Medium: comic
Year: 1978
Writer/artist: Wendy & Richard Pini
Keywords: fantasy
Format: The first 28 issues (889 pages)
Url: https://elfquest.com/
Website category: Comics
Review date: 29 March 2021
Elfquest's first issue in 1978 was technically an underground comic, but then it went self-published. It was an award-winning breakout hit for independent comics and it's still running today, having been licensed over the years to Marvel, DC and Dark Horse. I'm not reviewing the whole thing here, but just the start of the saga:
"The Original Quest" (20 issues) = extraordinary
"Siege at Blue Mountain" (8 issues) = a step down, but still worth reading.
I only own the recoloured 1988-89 Father Tree Press collections, incidentally, not the re-recoloured 2003+ DC ones that the Pinis regard as definitive. That said, though, all pre-2014 Elfquest issues can be read for free on their official website, https://elfquest.com/.
As you've guessed, it's about elves. What's more, they're not Tolkein elves. They're cute Hobbit-sized cartoons that have fooled lots of readers into thinking this is a children's series. (Some of these got confused by the pre-battle orgy and wife-swapping in issue #17.) Wendy Pini doesn't mind drawing a bit sexy, but her style in these early years is so cute that even the less-evil trolls look Disney-adorable.
The story, though... well, you know how it's possible to tell a story about anything? Brilliant writers can blow their readers away with a tale of playground games, or bottle top collectors, or indeed anything that your main characters care about. We all know this. The Original Quest, on the other hand, goes in the opposite direction by being so primal that I want to call it Biblical. It's about the survival of a tribe. They hate humans, which is their original sin. The humans hate them too and burn down their forest. The elves can only flee, first to the mountain caves of trolls and then into a desert. Eventually, the survivors find a place to live... and then some of those find that they need to leave again.
It's huge. I'd call its storytelling bigger than Tolkien's, who can trump anyone on worldbuilding but is less ambitious with his storylines. Despite its title, Elfquest isn't just a quest. It's the history of an entire tribe... no, make that a race, or even a world. Everything can change. Nothing is safe. Time and again, the tribe has to get up and go travelling again. Well, apart from the ones who stayed behind or died randomly in battle. These are heroes... but not idealised ones. Despite the strip's cuddly appearance, it doesn't have the kind of kiddie-adventure characterisation where the world's divided into Nice Wise Goodies and Wicked Baddies. Our heroes regularly show themselves to be stupid, clever, foolhardy, cautious, brave, cowardly and capable of destroying themselves with tragic flaws.
This probably sounds like a hard-hitting series, and sometimes it is. At the same time, though, it's warm and fun. The Pinis love their elves. They're more interested in love than in war, in fact, and give more screen time to romance than to battles. These are full-blooded love stories, with a ton of mixed-up feelings and (ultimately) consummation. (Elves have something called "recognition", which is an unstoppable love-at-first-sight where you suddenly know each other's true name. Unfortunately, it's possible to "recognise" someone you think you loathe.)
The series can be funny. Especially when Skywise is pulling Cutter's leg, or when Petalwing's enraged. (I love that annoying mosquito.)
"Siege at Blue Mountain" can't quite live up to all that. The series has lost its "Israelites in the wilderness" primal storytelling, although of course that's inevitable. "The Original Quest" was conceived as a complete story with an ending, which is unusual in itself in comics. They did it. It's a remarkable achievement... and then the story continued. Which is fine. A bit weaker than it had been before, but that's just the natural way of things and I don't hold it against it. Willowill becomes more stereotypically villainous and less interesting, although I still cared about Two-Edge. I also wasn't sure about this spirit immortality thing they introduce, which feels almost like a retcon.
If you've never encountered this series, it's well worth a look. Its storytelling is bolder and goes beyond most comics. Characters will have flaws that they wouldn't in a more conventional tale. Heroes can hate to the point of bigotry, yet at the same time be downright inspirational. The series can skip several years between issues, during which time characters might have got married and had children. This series was pretty revolutionary in 1978 and is still impressive today.