I was introduced to Elfquest about 1980 in Bobbie’s Books, the local used bookstore which doubled as Bryan, TX’s only comic store at the time. I wandered over to the wall racks holding comics near the register, and started poking through them. I owned all of three comics at the time, purchased as some sort of three-pack from a local bookstore that had recently folded. There was one Disney comic, a forgettable superhero comic, and one science fiction horror comic sandwiched between them that weirded me the hell out. All I remember is one panel of some sort of bubbly goo, found on a distant planet by the protagonists. It unsettled me enough that I hid the comic underneath a pile of stuff in my room, and would occasionally pull it out to look at it when I’d screwed my courage up–I remember a distinct feeling of nausea when reading it. Why it was packaged with a Disney comic, I’ll never know.
Anyway, it’s a wonder that I was looking at the comics rack at all. I remember even then not really liking the mainstream superhero art styles of the 1970s (still don’t!). But the owner of the store noticed me, handed me Elfquest #1, and said, “You want to read this.”
While the cover art didn’t appeal to me–it was a huge fight that I didn’t care about–the back cover featured a character different than anything I’d seen, the protagonist Cutter. He was an elf–I’d read The Hobbit several times by then, and finished The Lord of the Rings that summer at Girl Scout camp (skipping all the battle scenes, which bored me) and was well into a decades-long science fiction and fantasy binge. And here was a a cute, almost childlike elf, something I knew I’d like. (I admit, I can’t stand elves now. I burned out on them years ago, along with vampires and Arthurian stories.)
I begged my mom for a buck-fifty plus tax and bought it. Took it home, devoured it. Begged my mom to take me back to the bookstore, which I was cruelly denied for a month or so–an eternity for a ten-year-old confronted with a cliffhanger ending. When we returned, I bought issues 2 and 3 with my own money and over the next several months collected the issues that were out as I could afford them and as I could get my parents to take me to the store. I don’t remember how many issues were out at the time–my memory is telling me that #9 might have been the most current one–but it was enough to get me well and truly hooked before I had to settle into the interminable three-to-four-month wait for each subsequent issue.
I initiated a number of my friends into the love of Elfquest. We formed a club, the Bright Water Holt, took on the names of various characters (I was Pike, for whatever reason), and spent long hours drawing the elves, talking about them, and making up stories. If we’d had access to the Internet as it is today, we’d have blossomed into true fanpoodles and spewed our creations all over fanfiction.net and Livejournal.
It’s probably a good thing we missed the Endless September by ten years or so.
Anyway, a couple of years ago Mom downsized and moved into a smaller house. I’d left a number of boxes of books and other things in her attic, and went home to go through them. I found my old, well-loved Elfquest stash. How well-loved were they? Take a look at issue 2 (click to embiggen):
Note that I have two copies of #2. Most of my friends couldn’t afford their own copies of Elfquest, and mine were passed around from hand to hand until they fell apart and had to be taped back together. The club passed the hat and gave me a surprise present for my thirteenth birthday–duplicate copies of all the issues out at that point. It was one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten.
I’m going to stick to issue #1 for today since I took up so much space with my reminiscing above, but as this is a monthly column I’ll be reading several issues at a time in the future, so as to get through them faster. I’m only planning so far to do the first story arc, issues #1-20, but may continue further if there’s interest.
If you want to read along, all issues of Elfquest are available for free online at www.elfquest.com.
There’s probably a lot to be said about Elfquest‘s place in the comics canon, but I’m not a comics historian, and really have read very little before the 1990s, so I’ll leave that for others to discuss in the comments, if you feel so inclined.
Elfquest #1 Recap
The book starts off at a ceremony in which a fairly generic Primitive Human Tribe (TM) is about to sacrifice a “demon-spawn.” Before we see this evil demonspawn, the page dissolves into a flashback recounting how elves came to the World of Two Moons, which was populated with bestial, hunched humans resembling out-of-date conceptions of Neandertals, who attack the elves out of fear. This sets up a human vs. elf conflict spanning generations. There’s a two-panel sequence that struck me even as a kid showing the changes from the original elves–tall, delicate, ethereal, frightened–to the elves of today–short, compact, slightly more bestial, fierce and determined.
