to hunt, to howl, to love free
Heather Johannsen on the Powerful Women of Elfquest
ElfQuest fans often talk of how the story
helped them gain insight into themselves. But it helped me in a different
way. It informed me I have the strength to take care of myself
emotionally, sexually, and spiritually as a woman. It empowered me, and
it told me my life is my own.
Though I was at ease in my sexuality from an early age, and
learned that the world was okay with me being sexy, I soon realized it
wasn't okay with me being sexual. How I dressed, spoke, and
interacted with men was going to be judged. Sleep with too many guys,
and I'm a whore. Wear the wrong clothes, and I'm a slut. Say "No," and
I'm frigid. Being sexual is still, by and large, a privilege reserved for men in our
But I was raised on Elfquest, the greatest comic book in the
world! So I know that the way a woman speaks, dresses, acts or fucks
doesn't define them—and that people who judge them because of these
things are ignorant at best, hypocritical at worst.
Most elves of Elfquest are tough, telepathic, and so long-lived
they have little idea of their own mortality. They've been described as
omnisexual, polyamorous and promiscuous, though these labels betray our
own society's frame of reference. The important thing is they're
not bound by it.
Yet, some fans refer to some Elfquest characters as “sluts,” or
describe their attire or attitudes as “slutty” or some other like term.
This makes me mad. These fans are missing the point. Elfthink,
people! The elves don't judge each other by these standards, and
neither should you. The number of partners Kahvi has had doesn't lessen
her, just as the number of partners Skywise has had doesn't make him
greater. These guys aren't wired that way—and neither will we be, when
we find our senses.
Straight up, Nightfall's crop tops are amazing, leather hugging
her in all the right places, but wise old Savah doesn't look at her and
think she should dress more modestly. Looking at Timmain, being naked
ain't no big thing for the elves. But even in 2016, the comments I
read online asking why she doesn't put on clothes shows that nudity is still
an issue for some humans.
Our bodies are amazing. Celebrate all of them. Every size, every
color, every shape, every nipple and curve. Celebrate also our brains and hearts:
womens' words and emotions are just as important as those uttered and felt by men.
Here's what just a few characters from this amazing epic have taught me.
The spiritual leader of the Sun Folk, Savah, from the beginning of
Elfquest, represents calm wisdom and control. Even her powerful
acolytes, such as Rayek and Leetah, bow before her radiant power.
The society she leads is implicitly matriarchal, if only because no one
comes within a mountain's breadth of what she represents: many thousands
of years of memory, stretching back to harsher times than any of her
countless descendents can remember. An elf of color giving orders in
1978, she changed two worlds as surely as anything else in comics.
A skilled huntress and archer, Nightfall is a determined defender
of those she loves, and she loves none more than Redlance, her lifemate.
Though her strength is not obvious until she puts it out there—she's not
hard or manly or strongfemalecharactery–the amazing thing about
Nightfall is that she holds the traditional masculine role in her
She's the protector and the provider, yet at the same time accepting of his
nurturing qualities, those attributes we would normally associate with
the feminine. She doesn't perceive him as weaker, and she celebrates
their differences knowing that they make the two of them stronger.
This is the first relationship I ever saw that had, by Western
society's traditional standards, represented a gender role-reversal.
Such things were, in the 1980s, still often seen as arrangements worthy only
of Hollywood humor and mainstream contempt and confusion. But Elfquest
portrayed it without judgement, irony, or any suggestion that it is
remarkable in its own world.
Nightfall taught me not only that being dominant does not equal being
domineering, but also that neither trait is necessary to be strong within your
Leetah is the Sun Folks' healer. She knits flesh telekinetically and
uses this power to cure ailments and ease wounds. She is one of two or
three in her dark-skinned tribe to have the privilege of living alone.
Her powers, we later learn, extend to providing ecstatic sexual
initiation and enlightenment. She is smart, proud, and accepts no
direction or control from anyone. Even after a lifetime of being imposed
upon and coveted by Rayek, the most controlling male in the story,
only Recognition's seeming infringement of choice truly threatens her—and even
that, she learns she can master.
