How a Comic Book About Feral Elves Got Me Through Middle School
"ElfQuest" wasn't perfect, but it helped me remember who I was—and figure out who I wanted to be
We were mixing papier mache in art class. It was seventh grade. I was twelve. I liked that muddy mix, liked how it felt on my hands, liked spreading it on the balloon that had been distributed to me so that I could make a mask. I began to sing under my breath. I sang a ballad I particularly liked, a Botany Bay song where the prisoner escapes at the end and comes back to get revenge on the prison guards. It was one that my family, dedicated folk revivalists, sang at home. I knew the words to hundreds of traditional British Isles songs, and when it was my turn to do the dishes, I’d stand at the sink singing and replaying this fantasy in my head: I would be at an all-school assembly, and for some reason I would be asked to get up and sing my favorite sea chantey in front of everyone. At first, of course, my classmates would be confused. What was this new, yet ancient and stirring sound? Very quickly however, they would be enchanted, entirely compelled by the raw unvarnished beauty of my singing, so unlike the top 40 radio hits which were the only music any of us admitted to knowing about or liking. When I finished, they would cry, Another! Sing us another! Mindful of my idol, Pete Seeger, I would step to the microphone and say, Songs were meant to be sung together. Sing out! Sing out! Thus, the Fernwood Middle School student body would lift our voices and sing together about hauling in an anchor or about being raised honestly in Whidbey Town until becoming a sporting lad, or about being a female ramblin’ sailor. End fantasy.
Back to reality: I mixed papier mache and sang under my breath until I gradually became aware that all noise around me had ceased. My classmates were staring at me, but not with admiration. And then they did in fact begin to sing together, but only to make fun of me. And to help me realize I’d unconsciously been doing a fake English accent.
Of course, this story is only one of many stories like it from those years. The cool, older girl who asked me if my favorite outfit was some kind of Halloween costume, the boy who followed me down the hall asking if I was male or female, the one who called me a bitch because I told him my friend didn’t want him to hug her. On the one hand, I liked to be at odds with the ordinary. I had some impulse to stand up for myself and for other people. I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut. I had a hard time doing what was expected of me. But I also wanted to fit in, or at least to feel I had control over when and how I stood out, not to be constantly surprised and bewildered by how my peers responded to me. That day in seventh grade art class, my hands deep in the mud I’d made, it was all there: the difference between my private inside self and the public self I was desperately trying to polish up and present to the world.
Middle school is a place where immaturity and the smack-down of the adult world exist side by side, where I was wondering if I’d ever kiss someone at the same time I was trying to figure out what to do about my friend getting groped by a man as old as her father, where I didn’t have my period yet but had lost a classmate to gun violence, where I hadn’t worn a bra but could buy LSD from an eighth grader behind the dugout. That this process was painful and confusing is as unsurprising to me now as it was lost on me then. I knew things didn’t seem right. I don’t know if I could have said why.
Into this mess of adolescence, one weekend, strode my cousin Henry, himself deep in the same mess. Pigeon-toed and nearsighted, Henry knew what I knew. Our parents made music together, dads on fiddle and guitar, moms on pennywhistle and harmonies. They had a history of busking. Soon, Henry would pierce his eyebrow with a safety pin. I would shave my head. But the classic nerd move of encasing one’s self in the trappings of punk had not yet occurred to either of us. Instead, we spent a lot of time in the basements of community centers. We drew on our shoes with permanent markers. We avoided athletics. We turned in homework late or not at all. We did not join in. We liked stories. Henry walked into my room and frisbeed ElfQuest Book 1, the full color graphic novel, onto my bed. On the cover, a pack of wolves with elves on their backs bounded towards me. The head elf, caught mid war-cry, wielded a dagger. The elves looked fierce. They looked angry. They looked happy.
“Have you read ElfQuest?” he asked me. Real casual and cool, like maybe he didn’t even care.
I didn’t answer, just stared at the cover. Those elves looked like they’d never been made fun of in their lives.
“I thought not,” Henry said.
I picked the book up.
Raymond Carver describes influence as something far more holistic and far less controlled than simple literary emulation. “I don’t know about literary influences,” he writes. “The influences I know something about have pressed on me in ways that were often mysterious at first glance, sometimes stopping just short of the miraculous. These influences were (and they still are) relentless.” ElfQuest—independent, proto-feminist, character-driven, adventurous—came into my life at just the right time, at an age where there were no boundaries between what might influence me as a writer (which I was only beginning to suspect I was) and as a person. Mostly, ElfQuest was the story that helped, when little else did.
