A personal essay-journey by Heather Johannsen, originally posted in 2016
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 culture.
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 have referred to some ElfQuest characters as “sluts,” or described 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 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 relationship.
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 space.
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 accepts it.
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 arc (Siege at Blue Mountain), 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 fucking.
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 rules.
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.
Freetouch is 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 heart.
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. ElfQuest!
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 evil.
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 go.
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 want.
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 elf.