Written for the seminar “Reading Popular Culture” at Mannheim University in the spring semester of 2008.
The 1970s were an important decade for comics as well as fantasy. A new alternative comic subculture was emerging in the US (Sabin 177), supported by several factors.
The 1960s’ “underground comix”, strongly tied to the hippie movement, had been trying to defy the Comics Code Authority (Sabin 68) by graphically displaying sex, violence, drug use and other controversial topics (Sabin 92). They had pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable and had widened the medium’s scope beyond adventure, superhero and romance stories (Sabin 128).
From the mid-‘70s onwards, a new marketing system enabled smaller publishers to reach their audiences more directly and reduced the financial hazards they had to face. Before, comics had mainly been sold at the newsstands which returned all the issues that had not sold. Now, however, comics were increasingly distributed via special comic shops. These were given higher discounts than the newsstands, but were unable to return the unsold issues to their publishers (Wolk 41).
The first commercial role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons (published in 1974) (Wikipedia, Dungeons & Dragons) and George Lucas’ film Star Wars, which became a major blockbuster in 1977, aroused much popular interest in science fiction and fantasy, producing fan followings all over the world (Wikipedia, Star Wars).
This was the cultural and economic climate in which Elfquest was published. Created by Wendy and Richard Pini (born 1951/1950), a married couple, Elfquest is a fantasy comic which tells the story of a group of elves who try to survive in a prehistoric world similar to earth (Knigge 3-4). The project was offered both to Marvel and DC, but both rejected it for not being commercial enough. After another disappointing experience with a smaller publisher, the Pinis finally decided to publish Elfquest themselves under the label “Warp Graphics” (Knigge 5-6) in 1978. Although this meant a lot of work, it also left to them as much creative control as possible. Despite the fact that Richard Pini works mainly as editor and publisher while Wendy Pini is the writer and artist, they act as a creative team, always discussing and rechecking the plots together (12-13).
Elfquest is an unusual comic in numerous ways. Firstly, it is drawn by a woman. Secondly, more than half of its readers are female (Fletcher 4). Thirdly, there are many female characters playing important parts (Knigge 38). These distinctive features make it especially fit to be discussed from a gender studies point of view.
In this paper I am going to examine how gender roles are presented in the comic. I will start by briefly sketching the history of women in comics in order to show how Elfquest differs from the tradition. I will then analyze the societies of the elves in relation to our modern Western society and try to assess what significance feminism has to the story. In doing so, I will focus on a number of exemplary male and female characters and their relationships.
Since there are hardly any academic studies about Elfquest, the books I used for my research are mostly about comics and fantasy in general, including the works by Sabin, Wolk, van Clewe and Mathews. In studying Elfquest I am going to cite the Big Elfquest Gatherum with a number of interesting articles and interviews by the Pinis as well as others, supported by online material like blog articles, message board discussions among fans and wikipedia entries. For all questions unanswered by these, I will apply my own ability of interpretation.
2. Women in Comics
2.1. Women as Producers and Consumers
Women have always been underrepresented in the comics industry. Until World War II, during the so-called Golden Age of Comics (Wikipedia, Golden Age of Comic Books), there had been a handful of female cartoonists. However, women did not write, draw and publish their own works in greater numbers until the 1960s. Part of the underground movement, artists like Melinda Gebbie or Aline Kominsky often made feminism and women’s liberation an explicit topic in their publications. The problem was that the underground movement itself had extremely sexist aspects, shown, for example, in the works of Robert Crumb, one of its most popular artists (Sabin 104-105). So these women did not only have to protest against the mainstream, but against their own colleagues. Their proportion rose during later decades, especially among the alternative comic artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it still does not equal that of the men (Sabin 177-178).