It's not hard to see why Leetah is so inspiring: she knows
her powers come with the responsibility to respect other people's free
will, even if she oftentimes struggles with that responsibility. She spoke to me because,
often, the presense of powerful women in stories limits the portrayal
solely to female virtue or tragedy. But Leetah breezes past
these common stereotypes. She realizes she is imperfect, fallible, and
Yet, when confronted by Recognition, an "undeniable" urge to
mate, it is clear that she finds the strength to control it. She
did not "let the barbarian dangle for a year." She thought it through, decided what
she wanted, and took it. Cutter was her choice.
Nightfall AND Leetah
At the outset of Elfquest's second story, we see these two dancing
naked together in the woods. It's not a sex scene, by any means, but it
speaks of total sensuality and the rest lies, as they say, between the
lines (or the leaves). While my young self didn't understand what was
implicit in that scene, when I first read it, I saw and felt the elves'
beauty. This confirmed my instinctive understanding that women are
allowed to be sexual, and primed me to fight the endless voices
that would deny that message.
We can dance naked in the woods, whether literally, with dappled moonlight
on our skin, or figuratively in our everyday lives—and those we love
won't judge us for it. They'll love us all the more. That only some of
us know this is a tragedy.
Krim and her mouth
A rough, smirking and quarrelsome Go-Back, Krim's soft side is hard
to find, unless you happen to be able to make her laugh as readily as
her lifemates Pike and Skot can. To put not too fine a point on this
spiky creature, she gets a fucking good job done and does a good job of
Krim hits where it hurts, too. Her final act of violence is to castrate a tyrant, and she dies to gain the opportunity. She not only destroyed his manhood,
literally and figuratively, but thanks to her, his suffering was long
and drawn-out. The Go-Backs, Elfquest's tough and fearless warrior
tribe, know what happens to deep wounds in sweaty places. It's an end
greatly merited by a man as vile as Angrif Djun.
There's no similar scene to show off her tongue, which is equally
sharp, but Krim's long history of mouth is undeniable. She spoke her
mind; her lifemates loved her for this (she had two of them, at
once!) and always let her be true to herself.
If you hate the stereotype of the woman who has no initative, who
always needs a man to help her figure it out, Krim is your girl. She
goes in, needs no help from anyone, and fears nothing, not even the
possibility of a brutal ending. Her sacrifice would hurt Pike and her
son, Sust. But she did it anyway, because she wanted to.
A battle-hardened warrior chief, Kahvi is also complex and
insidious and utterly selfish—except when she isn't any of those things.
Most female characters in Elfquest reach beyond even progressive
tropes; Kahvi, who is neither psychologically damaged nor physically
dominating, barely needs to dip into the "strong female character"
trope sewer to manifest as a bad-ass.
She also instigated "the infamous orgy scene" (Original Elfquest #17), where two tribes
enjoy life to its fullest before heading off to war with the trolls. For
many of Elfquest's young readers, this scene of shameless free love was a
somewhat notorious sexual awakening. But for me, what stood out was
Kahvi herself. She showed me that it is okay for a woman to go up to someone she is interested in and make the first move.
You're allowed to say it, girls: “I want to have sex with you.”
Not only that, it doesn't have to be anything deep or bonding, it can
just be fun. Screw the Sadie Hawkins dance. Let's have a Kahvi shag-fest!
Maggoty and Oddbit
Elfquest's trolls are its metalsmiths and artisans. Socially, they're
comically human in their portrayal of the patriarchy's dominance and
incompetence. Physically, they're heavy and warty, maybe ugly—and maybe
not, because curves and bumps are sexy, and Oddbit knows it.
You know what? Women can be vain and selfish and demanding and
any damned shape they want to be, and Oddbit—mistress of artifice!—helped me realize
it as a kid. Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Each of us is
beautiful to someone, and, when we're in our best place, beautiful to ourselves.
We get to decide what beauty is.
Women are allowed to enjoy their looks and be happy with who they are; Oddbit's
superficiality is a completely reasonable strategy. If that's your best ammo in a
world dominated by stupid men of unearned privilege and power, you're entitled to use that.
But this brings us to Old Maggoty, Oddbit's entirely opposite
grandmother. The smartest person on the World of Two Moons, bar none
(sorry, Two-Edge), she is mistress of a body of secular knowledge to rival any
magic the elves might spark up.
