was cancelled with only eight treasures accounted for. Funnily, looking back, I remember now that I wasn’t sold on the show because I didn’t like the idea of a multi-episode story arc. I was too young to understand times and dates well enough to reliably keep abreast of it. With thirteen treasures to hunt down, I could have easily missed a lot and it turns out I was right to be wary. If they’d made it three treasures, or seven or some smaller, resonant number, that might have been safer. More problematically, though, the treasures became increasingly spaced out by filler episodes. It became more like the episodic one-adventure-at-a-time show that was standard back then instead of sticking to its guns.

My feeling is that Pirates of Dark Water was a show before its time. It clearly foretells the calibre of the DCAU, Gargoyles or Avatar, but it doesn’t actually reach that level itself. The animation standards weren’t equal to the story the creators were telling and there was little prior experience in mythology arcs, character development or refined worldbuilding to draw from. I also think the cast of protagonists is too small to create the kinds of complex dynamics that drive fanfiction and fan shipping. Speaking of shipping, the Wraith itself looks awesome, but characterizing your ship – the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moya in Farscape or Serenity in Firefly – is, I believe, essential for this type of story. But the Wraith’s really just a mode of transport in practice. I also just think Wraith isn’t a very punchy name.

Pirates of Dark Water does not evoke nostalgia for me, but in a way I wish it did. It certainly deserves nostalgia, despite of missed opportunities. Much as I grumble about remakes, I wouldn’t mind remaking Pirates of Dark Water, because it’s a chance show all that’s been learned, from the age of Transformers to the age of Legend of Korra, and truly realize its ambitions. Regardless, I’m glad to have recovered this lost memory, and to memorialize a sign of things to come from my childhood.

Sail away, sail away.

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Posted by on March 8, 2016 in Television

 

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Summer Sampler: Fun Movies

This post was originally planned for the 21st to ring in the summer, unfortunately summer decided to ring in by way of a flood event that led to me having to evacuate to higher ground.

Anyway, the evacuation order has been lifted, my apartment is undamaged, and it’s time to embrace summer, with all its fun, up to and including its entertainment.

I made reference in my Star Trek: Into Darkness review to the term ‘fun movies.’ That’s an expression that my family uses for what are effectively B-action/fantasy/science fiction movies that, by rights, should be completely forgettable, but can somehow grab your attention anyway. If they’ve been around a while, they might also be cult classics.

Exactly why this is the case can be hard to pin down. The character arcs are usually cookie-cutter predictability, and if you had to sum up the plot in one sentence, your listener would almost surely say “that sounds terrible.” The stories are usually coherent if simple and probably not apt to stand up to close scrutiny. The acting and dialogue is usually corny.

But somehow ‘fun movies’ seem to always have something that make them enjoyable. In a word, I suppose I’d say ‘imagination.’ Most of the ‘fun movies’ I’ve ever watched have a story, or an aesthetic, or world-building or even a soundtrack that make them greater than the sum of their parts. Crucially, a true ‘fun movie’ should, I think, be fully aware that it’s in no danger of being the major blockbuster of the season, and isn’t going to try to be anything but what it is. On the other hand, while it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it also manages to be engaging because it’s laid-back enough to not stop and make fun of itself as it goes along. Indeed, most of the films I think of as fun movies are not comedies. It’s not a cocktail party with sophisticated music and conversation, nor is it a noisy house party with beer and hard liqour and loud music. It’s more like a cozy evening with a few friends, maybe some board games, chips and salsa, and amiable chit-chat. Just the thing on a geeky summer’s evening with friends or family.

So with that in mind, let me recommend a few of my favourite examples.

Sucker Punch: There’s not a whole lot I can say about it that I didn’t say in one of my early reviews. Indeed, I’m not even sure this surreal adventure of courage and perseverance qualifies under the criteria I just listed. Sucker Punch certainly looks like a fun movie on the surface. But Baby Doll’s harrowing voyage of liberation and sacrifice as she struggles to outwit the forces trying to exploit her body and soul has a streak of profundity that puts it one step above its peers. Still, it is a gripping spectacle with cool music, memorable characters and great action. I recall my Dad (who is a karate blackbelt) noting that somebody clearly went to a lot of effort to figure out how a fighting system that incorporates a katana in one hand and a pistol in the other would actually work. I can see how it can be read as a female-empowerment story, but more broadly it can be read as empowering to anybody who recognizes the power and appeal of imagination.