For the uninitiated, ElfQuest is a comic book series created by Wendy and Richard Pini (but mostly Wendy) that follows the story of the Wolfriders, a band of elves who are bonded with wolves—in other words, a little more feral than the standard Tolkien-style elf aristocrats. The comics are full of adventure, but are also highly focused on family, friendship, romance, sexuality, and community. There are lifemates, lovemates, soulmates. Non-monogamy abounds. There are children and wolf pups. They howl together. The elves can “send” with their minds, so they don’t have to talk unless they want to. They’re really good at climbing, leaping, fighting, hunting, healing, shaping trees. Wendy Pini’s art, lush and expressive, emphasizes the fluid emotion on her characters’ faces, rather than the constant action prized by mainstream comics companies.
All of this influenced me, surely, but this isn’t the relentless and mysterious kind of influence that Carver’s talking about. Real influence, to me, is that frisbeeing motion, Henry’s flick of the wrist, the way he spun that book onto my bed with a nonchalance that could only mean significance. Henry shared his comics with me as an act of true friendship. Twenty-six years later, when I shared ElfQuest with Perley, the child narrator of my first novel, it was also an act of love. Perley’s character is far more guileless, more undefended and vulnerable, less able to hide himself than I ever was. I wanted to give him something that would protect him, something of his own that would make him feel like himself no matter where he was or who he was with. I gave him ElfQuest. In the novel, when Perley makes a friend, he shares the comics in the very same way that Henry shared them with me, with a flick of the wrist to solidify the shared project of remembering who you are in the face of crushing normativity.
ElfQuest helped. It was a fantasy but it felt more real to me than my life. If felt real because of its attention to each character’s individuality, oddity, ethical and emotional dilemmas, commitment to the collective, and personal power. The Wolfriders see each other. They recognize each other. They expect a lot from each other, and they give a lot too. Fitting in comes from a sense of belonging, a sense of being known and understood, of being necessary and responsible to your community. In other words, ElfQuest was completely the opposite of middle school.
If, as I do, you like to ask people what they carry around with them, you’ll know the variety of answers: A sliver of wood. Goggles with no lenses. A mix tape. A handkerchief. A pez dispenser. A titanium spork. A ballpoint pen with seven colors. A magnet. A knife. A pebble. Sometimes, these talismans are books—Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Last Unicorn, Cruddy, Housekeeping, The Dispossessed. When they function this way, as personal touchstones, these books become more object than text. When I wasn’t reading ElfQuest, I liked simply having it with me. On a particularly hard day at school, I liked being able to reach into my backpack and touch it.
When I wrote ElfQuest into my novel, it had been years since I’d read it. When I dug out my old books and opened them again, I found that, for someone who had cultivated such a single-minded obsession with this world, I remembered very little about it. For example, I didn’t remember that there were humans in ElfQuest. But there are humans, and as I read, my heart sank. Humans in the series are cast as “primitive” and ugly, their religion described as “superstitious.” There are rattling bones, animal skins, “high pitched” singing and “taut drumbeats.” Into the middle of this, in the story’s prehistory, a glowing palace descends from outer space, and blonde-haired, blue-eyed elves step out, wearing clothes fit for European royalty. Flowing filmy skirts. Puffy sleeves. Ruffled collars. (It later comes out that they had intended to appear human enough to look familiar to the planet’s inhabitants, but had miscalculated their attire by several centuries. Still, they’d also chosen to look Nordic, and the contrast between them and the “primitive” humans is no accident.)
These particular elves are not the series protagonists. The elves we are meant to identify with and love are the Wolfriders, the descendants of these Euro-elves. The Wolfriders are themselves depicted as tribal. But this too, follows a typical trope, subsuming into an indistinct mush the cultural specificity of different Native cultures for use by settlers. As Max Sisco remarks on the pop culture website Adventures in Poor Taste, “It’s a bit weird that the series is heavily based on tribal societies, but most of the characters as well as the creators are white…I get the feeling the Pinis didn’t do a whole lot of research on tribal societies before initially writing the series.”
Granted, this is fantasy. It doesn’t even take place on Earth, but on a planet called The World of Two Moons. Yet it relies on the familiar Western myth of “higher” beings (who just happen to be white aristocratic types) coming from elsewhere to bring refinement, order, light to the darkness, a worldview that even now fuels colonialism, racism, and yes, the climate crisis. Generations of Native writers and thinkers have worked to correct and expose such cosmologies as inaccurate and harmful. When Vine Deloria Jr. points out that “so-called primitive people do not cringe in superstition before nature and they are not fearful of natural processes,” he may as well be directly rebuking one of the backstories of ElfQuest, in which tribal humans bring devastation to elf and human alike when they set fire to the forest to appease an angry god. In the comics world, work by Native artists, like Arigon Starr’s Super Indian series, or DeerWoman: An Anthology edited by Elizabeth LaPensée and Weshoyot Alvitre, or the recent graphic novel, Surviving The City by Tasha Spillett and Natasha Donovan claim self-determined space for real indigenous storytelling.
