by Goldie Chan – this article originally appeared on February 22, 2022 (Click on each image for a larger version)

How does a fantasy world of elves and creatures tell novel stories?

One of the most provocative and original stories in fantasy lies in the world of ElfQuest. For many, including fantasy writers and creatives today, this series was the first truly magical quest into how great story and art can transport a reader into a novel world. ElfQuest is the ongoing epic fantasy graphic novel series created in 1978 by Wendy and Richard Pini. It tells the adventures of elfin chief Cutter and the Wolfriders – a tribe of feral, forest-dwelling elves allied with wolves – as they seek to find their true place in a dangerous world.

A New York Times best seller, ElfQuest is the longest-running American fantasy comic book title. Wendy Pini’s artwork blends eastern and western artistic conventions into a new and unique style. ElfQuest been called “the first American manga.” 

Originally released by the Pinis by their company Warp Graphics, ElfQuest has subsequently been published under license by the “big three” comics publishers: Marvel, DC Comics, and currently Dark Horse Comics. ElfQuest was instrumental in launching the creator-owned, independent comics movement in America and was the first comics title to break into the mainstream bookstore market as collected graphic novel albums. Over 25 million ElfQuest publications have been sold worldwide with translations into over a dozen foreign languages.

ElfQuest has been adapted as prose novels and short story anthologies, action figures, role-playing games and miniature figures, a song album, apparel, collector prints, retrospective art books, podcasts, and a full-cast dramatic audio production called ElfQuest: The Audio Movie. The first volume of ElfQuest’s current series “Stargazer’s Hunt” from Dark Horse Comics is available now, with Volume 2 arriving this May. The storytelling universe of ElfQuest is as rich and vibrant today as when it began over 40 years ago – and even more relevant.

The community and fandom around ElfQuest remains deeply active with generations of parents and children also learning story and craft from the property. Here are 9 rules of storytelling from ElfQuest creators, Wendy and Richard Pini.

1) Show, Don’t Tell.

Functionally, this equals “less is more.” In all forms of storytelling, oral or written, down through the ages, those spinning the tale choose how many words to give to each character. The raconteur decides what this player speaks out loud, and what that player is thinking (which the storyteller then relays to the audience). In the medium of comics, however, there is the plentiful added dimension of the pictures that go hand in hand with the words, and a picture can be worth… well, you know the rest.

Here is a single silent panel but it has a feeling of time to it. As Cutter walks across and out of the panel, you get a rhythmic sense of what has just happened, what is happening, and what’s going to happen. Nightfall, who has been busy whittling, glances up. No one speaks. But she cares, and she is certainly wondering what’s going on – all indicated by facial expression and body language.

2) Know When To Shut Up.

Although this may seem on the surface similar to the previous “rule,” it actually applies to the art as separate from the words in the bubbles. When it comes to making decisions about what to put into a scene, how much or how little artwork to place into a panel or a page, there’s a fine line between just enough and too much.

If Rule #1 is about the power of silence (using an image instead of words), then this rule is about the power of economy in the artwork.

This example may appear counterintuitive because on the surface it seems very elaborate. However, every line and every figure is crucial to the design and intent. It is laid out in multiplane, drawing the viewer’s eye deep through the dancers to the silhouettes in the very back, so there’s no need to show every part of every character. Bodies and faces are partially off-panel or otherwise hidden, but the eye and the imagination complete everything.

3) Move The Camera.

You are the director here. Medium shots are fine to establish a scene, but if that’s all you use, the work will be boring. You have the power and freedom to shoot from any angle. Long shot. Close-up. Bird’s-eye view. Worm’s-eye view. Overhead. Use those tools. If, for example, you have a flying character, it would almost be criminal not to take the camera along with him and to show the action from his point of view.

Change your angles and points of view so that the reader is immersed in the constant flow of what’s happening. Here, Rayek attacks an enemy human warship. The camera (point of view) swoops from up-shot to down-shot, using close-up and quick-cut, to bring the viewer along for the ride.

4) Animations Are Your Friend.

An animation (in comics) is a sequence of panels that reveals/illustrates a moment of action or interaction. ElfQuest uses them more than most, because Wendy’s cartooning technique is highly influenced by American cartoons and Japanese anime. If done correctly, the reader can actually “see” the motion of the animation in their own mind. Wendy thinks of almost every panel she draws as an animation “in-between,” capturing a sense of both what has gone before and what will immediately follow.