Abode’s answer to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Old Maggoty’s hand has
seemingly influenced every troll kingdom under the two moons. As good as
she is at brewing up secrets in her cauldron, Maggoty is also a master
at cooking up the truth. She doesn’t tolerate sloth, or foolishness, and
will call it as she sees it. And if hearing it hurts, all
the better. In the male-dominated troll society, her pleasure is
to deflate egos, but her power is real. She plays the game better than those who make the
Even Maggoty's disappointment in Oddbit is perfect: the only
thing she's judging is her granddaughter's inability to control men.
At the outset of the story, Newstar is a flighty child. Ever the same
as a grown-up, she's hardly more in tune with others' concerns than she
was as a cub. Though fey and fairylike, she's not that way because it's
expected of her. Instead, she's happily lost in her own
dreams, and never forces herself to bend to anyone else's wishes.
If you're feminine and you like it, Newstar is your muse. But
she's no manic dream pixie. Quite the opposite: she's actually collected
to the point of coolness, level-headed and clearly ready to put her
charm to use. Even vain, self-assured Skywise is taken by her—not that he minds.
She took charge of her own sexual desire, told a guy what she wanted, and made him hers for a night.
Newstar didn't need a feminist hall pass to get to her own femininity, and neither do we.
The Wolfriders' youngest soul, her tribe celebrates her expression of herself
with a name that means one thing to them and another thing to us, yet seems perfectly true in both contexts.
She's breezy, talented, sloppy (ask her mother!) and untroubled. Some readers already
look down upon her—that name…—but
she provides a counterpart to male characters like Pike who tend to get
universal praise for their conspicuous sexuality and revelry.
Bear in mind that these primitive elves have come into possession
of an incredible artifact, a spacecraft that can take them anywhere
they please in the blink of an eye. While her tribesmates fret over the
implications of such immense power and its control over life, the universe
and everything, all Freetouch wants of it is to hitch a ride as soon as she
can, so she can get her hands on her favorite age-mates.
A new character to the story, we haven't yet seen Freetouch really
make her touch felt—but everyone with a heart is looking forward to it.
Devoting yourself to motherhood? Men, women, politicians, other
mothers, all will find something to criticize. And yet we're also told that
not giving enough of yourself to your children can make a mother feel
inadequate. In Rainsong, Elfquest's mother of three, we have a female who
knew who she was, who devoted her entire self to being a mother, and who
was supported completely in that choice by her lifemate and her society,
an empathic and loving environment where parenthood is irrespective of gender.
Being a mother isn’t for everyone, but it was for her.
Leetah remarks that she could not be like Rainsong. Nor could I.
But I look at her with great respect, because she didn’t lose herself to
her choice. Rather, she loved each of her children with her whole
Shenshen is the younger sister of Leetah, that powerful healer, and
does she ever know it. Bubbly, gossipy and full of cheek, the Sun Folk's
midwife ultimately learns to shine where she loves. She proves that it's
never too late to find your greater self, and doing so doesn't mean
losing your lesser self, either.
Being in the shadow, even if it is one you have created for
yourself, is never easy. Shenshen was judgemental, defensive and a bit
of a drama queen. She never longed to be a mother; it’s not something she
needs, evidently. Instead she yearns for something more–to help bring other
children into the world.
Here's what I really love about Elfquest: I can imagine Shenshen's
conversations with a heavy Rainsong, neither of them judging the other's
entirely opposite choices. Rainsong would not lecture Shenshen that
motherhood will make her more of a “woman,” nor would Shenshen
flaunt her own disdain for parenthood. Acceptance, not mere tolerance.
Not all immortals of immense age become bleak, bored wanderers of the
soul. Some stay round and happy and ever-committed to the good times.
Ruffel was perfectly in tune with the Sun Village's rhythms, a
farmer round of form and sweet of heart.
If anyone knew how to
grab life by the lapels, kiss it full on
the lips and say “I got this,” it was her. Never sweating the small
stuff and enjoying life for what it is, she encompassed the joy of
living, loving, and joining, even though—as may happen to any of us—life came suddenly
to a shocking conclusion.
She never thought twice about anything she wanted, be it a
dance in the meadows or a second helping of fresh-baked bread. And
everyone loved her for it.
