The final volume in the Grand Quest series of Elfquest manga has been out for a little while. It reprints – dramatically reformatted – the Rayek stories from early issues of Hidden Years, and it provides a backdrop for some thoughts on fight scenes in comics. (Some, being less charitable than I, might say “obligatory fight scenes,” as too many comic book issues seem to contain ten pages of story padded out to twenty-two with a dozen pages of extreme – and extremely boring – fisticuffs.)
What actually sparked this introspection was a discussion Wendy and I had about the fourth and final issue of Elfquest – the Discovery. As I type these words, she’s wrapping up the layout phase of this issue and (no spoiler warning needed as this can hardly come as a surprise to anyone) a couple of the characters mix it up as they attempt to mark turf, so to speak. She expressed a feeling of contentment that, after this issue, she wouldn’t for a while have to draw any more characters upside down as they reeled from a punch to the jaw. (Think about it – if the punchee has his back to you the viewer, and he gets clobbered and flips toward you, his head is going to be upside down, right?)
She paused for a moment, then said, “You know, whether it ever gets acknowledged or not, there’s not another woman who could draw a realistic forty page knock-down, drag-out.” She was referring to one of the best, most dramatic Elfquest stories ever, the battle between Cutter and Rayek originally in Hidden Years #9 1/2. It was easy to agree with her assessment, but then it was my turn to pause.
“Actually,” I said, “I would go so far as to say that there’s no one else in comics who could pull that off the way you did.”
“Aw, come on,” she said. “What about guys like Kirby or Buscema?”
“First of all,” I said, “to the best of my knowledge, neither of them ever managed to maintain that kind of brutal punishment for nearly as many pages as you did. Second, you know that my admiration for those guys is second to none, and you can throw in Eisner and any other of the greats, but none of them ever pulled together the gritty nastiness and the heart, the expressions, the suffering that you put on the elves’ faces. I’ve read about every comic book there’s ever been and I just can’t recall any that come close.”
And it’s true. I’ve been in the business of comics for a while, and been a fan of them for a while longer. I’m solidly among those who consider Jack Kirbythe artist without whom there might not be a comics business to be in. He brought the sweep of mythology down onto the four-color page like no other creator before or since. John Buscema was a consummate craftsman (with the soul of a long-haul truck driver) who brought sword-wielding barbarism to life. There have been giants in this field – though, sadly, far fewer today than in years past – yet I cannot call to mind a single artist who has consistently managed to balance masculine weight and force with feminine delicacy and expressiveness – often within a single character!
(“Of course,” you’re thinking, “of course he’s going to say stuff like that. I mean, come on! Duuhh! It’s Elfquest! W-A-R-P! Thirty years of pointed ears! Of course he’s going to say nice things about ElfMom’s art.” And, thinking that, you’d be missing the point entirely. Because you see, if this were merely personal, what weight could my words possibly carry in a conversation about the merits of various artists’ work? This is a professional assessment; I have to be able to back it up with examples, with chapter and verse – and again I say that I can’t think of another example who can mix yinand yang on a page, or in a character’s face and body, page after page after page, the way Wendy Pini can and does.)
(Perhaps this is my way of tossing the gauntlet to everyone who reads this editoral: Can you find such an instance? I would enjoy very much seeing what you come up with, and hearing your reasoning.)
The more I think about that confrontation in Hidden Years 9 1/2, the more I come to realize that, in order to find any sort of comparison to that story’s agonizing, drawn out suffering, I have to leave comics altogether and look at film. I’m thinking of the over-hill-and-dale donnybrook between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in “The Quiet Man,” or the how-much-more-can-he-take bout at the end of the original (and best) “Rocky,” or – my favorite – the exhausting-to-watch climax, which extends far beyond the swordfight, of “Ladyhawke.” Those experiences feel like reading the bludgeon-fest between Cutter and Rayek in the troll caverns. I am drained and I am exhilarated all at once. When it’s done, I have to come up for air and remind myself where I really am. Just like reading that issue of Hidden Years.
I wanted to let that all out.
Shade and sweet gratitude that I can read this stuff, but don’t have to live it!