Female readers are, traditionally, just as rare (Wolk 70). This might be due to a lack of subject matter interesting to females. Most comics before 1960 were about superheroes, designed to appeal mainly to adolescent boys (Sabin 81). As an exception to that, there were the romance comics popular between 1940 and 1960. They usually told simple tales of love and virtue. Unsurprisingly, their creators were generally male. After the Comics Code, they slowly disappeared from the newsstands, possibly because of the competition from glossy magazines (Sabin 89-90). Since then, women and girls as an audience have still been overlooked, which is made very clear by Wolk’s example:
“I remember seeing a Marvel sales plan, sometime in the early ‘90s – a huge document, several hundred pages long; near the back, a little section labeled “Female Readers” listed the two titles Marvel published for half of their potential audience: Barbie and Barbie Fashion.” (Wolk 70)
However, this has been changing for some years. An important factor are the Japanese manga which are becoming more and more popular in the US (Wolk 70). Unlike in American comics, there is a distinct manga type targeted explicitly at girls, called shôjo manga. Contentwise, they may resemble the early romance comics, but more often they go beyond pure romance, involving all kinds of genres and subject matter. Artistically, they often feature very pretty and graceful characters drawn by women (Wikipedia, Shôjo), a style many females seem to find appealing.
2.2. Women as Characters
Apart from the heroines of the romance comics which I have already mentioned, the first significant female comic book character was Wonder Woman. Introduced by soon-to-be DC Comics in 1940, shortly before the USA joined World War II, she was designed to attract more female readers to the superhero genre. She was also supposed to embody so-called female principles like caring for others and trying to change the villains’ minds through reason, with force only as a last resort. Furthermore, she is dressed in a short bodice with the pattern of the American flag and armed with a magical lasso to catch and bind her adversaries. This proves her erotic and patriotic capacity. For despite her definite “male” strength and independence, Wonder Woman was often sexually objectified in scenes of bondage (Sabin 86-88).
Wonder Woman has had several successors, for example Mary Marvel (1945), Supergirl (1959), Spider-Woman (1978). Many of them were female versions of an already existent superhero, none as popular as the original Wonder Woman (Sabin 89).
After the implementation of the Comics Code in 1955 (Sabin 68), the big publishers were forced to change their policies. This is exemplified by an excerpt from DC’s Editorial Policy Code of the time:
“The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.” (qtd. in Felton 1)
It sounds like the depiction of too many women in a comic book would “automatically” lead to obscenity and should therefore be avoided. Plus, the Comics Code was followed by a massive sales crash (Sabin 68), causing publishers to focus on their “strengths” instead of making experiments. Like I said before, this was counteracted by female underground artists; however, it took a long time before the mainstream adapted. A change seemed to be made superfluous by the fact that from the 1970s on the specialized comic shops as the major points of sale were mostly frequented by males. This audience was not interested in reading about realistic women (Sabin 157).
To sum it up, female characters in comics were not only less numerous than males, but were mostly presented as objects to be kidnapped, raped, killed or saved (Pini, Women 262), or as “men with breasts”:
“The new breed of tough, independent superheroine that has emerged […] over the past few years […] resembles in speech and mannerisms a man with breasts rather than a truly feminine woman.”
(Pini, Women 264)
Today, the quantity of women’s portrayal has increased, unfortunately, it is of mixed quality. Although feminism has had a strong influence, there is also a simultaneous backlash (Beauman 1). Mainstream works like DC’s Sandman (started in 1988) (Sabin 168) and Death show active heroines with a realistic body image and believable personality (Robinson 1; 5-6), on the other hand, series like Image Comics’ Witchblade present their female characters as scantily clad, perfectly shaped man’s dreams (Robinson 2).
3. Gender Roles in Elfquest
3.1. The World of Elfquest
There are a number of facts and prerequisites about Elfquest’s world which have to be kept in mind when analyzing it.
The “World of Two Moons” is inhabited by three intelligent species: Elves, trolls and humans. The elves themselves are split into different tribes, four of which are presented in the story. There are some things the four cultures have in common, while they differ very strongly in other respects.
The Wolfriders are the most vividly shown, a group of “barbaric” woodland hunters living with wolves, to whom they are related by blood. The Sun Folk are a peaceful group of gatherers and farmers who have settled in a desert oasis. The Gliders inhabit a cave labyrinth inside a mountain which most of them never leave . The Go-Backs, finally, lead an inuit-like life as warriors in an icy environment (Pini, Gatherum 327-328).
Wendy Pini describes the elves as “somewhere between animals and angels” (Mitleid 3). This suggests that in some respects they are supposed to be better than humans, able to overcome some human limitations (Pini, Getting Bent 97).
