Fair warning, gentle reader. We're gonna talk about elf sex.
Elfquest is the venerable, decades-in-the-making indie comic by Wendy and Richard Pini. Shape-shifting aliens crash-land on a primordial Earth-like world, and the narrative follows the aliens' wayward descendants, most of whom know next to nothing of their extraterrestrial past. The story's focal point is the Wolfriders, an elfin tribe of primitive hunter-gatherers. Slowly but surely, the Wolfriders' world opens wider and wider until they (and a collected group of elves from other disparate "tribes") rediscover the technology which brought their ancestors to the World of Two Moons.
Elfquest is my source of fandom firsts.
Elfquest was my first comic. The local library kept comic trade paperbacks in a separate alcove from the rest of the books, perhaps under some well-intentioned but misguided attempt to keep young minds from being too blown away by the illicit combination of erudite words and racy pictures. Patrons could only get access to these books after giving the librarian their library cards. I sat myself down in that magical book nook and tore through the first four Elfquest TPBs, my mind transported to the World of Two Moons where persecuted elves sought refuge and meaning while battling humans, trolls, and each other. The art was gorgeous and like nothing I'd ever seen before.
My first fanfic was a horrific Elfquest self-insert affair where I placed myself as a human member of the Wolfriders, the Mary Sue-iest of Mary Sues. My ridiculously conservative imagination couldn't even fathom the idea of an elf-sona, or roleplaying as an elf. No, it had to be me, a human me, riding around on a wolf just like my elfin heroes.
You know how every young woman goes through a horse phase? Young me wasn't into horses. Horses were boring. Unicorns? Boring. Unicorns galloping over rainbow bridges? Incredibly boring. (I lived in Hawaii. I saw rainbows every dang day. Rainbows? Boring.) So my first animal obsession was wolves. After Elfquest, I sought out every single wolf book and wolf documentary. I dreamt about running a wolf sanctuary. Never mind that I lived on a tropical island and the only endemic mammal there was a small bat.
I loved wolves because Elfquest made wolves cool. The Wolfriders truly bonded with their mounts. The wolves were family, because back near the beginning, the "mother of Wolfriders" Timmain, shape-shifted into a female wolf and did the dirty with a male wolf. Their offspring became the first Wolfrider chief, Timmorn Yellow-Eyes.
Bestiality? In my fantasy comic? It's more common than you think.
We haven't even gotten to the problematic bits yet.
Elfquest subverted fantasy tropes. The elves weren't all tall and lithe. Not every elf was lily-white, and not every elf tribe leader was male. Kahvi, the Go-Back leader, was a kickass female elf chief who didn't give a crap what anyone thought! The Sun Folk tribe had brown skin! Brown-skinned elves! Elves that looked like me and my family and my people! The leader of the Sun Folk, Suntoucher, looked exactly like my grandfather. (I mean, without the pointy ears, of course.) Elfquest finally gave POC a seat at the fantasy table, and it was the first time in my life where I'd seen someone like me as beautiful, fantastical beings.
Elfquest also opened my mind to an entirely new realm of possibilities when it came to romantic relationships. The elves had no qualms about who they shacked up with. As long as the partners consented, then any and all relationships were possible. My upbringing was rigidly Catholic, and I went to parochial school, where I was taught that marriage was only between a man and a woman and sex was only for procreation. Discovering that there could be diverse relationships shocked me to my core. The elves shacked up with the opposite gender and with the same gender, but the polyamorous relationships amazed me. Monogamy wasn't the only way. Elfquest was liberal, sex-positive, and identity-affirming.
But Elfquest, like every single piece of media, has problematic aspects. By no means do these aspects take away from the fact that the book was extremely formative for me. I will always love what the book meant for me as a pre-teen struggling with identity.
But Elfquest is definitely a problematic fave.
While I still harbor delight at the idea of dark-skinned elves and POC representation, the Sun Folk are the only major elf tribe with brown skin. All the other elf tribes are pale. Even the ocean-dwelling Wavedancers are white, although it made little sense to me. They reminded me of Pasifika people, the people who traversed the Pacific Ocean. So, Why weren't they brown? Why weren't they like the Maori? Polynesians? Fijiians? Hawaiians?
You know who are mostly brown-skinned? The humans. Primitive humans who believe that the elves are demonic creatures who must be sacrificed to their based god. The Wolfriders see the humans as a threat, although sometimes they grudgingly agreed that they could have something in common with the five-fingered ones. The Wolfriders, however, are always portrayed as the good side versus groups of marauding, predominantly brown humans.
While Elfquest subverts some fantasy tropes, it still leans heavily into some of them. There are trolls in the narrative, lumbering creatures with ugly, wart-pocked faces and green skin. They are greedy schemers who would prefer being left alone with their riches than get caught helping elves, and they isolate themselves in underground caves. It's very difficult, now, to see any fantasy depiction of greedy, big-nosed creatures and not interpret it as an anti-Semitic caricature.
The trolls are noble in their own ways. They're the descendants of "burrowing apes," a slave race (yes, Elfquest went there with the slave apes metaphor) who labored aboard the same ship as the elf-ancestors. The ape creatures staged a revolt which caused the initial crash landing on the planet. At the very least, by the end of the Final Quest story arc, the elves forgive the trolls for that initial mutiny, so... it's all OK now?
Another major aspect of Elfquest that doesn't measure up under scrutiny is its take on relationships. Yes, the elves are extremely sex-positive, and the Pinis have declared that all elves are omnisexual. Why, then, are most of the major romantic pairings heterosexual?
A handful of relationships among the elves are mlm (men loving men), and not a single wlw (women loving women) relationship has any major focus at all. Also, don't bother looking for same-sex relationships among the humans or trolls. Relationships in those populations are aggressively heterosexual.
The assumption that all elves are omnisexual feels undermined by the surfeit of het couples. No, there's nothing wrong with het couples. All of those lifemate pairings are a great representation for love, affection, and fidelity, but none of the same-sex relationships are given as much panel space as the opposite-sex ones. The same-sex couples are background characters, only there to remind the reader that hey the elves are okay with gay, but let's center in on the het pairings now.
I guess we have to talk about Recognition.
Most elves can "send," or communicate wordlessly with other elves through a psychic connection. Put simply, this psychic connection very very rarely produces an intense bond between the two elves, a psychic and biological imperative to mate. The mating will always produce an offspring. "Soul meets soul when eyes meet eyes." This lust, at first sight, must be appeased, otherwise, the unfulfilled longing will make the elves ill or even die. This entire process is called Recognition, and, looking back on it, what I once considered romantic and often the start of a lifelong loving partnership is just...kinda...non-consensual sex.
Take a look at Elfquest's first story arc. Cutter, Wolfrider chief, traverses the desert and discovers another tribe of elves, and he can't take his eyes off of the first woman he sees.
He can't stop thinking about her. The Wolfriders and the Sun Folk begin forming their alliance, but Leetah, the elf maiden in question, is called stubborn for not giving in to the biological imperative. Meanwhile, Cutter stops eating, and his yearning for Leetah grows with each passing day. The only way to get rid of the aching longing is to get the two elves together, and yet the narrative sympathizes more with the Cutter, the male elf who needs to appease his lizard brain, than with Leetah, who is much more in control of her senses and doesn't get how much Cutter is suffering. Shouldn't she just put out so Cutter will be okay? Shouldn't she just give in and have the dang baby already?
I loved how progressive Elfquest was for portraying omnisexuality as valid, and yet, that pesky parochial school upbringing reminds me that having sex just for procreation is depressingly Catholic and conservative. It's true that the elves can procreate without Recognition, and they can "tumble in the furs" with whomever they please just for kicks. However, the offspring produced by a Recognized pairing is always extraordinary in some way, an elf with a needed skill or ability. The narrative insists that Recognition is the pinnacle of elf coupling, but when neither partner offers consent, should it be so highly regarded?
OK, so the Cutter/Leetah "love story" was written in the '70s. Shouldn't things have changed in that time? Perhaps. Perhaps not. There's the case of Cutter and his "brother in all but blood" Skywise. Their enduring bond creates the backbone of the series. They know each other's soul names, the most intimate aspect of any Wolfrider. Their friendship is portrayed as deeply close and lasting, to the point that many fans have shipped them.
The Final Quest arc, (written in 2017 and 2018) sort of destroyed that idea.
Skywise Recognizes Timmain, mother of the Wolfriders. Skywise's extremely close relationship with Cutter is explained away as Cutter embodying an aspect of Timmain's soul. See, Skywise wanted to get down with Cutter, but only because Cutter was really Timmain, the actual elf his soul is Recognizing.
I can't quite give up on saying I'm a fan because these characters taught me how to love myself and how to treat others. Its message of empathy and love as weapons to combat a harsh world still resonates deeply for me. The Final Quest, however bittersweet, is over.
Long live Elfquest.