Revisiting Elfquest, an indie comics cult favorite.
I really like long series. Sitting down and binge-reading a comic that has hundreds of issues is a favorite pastime of mine. While there are definitely some drawbacks to archival reading, it’s always a much different and, depending on the series, arguably more cohesive consumption experience.
That’s where Elfquest comes in.
Everyone has a different relationship with Elfquest–from “It’s not even a blip on my radar,” to “It’s the most revolutionary piece of fiction in my life and the world.” I work at a comic book store when I’m not writing for AiPT! and have been aware of Elfquest for several years, but I never sat down and read it, despite the fact that elves are by far my favorite fantasy race. One day, I was getting tired of catching up on my infinite stack of singles and decided that I needed to get into a good series. So, I bought the first Elfquest collection, published by Dark Horse Comics, and went to town.
Elfquest is the story of Cutter, a shirtless, pretty elf boy (of which there are many) and his tribe of forest-dwelling elves called the Wolfriders. In the first issue, a tribe of humans, with whom the elves have had an ongoing conflict for generations, burns down their holt, and the Wolfriders, led by Cutter, must journey into the antagonistic trolls’ caverns. They are tricked by the trolls and get trapped on the other side of the mountain in a vast desert–an environment to which they are not accustomed. Through trials and tribulations, they eventually find a village of desert-dwelling elves they never knew existed and integrate themselves with the kind and vibrant Sun Folk.
There’s more to the story (much more as it’s been ongoing, but not continuously in print, since 1978) as Cutter, his best friend Skywise, the beautiful healer Leetah, and the rest of the Wolfriders must travel through the world of Two Moons and find the palace of their ancestors, the high ones. Along the way, they meet allies, foes and everything in-between on their quest to find a place for themselves in a world so much larger than they ever thought possible.Elfquest was one of the first indie comics ever self-published. It’s written and drawn by Wendy Pini with help on plotting from her husband, Richard. It’s pretty amazing for a woman to have cultivated a cult hit in the ’80s like this, and she was also one of the first western comic artists and creators to be inspired by Japanese anime and manga and have it heavily influence her work. There are several series, spanning 40 years in real time, and multiple spin-offs including a Futurequest series (EAT YOUR HEART OUT, HANNA-BARBERA) based around the descendants of the main series in a futuristic world of Two Moons.
The series starts pretty slowly, and doesn’t really pick up until Cutter leaves the Sun Village to find the palace of the high ones. But once it reaches the Blue Mountain portion of the story, it becomes so engrossing and riveting that I really could do nothing but continue reading. The characters are some of the most well-crafted in a fantasy setting that I’ve ever read. Cutter is a great main character who acts as a good audience surrogate while also being a multifaceted person (or elf, I guess) in his own right. His relationship with Skywise is that of soul brother with hints of something more, which Pini has said is inspired by male relationships in manga.
The female characters are some of the best ever, and they are treated just the same as the males. If they want to be warriors, they get to be warriors. Nightfall and Moonshade are skilled fighters, and never once do any of the male elves doubt the fact that they can hold their own. Leetah is a healer, but it’s shown to be just as important a skill as the female elves who fight for themselves. My personal favorite character is Kahvi, the chieftess of the mountain-dwelling tribe of elves called the Go Backs. A great fighter, brash, headstrong, fiercely loyal to a fault, and a huge jerk, Kahvi is allowed to be all these things as well as a woman. Never once does another character tell her she can’t be the way she is because she’s female. She has proven herself, and everyone respects her for who she is. Love that crazy elf bitch!Part of what I think has made Elfquest a cult phenomenon is the way in which it approaches sexual relationships. There are no rules of sex or sexual taboos in this fantastical world, and the way in which characters approach sex and love were probably Earth-shattering for a young person reading in the ’80s. The sex is not overt, but in pretty much every part of the story, there is a level of sexual freedom and a carefree quality in the way it’s displayed. There’s no full-frontal nudity, but there is a boob here or there and lots of half naked bodies, both male and female, tastefully covered by branches or bearskin. There are plenty of polyamorous relationships, some overtly so, and the way in which the elves interact is more loving and sexually playful than most comics even today.
Elfquest appreciates its readers’ maturity while simultaneously occupying a space in the imagination that can only be regarded as childlike. It’s not a kids’ comic by any means, but it’s not exactly mature either. It sits in a place between childhood and adulthood. You can hand Elfquest to a teenager, and they will understand they’re reading something respectful of their intellect while also dancing with their imagination in a way adult fiction usually doesn’t. It’s a fine line to walk; most attempts at it fall on one side or the other, but Elfquest balances it perfectly. I think that’s part of the reason why it has resonated and become an important touchstone of growing up to so many.Elfquest is not for everyone. The art is sort of off-putting if you’re used to comics from the traditional houses. It’s a bit weird that the series is heavily based on tribal societies, but most of the characters as well as the creators are white. While there’s nothing obviously racist, it’s still strange, and I get the feeling the Pini’s didn’t do a whole lot of research on tribal societies before initially writing the series.
In addition, the trolls can be seen as antisemitic stereotypes. I don’t think this has anything to do with the Pini’s actual beliefs about Jewish people. They were probably just drawing heavily from how trolls are traditionally depicted in fantasy stories, but it stands to be pointed out.
All this accounted for, at its heart Elfquest is a familial saga about love, platonic or romantic, blood-related or found, and the urge to cultivate a sense of belonging among those who are like you. It’s an important piece of indie comics’ journey to prominence, as well as the journey one takes through youth and into adulthood. Even if you’re not a teenager when you first read it, Elfquest takes you by the hand and shows you a world where maturity mingles with imagination, and that the two can work together if you’ve got a little wolf in your blood.