Friday, 26 December 2014


Elfquest is a classic fantasy comic by Wendy Pini (art and writing) and Richard Pini (writing). The comic was first published in 20 issues from 1978 to 1984, and was later followed by several sequels.

It tells the story of the Wolfriders,  a tribe of elves who live in a forest on the World of Two Moons. Their name comes from their close relationships with wolves, who are their close companions and mounts. The Wolfriders live in a state of conflict with the humans of their world. This conflict eventually leads to the humans burning down the woods to drive the elves out, forcing the Wolfriders to set out under the leadership of their chief, Cutter to find a new home, an adventure that leads them all over the World of Two Moons. This eventually leads them on to a quest to find the other elves and, in the end, to their very origins.

Writing the above plot introduction, I realize that such a synopsis  (as always) doesn't do Elfquest justice. It doesn't even begin to imply the depth of the world that the Pinis have created, with it's humans, elves and trolls.

In particular, the imagination applied to cultural and societal matters are remarkable. Different groups of elves all have very different and complex cultures and societies, which reflect the conditions that they live in. The comic also takes care to have their (well-developed) characters interact with these cultures in their own individual way. We see reactions ranging to conservatism to alienation, from hostility to other cultures to acceptance, just as in real life. This contrasts with much science-fiction and fantasy, which often have a species only have a single culture, which all individuals follow unquestionably like robots their programming.

The use of myth and folklore is also commendable. Unlike commercial fantasy writers who lazily copy Tolkien, Elfquest takes its inspiration from real myth and folklore to create an truly original world, following Tolkien in method rather than result. There is also a welcome diversity in these influences, which come not only from Europe, but in the spirit of the Hippie culture, also from Native American (which in particular informs the culture of the Wolfriders) and Eastern culture. This mixture of cultures makes the comic have a unique and genuine American atmosphere, especially with the Native American influences.

But excellent worldbuilding is not worth much if you don't have a good story to go with it, something that Elfquest thankfully has. It has mythological and spiritual resonance to justify taking inspiration from the the folk traditions of the world. One becomes quite moved by the journey of the elves to find their kindred and origins, in part due to the great characterization. The lesson taught is a worthy one: accept change and what is different. And it manages to spread that message without preaching or making things black or white. The way of life of the elves is an manifestation of 70s hippie ideals of closeness to nature, spirituality and free love (the elves are even all bisexual), which I have no problem with whatsoever.

The art is excellent, which it should be. When Wendy Pini started the comic in 1978, she already had years of experience as an illustrator for science fiction magazines. She was also one of the first western comic book artists to be influenced by manga, something common today, unheard of in the 70s. In a way reminiscent of her storytelling, she combines this eastern influence with western influences ranging from Barks to Jack Kirby. This leads to an interesting aspect of her art: the elves are drawn in a stylized, mangaesque style, but the human beings in a realistic style, reminiscent of Kirby. This leads the reader somewhat pardoxically to empathize more with the elves (1), but also emphasizes the fact that they are not human.

When Elfquest was first published in 1978, it was very against the tide of mainstream commercial fantasy novels or superhero comics. It was a comic that relied on plot, worldbuilding and characters, rather than violence, without being lacking in the action and thrills department. It was a fantasy story that truly followed Tolkien's example and created its own world, instead of just plagiarising The Lord of the Rings. It was written and drawn by a woman, truly a rarity back then, and there were many female fans in the cult following it deservedly gained for these many virtues. Elfquest is perhaps the ultimate example of successful independent publishing.

And the magic is still there, over 35 years later. And as the commercial tide hasn't turned yet and is stronger than ever, Elfquest is perhaps more needed now than it was back then. Wendy and Richard Pini has in recent years made nearly all Elfquest comics available to read for free on their website (granted, you will need to fiddle around a little with the reader to get it to work, at least on my computer. For one thing, click on the "P0" in the top right corner to get the fullsize scan if you only get thumbnails).

The original quest is a must-read, as are it's direct sequels Siege at Blue Mountain and Kings of the Broken Wheel. The later stories are of variable quality, as some of them are not created by the Pini's, but the stories made by the creators are in general worth reading.

(1) In his book Understanding Comics, Scott Mccloud points out that it is easier for somebody to identify with a simple and cartoony image, than with a realistic one. In short, the more stylized and cartoony an image is, the less detail it has and thus the more people it can represent, who can identify themselves with it. With a realistic image, we add more detail and distinguishing features, thus less people can see themselves in the image. I have already talked  a lot about this on my blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment