“Elfquest” is a book that has always occupied its own unique niche in the world of comics. When it debuted in 1978 it was simultaneously part of and apart from the underground comics scene of the ’70s, which produced the nihilistic autobiography of “American Splendor” only two years before the escapist wonderland of the World of Two Moons. Aside from a few crossovers into other fantasy worlds, “Elfquest” has chugged along in its own pocket universe for decades, seemingly unaffected by the changing tides of comics.
In that time, “Elfquest” has picked up a devoted fanbase, and it is at these that “The Final Quest” special is plainly aimed. Described as a lead-in to the comic’s farewell series that begins in 2014, the 60-page comic spends far, far more time catching up with the series’ many characters than it does setting up the adventure to come. In that way it feels a lot like an extended epilogue: here’s who got married, here’s who had kids, here’s what the kids did when they grew up and so on. Of course, when dealing with ageless elves, jumping ahead twenty years so the kids can grow up doesn’t necessitate changing your main characters at all.
As expected, this makes for a poor jumping-on place for anyone looking to check out the “Elfquest” universe. The Wikipedia page of “Elfquest” characters, which any but the most hardcore fans will need to reference, is colossal in and of itself, and Wendy and Richard Pini are clearly dedicated to catching up with just about everybody on it. There are also only so many ways to draw an elf, so it’s easy to get confused.
Regarding the art, Wendy Pini’s lithe, cherub-faced elves are as love-them-or-hate-them as they’ve always been. Their big heads, rosy cheeks and slender bodies haven’t changed much since 1978, which is actually sort of fitting, since it gives the ageless creatures a sense of eternal youth. Pini’s strength has never been raw technical skill, but rather her ability to evoke a very specific mood of soft fantasy. As with the gaming comic “Knights of the Dinner Table,” part of the charm of “Elfquest” has always been the unique and imperfect art, part manga and part back-cover-of-a-middle-school-notebook.
No matter what you think of Pini’s line art, though, her colors are really quite lovely, especially in an era when realism and grit are the general style. Pini has never been afraid of bright, saturated colors for her elves, animals, backgrounds and everything else. Ultimately, it’s hard to hold technical imperfections against a comic that’s clearly drawn with so much affection for the world and characters. An “Elfquest” drawn by a master just wouldn’t feel right.
“Elfquest” is a unique beast, a fantasy adventure with little adventure, espousing a hippie-commune ethos that’s equal parts laughable and enviable, made somehow better by its flaws, refusing to change over nearly forty years of publication. Wendy and Richard Pini clearly care deeply about their characters, and that attachment shows through in every page. Caring this much about something isn’t cool, and it’ll turn many readers away. But for those who stay, who earnestly give in, the reward is to find personal satisfaction in a comic that spends sixty awkward pages jumping from elf to elf in a cast of hundreds, catching up with every secondary and tertiary character like a half-forgotten friend at a really great party.