The humans have captured the elf Redlance, tortured him a bit if the cuts on his back are anything to go on, and tied him to a rock outcropping decorated with elven skulls. As they prepare to sacrifice him to their god, the elves, riding wolves (riding wolves!), attack. The cocky young elven leader, Cutter, kills one of the humans and threatens the human shaman before the Wolfriders escape with Redlance to the safety of their holt in the deep forest.
As the elves return home to the Father Tree in which they live, the humans mourn their dead and the shaman incites them to revenge. Back at the holt, Cutter gently chides Redlance for being careless enough to hunt near the human encampment. Nightfall, Redlance’s lifemate, wishes there were another place to live, away from the humans.
Later, Cutter and his best friend Skywise ponder the events of the day, while Cutter broods over his action in killing the human. They’re interrupted by the wolfpack arriving, and Nightrunner, Cutter’s bonded wolf, telepathically informs Cutter that the humans are coming with fire. Cutter mentally summons the warriors of the tribe, and they ride to meet the humans. To no avail, as the humans set the (er, green and probably not that flammable) forest alight with their torches.
The elves evacuate the Father Tree for the troll caverns nearby. The trolls are an underground race of miners and metalworkers, who hold an uneasy truce with the elves, trading weapons and jewelry for furs, food, and medicines. Cutter forces his way in and demands the guard Picknose take them to King Greymung.
Greymung distrusts the Wolfriders, and disbelieves their story of fire. The elves and the trolls argue over whether the trolls really need the elves to survive, interrupted when the ever-nosy Skywise discovers a large magnetic lodestone at the base of the King’s throne. Greymung hits Skywise when he doesn’t leave the lodestone alone, ticking Cutter off enough that he threatens the King, who cringes in fear. Cutter knocks a piece off of the lodestone and gives it to Skywise, then rails at Greymung a bit more.
Greymung, seemingly changing his attitude, agrees that Picknose should show the Wolfriders to the Tunnel of Golden Light, which he swears leads to a green, verdant woodland with no humans. Cutter is a bit leery of this, but the other elves are hopeful. Cutter agrees and threatens to send Picknose back in six separate pouches if he should play them wrong.
Several days pass as the party makes its way underground to the Tunnel of Golden Light. Skywise remains obsessed with the lodestone, and braids a string for it from strands of all the elves’ hair.
At last they reach the Tunnel of Golden Light. After being in the dark so long, the light streaming into the tunnel blinds the elves, and it takes a moment for them to realize that it leads not to a verdant woodland but an arid desert. Picknose escapes and collapses the tunnel, trapping the elves between the rockfall and the desert. Issue #1 ends with the elves facing into the sun, asking Cutter what to do next, and Cutter remaining silent–he has no answer.
Back in 2006, Rachel Manija Brown wrote an essay titled Writing by cool bit in which she recounts how our self-published manga Project Blue Rose grew out of Cool Bits, “…the themes and stories and images and moments that you love to see.” She asked people to comment with their favorite Cool Bits (out of which I ended up creating a random Cool Bits story generator). I can see how Elfquest hits all the Cool Bits I had at the time. If I encountered Elfquest for the first time nowadays, I wouldn’t be as impressed–I might pick up the next issue to see if it kept my interest, but I wouldn’t have gotten as obsessed as I did when I was ten.
But at ten … Elves! Riding wolves! Soul bonds with wolves! Soul bonds with other elves! Telepathy! Us-against-the-world! Art my fingers itched to draw! Costumes my fingers itched to sew! Childlike elves that I could identify with even though they were adults! There was no way I was not going to fall, and fall hard, with an obsessive fannish love that I’m glad had no access to the intartubes of today.
I read the books so much that although I only had vague memories before I opened the covers today, every word and every panel was deeply familiar to me. I even recalled sitting down and reading the text out loud into a tape recorder so I could listen to it on my Walkman, and the emphasis I placed on certain words and phrases. (A familiar activity to me–I used to bribe and bully my friends into recording Mad Magazine and Cracked parodies of Star Wars, my other fannish obsession.)
I’ve brought a bit of maturity to the reading now (so I’d hope!). The Primitive Human Tribe (TM) is slightly cringe-worthy after an MA in anthropology and more familiarity with cultures outside my own, but at least their clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles are safely generic and not too reminiscent of any specific human culture. The humans on the cover have about the same skin tone as Cutter and Redlance. I’ve lost my copy of the Book 1 color collection, so I can’t say whether they were colored with darker skins then. I’m also glad that the desert elves we meet later are painted with darker skin, so the Pinis have avoided the dark skin=antagonists, light skin=protagonists dichotomy that so many books, even today, fall into. There’s a bit of ugly=bad/untrustworthy, beautiful=good, but that’s nicely subverted later on in the series, and we meet humans that are not so primitive, who have more complex reactions to elves.
(Edit: after checking the color versions online, the tribe that oust the Wolfriders are pale-skinned, but the bestial, Neandertal-like humans in the flashback are dark-skinned in contrast with the ethereal, pale-skinned elves. Sigh.)
What I also love is how appropriate for this is for kids despite the violence: the story doesn’t shy away from showing killing, death, and implied torture, but also shows the emotional and physical consequences thereof. Cutter broods over killing a human, and that killing leads directly to the humans’ burning down the forest, forcing the elves to begin their journey. Redlance has obviously been tortured by the humans, but it’s only shown through his wounds and by implication in the humans’ speech. Cutter is arrogant but his humiliation of the shaman and the troll king results in the human attack and the elves’ being abandoned in the desert with few supplies. Cutter realizes the enormity of his actions, although he hasn’t yet learned to tone down his cockiness and impulsivity.
The art was something I hadn’t seen before when I first encountered it. I wouldn’t discover anime for a couple more years, until a local channel started airing Star Blazers, and I’m not sure I’d have made the connection between the stylization of anime and the way the elves are drawn. Wendy Pini drew the art to be printed in black-and-white, with heavy use of chiaroscuro and some hatching for texture and shading. They were colored later, when they were collected into graphic novels, but the art stands on its own without color (and I prefer the black and white now, after poking through the color pages online!). The panel layout is derived more from American comics than from manga, basically blocky and linear, but she doesn’t hesitate to break the panel boundaries occasionally for emphasis. There’s a decent flow from panel to panel, although the action lines aren’t obvious as they can be in some manga. The speech balloons aren’t placed to drag your eye across the action, as many manga do, but I think there’s enough flow through each panel that your eye ends up going through the full panel anyway.
Or it could just be that I am so deeply familiar with the comic from reading it hundreds of times that I can’t not see the full panel. If any of you out there are reading it for the first time, I’d be interested in hearing your take on it.
Elfquest had a profound effect on me: I learned to draw by tracing the characters (which screwed up my sense of human proportions until I started taking art classes, but no matter), and it filled my brain between fifth and ninth grades, culminating in a trip to Austin for an SF con featuring the Pinis as guests of honor that coincided with the release of Issue #20, the end of the story arc started in #1.
I wish I’d been able to get my hands on some manga at the time because that would have been a great transition, but at the time there was almost none available. I couldn’t even watch anime as we moved out of the city limits and only received two static-filled channels, neither showing Star Blazers, Robotech, or Captain Harlock, the three available anime series. I didn’t pay much attention to comics until after my undergrad years, when the X-Men cartoon first aired and two (female, if you’re counting!) friends sat me down with a VCR and the first episode, pausing the show every time a new character came on to explain his or her background. That made me realize there was more to superheroes than zip! bam! pow! and I followed various of the X-books for a few years, discovering Sandman, The Maxx, and Hellblazer on the way.
Issue #1 of Elfquest lived up to my memories of it–we’ll see next month if the next few issues do, too!