ElfQuest offers comforts and memories, but also an appreciation for the quality of the work.
The flames burned bright and yellow around a lean, muscular figure that brandished a curved blade in one hand and calmed a gray wolf with the other. He stood protectively over his clan, lupine eyes looking away from the fire to the unknown. His name was Cutter, chief of the Wolfriders, and the cover for ElfQuest No. 1 eclipsed everything else on the spinner racks when Marvel reissued the series under its Epic line in 1985. The tiny comic shop in my corner of Long Island offered little more than superheroes, so the appearance of a fantasy comic, especially one so lovingly rendered, marked something special, a sea change in my reading and an early instance of binging media.
Written by husband and wife team Richard and Wendy Pini, with art by Wendy, ElfQuest tells the long running story of Cutter, his clan and the other elf tribes they encounter on their journey to find their origins. By the time Marvel began distributing the book to a wider audience, the Pinis had already self-published the first arc of 20 issues. Several collections already existed, so, once hooked, I saved my weekly allowance until I could buy them. I made promises for chores that were never done so loans could be procured from my parents. A short-lived paper route lasted until the whole series was purchased. Such was the nature of my obsession.
This was a transformative time in comics. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were on the horizon, but Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, George Perez and a host of other talents were deconstructing the superhero mythos, adding an edge to the mainstay characters at Marvel and DC. Yet, ElfQuest managed to shine among all this greatness due to its editorial and visual independence. Wendy Pini’s sense of figure and expression was unparalleled by the men drawing the mainstream books, and she detailed landscapes with an eye akin to Goseki Kojima of Lone Wolf and Cub fame. The story she rendered never deviated from the promise of its title. The elves were on a quest. Quests end. The only things that could cause Superman or Spider-Man to end are flagging sales. ElfQuest had different priorities than the mainstream books, and that feeling was palpable and alluring.
The story blends adventure, romance and magic as the elves are cast through fire, deserts, mountains and tundra to learn how they arrived on the world with two moons. It starts with a castle full of elves falling from the sky and an encounter with primitive humans that ends with fear and murder, and the passing of generations sees no end to the acrimony between humans and elves. The Wolfriders dwell in forests and can manipulate trees with their magic, but the humans who live near them set the forest on fire, forcing the elves to rely on cavern dwelling trolls to escape the blaze.
The trolls – always duplicitous no matter the fantasy world – abandon Cutter and his folk in a desert for a more grueling incineration than the fire they escaped. The Wolfriders believe they are the last of their kind and that their race will die in the desert. Instead, it expands when they find the Sunfolk. The Sunfolk are browner and taller elves than the Wolfriders, but the forest dwellers win their place among their desert cousins. Cutter and Leetah, the Sunfolk’s healer, fall in love, but a run-in with humans in the desert gnaws at the Wolfrider chief and he begins his quest with his soul-brother, Skywise, to find more tribes of elves to unite against the humans. Being human, you might think this might alter my rooting interest, but not all humans turn out to be evil on Cutter’s journey, nor are all elves wonderful and accepting.
Through the Wolfriders the Pinis tell a story of heritage and tolerance, acceptance and honor, and imperfect protagonists that evolve into better heroes. It is a story that reveals more of itself when revisited at different stages in life, but means the most when you first discover it. The idea of the tribe resonated most for me in those pre-Internet days when being a nerdy teen meant social isolation and stories about communities of special people joined together offered the most appeal. That’s what made the X-Men so popular, but the Wolfriders professed an even more attractive bond. They communicated telepathically between each other and their wolves, an intimacy that fired the imagination because they never lied, but there was also the notion that someone in the tribe was meant for you. Each elf has a soul name that their life-mate will know when they meet. Love is fated, which is a powerful idea for someone so painfully shy that the notion of social contact felt like a terrifying joke. ElfQuest relieved anxiety’s burden by allowing me to dream of being part of something without speaking, to be known even in silence. Reprieves and aspirations are fantasies great gifts when they are made with heartfelt magic, and debts of gratitude turn into long essays when there aren’t enough words to express one’s thanks.
As an older reader, ElfQuest offers comforts and memories, but also an appreciation for the quality of the work. The Pinis began publishing this epic in 1978 in black and white, magazine-sized issues. Over the decades it has found homes at Marvel, DC and now Dark Horse, where the four decades of work has been collected in volumes and reissued while the story concluded with a series dubbed “the final quest.” Whether by being belligerently independent or bucking industry trends toward darker fare, ElfQuest has been unfairly relegated to cult status. This is one of the great comics of our time, one that should be discussed as literature in the same way the work of Moore and Miller get dissected. Alas, it lacked the grit of those ‘80s books. ElfQuest was never dark enough or cool enough to pierce the veil, just beautiful and inspiring. The quest ended last year, bringing “40 years of pointed ears” to a close for its creators. But, the series remains something of an extraordinary secret, one we fans of 40 years need to spread more loudly. The quest is over. Do yourself a favor and begin it.