Due to a lack of comic exposure growing up I never became a huge follower of graphic novels, however, one I have continued to love since I was a teenager is the great fantasy saga, ElfQuest.
The series was a precursor to the huge influx of fantasy popularity in the 80's, and proof that a self-published comic--and one by a woman for that matter--could become an iconic success. It's written and illustrated by husband/wife duo Wendy and Richard Pini, with Wendy as writer and illustrator, and Richard as co-writer and editor.
Back in the day all major comics were published through one of two giant moguls: DC or Marvel. To not be under their brand meant certain death for a new series. These companies decided a comic series "about elves" would not be profitable enough, so Wendy and Richard turned to a small midwestern publisher. After the first issue came out Wendy and Richard were so disappointed with the quality that they decided they could do better on their own, so they began WaRP Graphics (Wendy and Richard Pini).
Wendy was born in San Francisco in 1951, and from an early age demonstrated a great talent and interest in drawing. Much of her inspiration came from Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Disney, Erte, and Japanese manga (my favorites too!). The story of ElfQuest was one that had been bubbling inside her for years, and after she had decent success illustrating for other comic books, she knew it was time for her own story to come forth.
Richard was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1950, and was a highly successful academic. He was accepted to MIT's astrophysics program earning an astronomy degree, and then worked as a lecturer, photographer, script writer, and special effects technician at Boston's Hayden Planetarium. He met Wendy through a 4 year correspondence that eventually led to their marriage. Richard's love of comics and science-fiction greatly helped in fleshing out the story of ElfQuest.
The first installment of the ElfQuest series was published in the Spring of 1978, with each additional issue coming out every 4 months. Four months may sound like a long time, but the depth and quality of Wendy's illustrations, and the rich development of the plot and characters made it all worth it.
The Original Series is about the Wolfriders, a band of woodland elves who hunt and live beside their wolf companions on a primordial Earth-like planet called, Two Moons. Their chief, Cutter, sets out on a Quest to discover the origins of his elfin race. What follows is a brief albeit a long summary of the Original Series (it is 21 issues after all), which you may skip if you like. :)
On the planet of Two Moons live superstitious humans who long ago witnessed the elves descend from the sky onto their world. For this reason they believe them to be demons who must be destroyed. Their deep hatred has caused a bloody war to exist between the two races for centuries. During an attempt to rescue one of their captured kin, the elves kill a human in the process causing their outraged leader to set fire to the woodland.
The Wolfriders are forced to flee to the entrance of the troll's dwelling in the rocks. The trolls are greedy and dishonest and trick the elves into believing they are being led to a lush new forest. Instead, they are stranded in a barren desert where they must wander for days until they stumble upon the oasis dwelling of the Sunfolk, a tribe of dark-skinned elves! Their leader is the wise and aged Savah, "Mother of Memories". She is tall and elegant like their original descendants, The High Ones.
Cutter now realizes they are not alone in this world, and in fact he experiences Recognition with one of the Sunkfolk healers, Leetah. Recognition is when two elves are meant to be united forever as "Lifemates", and it only occurs once in an elf's lifetime. Elves may have plenty of "Lovemates" (The elves are very sexual beings in fact), but it is only through Recognition that the elves can bear children. Because elves live for hundreds of years they may only bear 1 to 2 children in their lifetime, which is why Recognition is so important.
The problem is that the refined Leetah is not in love with the "savage" Cutter, and another suitor, Rayek, has been seeking her attentions. Rayek and Cutter compete in a test to prove their worthiness to woo Leetah. The Test is designed to measure the strength of the mind, body, and heart of the competitors. Cutter easily wins the strength competition, and narrowly wins the mind test with the help of Skywise's Lodestone. Finally they must face their greatest fears to measure their character, and Cutter succeeds by crossing a tall expanse in order to save Rayek's life. Rayek leaves the village feeling disgraced.
After a time Leetah's heart is softened towards Cutter and they become united. For seven years they dwell in the Sunfolk oasis, and Leetah gives birth to twins, a boy and girl named Suntop and Ember. Ember is firey and brash like her father; she is destined to become Chieftess of the Wolfriders one day. Suntop is more empathetic and cerebral; he is destined to become a great Healer like his mother.
Cutter grows restless and desires to search for more elves if they exist. He sets out with his trusty friend Skywise by his side. Leetah stays with the children, but secretly she is afraid of the unknown. After a long journey Cutter and Skywise discover a forest filled with unusual fairies who spin a web-like substance that keeps living creatures preserved forever.