Van Helsing: Hugh Jackman plays Abraham van Helsing, hatchet man for an interfaith order that combats the supernatural evils that beset the world. Sent to Transylvania to aid the gypsy queen Anna Valerious in her family’s quest for salvation, he confronts his ancient nemesis, Count Dracula, and races against the vampire lord to discover the living product of the research of Doctor Frankenstein before Dracula can harness it for his own wicked purposes.
Van Helsing is an example of what I shall call a ‘Public Domain All-Stars’ story. Van Helsing is a centuries-old action hero with a missing memory, not an aged physician, but he’s still going up against Dracula and his Brides, plus werewolves and the treacherous Igor in the hunt for Frankenstein’s creature, and he’s introduced chasing Mr. Hyde through Paris.
It’s a steam punk adventure film with pretty neat special effects, a theme of redemption and human decency informing it, and an intelligent, charismatic villain well aware of what a bastard he is. It’s best illustrated in this exchange between a prisoner and Dracula:
“I would rather die than help you!”
“Oh, don’t be boring. Everyone who says that dies.”
Its comic relief is also quite entertaining, not least because its source, Van Helsing’s jumpy, nerdy gadgeteer sidekick Karl is played hilariously by David Wenham of all people. The pity is that it was clearly planned to be the first in a series, since the fate of the creature and Van Helsing’s lost memories are left hanging, but even for a fun movie, it wasn’t successful enough. Forsooth.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: In full disclosure, I have yet to read Alan Moore’s comic series, and know full well that the movie that shares its name is not well-liked by fans. For what it’s worth, though, on its own merits the movie is very enjoyable. Like Van Helsing it’s a steam punk Public Domain All-Stars lineup of some of the 19th Century’s most famous literary characters.
Sean Connery plays Alan Quartermain. Spending his declining years in his beloved Africa, he’s dragged unwillingly back to London when bizarre war machines begin raiding the secrets of many nations threatening to tip Europe into all-out war. He is initiated into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a society of unique individuals charged with hunting down the mastermind. The brilliant and vicious Mina Harker, the suave but shifty Dorian Grey, the conflicted but intelligent Henry Jekyll (oddly enough captured in Paris again), the noble Captain Nemo and his first mate, Ishmael, an invisible gentleman thief, and a certain American, Special Agent T. Sawyer, set forth on a global quest to avert one villain’s apocalyptic and thoroughly tangled plot.
Possibly the great saving grace of this movie is that, given the fundamental silliness of the premise, the actors rise to the occasion and make it a truly enjoyable experience. The talent makes the best of the willfully campy script, although Connery seems to be sending up his own accent throughout. Besides that, the special effects and the late Victorian steam punk visual style are charming. Sadly the writing noticeably breaks down in quality towards the end of the movie. Cap it with an enticingly open ending and all the touches thrown in for the well-read and it’s just…neat.

Hellboy: Another one based on a comic I’ve not read. Hellboy tells the story of the title character, a foundling child from some other dimension, adopted by the leader of a supernatural task force originally founded to counter the occult machinations of the Nazis. A rookie member of this agency is partnered with Hellboy who, now in his young adulthood (he ages much more slowly than a human) both struggles with relationships with his adopted family and must meet a new challenge as the last holdouts of the Nazi occultists, led by their elder, the renegade sorcerer Rasputin, plot to unleash the cosmic horrors from beyond upon the world at last.
Hellboy probably claims the greatest star power of all of these, with Ron Perlman starring, alongside John Hurt and David Hyde Pierce. They’re all old-school actors who always put their best effort forward, and this is no exception. The director made the movie in part to make the point that Perlman, usually a supporting or villainous figure, could be a leading man, and by Jove he can. His hulking demonic character’s sardonic, laid-back personality, oddly childlike outlook and fondness for kittens are so unexpected as to make him quite unique. Add to that the stakes of a mystery-heavy plot making use of the subtle, creepy elements of Cosmic Horror and you have a recipe for a true fun movie.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator: Paul W.S. Anderson is no stranger to adapting video games. The director of the Resident Evil movies brings us an expert mountaineer, brought in to lead an expedition to Antarctica, where Weyland Industries has located the buried ruins of an ancient pyramid. Joined by engineers, mercenaries and archaeologists, she discovers that the pyramid is a relic of an alien civilization, built to facilitate their ritual hunt. Not of humans, but the other iconic horror of science fiction film, which the humans must help defeat or else become breeding stock for this ‘ultimate prey.’
The creatures of the Alien franchise and those of the Predator films have crossed over in video game and comic for years, and the conflict is brought to life with exhilarating action and really excellent special effects and set design in this action flick. The juxtaposition of the Aliens’ disgusting creepy viciousness and the Predators’ badass warrior grandeur is exhilarating. I root firmly for the Predators and watching them slaughter the Aliens and take pride in it is weirdly uplifting.
Our human character is a badass in her own right, and the fact that she’s a capable, independent and intelligent woman of colour in a starring role makes this shallow cheesy action flick more progressive than most every Hollywood A-list title going! Lance Henriksen performs marvelously as the founder of the corporation who overshadows events in the original Alien films. Strangely, it’s almost too bad that the movie is such a love letter to its namesakes. Given the vibrancy and diversity of the cast, to go through the usual Alien motions of slowly killing off everyone but the star is kind of a bummer. If, like me, you have any training in archaeology, a lot of that content in this film will give you a massive headache, but once it wears off you’ll realize you were cheering all the way.

