Elfquest: Fire and Flight
by KV Taylor
Wendy and Richard Pini first brought their elf-children* to the public in Fantasy Quarterly, spring 1978. It wasn’t long before they took publishing matters into their own hands, and WaRP (Wendy and Richard Pini, naturally) Graphics was born. They started at #2 and did a tri-annual run of the first 20 issues, otherwise known as the Original Quest. Believe it or not, I wasn’t born back then; I came to the quest a decade later when my Aunt Trish, who was working on a degree in graphic design at the time, gave me, my brother, and our cousins her collected edition graphic novels to read. And oh god, it was, and still is, like crack.
Fire and Flight is the first collected graphic novel. Getting the full-color version these days is nigh impossible, but there are newer black and white reprints still available if you know where to look. (I’d suggest the Wolfrider Shop, of course.) Don’t despair, though. When WaRP’s latest contract with DC was up, they started uploading all the ElfQuest comics online — and you can find every single one of them there for free. So for our purposes, Fire and Flight covers the first five issues.
After a little set-up as to how, exactly, elves came to live on this “world of two moons” (aka Abode), we’re taken straight into the action. The humans have caught an elf called Redlance, one of the Wolfrider elf tribe, and mean to sacrifice him. Young Wolfrider chief Cutter leads a daring rescue, but the human priest is so angry, he takes his revenge by setting the whole forest — where the elves live in their “holt” tree — on fire.
Cutter, impulsive but clever, leads his little tribe and their bonded wolf-friends out of the only home they’ve ever known and into the underground troll tunnels for safety — much to the chagrin of Picknose, a well-known troll-guard, and King Greymung. Pugnacious Greymung tells the annoying elves that he knows just the place for them to start over… and tricks them into a desert, then seals the tunnel behind them.
The little tribe survives the crossing, led by a lodestone the stargazing Skywise got in the tunnels — but not before they have to leave the still-wounded Redlance behind with his lovemate, Nightfall, promising to come back for them. Not long after, the tribe finds shade on a mountain side… and, luckily for them, discover cacti.
To their shock and surprise, Cutter and his soulbrother (and occasional lover — there’s not much of a distinction) Skywise discover a village of elves on the other side of the mountain. They wonder at finding others of their kind, but Cutter has learned his lesson about trusting; he leads a raid on the village for water and supplies. But in the middle of the action, he’s stopped in his tracks by the sight of an elf-maiden. Taken out of himself by something, he grabs her, throws her over his wolf-friend Nightrunner’s back, and takes her to the little camp they’ve made. (Yeah. He’s a dick. It’s true.)
Obviously, the elf-maiden — who is peaceful but hardly passive — is pissed. And her sometimes-maybe lovemate, Rayek, the village’s chief hunter and resident badass, isn’t so happy either.
Eventually most misunderstandings are resolved. The villagers call themselves Sun-Folk, and they’re a peaceful, agrarian lot who welcome their wild, pale little brothers with open arms after a few discussions. The elf-maiden, Leetah, is a healer. Despite Rayek’s “orders” to the contrary (or maybe a little bit because of them), and despite her intense dislike for her feral once-kidnapper, she goes with Cutter to rescue Redlance in the desert, healing him.
Rayek sees what we know by then — in spite of the unforgivable start, in spite of the fact that Cutter and Leetah obviously don’t like each other much, there’s something going on with them that neither can control. It’s our first look at the integral concept of Recognition.
OMG! Luminous eyes!
Ahem. Anyhow, the Wolfriders settle down in the caves next to the Sun Village, slowly integrating into life there. They seem like “savage innocents” to the cultivated Sun-Folk, and the Wolfriders are in awe of the Sun-Folk elders, especially Savah, the Mother of Memory, who’s the closest to a “high one” (the first elves on Abode) that any of them have ever seen. Wolfriders live fast, die young, and leave good looking corpses, but even Leetah is already six-hundred years old, and she’s considered young among the Villagers.
