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Book 1 in the Elfquest Reader's Collection

By Jason Henderson     August 30, 2000

The long-running fantasy comics saga Elfquest is now available from the beginning in a collection that allows a new reader to take the story in as if it were brand new. And that's a blessing, because like Cerebus, Elfquest has a way of scaring newcomers off. I'm a newcomer--never read Elfquest before this week--and I'm glad for the opportunity.

Take your standard-issue sci-fi and media geek, the kind who's open to almost anything, and I can't think of any kind of story that's still a harder sell than fantasy. And by 'fantasy' I don't mean Like Water for Chocolate, with its magic recipes and flaming drapes. I mean high fantasy, the worst of which people associate with unicorns and the sort of sparkly wizard stickers we used to put on Trapper Keepers. Even Stephen King, in his non-fiction work Danse Macabre, dumped on heroic fantasy all the complaints critics had heaped on his own work ( e.g., 'bad art'). Apparently Big Steve saw not a jot of irony in his dismissal because, after all, fantasy really was bad art. As if every fantasy or horror novel were the same.

A sort of ghettoization develops in speculative fiction fans, then. Go to a convention and you can talk to each and every one. There will be Asimov types, who sniff at all but the most rule-based and hard-scienced sci-fi. There will be horror types and comics types, who just like stories. And there will be fantasy types, who live in their own little world and sing very strange songs. Here's a confession: I missed out on Tolkien as a young reader and was so intimidated by fantasy--the whole thing, not just any one book--that I steadfastly avoided the genre. I shouldn't have.

And one of the titles I kept noticing through the years was Elfquest, which wasn't even in novels but comics. The use of elves is about as lay-your-stake-this-is-sure-fantasy as you can get, so I steered far clear. (Stubborn. There came a point where I had published two fantasies, one with elves, before I ever read one.) Later, I figured Elfquest had been going too long to understand. Elfquest, you see, began twenty years ago, and creators Wendy and Richard Pini still churn out new chapters.

But they know our weak ways: Elfquest: Fire and Flight reprints the first five issues of the original Elfquest series, published from 1979 to 1980. In it we meet Cutter, the chief of a smallish band of pointy-eared, slightly undertall athletic telepaths called Elves who inhabit the woods near a growing tribe of early humans. Violence between the elves and men is on the rise and, at the beginning of the story, a series of events leads Cutter to take his band and flee the woods that have always been his home. So begins the 'quest' of the title.

Cutter and his tribe of elves suffer violence at the hands of Trolls and nearly perish from desert heat before coming to 'Sorrow's End,' a distant oasis of rock-dwelling elves with their own customs and skills. It is here, with the 'People of the Sun,' that most of the story takes place. You can just feel the Pinis bringing Act 1 to an end as Cutter discovers Sorrow's End.

And it's a lovely story. Wendy and Richard Pini tell their story with remarkable skill and grace, quickly immersing us in just the right number of characters, never giving us more information than we need. Clearly they've done their background work, though. The Pinis hint at strange, celestial origins for the elves (would that make Elfquest science fiction?) They seem to have built their backstory for generations, so that with ease, any given character can refer back to those stories, the way you and I refer to, I dunno, Nixon.

In the Elfquest universe, elves are better than men by nature because they will always seek the higher, gentler way of doing things. Cleverly, the Pinis challenge their own law right away by having Cutter ape the ways of men when he finally brings his band to a new group of elves: he attacks, steals, and injures, and only the appeal to his better elven self soothes him. I read the attack and was struck by how easy it would have been not to have the hero do something so base as a raid on innocent strangers. I've pitched stories like that before in work-for-hire settings and the powers that be always refuse to let the hero make a mistake, presumably because heroes don't question, don't falter, don't ever go the wrong way. Wendy and Richard Pini, as Marv Wolfman points out in no less than two introductions to this collection, know the story they want to tell and are telling it honestly, unencumbered by outside powers.

So I was impressed with the philosophy, but let's be honest, it's the thrill that holds one's attention. There's sheer joy in the Pinis' Kirbyesque fantasy-speak and Wendy Pini's Dave Cockrum-like art; a sort of rhythm of lull and action sets in that carries the reader along. One minute our heroes are mourning a fallen foe, the next they're amazing us with their cleverness by discovering the compass. There's a love story here that's exciting and clever, because the Pinis dare to do something I haven't seen in a while: since the hero and heroine are a foregone conclusion, let's go ahead and say they're a foregone conclusion, and then make them try to deny it. Getting suspense out of the inevitable isn't easy.

And yet it took me months to get around to reading Wendy and Richard Pini's Elfquest, even in a collection that made staring easy for me. Fantasy, which has a sort of visual and conceptual vocabulary that sets it apart from other genres, can be intimidating. Elfquest is not. I should never have put a story like this off.

Trade Paperback from Wolfrider Books. Written by Richard and Wendy Pini. Illustrated by Wendy Pini.


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Cacaoatl 5/25/2009 10:19:41 PM

I've always found the critics' dismissal of high fantasy a little strange because high fantasy is the oldest form of literature. Many of the books held up by scholars as some of  the greatest books ever written are all fantasy: Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Norse/Icelandic sagas, and Le Morte d'Arthur.



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