Krull: A cult classic if there ever was one. Released in 1983, Krull is a little like ElfQuest in that it hedges its bets beween being science fiction and fantasy.
The world of Krull is a medieval world of swords, castles and strange ancient magics. But it is under threat from the Beast of the Black Fortress, who descended upon them from the stars to despoil and enslave.
When the newlwed Prince Colwyn’s beloved Princess Nyssa is kidnapped by the Beast to prevent the prophesy of salvation their marriage fulfills, the aged lore master Ynir sends him on a quest to claim the Glaive, an ancient magic weapon, and raise an army of mercanries, with a bumbling sorcerer and a gloomy but noble cyclops for good measure, who risk everything to assail the Black Fortress and defeat the Beast once and for all.
A hero leading a ragtag bunch of misfits to storm the evil tower, kill the bad guy, rescue the princess and save the world. Can’t get much more archetypal than that. Still, the fact that all this occurs in what seems to be a head-on collision between an Arthurian-style epic and a Space Opera makes it unique enough to be memorable. It’s in the same offbeat tradition as contemporaries like Dark Crystal. Personally, I also have a fondness for pre-CGI special effects. Throw in the frankly amazingly awesome score by James Horner and it ends up being really cool. Also, watch for Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson as secondary characters!

Cowboys and Aliens: This movie more than any of the others genuinely surprised me. Daniel Craig plays an amnesiac stranger wandering into an Old West cattle town, drawing hostile stares both because he’s apparently a wanted man and because of the strange iron bracelet on his wrist that won’t come off. After picking a fight with the local ranch owner (Harrison Ford) the crowds gather for a showdown just as strange flying machines descend on the town and start whisking people away. The various factions in town put aside their differences to pursue the kidnappers, joined by a mysterious lady who seems to understand these beings and our hero a little too well.
By the time I was a third of the way into this film I was thinking, “Now wait just a minute, who gave this movie permission to kick ass?” Because it does. The characters are shockingly relatable, the dialogue is above-average (slightly) for this kind of movie, and the spirit of ‘we’re all in this together’ that informs the plot and the fact that the final battle runs on actual strategy rather than the winner being whoever the plot needs it to be, makes it worthwile. Olivia Wilde’s nude scene was kind of jarring, beautiful though she is; the aliens’ motivation is pretty bland, and the aliens themselves not terribly memorable (more Men in Black than Star Wars, alas) but the Cowboys side of the equation makes up the difference.

John Carter: Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic John Carter of Mars novels, this is probably the most badly-served movie ever. Its marketing was hopelessly half-hearted and it’s too bad because it is actually really cool.
John Carter is a disaffected ex-soldier and gold prospector on the run from the law in post-Civil War America when he accidentally stumbles upon a secret gateway to another world, Mars, or Barsoom, as the natives call it. Stumbling through this world of conflict and harsh backstabbing politics, he becomes the wild card in an ancient overlord race’s plot to wipe out the peoples of Barsoom and harvest the planet for themselves.
Making friends among different peoples, winning the regard of Princess Deja Thoris, John Carter redeems himself as the savior and uniter of Barsoom.
John Carter is similar to Krull in premise and scope, and Carter is besides a quite faithful adaptation. It lacks the level of bleakness in the original material but pays lip service to it. Deja Thoris is a fairly badass character but generic and two-dimensional compared to the formidable leading ladies of AVP or Sucker Punch. Besides which, the world laid out by Burroughs’ original stories left a big opportunity for racially diverse casting (for the characters that weren’t ten feet tall and/or green at any rate) which was tragically missed. For what it’s worth, though, the story, dialogue and the themes of friendship and unity really make the difference, a weirdly charming cross between Narnia and Mass Effect.

Fun movies are necessarily very subjective, so I make no guarantee about how you’ll feel about any of these. There are others worth looking into: the Diesel Punk adventure Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, camp horror films the Mummy and the Mummy Returns, or Ray Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts are well worth inquiring after as well.

Have a nice summer.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Movie

 

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ElfQuest: My First Step into Comics

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.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2012 in Comic

 

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