In January of 1986, I went with my parents to visit my great grandmother in Warren, Ohio. Now, aside from having a founder with perhaps the coolest name in the history of founders (Ephraim Quinby), Warren is your run of the mill, small Midwestern town. In other words, there's not much to do there. So my parents, realizing they needed to keep their then 10 year old son occupied, took me to a bookstore to get something that would entertain me.
I remember very clearly that the bookstore in question (I think it was a Walden's) had two comics, both of which were on a shelf behind the counter, as if they were pornography. One was a Carl Barks duck comic (so, clearly it had to be kept out of the hands of youngsters). The other was the Epic Comics edition of Elfquest #6. I had to choose one. I went with the elves because I'd already started playing Dungeons & Dragons by this point in my life.
I had no idea what an impact that decision would have on me.
Elfquest debuted in 1978, three years after I was born. It was the creation of artist/writer Wendy Pini and her writer/editor husband, Richard. The series is currently being published by Dark Horse, and when I say currently, I mean all new material by the original creators featuring the original characters 39 years later. Try to think of another comic that can make that claim – there aren't many.
Or think about this: both Marvel and DC have published reprints of Elfquest comics. These were reprints of a creator owned series; Marvel and DC don't own the rights to these stories. And yet Elfquest was so important, had such a following, that they agreed to publish them anyway. I don't think there are any other comics that can claim to have been published by both of the Big Two.
The issues that Marvel and DC were reprinting were almost exclusively from the twenty issue series the Pinis published under their WaRP Graphics imprint (Wendy and Richard Pini: WaRP). The series, which is often referred to as the Original Quest, is one of the most reprinted comic book stories ever produced. Aside from Marvel's single issue reprints, the collected editions have been published in 5 different editions from 4 different publishers.
So what is it about this series that inspires such devotion from its fans?
That's easy: love.
There's plenty of action and adventure in Elfquest. There are (obviously) elves, trolls, humans, and even (at a certain point) aliens. There are plenty of battles. There are epic struggles of good versus evil, but in almost every case that evil is never cut and dry. Elfquest is too complex for that. There's also an incredibly detailed history that is introduced from the very start, so that the world of EQ feels layered as soon as we enter it.
But ultimately it's love that keeps us coming back to Elfquest, a deep, complicated love that permeates every element.
The first elves we meet are the Wolfriders, a tribe of elves who have bonded with wolves. The Wolfriders have the ability to "send," or communicate with each other telepathically. This "sending" opens a lot of doors for the relationships these elves have. As if being able to talk to each other mind to mind weren't enough, each elf has a soul name, the epitome of who they are as an individual boiled down to one, powerful word. It's a sacred word that holds incredible power.
Soul names are the basis for Recognition, which is basically what happens when one elf looks at another elf and suddenly knows his or her soul name. To a certain extent, it takes all the guessing and drama out of finding that one true love. It is love at first sight made real.
But it's more complicated than that. Recognition can happen between two people who don't want to be together, but have no choice to consummate their union (and have a child). They experience physical pain if they don't, at the very least, attempt to reproduce with the other person. It's biological imperative with physical punishment.
Elves in love can choose to tell each other their soul names, which is a huge decision, particularly if the other person doesn't do the same. Recognition can even occur between friends, as is the case with Wolfriders Chief Cutter and his "brother in all but blood," Skywise.
For a sensitive kid on the cusp of puberty, all of this Recognition and sending business was like water in the desert. I was already a hopeless romantic back then, and Elfquest spoke to that part of me. The fact that this overwhelming love extended to family and friends made Elfquest seem like some kind of paradise where everyone loved each other (sometimes literally, as the infamous orgy scene towards the end of the first series will attest).
Wait, what was that? Yes, there's an elven orgy in Elfquest. It happens before a whole bunch of them go off to war with the trolls. I could hardly believe my (what must have been at that point) twelve year old eyes. There's no graphic nudity or even graphic sex, just a bunch of half-naked elves embracing in suggestive ways…and in large groups. But, in many ways because of Recognition, an orgy wasn't a big deal. The elves loved each other, but were able to distinguish that love from what they had with their life mates. The Wolfriders weren't sharing their soul names with the other elves in the orgy.
But that idea, that there is a name that is the distillation of who you are – it was such a wonderful idea for a neurotic kid who still didn't know himself very well. I was still looking for my soul name; I just didn't know that's what it was called.
Adding to the romantic notion of Elfquest is the wonderful art by Wendy Pini. Picture Al Migrom via Disney. Her characters are beautiful, but unique. She deftly makes a distinction between those that are delicate and those that are rough. There's a range to the Wolfriders, as some lean closer towards the traditional appearance of porcelain elves, yet others are more feral, closer to their wolf counterparts. The mix is a good representation of the story itself.
But perhaps the greatest gift Elfquest has given to comics has been gender equality. While Richard Pini edits and helps write the series, the creative powerhouse is Wendy. It's her art that first brings people to the series. It's her vision that keeps people reading. And it's a vision that features strong, intelligent female characters who are every bit as complex as their male counterparts, and who also aren't defined by those men.
Yes, Cutter is the main character, but his quest doesn't start until he meets Leetah, his lifemate. And as their twin children get older, it's a given that his daughter, Ember, will one day be chief, not his son, Suntop. It's a decision based upon their personalities, not their gender. After all, three of the ten chiefs preceding Cutter were women, and the Wolfriders were formed by a woman (the High One Timmain).
These fully realized female characters had a big impact on me. Between Elfquest and Claremont's X-Men, it never occurred to me that
female characters should be anything but equal to male characters.
The original Elfquest had a definitive ending – a perfect one, really. The Pinis went back to the well for two more series, both of which did a nice job of picking up earlier threads, while still being their own stories. Once these stories were done, though, the entire Elfquest universe had drastically changed.
Elfquest (and Warp Graphics) ultimately fell victim to the '90s comic book mark. They brought in new writers and artists to create Elfquest stories. They expanded the line to multiple titles. And while many of the creators and stories were quite good, a lot of the charm of Elfquest was lost. The Pinis owned Elfquest. It was a labor of love for them. Bringing in others to work on these characters seemed to diminish that. Eventually, the titles would collapse into one anthology, and then even that ended.
But Elfquest is never gone from the shelves for long. DC came calling and they signed a huge deal to reprint the original series in multiple formats. They also published brand new material. The scope of the deal was impressive. They used the digest format for much of the reprints, which suggested they were trying to tap into the manga market, which seemed like a good fit for EQ, although I wonder how the orgy scene went over in the local Barnes and Noble.
These days, you can find every Elfquest story online, for free, at the official Elfquest site. You can also read Elfquest: The Final Quest from Dark Horse., the last issue of which will be arriving this month.
If this is truly the final quest for Cutter and the Wolfriders, it will be a sad one. Despite the ebb and flow of the series, it's meant an awful lot to me and always will.