In the “Kings of the Broken Wheel” story arc, Rayek (Cutter’s foe, see Rule #8) has abducted Cutter’s family to a distant, future time. The Wolfrider chief, being mortal, fears he may never see his lifemate and children again. He has been strong, but as years of waiting turn to decades, even the love of his dearest friends Nightfall and Redlance sometimes fails to comfort him, and he collapses in grief.

5) Use The Background.

Throwaways are fun. The important action usually happens in the foreground, but don’t miss the opportunity to add to the story on another level in the background. This can be especially entertaining when what’s going on up front is serious, and what’s happening behind makes you chuckle. A prime example takes place in the Original Quest, when Cutter has decided to strike out on his own to seek other tribes of elves. He believes it’s best if he goes alone, but unbeknownst to him, his lifemate Leetah and his best friend Skywise have other plans that we, the reader, are allowed to suspect.

You can also use the background to plant clues, and misdirect the audience’s attention like a magician. We always enjoy feedback from readers who say to us, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming!” because we are able to point to the very page and panel where, perhaps years earlier, we planted the seed.

6) Know Where To Start And End.

ElfQuest is an almost by-the-book Joseph Campbell “Hero’s Journey.” (Interesting side note: neither of us had even heard of Joseph Campbell or his monumental oeuvre by the time we had already embarked on the telling of ElfQuest.) We knew from the beginning what the skeleton of the tale was to be, the beginning, middle, and ending. This commitment is paramount to our way of doing things. Knowing the start and finish, also enabled us to take many a side trip along the way – providing even more storytelling opportunities – without getting derailed from the crucial backbone of the Quest.

We meet Cutter as a young, untried chief at the beginning of his trials. We follow him all the way through his eventful life, which remains focused and dedicated to the welfare of his tribe. Fittingly, as his days end, he achieves the goal of the Hero’s Journey, which is to bring the elixir – the return of the elves to their true Home – back to his people.

7) Do The Unexpected.

Clichés are clichés for a reason. Stereotypes, tropes … that all such categories exist in the first place is because enough writers, artists, filmmakers, etc. have used certain storytelling devices enough for these shorthands to become definable and – to some extent – predictable. ElfQuest, however, has built its 40+ year mission on recognizing “usual suspect” motifs and, as Wendy likes to say, turning them on their ear.

Traditional sword-and-sorcery, right up to the present day, often relies on a macho male lead who rescues damsels in distress. We asked ourselves, “What if the hero is also the damsel? What if the hero is equally composed of male (Cutter) and female (Timmain) spirits? This is literally the most unexpected thing we have done in ElfQuest. It happened midway through “The Final Quest” story arc, the recent (2018) conclusion to Cutter’s Hero’s Journey. But we planned it decades in advance because we knew we had to plant clues and build toward the revelation, or risk losing the audience’s willingness to be blindsided. The unexpected must nevertheless play out as an inevitability; it must feel like it couldn’t have happened any other way.

8) A Good Villain Makes For A Good Hero. 

The best villains want the same thing as does the hero – they just go about it in bad and destructive ways. Winnowill, who is almost universally reviled as the “villain” in ElfQuest, wants the same thing as Cutter – the safety of the elfin race. However, her terms include the extermination of any elves she considers “impure” – i.e, the mixed-blood Wolfriders as seen in this panel where she dreams of her ultimate, bloody triumph. Cutter, on the other hand, simply wants to unite all the scattered elf tribes and provide them safe haven.

It should be noted that a foe is different from a villain. A foe can be anything from a rival, such as Rayek, to the loyal opposition, such as the noble archer Strongbow. A foe is often the hero’s shadow in the Jungian sense – they reveal that which is hidden within the hero. A foe also has the potential to become a friend.

9) No Idea Is Set In Stone.

The earliest ideas about ElfQuest come from Wendy, and long pre-date its first publication in 1978. In 1977, she shared the concept with Richard, and the couple set about to make it happen. One part of the creative process involves a story conference: Wendy lays out the framework of what’s to go into a given episode, and then she and Richard drill down into the particulars. This can take place during a long drive or over a meal (often pizza). Sometimes a notion appeals to one of the team but not the other, and then discussion ensues.

A prime example of this is the dispute we had over the death of One-Eye during the climactic war with the Frozen Mountain trolls in the Original Quest. Wendy felt that during such a vicious battle, it would be unrealistic for every Wolfrider to survive, and One-Eye was brutally clubbed down. Richard however was not ready to write finis to One-Eye’s life. After days of strong debate, we came with the idea of putting the character into suspended animation. This enabled us, much later in the story, to have him to depart his mortal body in such a way that brought healing to another member of his tribe. It also allowed us to powerfully illustrate a truth in the ElfQuest mythology: Life never truly ends.