A new edition of Adafruit’s comic reading list — this week it’s Elfquest by Wendy and Richard Pini, recommended by Zay, who loves shipping, boxes, and long talks about logistics!
Elves? Yeah, Elves. But I’m not talking about somber forest-dwelling wise elves with ponytails and majestic singing voices. I’m talking about elves like this:
Okay, maybe some of them have ponytails.
Elfquest by the wife and husband team of Wendy and Richard Pini is one of the shining stars of the indie comics movement of the late 70s/early 80s. Yes, it’s about elves. But the Pinis approach to elves is compelling, gritty, and unique. In their story elves have been broken into tribes, making do the best they can in an unforgiving wilderness. The elves we follow in Elfquest have lived for generations in a forest, forming bonds with wolves, building a unique culture, ignorant of their beginnings. And then in the first issue their home burns to ash.
At which point the quest begins.
It’s a story about refugees, about losing your country and discovering if you can carry your home with you. It’s about friends, family, and love. It’s also a proper epic journey that will introduce the Wolfriders other lost elf tribes and eventually bring them face to face with their own origins. All of that is fun, but it’s not why Elfquest was named the most life-changing graphic novel of all time.
It’s the characters.
The Pinis have a knack for creating characters we love, and one of their tricks is to make characters who love each other. At the heart of the piece are Cutter and Skywise, brothers in all but blood, whose friendship and very different points of view open up the primary thematic and emotional dimension of the piece.
But there are a lot more characters to choose from. Powerful healers, rebellious warrior daughters, witty scientists, silent archers, body-modded flyers, and morally conflicted shaman. Throughout the entire epic all of these characters are fighting to survive, falling into love, falling out of love, getting married, having kids, saving each other, betraying each other, and dying. Lots and lots of dying.
Love, both familial and romantic, is both a central motivator and an enduring theme of Elfquest. The intense love the characters have for each other is turned into a plot element with the Pinis idea of “recognition.” When an elf “recognizes” another elf, they learn their “soul name.” Knowing another elf’s soul name gives you a great deal of power over them. You can blast right past all of their emotional defenses. For someone who inappropriately use your soul name can bring great pain.
But what’s fascinating is that knowledge of someone’s soul name isn’t about romantic love. It’s more like the indicator of a profound bond, or an entangled fate. And what if an elf falls in love with another elf but they don’t experience recognition? And what if a bad elf learns your soul name? All of that happens.
It’s fun, it’s emotionally moving, it’s epically long, and it’s one of the most enduring tales in all of indie comics. Elfquest is the kind of light entertainment that isn’t afraid of going deep. The characters will live with you forever.
Check out our previous posts Bee and the Puppycat, Spacetrawler, Grrl Power, Krazy Kat, She-Hulk, King City, The Whiteboard, Hubris, Akira, The Wicked and the Divine, Saga, Are You My Mother?, Cairo, and Static!