Normally, elves are immortal unless they are killed (Pini, Elfenwelt 11, 24-25). They can communicate telepathically. Some of them possess further magic powers like flesh-shaping (commonly known as healing), plant-shaping, rock-shaping and levitation (O’Keefe 182-183).
According to the Pinis, all elves are omnisexual (Pini, Getting Bent 96). This is, however, only hinted at in the comics. Elves are shown practising “free love” (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 46), but there are few same-sex couples throughout the series (Pini, Gatherum 342-343). Elves can mate for the moment or for life, whatever they may choose (Pini, Getting Bent 96). However, in order to conceive an elf child, a male and a female elf need to be “recognized”. Recognition is a biological concept to guarantee the “mating of the fittest”. If two elves possess complementary abilities, recognition will draw them towards each other until they have sex. This is achieved by the involuntary exchange of the elves’ “soul names”, secret words which grant them both access to the other’s innermost feelings (O’Keefe 183-184). So recognition clearly has a psychological aspect as well.
3.2. The Art of Elfquest
Wendy Pini’s art was influenced by early manga, characterized, for example, by a slightly androgynous style which made it look different from other US comics of the time (Fletcher 1-2). All characters are drawn with much distinctiveness and care (Fancher 196). The elves are small, about half the size of the humans, with larger eyes, big pointed ears and four fingers (Pini, Elfenwelt 4, 52-53). The only exception are the Gliders, who are much taller (Pini, Elfenwelt 7, 2). All of the elves look very beautiful.
“However, it might be a little too pretty – which is a weakness of the series, or at least a point that puts off some fans of other comics. The elves are undeniably pretty, with large, liquid eyes, smooth muscles for the males, and graceful curves for the females. The style is not unpleasant, but it does cloy in large doses.” (O’Keefe 190-191)
“Wenn es sich etwas schuldi[g] macht, dann dessen, dass alle viel zu unrealistisch schön sind. die Frage sollte also eher lauten: Wie sehr hängt sich EQ an einem Schönheitsideal auf?“
(Elfquest-Welt Forum, ist elfquest sexistisch? 1)
There are no fat elves, no wrinkled elves and no naturally deformed elves. A possible explanation for this is that Wolfriders, Sun Folk and Go-Backs all live a hard life compared to ours today (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 37), with much outdoor work and exercise to do. Thanks to recognition, children are born as fit as possible, furthermore, bodily defects can be corrected by healers. As elves are able to live forever, their youth can last a long time (Fancher 200). Above all, elves as mythological, supernatural creatures are simply expected to be beautiful (Wikipedia, Elf). In comparison to the elves, most of the humans are average-looking (Pini, Elfenwelt 5, 27), while the greenish, bully trolls are undoubtedly ugly (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 1).
Yet, some of the female elves even wear what looks like eyeshadow and mascara (Pini, Elfenwelt 6, 12), which is highly unrealistic given their lifestyle. Therefore, the question remains in how far the artist was affected by her culture’s beauty ideals in the portrayal of the elves.
The Wolfriders (Pini, Elfenwelt 7, 22) and even more so the desert-based Sun Folk (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 5) wear partly revealing outfits, but none that would interfere with their everyday tasks. The Go-Backs are, consequently, dressed in high-necked, furry clothes, suited to keep off the cold (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 41). In sex scenes, sexual characteristics are usually shaded or covered. The characters seem focused on each other, not on the viewer’s gaze (Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 54). This is miles away from the pin-up poses of the females in comics like Witchblade (Robinson 2).
3.3. Cutter and Leetah
Cutter is undoubtedly the hero of the story (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 8), although other characters also play important roles. Fair-skinned and fair-haired, muscular and dressed in fur and leather, he resembles the typical Northern Barbarian (Wikipedia, Barbarian). He is the leader of the Wolfriders (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 8).
Leetah, his lifemate, is dark-skinned. She is a member of the Sun Folk and the only one with healing powers (57).
They meet when Cutter’s emaciated tribe tries to rob her village. He recognizes her at the very first sight; his prompt reaction is to abduct her on the spot (46-47). Leetah is angered by Cutter’s behaviour (52), although he lets her go when they realize that they all derive from the same ancestors (55). Cutter believes in the power of recognition, to him it is only natural that he and Leetah should be together. Leetah, on the other hand, is more civilized than he and not willing to yield to a mere biological impulse (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 36). Almost 600 years older than Cutter (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 24), she is deeply afraid of losing her independence if she were to become his mate (18-19).
