Book Title: The Complete Elfquest Volume 1
Author: Wendy and Richard Pini
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Page Count: 720
Format: eBook (library)
Reading time: 6 hours
Date Finished: 1/28/17
Click here to find it on Amazon (New window)
My impressions: Wow. I’m glad I’ve finally taken the opportunity to read Elfquest, because it’s a series I’ve always wanted to read, but have never been interested enough in to completely track down. The series, which began in 1978 and which finally wrapped last year, is huge and spans many graphic novels and collections (most of which, I later learned, you can read for free on the official site!). I’ve tried to read this series before from the midpoint (due to library collections I’ve found not effectively labeling which volume of the story they’re collecting), and I’ve found the comics too steeped in lore to be able to understand if you don’t have a strong knowledge of the World of Two Moons and its characters. So having a good chunk of the series available in one volume is really helpful, and I have to say that I’m looking forward to reading the next one.
With that said, I was pretty underwhelmed by this story initially, and for the first 200 pages or so, I wondered if I was ever going to connect with it. The setup was very interesting, drawing its focus on a tribe of wolfriding forest elves who’re descended from otherworldly elves who once crashed into a world populated by prehistoric humans. The wolfriding elves and the humans don’t get along, and the humans decide to burn down the forest in retribution for a raid led by Cutter (the elf tribe’s chief) and his band of riders. Since the elves live in the trees in homes fashioned by an ancient form of magic called “shaping,” they flee the forest and search for a new home, eventually crossing a desert and finding another tribe of elves who live in a hidden refuge called Sorrow’s End. At that point, the story becomes focused on Cutter’s “recognition” (a term for a sort of magical soulmate match between two elves) of Leetah, the daughter of the chief of this new tribe. Leetah doesn’t like Cutter, adding to the tension, and he also becomes embroiled in a conflict with her suitor, Rayek, a magician who’s smarter and better than the barbarous Cutter in many ways, but who can’t win due to his character flaws and who abandons the tribe as Cutter and Keetah warm to each other and consummate their union.
To that point, the story feels very stiff and dull; it reminds me a lot of the old Conan the Barbarian stories, and I suspect that was once source of inspiration for the husband-and-wife team of Wendy and Richard Pini when they created this story in the 1970s. In fact, Elfquest draws from many fantasy sources, and though it features elves as its main characters, the fantasy traditions it draws the least from are the Tolkien-style stories where elves and men coexist peacefully and the enemies are the obvious monsters. By setting the story in a prehistoric fantasy world, Elfquest is more free to experiment with other ideas about what elves can be, and that’s very much a strength, because the next 520 pages of the book became absolutely enthralling to me as Cutter and his band struck out on a quest to find other elf tribes and locate the “High Ones,” the original elves who’d crashed on the World of Two Moons.
Part of what makes the story so good after the initial origin story is that it’s well-plotted and focused on a destination, constantly raising the stakes and increasing the tension as the elves near their final destination. There are evil elves who pretend to be the High Ones, a monstrous elf who’s been changed in a bat-like creature, and elves who have become like machines because they have lost all sense of who they are. There are trolls and pixie-like creatures and cults of humans who worship the elves as gods. And, best of all, there’s a master villain behind the scenes, pulling the strings towards his own peculiar goal, manipulating the story in subtle ways towards its epic conclusion for reasons that only make sense to him.
Are there things I’m not as wild about? Certainly. The dialogue is quite dated, feeling very much like the fantasy comic book writing of the 1970s and 1980s (before writers like Robert Jordan, Raymond E. Feist, Tad Williams, J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin were really shaping the genre towards what it is today). There are lots of characters, and it’s really hard to keep them all straight in a single reading. The male characters are quite flamboyant in their fashion, with Cutter, for example, sporting a tall ponytail, bellbottom leather pants and a fur vest. There’s also a lot of lore to absorb, and the story can become darn near impenetrable if you don’t start from the beginning and pay close attention to all the detail.
But at the same time, many of those criticisms are due to the story’s period and genre, and they’re minor quibbles for a fantasy fan who’s used to those conventions. And honestly, the artwork is so good (a wonderful fusion of Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka), the story is so big and unique (with some great touches of science fiction thrown in for good measure!), and the characters are so carefully constructed that Elfquest ultimately feels like the epic tale it’s meant to be. I’ve never read anything quite like it; it’s a series that embodies a love of all of the fantasy, comic books and mythic sources that influenced it, but which also stands on its own as a story that has to be experienced.
I’d also add, author Wendy Pini (the artist and the source of a lot of the story she’s co-written with her husband and editor Richard) seems like she is an amazing product of comics fandom. She created Elfquest during a time where she was also cosplaying as Red Sonja; she met her husband through a shared love of comics; she was a big fan of manga before most Americans had ever heard about it. She is also supposed to be an incredibly nice person who’s always been tremendous to her fans, and I have no doubt she inspired many a young female comics fan to be a creator, cosplayer or fan of the medium.
Relative to the stuff that Marvel and DC were producing contemporary to Elfquest, Wendy Pini’s work is awe-inspiring, and the Pinis independently published their work initially because they were so unhappy with the lacking quality comic book publishers of the day applied towards their paper and printing processes. I actually prefer the black and white Elfquest to the colorized versions on the website because it feels more authentic to what the story always was. The strong line work, the great inking and the beautiful interaction between panels and text reveal a lot of technical skill and leave plenty of room for the imagination to fill in whatever details are missing.
In other words, it’s good stuff. If you like fantasy storytelling, this is a great way to experience the first quarter of this decades-long series.
NOTE: Made a correction to correct the spelling of a character’s name. I said Keetah, and it’s actually Leetah.