Comics & Graphic Novels Fantasy Nerd Nostalgia

In Praise of ‘ElfQuest’

As we all know, what’s considered “good” is purely and highly subjective. Even our own tastes are subject to change depending on our moods. But in this “best of” debate, there is one comic that has always been in my top 5 best comics/graphic novels of all time, from the moment I read it. It fundamentally changed how I read comics, how I viewed the medium, and it gave me a greater and more profound appreciation of what the comic form could do. 

Every single time there is a “best of” list of comics and graphic novels, it’s almost inevitable that most of these lists are going to look a little similar. You’re going to see Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns on there, Moore and Gibbons Watchmen; (very deserving of a spot in the top 20) Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. In writing this, I reviewed fifteen lists and this plays out, with some new additions like Robert Kirkman’s Invincible and Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina; and the more seemingly odder choices like, say, Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. And at some point, we’re going to have to talk about why there are so many damn men dominating these lists.

As we all know, what’s considered “good” is purely and highly subjective. Even our own tastes are subject to change depending on our moods. But in this “best of” debate, there is one comic that has always been in my top five best comics/graphic novels of all time, from the moment I read it. It fundamentally changed how I read comics, how I viewed the medium, and it gave me a greater and more profound appreciation of what the comic form could do.

That book is Elfquest.

First published in 1978, Wendy and Richard Pini (the ‘WaRP’ in WaRP Graphics, their company) created a world that was so fully realized, so compassionate in its rendering, I fell immediately in love with it. Obviously influenced by high-fantasy novels, in particular The Lord of the Rings — I’d argue that the World of Two Moonsis just as intricate and made with the same care and attention to detail.

For most of its 40-year run (it ended in 2018) ElfQuest has followed a group of elves (descended from a race of extraterrestrial beings called, The High Ones,) known as Wolfriders — as they searched for a new home as their forest home, their Holt, was burned to the ground. These elves ride wolves, with whom they have a telepathic bond and are treated more like family than pets or modes of transportation

There are other elven societies introduced, stories that don’t concern the forest-based elves, but it is the Wolfriders’ saga that hooked me. 

As always, I do not want to spoil it for you. I really want you to experience this for the first time. So, what I’ve decided to do is give you a top 10 list detailing why you should give ElfQuest a chance. Keep in mind that the series has been through four publishers (the aforementioned WaRP Graphics, Marvel, DC Comics, and Dark Horse), and has had so many versions of the individual issues and collections and narrative tributaries that it’s kind of difficult to figure out where to start. Use this as your guide.

[A side note: When the Pinis published Elfquest on their own, after a poorly printed debut in Fantasy Quarterly, they began with issue #2 — they made it magazine-sized, with stunning color covers, and masterfully drawn b&w interiors.]

The Top 10 Reasons You Should Read ElfQuest

10. It has one of the most tenderly realized bromances in the history of comics. Cutter (the Wolfriders’ chief) and his best friend/mentor/confidant, Skywise, are masculine friendship goals. It was never played for jokes. 

9. Some elves have psionic powers that manifest in different ways, but all elves can “send,” a kind of telepathic communication. How it is used for good/love and violence is harrowing.

8. It’s epic. When I say epic, I’m talking about fully-realized, multi-generational histories. I’m talking about diaspora stemming from a collective trauma. It is in real time. Despite the elves aging very slowly, they have children and grand-children, and we get to follow their stories, as well. 

7. It’s adult. Themes of sex/sexuality, polyamory, death and grief are front and center. They are never shied away from. It is never gratuitous and always serves the story.

6. The Go-Backs. They are another band of elves the Wolfriders encounter that forces them to reevaluate their origins and culture.

5. The central romance between Cutter and Leetah (a healer from the elven tribe known as, Sunfolk) is just beautiful. That it is an interracial/intercultural  romance (that is sparked by an embedded cultural/psychic process known as recognition) that addresses the complications of interracial romance, in a very blatant way, makes their eventual union a huge win. They earned their right to be together. The scene where they share soul names (secret names that are only revealed to those who one elf has recognized, or very close friends) still takes my breath away. And I’ve read it a dozen times, or more. 

4. The villains are as cunning as they are evil. No teeth-gnashing baddies here. 

3. The geography. When they were in the snowy domain of the Go-Backs, I felt cold. When they were crossing the scorching hot desert, I felt it. So many backgrounds in comics are sketched, almost to the point of abstraction. Not in ElfQuest.

2. Rayek. 

1. Wendy Pini has one of the most fire pens in the history of the form. That a woman, in the 1970s, was out-penning most (if not all) of her male artistic contemporaries and so many comics fans have no idea who she is, well, that’s just criminal. I mean, just look:

If you’re looking for something other than the traditional superhero/horror/sci-fi comic, I urge you to read EfQuest. I can pretty much guarantee you will fall for it just as hard as I did. 

6 comments

  1. It’s great seeing ElfQuest get some love. It was the first comic I ever read obsessively. I’m not sure my parents realized that I was probably too young for it. I’m pretty much sure I remember reenacting it on the playground in either first or second grade.

  2. Wendy and Richard here – thank you for a heartwarming and delightful experience, reading your commentary on Elfquest! It is worth pointing out that neither of us had read “Lord of the Rings” prior to conceiving Elfquest. The reason EQ is so interracial/intercultural is that Wendy’s influences are primarily Asian (manga and anime) blended with Native American mythology – nothing white-Euro-centric here. We absolutely loved your “top 10” list – your observations about relationships (Cutter and Skywise, Cutter and Leetah) are spot on. And we are pruriently curious about *your* relationship with Rayek… 😉

    By the way, Elfquest did not end in 2018. It’s still being “fire-penned” – we’re working on the latest 8-part installment called “Stargazer’s Hunt,” published by Dark Horse Comics, even as we type these words.

    1. I’m so happy I did your monumental work justice. It has been a near-constant companion for most of my comics reading life. Rayek’s arrogance and his redemption is just an incredible feat of storytelling. IMHO, the best arc in the series. Little known fact: When I have to give a huge presentation/public talk, i tap into my inner-Rayek to combat my unease. I’ll be going to my local shop this week
      and putting “Stargazer’s Hunt” on my pull list. I appreciate you both for taking the time to read this and to respond. Anyway I can use our platform to promote your work, do not hesitate to reach out. Shawn

  3. Yes to all of this! I am always trying to bring new folks to the EQ tribe.

  4. I grew up in France in the ’70s and was inundated by great comicbooks and graphic novels of all types. I even had exposure to Marvel comics thanks to my brother’s habit of picking up Strange magazine regularly.
    When I moved to the US in the ’80s, I was disappointed to see how cheap comics were, printed on flimsy paper and full of ads. I didn’t read anything for the first few years, I had not interest.
    And then, one day, I saw the cover for ElfQuest #16, with Leetah’s face almost lifesized, and I fell in love. I was hooked for life. The art was so beautiful and European in feel. The story looked like fantasy but was actually science-fiction. The characters were so rich and complex, as were the storylines.
    Yeah, it’s good stuff!

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