Matters are further complicated by the existence of a rival, Rayek, whom Leetah has known and loved all her life (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 14). Before Cutter’s arrival, he has been asking her to become his lifemate, but she has been unwilling to make a commitment (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 44-45). Now Rayek challenges Cutter to a contest for Leetah. (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 14-15). As Cutter wins the trial, it makes her see his positive sides more clearly (64). Eventually, Leetah understands that joining Cutter will not cost her her freedom, but will open her life to new experiences (O’Keefe 189). She decides to become his lifemate (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 28) and with the years they come to love each other (42).
In a way, the basic plot seems reminiscent of classic fantasy series like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (Sabin 150) which was turned into a comic in 1970 (van Clewe 18). However, whereas a woman tells Conan “The very feel of your arm about me, even in menace, is as the fulfilment of a dream” (qtd. in Mathews 123), the Pinis have Leetah say about the contest:
“Das ist kein Würfelspiel für Kinder, und ich bin kein Preis, den jemand ausgesetzt hat. Das einzige, was bei dieser Prüfung ausgetragen wird, ist eure Feindschaft… nicht, für wen ich mich entscheide!“
(Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 15)
Although Leetah finally becomes Cutter’s lifemate, she does so by choice. As a healer, she is a powerful woman valued and needed among her people (Pini, Elfenwelt 5, 6). Savah, the Sun Folk’s guardian, is also a strong yet peaceful magician (Pini, Gatherum 52). Being female obviously does not hinder a sun villager from having her way.
The Sun Folk are very soft, having lived in peace and without enemies for thousands of years (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 4). When danger comes, they prefer evading it (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 10). The cultural differences between men and women do not seem to be very big. All of them farm (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 8, Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 1) the only noteworthy exception being Rayek.
However, there are a few instances when this seems questionable. When the Wolfriders are going to hunt, Dewshine, Cutter’s young cousin, wants to join in. Leetah is worried and tells her: “Das ist doch nichts für ein Mädchen!” (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 12). Being asked why not, Leetah cannot explain. One might argue that the Sun Folk fear bloodshed and violence in general (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 59). Yet, why does Dewshine’s sex matter?
Moreover, although Savah is the ultimate leader of her people, she is a very spiritual presence (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 34-35). Day-to-day matters are handled by a male, the blind Sun-Toucher (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 56).
When Cutter leaves later on in order to find other elfin tribes, Leetah does not accompany him because of her duties as a healer (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 57). After he is gone, however, she admits having also been afraid of the unknown wilderness (Pini, Elfenwelt 4, 36). When their son suddenly receives an important warning for Cutter, Leetah overcomes her fear and travels to find and save him (Pini, Elfenwelt 5, 5). She is an ambivalent character, independent and proud, but also easily scared by things unknown to her. Leetah grows, though, during her adventures, even killing a troll to protect her children. Shaped by her pacifist upbringing (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 59) and the belief that a healer should prevent death (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 28), she is appalled by her own deed, still her motherly feelings have driven her to do it (Pini, Elfenwelt 8, 58).
Some criticism could be made about the nature of Leetah’s power. Healing is certainly a typically feminine activity. So, although Leetah is strong and wilful, she does have some characteristics which are fairly conventional.
Cutter became the eleventh chief of his tribe at a very young age through the sudden death of his parents (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 59). Therefore, he is still insecure in this role and often in need of advice from his tribe (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 33). He is shown to be caring (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 8) and vulnerable (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 26) as well as fierce (Pini, Elfenwelt 5, 39) and strong-minded (Pini, 3, 53). He combines character traits generally considered feminine with the standard qualities of a male fantasy hero. Nonetheless, he is not overly aggressive, fighting and killing only if it is necessary to guarantee his tribe’s survival (Pini, 3, 52).
Cutter changes over the course of the story, becoming more mature and more confident. However, the main source of this confidence is his family and when they are separated, Cutter is devastated (Pini, Elfenwelt 19, 5). This is unusual considering how men in our society tend to strengthen their self-worth through their career rather than through their position as a family man.