The disappointment I felt when rereading ElfQuest is the way that I feel revisiting many books that I loved as a child. This is not the part of the story I remember, I want to protest. But of course, somewhere deep, I do remember it. I must. This is one way that the social order maintains itself, with careful cultural instructions tucked inside a child’s mind, just below conscious memory. I was a white kid who opened books expecting to see other white faces steering the action. The same stories that in one way helped me to resist dominant culture, in another way reinforced my place in it. This, too, is relentless influence.
There are other parts of ElfQuest I’d rather claim, of course. There is the frame where Dewshine, a teenage girl elf, takes the lead in a hunting party, and when another character tells her “it’s not a maiden’s place”, she retorts, “What? Why not?” as if she’s never heard anything so ridiculous in her life. But honestly, as an adult reader, coming across that scene was as surprising to me as rediscovering the floating palace. I had no memory of it at all. The clearest recollection I have of ElfQuest is a panel in issue #4. The elves are gathered at “The Holt,” their home in the woods. Some of them are astride their wolves, others are practicing archery, or laughing together. One is climbing a vine. Another is perched in a tree. Nothing much is happening. They are just hanging out. “Most of the time at school I’m just staring out the window like, Wolfriders, come take me away,” Henry’s younger sister Elspeth told me during those years when we’d linger in the comics section of the local bookstore until we missed our bus home. I knew exactly what she meant.
Last summer, I spent a very short time in jail after working with a coalition of people to blockade an ICE facility in Ohio. Each woman on my cell block had one or two books stacked next to her bed. Many of these books were missing covers. They were thrillers or sci-fi, true crime, romance, Harry Potter. In the common room I found The Fellowship of the Ring. I hadn’t read it since I was a kid, but I finished it in two days. I’m usually not much interested in Tolkien, but in this context my objections fell away; instead, I was more in tune to how liberating it felt to be reclaiming any amount of time and space in that cell block, to be reading at all.
My friends Caty and Sarah organize the Books to Prisoners chapter in Athens, Ohio, near where I live. They told me how difficult it is to get books into the hands of incarcerated people. Prisons create arbitrary and ever-changing rules about books. “The majority of restrictions are less about the topics of the books and more things that just make it difficult to get books in at all,” Caty said. Sarah told me, “Prisons want to dehumanize people as much as possible. They want people dull and quiet and submissive and thoughtless. Books help people to stay human. Books help people learn and grow. Books help people stay alive.”
When we are lost, vulnerable, alienated and in need, the stories that we find are most often simply the stories that are available. Availability is influence too, and it’s likely to be about whims of marketing and distribution, the gamble of a curbside free box, a table in front of a used bookstore, a library book sale, or the donations pile of the local Books to Prisoners chapter. We may not choose what is available to us, but once these stories come into our hands, we are responsible for what they become. In my novel, the characters who grow up with ElfQuest are like most of us: making do with the stories they have, while on their way to making stories of their own.
ElfQuest directed me past itself, set me on a path not of escapism but of deeper engagement with the world I live in, the societal problems I’m not simply a victim of but am a participant in. Our own experiences of vulnerability, our own secret and disallowed selves should lead us to tend to and recognize the vulnerabilities of others, to help us do as my three year old’s well-worn copy of A Rule is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy instructs us: “Listen to the tiniest voice.” One reason why rampant racism and sexism within nerd and comic book culture is so dismaying is because it misses this opportunity. It represents alienation turning in on itself, becoming defended territory instead of open ground.
My pre-teen years were the awkward beginning of my quest to hone my oppositional sensibility, to develop my empathy, my critical thinking, to build my defenses, my fighting skills, and my compassion. Later, there would be riotgrrrl mix tapes (if you choose to fight then/ remember that the places to hit are/ eyes, knees, groin, throat), there would be Ani DiFranco, Sleater-Kinney. Later, I would carry in my backpack Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. I would read Audre Lorde, Lynda Barry, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler. But before that, I had ElfQuest.
My adolescence wasn’t an especially difficult one, really. Compared to many people I love, it was easy. But for a while there, when I was twelve, I was grateful that my elven fantasy felt more real than what I faced every day, the daily lessons in how to look right and smell right and know the right TV shows, how to be a girl, how to be an American. If could just grab hold of something, the back of a wolf for example, pull myself up, draw my dagger, I knew I could make it through.