Ten thousand years ago, the palace of a magical race appeared in the skies of a primitive world with two moons and crashed to the ground. The inhabitants of that world, humans who were little more than brutes, reacted to these otherworldly invaders with fear and lashed out violently. The few survivors of the palace escaped, scattering out across the strange new land. The descendants of those few surviving High Ones, now known as Elves, have adapted to the magic-resistant world, but they still struggle to survive against the elements and those who seek to remove them.
The Complete Elfquest Volume 1
By Richard and Wendy Pini
Dark Horse Comics; August 2014. ISBN: 978-1-61655-407-1
720 pgs, $24.99
Elfquest started in 1978 as an independent comic by husband-and-wife team Richard and Wendy Pini. This epic fantasy of elves and their struggles in a world that rejected them became a phenomenon during the 1980s, helping to kick off the growth of independent comics. Now, 35 years later, Dark Horse brings back the first series in a hefty 720-page edition that collects all 20 issues of the original quest and includes commentary and bonus pages from the Pinis. Filled with action, adventure, and romance, Elfquest brought in new comic readers with its serialized story and beautiful artwork.
Elfquest follows Cutter, the leader of a tribe of forest-dwelling elves known as Wolfriders. Burned out of their home by humans and tricked into the desert by trolls, the Wolfriders discover another tribe of elves, the Sunfolk. They settle down with the Sunfolk for several years, but the return of their old enemy, the humans, leads Cutter to wonder if there are other tribes of elves out beyond the desert. He decides to go on a quest to search for these possible tribes, and his journey will change the lives of not only his tribe but all those he meets.
This story has a huge cast of characters that includes four different elf tribes, two troll tribes, and various humans tribes, but the main protagonist is Cutter. He is young, having only been chief for a handful of years, but he takes his responsibilities seriously. Protecting his tribe, both elf and wolf, is important to him. He would put himself in harm’s way before any of the tribe. He is handy with a sword, as his name implies, and can be hotheaded at times, but he does try to think before he acts. He is helped in this by his best friend and brother in all but blood Skywise, and his lifemate Leetah, the cool-headed healer of the Sunfolk.
Elfquest is a fantasy adventure. The elves are magical creatures who use telepathy called “sending” to speak with one another and who never utter falsehoods. They can use different kinds of magic, including shaping plants and rocks, and healers can shape flesh and fight to defy death itself. Elves are immortal, slowly aging, but they can still die of wounds, hunger or the elements. Trolls, sort of rivals to the elves, do not have any innate magic of their own. They are diggers, living underground and digging up minerals and smithing tools, weapons, and jewelry. They are a greedy lot, even to the point of trying to deny the elves their birthright. Preservers are pixie-like beings who are small and tough, with butterfly-like wings, and are fiercely loyal to the elves. They spit out a webbing they call wrapstuff that preserves anything they wrap in it.
While there is plenty of fantasy with the characters, the story is filled with just as much adventure and drama. It opens with the Wolfriders rescuing one of their own from being sacrificed from humans. Then they are running from a fire started by those same humans and struggling through a barren desert, all just in the first two chapters. Even when they find safety, there’s no rest for them as Cutter becomes tangled up in a ritual duel for the right to court Leetah with the Sunfolk’s chief hunter Rayek. The series keeps a fairly brisk pace, even in its slower moments.
The characters are well developed and continue to grow throughout the series. They grow and learn from their mistakes and follies. Nothing is included in the story that will distract from its overarching plot. That’s one of the great things about Elfquest: It is tightly plotted and doesn’t wander off even if the reader wants it to go back and explore something else. The story sticks to its path and comes to a satisfying end while keeping the door open to further adventures.
The highlight of Elfquest, though, is the art. Wendy Pini’s depictions of elves are beautiful and fluid. They move with an elegance that one can only imagine possible from such fantastic creatures. Action is a big part of the series, so whether the characters are fighting or dancing, they move with such grace that you can almost imagine them coming right out of the pages. Every tribe is distinct, and this is reflected not just in their clothes but in their body movements and expressions. Wendy’s art conveys just as much as, if not more than, the words on the page.
Elfquest is rated for 12+ by Dark Horse, and at the beginning it definitely fits this rating. There is some violence at the beginning with the Wolfriders and the humans, but subsequent chapters go for more internal conflict. The past story about Madcoil does have some bloodshed. Most of the romantic moments are between Cutter and Leetah and all are more implied than shown. In the last quarter of the book, things start to get more serious as the elves are introduced to a concept foreign to them until now: war. Here the content starts to reach into older teen territory, but is not in any way out of line with the rest of the story. I started reading Elfquest as a tween and couldn’t get enough of it. Neither will readers of the same age today.
Elfquest is a well told and exquisitely illustrated story that should be in every teen and graphic novel collection. The story itself is timeless as it tells of the struggles of the elves of the Two-Mooned world. They discover love, feel loss, and experience the horrors of war, coming out of it stronger and closer than ever before. And watching them do it is a wonderful, emotional and beautiful ride. Don’t pass this book up.