Three of Cutter’s predecessors were women, the others men. Chiefdom seems to be passed on to the chief’s children, no matter what sex they are (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 39-40). Cutter and Leetah, however, have twins, a girl and a boy. Remarkably, it is not the boy, Suntop, who is destined to be the next leader, but Ember, the girl, because she is more of a Wolfrider than her spiritual brother, and therefore more apt to be their chief (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 40).
Among the Wolfriders, there seems to be no division of labour. All Wolfriders can take part in all activities, mainly the hunting (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 16-17), occasionally fighting (Pini, Elfenwelt 10, 50). Yet again, there are a few scenes which appear contradictory. When the wood of the Wolfriders is set on fire by humans, Cutter calls only “his men” (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 12) to defend their home. Later on, when the Wolfriders feel threatened by the arrival of a group of humans, again only males are seen carrying weapons. The females just stand by and stare (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 45-46).
3.4. Nightfall and Redlance
Nightfall and Redlance are both Wolfriders and have already been together for a long time when the story of Elfquest starts. They are not recognized (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 49). Furthermore, Redlance possesses magical plant-shaping powers (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 1).
At the beginning, Redlance, the male, is shown captured and tortured by a group of humans (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 6). He is rescued by the male Wolfriders (7). Yet, as the Wolfriders are expelled from their forest and crossing the desert, Redlance’s injuries make it impossible for him to endure the tedious journey, forcing him to stay behind. His lifemate Nightfall stays with him to await certain death (39). Luckily, he is saved by Leetah’s healing shortly afterwards (60).
Later in the story, when the Wolfriders invade the mountain of the Gliders to free the rest of their tribe, Redlance does not go with them, but stays behind to take care of Cutter’s and Leetah’s children instead (Pini, Elfenwelt 6, 60). When the Wolfriders (including Nightfall) and the Go-Backs go to war for the palace, the home of their ancestors, against the trolls, Redlance does so again (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 48). The trolls send a troop of warriors to kill the children and Redlance and the wolves must defend them (Pini, Elfenwelt 10, 54). He does succeed, but is deeply traumatised (Pini, Elfenwelt 11, 4). In this situation Nightfall, who has come back from war, calls him back to life by telling him:
“Lass mich dich reinwaschen von dem, was du niemals hättest sehen sollen… von dem, was du nie hättest durchmachen dürfen. Ich bin das Schwert, der Speer, der Pfeil. Du bist die Blume, der Baum, die Blätter. Nie wieder werde ich oder wird irgendwer dich zwingen, etwas anderes zu sein als was du bist…“ (Pini, Elfenwelt 11, 4)
This quote makes the gender roles in their relationship very clear: Redlance is the one who creates, using his powers to shape the trees into dens for his tribe to live in (Pini, Elfenwelt 12, 20). Nightfall is the one who defends them against enemies from the outside world (Pini, Elfenwelt 6, 27). It is unusual in comics to see a male character portrayed as a victim or as a caregiver. Likewise is it unusual to see a woman as a combatant. However, Redlance’s fighting and Nightfall’s nurturing prove that they both are able to exhibit gender-typical qualities, too, if necessity calls, though their greatest talents lie elsewhere. Redlance’s sensitivity and gentleness (Pini, Elfenwelt 10, 41) make fighting and bloodshed a painful experience for him. Nightfall, on the other hand, needs to be actively engaged to protect her beloved ones (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 7, Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 26). They are portrayed as a very harmonious and happy couple, to the degree that they deliberately exchange their soul names (Pini, Elfenwelt 11, 5).
Fans have reacted differently to their unconventional roles. Some state to have liked it while others tend to see Redlance as “womanish”:
“It hadn’t really […] occured to me that there was any gender role reversal going on until I saw […] other people’s take on EQ… ~ then again, I had noticed that I liked how Nightfall was the one who went to war and he stayed behind to protect the cubs.” (Scroll of Colors, Redlance thoughts 1)
“Nysse and I always called Redlance a “girly-man” because he..well..Just seemed so girly to us! We actually referred to him as “The girly man” until he got face-fur [i. e. a beard] and became “the no longer quite as girly, girly-man”.” (Scroll of Colors, Redlance thoughts 2)
Among their tribemates, neither Redlance nor Nightfall are disrespected for their behaviour. On the contrary, they are shown to be trusted and well-liked (Pini, Die ersten 20 Jahre 64; Pini, Elfenwelt 6, 28, Pini, Elfenwelt 11, 5). Both are very loyal supporters of those they love (Pini, Elfenwelt 7, 24). Their different roles are not dealt with as something extraordinary, rather as a natural component of their characters.