The only real drama comes from her and Cutter. Ever led by his instinct, he wants to give in to Recognition and join with Leetah to end the torment — neither of them has been able to eat or sleep properly since it started. But — come on, the feral little jerk kidnapped her. No way Leetah’s going along with that, even if it kills her, though everyone in the village knows, by this time, that it’s inevitable. Though Leetah has already made it clear that she’s uncertain about him, too, Rayek challenges Cutter; though he doesn’t see the point, Cutter agrees.
And roundly thumps Rayek’s arrogant ass in the tests of body, mind, and heart, even saves Rayek’s life, just by being himself, really. (Uh-huh. Sure, buddy.)
Rayek flounces off to brood in the desert, and Cutter thinks he’s won, but Leetah tells him he’s an idiot. It takes a long time for Leetah to agree to go with the whole Recognition thing; she learns about Cutter’s life and family, the Wolfriders save the village from a trampling, she comes to understand them . Finally, Leetah confides in Savah, and it becomes clear that she’s going to go for broke, if only to stop the torture.
Recognition, we learn here, is not about love; it’s about reproduction. In spite of the generally free-love attitude of both cultures (relative to humanity, anyhow) elf-babies aren’t all that common, but this is a built-in mechanism to ensure that they happen.
And so Cutter and Leetah do as we suspect from the beginning they will. It’s not love, but hey, they end up having fun, I guess?
The two tribes are joined like two handfuls of water, but the once favorite son Rayek, one of the few Sun Folk to retain the magic of his ancient forbearers, takes off to sulk alone. His people have a whole tribe of hunters and protectors now, after all.
This is, of course, just the prelude to the actual quest. A setup for things to come, much, much bigger things — Cutter’s great quest to find all of his people, the elves, scattered over the world of two moons. But that’s in the later books.
So, back in the day, the problems inherent in the later part of the story really didn’t occur to me. For one, I was ten. For another, wait, hang on. Woman briefly kidnapped by a dude she doesn’t like pretty much has to end up sleeping with him. Wow. So bad.
And yet, the forced bonding trope, as it was invented to, subverts the pain somewhat. I don’t know how common it was in 1978, but I’m willing to bet that trope was as prevalent in fantasy then as it is now. The issue is never one of gender, but of an impossible situation and two people dealing with it in ways that their own personality and upbringing dictate. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s meant to be.
That it does come out to a sort of Happy For Now ending is sometimes difficult, but Pini’s treatment of other, so often gendered issues, does pick up some of the slack there. Wendy Pini wasn’t just an artist — she was the artist on the project, her project, a more-than-equal partner in her own indie comics operation. Her characters, both male and female identified, cover the full spectrum from gentle to rough, fighter to lover, healer to killer. Cutter’s line of ten chiefs includes many women (next year’s review!)– their founder and savior, Timmain, comes into play later as a huge guiding force. Leetah and Cutter come at their problem from different angles, oftentimes being pushed and pulled in directions that made me wince by their advisors, but they’re on equal footing. And the next time the forced bonding of Recognition smacks a Wolfrider in the face… well, let’s just say it’s nowhere close to a HFN. But that’s another story for another time.
The story is extremely simple and linear, its main points now exhausted in the genre, but it is, at least, honest. Pini’s artwork is beautiful and expressive, clearly inspired by manga, and yet uniquely her own, adding extra layers to the large cast of characters. Of course starting with our biggest heroes: Cutter, Leetah, and a few of the larger supporting cast like Skywise.
As the series go on, layers are added to the cultures and relationships within the tribes. But it’s a pretty, if simple start to something eventually complicated. And well worth the read, even if it wasn’t totally free. Which, like I said, it is.
*No, really. Wendy Pini is commonly known to fans as “Elf-Mom”.
KV Taylor’s first novel was Scripped, a dark fantasy from Belfire Press about mean Appalachian fairies. (Her Aunt Trish did the cover art.) Katey spends most of her free time reading awesome comics and listening to terrible music. She writes romance as Katey Hawthorne — this summer, she’ll have her first fae romance, too.