Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

June 12, 2012

Comics I Read In Series Form In The 1980s: Elfquest


I share a comics collection with my older brother. We combined our purchasing power when he was in high school and I was in middle school. One reason this was easy for us to do is that most of the comics we read were already split into comics that were primarily his and comics that were primarily mine. Elfquest was one of mine. Elfquest was a foundational comic for me in that it represented any number of key elements on which my comics consumption turned. It was a straight-up fantasy comic during a time when the act of reading comics represented a way for me to consume more fantasy literature. It was a magazine-sized comic at a time when reading something that wasn't a traditionally formatted comic book felt transgressive. Ditto a comic you could only find in a comics shop, like the mighty Comics Carnival in Indianapolis. Although I bought it in a comics shop, the first place I saw Elfquest was a Bud Plant magazine ad -- another peculiar touchstone, a time when certain kinds of comics were so rare you were put into a slightly stoned state just reverse engineering in your head the comics you saw mentioned in ads, letter columns and recommendations. As for the content of the series, Elfquest was a place for me to read material that touched on sex and violence that wasn't kept out of my hands the way, say, that R-rated movies on HBO were. Because those expressions of sexuality in particular had almost 100 percent nothing to do with what growing-up me found sexy, Elfquest was a comic that let me figure out that other people liked things for which I didn't necessarily have any use. Fantasy can broaden horizons in ways that don't involve a map at the end of the book.

I read Elfquest all the way through to the end, the first volume anyway, although I was in no way as enthusiastic about it near issues #20 and #21 as I had been at the story's beginning. I would have to re-read the original series to be certain, but my memory is that the first few issues of Elfquest were more compelling than later ones because the motivations driving the narrative were presented with greater clarity and had more immediate force. The elves are chased out of their woodland home and seek to survive; they must learn to work with a new tribe of elves because they're all forced to share living space; the two alpha males of the story butt heads over a woman because of a clash of genetically-triggered desire vs. longstanding affection. The quest itself... I have no memory what that was about more than some of the elves were sort of curious as to where they came from and it seemed like everybody needed to go on some sort of extended quest or lose the title or something. The majority of what followed -- the two other tribes we eventually meet, for example -- represented plot developments that seemed driven by soap opera concerns rather than what they added to any themes being examined. Like the X-Men comics I enjoyed during roughly that same period, any and all future purchases of Elfquest material had a nostalgic, "check in on the gang" component. I was out pretty early on, and it was hard for me to even figure out some of the future titles.

I certainly appreciate the original series, though. I have fond memories of the general cartoony look of the series, and of the acting that went on in the comic, the silent moments between characters. Mostly, though, once you live the majority of your adult life having never created anything about which people feel passion, you begin to admire those things that do achieve this. Even if they're not for you. Maybe especially if they're not for you.
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