3.5. Rayek and Kahvi
Dark-skinned Rayek was the Sun Folk’s most important hunter and one of its few magic users, in his case, levitation (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 6). He leaves the village after he has lost in the trial against Cutter (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 30). After travelling around for a while, he meets the Go-Backs (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 24).
Kahvi is the leader of the Go-Backs (15). She and Rayek begin an affair (Pini, Elfenwelt 12, 3) which results in Kahvi becoming pregnant (Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 18) since the Go-Backs have abolished recognition in order to grant a steady supply of warriors (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 25). Problems between them start after the elves have conquered the palace, a magical vessel which contains the wisdom of the elves’ ancestors (23). Rayek claims the palace as his own, arguing that the Go-Backs are too simple-minded to understand its value. Kahvi is angered by his haughtiness (32), since half of her tribe have died for it in the war (7). The crisis continues as Rayek becomes completely absorbed by the knowledge of the ancestors and spends all of his days studying. When Kahvi brings him food and wants him to show some attention to her, he dismisses her (Pini, Elfenwelt 12, 2-3). Annoyed by his presumptuousness and willing to raise her child according to her customs (Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 35), Kahvi lies to Rayek after the child’s birth, telling him it had been born dead. She rejects his effort of kindness (31) which finally drives him away (33).
From his first appearance, Rayek was depicted as arrogant (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 10) and commanding (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 57). He sees himself as superior to the other sun villagers because of his special powers and one of the reasons he is interested in Leetah is the fact that only she possesses magic powers equal to his own (Pini, Elfenwelt 2, 6-7). It is mainly his pride which forces him to leave the sun village where he has been defeated (35-36).
Kahvi, as a leader, is used to having authority (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 5). Living in a hostile and dangerous environment, she as well as her tribe value toughness and hardness above all (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 27). Magic powers, especially healing, are held in contempt because the Go-Backs believe them to have a softening effect on a people (28), something they cannot allow. They raise all their children, male and female, to be warriors who find joy in sex and fighting (44-45). The only spiritual aim they know lies in the afterlife, when the dead Go-Backs’ souls fly to the palace, the home of all elves (Pini, Elfenwelt 11, 8).
Both Rayek and Kahvi are very dominant characters, ready to employ immoral measures to enforce their wishes (Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 35, Pini, Elfenwelt 14, 28). Apart from that, they could not be more different. This may have attracted them to each other initially (Pini, Elfenwelt 18, 53), but in the long term, their unwillingness to change for each other ruins their relationship.
Both are very intolerant: Rayek is a chauvinist. Very competitive and ambitious (Pini, Elfenwelt 14, 9-10), he scorns those who are less gifted and advanced than he is. Yet, even if they are, he still tries to control them, as it is shown with Leetah (Pini, Elfenwelt 1, 57). This gives his chauvinism a macho component. He may genuinely care for Kahvi and be hurt by her coldness and the loss of their child (Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 32), however, this feeling is not as strong as his pride (34).
Kahvi, on the other hand, despises those who do not agree with the Go-Backs’ ideals (Pini, Elfenwelt 11, 33). Furthermore, she does not want to commit herself to any person (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 25), except to her tribe as a whole (Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 35). She dislikes the possessive streak in Rayek: “Wenn der jemanden mag, will er ihn mit Haut und Haaren. So etwas mag ich nicht.“ (Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 35).
While Rayek is a fairly conventionally masculine character – though his masculinity is established through spiritual rather than physical strength – Kahvi is an extremely unconventional woman, to the degree that she behaves like a man. Even pregnancy, the most feminine field, is almost ignored by Kahvi (Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 18) and handled without any sentimentality (29).