In the forest Cutter receives a nasty wound that becomes infected. He falls unconscious and is rescued by a young human couple! These humans are different. They are kind and actually worship a group of elves called "The Bird Spirits". Cutter knows he must find this new group of elves so he sets out again.
Back amongst the Sunfolk, Savah looses herself in a trance-like state trying to warn Cutter of a great danger she senses in the distance. The gifted Suntop feels this danger from Savah and tells the tribes they must find Cutter to warn him. They all decide to set out, Leetah and the children included.
After many weeks they find a giant bird and hunt it for much needed food. After killing and eating it, an entire swarm of them return, swooping down and capturing most of the elves where they are taken to the dwelling of the Gliders, known by the humans as the "Bird Spirits". Only a few escape, including Leetah and her children.
Days later, Cutter and Skywise come upon a strange mound of creatures preserved in the web-like substance. It's Leetah and her children! They wandered into the same forest as Cutter sensing he was near. The family is reunited, but now they must find their tribe.
They finally reach Blue Mountain, the home of The Gliders, a group of tall elves who have retained many powers from The High Ones such as the ability to fly, heal, manipulate/reshape matter, and telekenisis. One such Glider, with long black hair and piercing, malevolent eyes, is Winnowill. She is the danger Savah sensed, and the one holding Savah's mind hostage.
Here Cutter finds his tribe in captivity, but worse, Longbow has been locked up and tortured by Winnowill for killing the bird that was ridden by the Glider's chosen 8 hunters.
Cutter speaks with the Glider's leader, Lord Voll, who now understands that the killing was an accident and agrees to free Longbow only if he may see Cutter's children (for a long time the Gliders have lost the ability to bear children). When Lord Voll sees the precocious youngsters, his hope in the future of his people is rekindled.
Winnowill informs the elves that the Gliders ARE the High Ones, but the Wolfriders cannot believe it.
Here we also discover the origins of the Woldfriders themselves. Long ago a High One named Timmain tried to rescue her starving people by transforming herself into a wolf (Timmain was one of the last High Ones who had retained her shape-shifting ability). For a time she lived fully as a wolf, even mating with them, which produced her son, Timmorn, a half-elf/half-wolf that became the first Wolfrider Chief. For 10 generations his offspring led the Wolfriders, eventually leading up to Cutter, "Son of 10 Chiefs".
With wolf-blood flowing through their veins, the Wolfriders truly are the greatest hunters with the most accute senses (and they have a taste for raw meat).
One of the Gliders, named Tyldak, who was transformed into a bird-like creature by Winnowill's powers, experiences Recognition with Dewshine, one of the Wolfriders. Despite his bird-like appearance, Dewshine can see his true appearance as a beautiful elf, and he can see her true appearance as an elf with "tainted" wolf blood. They both despise each other, but Recognition cannot be denied, and they unite for a time (In another series, Dewshine gives birth to Tyldak's baby who can fly from birth and is eventually kidnapped by Winowill--but that is another story...).
Even though the Wolfriders wish to go home, Lord Voll kidnaps them and flies to the location of the Palace of the High Ones, which has now been taken over by trolls. On the way there Lord Voll is killed by the trolls, and the rest of the Gliders escape leaving the Wolfriders to fend for themselves. They fight hard; One-Eye dies, and Cutter is mortally wounded and almost dies himself. At the very last moment a band of mountain dwelling elf warriors come to their rescue!
They are called the Go-Backs, because they have always felt a strong desire to "go back" to the Palace from whence their ancestors came. Their chieftess, Kahvi, is a shrewd and ruthless survivor. Leetah tries to heal Cutter but he is too far gone, until a mysterious elf helps her... it is Rayek! Leetah thought he had died in the desert long ago. Now he has repaid his life-debt to Cutter.
Since their numbers are greater, the elves decide to storm the palace and take back what is rightfully theirs. Upon finding a secret mountain entrance, the Wolfriders notice the trolls who tricked them many years ago are now slaves to the new trolls. The elves decide to free them to form an alliance that could favor their odds in winning. On the way they meet Two-Edge, the half-troll/half-elf son of Winnowill.