Ember's mother, Leetah, could have chosen to deny Recognition. But
Ember did deny that genetic command. She's the first female elf we've watched
grow from toddler to adult, and there have been interesting changes over the evolution. I didn't
like all of them, but I always appreciated the sense of fearlessness
she showed the world even when she was unsure of herself. She's grown into her own, she has forgiven
herself for mistakes made when younger, and most of all she
knows who she is. So well, in fact, that she knows she's not
ready to be a mother, and is willing to go against a literally magical
imperative to reproduce. Because it's her body, and nothing will deprive her
of the ability to choose when reproduce in her good time.
There's also the plain fact that the story has dropped her into
situations that have only recently come to exist in her world. She must delay
the mating urge of Recognition for the good of her tribe. She
could not have accomplished this but for the loving cooperation and consent of
those with the power to help her realize it—a fact that women on this
world are more than keenly aware of.
A symbol-making human woman who listened to her heart, Nonna also had
a devoted mate who listened with her. A human among strange
creatures—generally regarded as an avatar of Elfquest co-creator Wendy
Pini—she followed her own path, learning from her “little spirits,”
embracing the imperfections she found along her way, knowing they are
part of who she is.
She's a bridge between the elves and us, a reminder–should we need it–
that Elfquest's true resting place is in human hearts, and that its
dreams are our dreams.
Mistress and manipulator of the cloistered community of elves in
Blue Mountain, Winnowill is a cold mirror to Savah, and the closest
thing to abstract evil in a story that eschews the clichéd tropes of good and
It would be better to say Winnowill is Elfquest's supreme avatar of ignorance,
ignorance of herself more than of any other thing.
Yet, among all her people, she was the only one who reacted
creatively to an environment that diminished life and numbed the soul.
When her people, the Gliders, locked out the greater world, she was the last to cling to the
knowledge that happiness requires more than mere safety. Her festering
powers (and psyche) fought to retain purpose and potential in an
environment so calm that nothing living could thrive. If you look at it,
this makes hers the most rational response to Elfquest's most
irrational environment—and her its most empowered female character.
(On the other hand, she could have handled the situation differently, oh yes.)
Moonshade, tanner and tailor for the Wolfriders, is the Recognized
lifemate of hardbutt traditionalist Strongbow, to whose iron will she has
always remained contentedly supportive. Yet, yet, how times change, when
you live for hundreds upon hundreds of years.
For Moonshade, empowerment isn't so much about sex as it is about
power itself, and being true to yourself. Moonshade has stood by
Strongbow for centuries, supporting him even when she didn't
always agree. She is now finding herself and her own way.
Standing up for what she believes in, she has been labeled a “bitch" by some fans, but Strongbow
never received this treatment when he
acted the bitch. For him, fannish labels tended toward the noble: he was
stubborn, hard-headed or traditionalist, a keeper of "the Way". But the
Way isn't just about honoring the Wolfriders' mortal origins, or living
life as if each moment is eternal. The Way is also about choice and
being true to oneself.
Being a woman and standing up for yourself and what you believe
in isn't easy. She is a beautiful role model for me and a great
reminder that relationships are about growth, but that you must also be
true to yourself and sometimes you have to hope that the person you love
above all else is willing to let you grow, even if that means letting
Live free, love free
These elves aren't just being sexy in their leathers and silks. They
aren't simply being “bitches” when they speak their minds. They are
in control of their own sexuality, and have no fear of stereotypes concerning women who act assertively. With the
elves, sex and talk carry the same weight. The idea of “slut” elves makes me
prickly. This word, more than almost any other,
reveals the character of the speaker, not the subject.
I am so thankful that Elfquest helped so many others
discover, understand, and accept their sexuality. I am thankful it let me grow
into a sex-positive feminist. I know I can dress how I want, speak how I
want, have the sex I want, and that there is nothing wrong with it.
Elfquest gave me power, it gave me a voice, and it has let me love my body
for how it looks—because the story is pretty damn amazing.
Elfquest didn't just teach me there is no such thing as a slut, or a virgin —
it also taught me there is no such thing as frigid. It is all
choice. When you hear words such as these, you're dealing with
judgemental people who want to project their own insecurities
upon you. You can say what you want, dress how you want—and love who you
So I encourage you. The next time you see a woman and you want to
judge her based on how she is dressed, or who she is or isn't sleeping
with, or the opinions coming out of her mouth, stop–and think like an
Read more about Elfquest here at the official site.