A little while ago, I published an article on Elfquest, Wendy and Richard Pini’s long-running fantasy comic. It began as something very small, but it was, to my knowledge, the first published article on the topic, and it seems to have attracted the attention of some fans and scholars. Since I am now gathering material for something bigger, and as an early celebration for the upcoming final issue of the series, here are some follow-up thoughts on Elfquest as a power fantasy for readers of all ages and genders. Before continuing to read this, I’d advise you to go and have a look at the article, which I will be discussing in detail.
To be honest, the Elfquest paper started as a default option – I’d been invited to talk at a study day on women and comics, and did not feel like writing yet another paper on Alison Bechdel (God knows the world doesn’t need any more of those, however much I love her work). So I thought I’d go for an easy, pleasant topic I knew really well, and that was the beginning of my Elfquest academic venture.
My affection for the Elfquest series goes way back. As a child, I used to read the Original Quest in the French version published by Vents d’Ouest in an album format and, being the massive nerd I am, I can still quote entire passages by heart. I worked mostly from those memories when I drafted the presentation, and later the article, which I think influenced my approach a lot. The hypothesis of reading Elfquest as a power fantasy – as a series whose characters the reader (possibly a young, female reader) would like to resemble and project themselves as – is obviously grounded in my own experience of reading that book as a child, and finding it to be virtually the only story that dealt with complex issues and characters without the looming threat of sexual violence against women. To me, that meant Elfquest was a safe place to project myself in, which was the key to its empowering aspect.
(In case you were wondering: the presentation went well and was a lot of fun, except for that moment when I showed a picture of Cutter and Leeath and the kids (plus Skywise) peacefully asleep together, thinking the audience would see a family united by tenderness and perfect intimacy, and I ended up trying to convince the crowd that this was not the aftermath of some paedophile orgy.)
Now, regarding the contents of the article : I’ve been delving into the paratexts surrounding Elfquest, both at the time of original publication and in more recent years, and the first thing that struck me was the authors’ recurrent assertion that the title characters, Cutter and Skywise, are direct representations of their own personalities (Wendy being Cutter and Richard being Skywise). This idea can be found in the afterwords to the collected editions of their works (eg. In the Starblaze collection of issues #1-5), and comes up again in recent interviews like the one they gave to the Elfquest Podcast #22. In other words, the story functions as a power fantasy for the authors themselves: this is them in a different guise, endowed with idealised traits and abilities. The fact that they openly say so (as opposed to stating, for example, that they are derived from aspects of their personalities, as many fictional characters are) gives added legitimacy to the reading of their text as a power fantasy, and suggests that the work was crafted with that goal in mind. This dimension of the Elfquest saga was obviously taken up by fans through the creation of fan clubs which encouraged members to create their own elfin alter egos (nowadays, there’s even an avatar generator online at elfquest.com for fans lacking artistic skills).
Going through old editions of the story, I was particularly struck by the Pinis’ statement that Elfquest “is where – and how – we would like to live if we could, on a new world without beer cans and maps, without red tape and a name/age/measurement for everything” (afterword to the first volume of the 1981 Starblaze edition). I can’t think of a clearer way to define the world they have created as a world of fantasy, where personal and social identity (bodies, rites, conventions, families etc) is liberating rather than restrictive. Elfquest characters are not bound by human limitations and fears, and so they live without prejudice.
Although the original series is a constant plea for tolerance and respect, the Pinis’ approach to what can or cannot be shown seems to have evolved over time. Many elements which remained implicit in the first issues (as I claim in the article) were subsequently foregrounded, such as the authors’ commitment to diversity in terms of sexual orientation. For example, the story has become openly gay-friendly with the romance between the two male elves Mender and Dart (both of whom have also had female partners), depicted in Final Quest. Alternative sexualities and family structures are also explored in side series such as New Blood, which is not drawn by Wendy Pini although she was closely involved in the process.
There is another element appearing in The Final Quest which I did not have a chance to discuss in the article. In the most recent instalments of the series, indeed, it is revealed that Cutter, the titular male character of the series, is actually the same person as Timmain, a high elf and mother to the entire Wolfrider tribe. The extradiegetic association between Cutter and his creator Wendy (discussed above) is reasserted by the intradiegetic link between Cutter and Timmain, suggesting that the central character is, indeed, not limited to his masculine attributes, but can also serve as a projection of femaleness. Not only does the female author dress herself as a male avatar, but this very character is presented as possessing an essentially dualistic essence.
These afterthoughts lead me to two conclusions: first, although the Original Quest is the best-known part of the series and arguably the richest, there is a lot to learn by taking into account the side narratives drawn by other artists than Wendy Pini, if only to gain a better understanding of what the Elfquest project as a whole was about. Secondly, the paratexts are truly fascinating and deserve much more attention than they currently receive. But that is another story… and I hope to be able to learn more about it in the upcoming months.