He is a great metal-smith, and has created a room full of armor specially crafted for the elves. For years he has been planning a set-up which would pit elf against troll in a massive bloody battle. This is the only way his twisted mind can decide which race is superior, and which one he should align himself with.
With armor, special powers, and a surprise attack, the elves manage to defeat the trolls. They enter the long lost Palace of the High Ones. No elf has entered these walls for thousands of years...
Inside Suntop finds an old she-wolf he tries to comfort when suddenly it transforms into an elf. It is Timmorn, mother of the Wolfriders!
Timmain has the Preservers wrap her in their web, yet she still communicates with the elves through Suntop. Her powers unwind some anciently formed scrolls that reveal the origins of the High Ones. This is it. The moment Cutter has been waiting for all his life...
Now, I know I've dragged you along all this way, but I still don't want to rob you of the opportunity of finding out the history of the elves yourself. It really is an exciting build-up. We also find out why all human cultures have so many tales about enchanted beings.
Even after you discover the origins of the elves and the ElfQuest adventure is "over", the Original Quest is just the beginning. There are over 40 spin-off series of the ElfQuest universe that delve deep into the stories of other characters, including Ember as Chieftess, a human being raised among the elves, tales set far into a technologically advanced future, and even tales of a race of water-dwelling elves called the Wavedancers. All this and more can be found on their website here.
I have a deep adoration for ElfQuest; it's story, characters, and art. I mean, look at this labor of love Wendy has created for over 30 years! Look at how much attention she pays to Savah's delicate hands and cheekbones. Look at the way she gives as much detail to the background and the glow emanating from the stained-glass window as she does to her main subject.
The large eyes and anotomically perfect bodies of her characters reveals a strong anime influence, but there is a competence and fluidity to Wendy's lines, and her skill at conveying the emotion in her character's expressions is beyond compare.
I can't imagine how many hours have been dedicated to this series, but it is a legacy that will surely live on longer than an elf's lifetime. :)
There seem to be various themes running throughout the series, including prejudice and racial commonality. For example, when the elves first arrive the humans prejudge their entire race and assume they're demons because they look different. Then the elves assume all humans are evil (not surprisingly) because of the way they brutally murder the elves. That is, until Cutter meets the young human couple and realizes humans can be kind, and are very much like elves in a lot of ways.
In fact, as you get to know all the elf characters you begin to see how deeply "human" their emotions run; from kindness and thoughtfulness, to brutality, stubbornness, pride, deceit, and jealousy. It's not until Cutter meets Winnowill that he realizes the greatest evil can arise from within his own race. Winnowill has great knowledge and undeniable power, yet her choice to use that power for ill-gotten gain makes her more guilty than the most savage, yet primitive humans.
I think that is a commentary on how we ourselves are always confining and labeling each other into little groups, yet when we actually examine the personalities within those groups, we find an even greater diversity of character and tastes than the differences that existed between the groups in the first place. Even many of the hunter Wolfriders feel more at home with the pacifist Sunfolk, and some of The Gliders feel more akin to the Go-Backs or Wolfriders than to their "own kind".
That could be another theme of the series; Finding One's Place. Cutter is searching for where his tribe fits into the greater scheme of things, just as Two-Edge is trying to decide if he fits best with the Trolls or the Elves. Even Leetah must rethink her future as now forever tied to the Wolfriders, and her children will always be bridged between two worlds. I think that same feeling is shared by the large numbers of multi-racial and immigrant children that are raised in the United States today. How do you create a new identity and still honor your past when confronted with a new one?
Wendy really has created a universe with as much depth and grandeur as either Tolkien, Lewis, or Rowling--certainly more than the slew of Superhero blockbusters that keep coming out--so I'm surprised ElfQuest is not a bigger franchise than it is. I think that is due in part to poor timing and the belief that their series was not "commercial" enough. Pish posh. If The Hobbit can finally get made into a film, then I don't see why ElfQuest can't. Maybe they should just go to New Zealand to have it made.
I also think it makes a difference that Warp is very vocal and demanding of quality; they won't give up their rights to just any old company, and rightfully so. They should be protective of their fantasy world. There have been attempts for many years to make a full-length animated film, however with limited means it has been difficult for Warp to find a company with the right backing to support the quality they wish to maintain.
Despite the setbacks, I believe in time the quality of ElfQuest will outshine all the second-rate series' out there, and someday a company will step forward with enough balls to launch this amazing narrative into the realm of exposure it deserves.