Elfquest is older than I am, which makes it all the more astonishing that it’s taken me this long to start reading it. Even though it has all the elements of something designed to appeal to me – a fantasy setting, a well-constructed and complex plot, intelligent use of the comics page – I somehow never got over my initial distaste for the elves’ design. How odd they looked, how adult and how childlike at the same time, how unlike what I thought elves were supposed to look like! So I passed Elfquest over and gave it no thought, until now. Seeing as Wendy and Richard Pini are now putting the entire series online (including the letter pages, in some cases), I thought I’d finally check it out, in its 30th year.
And, well… It’s a bit good, isn’t it?
(cover to the DC-published Elfquest Archives Volume 1 by Wendy and Richard Pini, cover art by Wendy Pini)
It took me the whole of the first issue to get past my original dislike of the character designs and start to appreciate the story and the characters for what they were. Wendy and Richard Pini have created something really special in Elfquest: a coherent alternative mythology populated by characters who are both the larger-than-life archetypes that mythology demands and the flesh-and-blood creatures of modern storytelling. The exploits of Cutter and the Wolfrider tribe are the stuff of legend, and at the same time their desires and motives are only too understandable. They want to escape the persecution of the humans who call them “demons”; they want to learn more about the mysterious High Ones from whom they are descended; they want to keep their loved ones safe from the dangers of their world while holding on to the “Way” that makes them what they are. They have a quality that’s usually called “human” in fictional characters, though in this case perhaps I should call it “Elven”; it’s easy to believe in their feelings and to understand their actions.
All of this is done through Wendy Pini’s remarkable art. As I’ve said before, I wasn’t immediately drawn in, but after I’d gotten over my initial reaction, I quickly came to realise that Pini is one of the most versatile comics artists out there. Without cramming the page with mind-boggling amounts of detail, she nonetheless uses every square millimetre of it, creating a three-dimensional world for her characters to move through – not just having 2D characters move past a 2D background, but using the whole of the picture plane in a way that’s rare and delightful. Time after time I was bowled over by some intensely clever bit of page design or some stunningly beautiful drawing. And the more I read of the series, the more I came to appreciate even the character designs that had initially put me off. The Pinis’ elves are both adult and childlike, and they are distinctly unlike Tolkien’s elves; it only makes sense that that should be reflected in the way they look. Their large eyes reflect their emotional openness (most obvious in their telepathic conversations, and especially when they exchange “soul names”), while their long, pointed ears reflect their otherworldly origins.
(an intricate page of colourful art from the very first issue of Elfquest showing the Elves arrival, borrowed from the online version on the official site and (c) Wendy and Richard Pini)
I’ve only read the first 20 issues of the Elfquest saga, and I’m glad, because that means there’s more for me to enjoy in the future. It’s taken me far too long to start reading the series, but now that I’ve started, I’m not going to stop until I’ve read the lot.
Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture from around the world, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.