Yes, this is Elfquest. And yes, the people are suppose to look like that. With Savage Sword of Conan, I mentioned briefly the rise and quiet fall of underground comics, sometimes spelled with an X (yes, comix). While originally created to shield children from sex and violence, the Comics Code Authority, which was meant to keep comics “wholesome,” eventually created an underground counter-culture based in small print publishing and alternative book stores. Underground comics sometimes spelled with an X stood on the border between art, sociopolitical commentary, and, oddly enough, fantasy. Elfquest is an odd little comic that began in a shitty Michigan quarterly printed on even shittier newsprint paper. Elfquest today is considered one of the more cult comics of the past few decades. Yes, they are suppose to look like that. Yes, that elf is more ripped than you will ever be.
The entire Elfquest adventures is not that large. In fact multiple version lay scattered around but this particular volume is the Starblazer reprints from the early 80’s. Collected in four volumes, this edition lays out the entire epic in decent fashion despite the publication company imloding a few years later. “Fire and Flight” collects the first few adventures of what later would be the epic of the wolfriders — the ripped set of elves that roam around via wolfback. The entire story opens on a primitive world, much like earth, and showcases the coming of a magical race of elves and the eventual demise of those elves when they get their assess handed to them by early humans. Club beats elf. The few remaining survivors would eventually grow up and become a race of ripped elves with a heightened survival sense rather than dainty magical powers. This is the backdrop of Elfquest, a simple premise that would only come to life under the master penmanship of one of it’s creators, Wendy Pini.
Elfquest stands out because of two things. One is the art style, which calls back to some of the underground comix stylings of R. Crumb and Howard Cruse. The characters are cartoonish but with very adult features, such as the already mentioned rippling muscles. Layering of panels and dialogue boxes also calls back to a more underground style where narratives did not have to fit in restrictive rectangles. In addition to the art of Wendy Pini, her stories, also sometimes written by her husband Richard, are a delicate combination of high adventure, romance, and coming of age under an elvish diaspora. It is any wonder that people still love the shit out of this story.
Cast from their homes by humans wielding fire, the wolfriders encounter trial after trial, including a not so honest cave troll and a harsh terrain that threatens the entire tribe. The wolfriders eventually stumble upon another race of desert dwelling elves called the Sun Folk and establish their new colony. The original quest deals with the wolfrider’s establishment with the sunfolk and the romance and love story between the tribes chief, Cutter, and one of the Sun Folk, Leetah. Though love stories in comics usually make me fall asleep, Elfquest manages to make it passable while adding an entire issue of back-story dealing with the life and death of Bearclaw, Cutter’s father.
If things started to get a little intense back there, it is normal. While having an innocuous shell, Elfquest is a dense story line with over 500 characters, all with silly names. This, combined with some inventive storylines, has caused the series to explode in popularity among an older generation of fantasy fans. Elfquest is also deeply rooted in the Filk scene, which is a sci-fi/fantasy based folk movement located in the convention circuit. Yes, filk I said. No, I am not making this up. I can see I am causing you to hyper ventilate, but it’s true that all of the adventures in Elfquest can be heard in song form around hotel rooms played by fans as if they were bards from eons past. I know, just take it slow.
While this review is just covering the first, interested parties should seek out the rest of the series. As mentioned before even the shallow love triangle between Cutter, Leetah and Sun Folk chief hunter Rayek is interesting and establishes further story lines. Elfquest may not look like the prototypical fantasy comic, where everyone is skinny and clad in well fitting armor, but the series longevity among a niche group of fans makes it one of the more interesting series to have survived the past decades. I can not say why, but I think I am going to be reading these for a long while, probably on rainy days accompanied by herbal tea and the sounds of folk music in the background.
First Published: Fantasy Quarterly (Spring 1978)
Written by: Wendy and Richard Pini
Illustrated: Wendy Pini
Score: 7/9 Hammers