Among readers, Kahvi has been praised by some as the “ultimate” woman (Scroll of Colors, SEXY KAHVI!! 3), while others had a different view:
“To do her justice, Kahvi did care about Venka, and Vaya [her daughters, one of whom dies] too– but she’s too hard […], too selfish, and too insensitive in general, to be the ultimate female. That title, for me, would have to go to Nightfall, who manages to be strong, confident, and able to defend herself and others, while still being warm, sensitive, nurturing, and compassionate.
(Hmm, that’s funny. Those same qualities also would belong to the “ultimate male” for me, in slightly different ways. Maybe it’s not really about gender roles, after all.;))”
(Scroll of Colors, SEXY KAHVI!! 3)
At the very beginning of the story, the depiction of the Wolfriders and the Sun Folk implies some division of labour along gender lines: Wolfrider women refrain from fighting, hunting is declared unbecoming for girls among the Sun Folk. The later books, however, paint a different picture, showing male as well as female fighters, hunters, leaders etc. in all elf tribes.
Considering this irregularity in the early books, the possibility comes to mind that, at this point of the story, the elfin culture was not yet fully developed by the authors, who therefore let some “humanisms”, and human gender inequalities, slip in. As I have pointed out, female characters have traditionally been of secondary importance in US comics and the comics Wendy Pini names as an influence, for example The Avengers, are no exception (Pini, Women 261-262). Breaking free from it must have taken a while.
Seen as a whole, however, Elfquest portrays gender roles in a very liberal way. Of the six characters I have discussed, Leetah and Rayek are the most conventional, showing a great number of “typically” feminine and masculine traits respectively: tenderness and motherliness in Leetah’s case, competitiveness and a desire to dominate on Rayek’s side, just to mention a few. Still, they are both far from being stereotypes.
Kahvi and Redlance are unconventional in that they both exhibit a great number of behaviour patterns usually associated with the opposite sex – Kahvi more so than Redlance. While some readers praise her for that as the “ultimate” female, Redlance is ridiculed as “the girly man”. This supports the often made observation that masculine behaviour is seen as a “step up the ladder”, while feminine behaviour is a step down and therefore thought disgraceful.
In my opinion, the most well-balanced gender representations are found in Cutter and Nightfall. They both manage to create a synthesis of feminine and masculine characteristics. Both are very positive characters who can serve as role models for others (Pini, Elfenwelt 9, 43, Scroll of Colors, SEXY KAHVI!! 3).
What Elfquest demonstrates in its wide variety of characters is that it always depends on the individual’s personality and choice how gender is performed. There are some who prefer more traditional roles, while others feel the need to act differently. Of course, these choices need to be made freely and not be prohibited by a person’s culture.
When necessity calls, as it is the situation of the Go-Backs, choices are limited: Since they live in a state of perpetual war and are few in numbers, everybody has to take part in the fighting. If a male or a female refused to, they would probably not be treated with respect. So to a degree, “masculine” behaviour is compulsory.
In the case of the Sun Folk, it is a lack of necessity and outer pressures which keeps them passive and timid, stereotypically feminine. Yet, if one of them chooses a different way, like Rayek and Leetah, they are not shunned by the others (Pini, Elfenwelt 3, 31, Pini, Elfenwelt 5, 8).
Among the Wolfriders, there are some necessities, for example the hunting, but there are also many areas of life where self-expression is possible. Cutter’s and Leetah’s children are a good example to prove that: Forcing their shy, magically gifted son to become the chief of rough woodland hunters would not only make the boy unhappy, but be a disadvantage for the tribe. Therefore, his outspoken, bold sister is chosen. If everybody is allowed to do what they like and what they are best at, it serves the wellbeing of the whole community. It is certainly not a coincidence that the most well-balanced characters analysed are both Wolfriders.
Given the sexual freedom all elves in all tribes enjoy, the construction of a sexual double standard is prevented. The fact that due to recognition, female elves become pregnant so rarely might also help keeping them on par with men, since in our culture women with children are more likely to face discrimination. However, at least among the Wolfriders and among the Go-Backs, raising children is regarded as a responsibility of the whole group (Pini, Elfenwelt 4, 35, Pini, Elfenwelt 13, 18), thus disburdening mothers.
Feminism is hardly ever made an explicit topic in the series. Still, it is obvious that it must have had a strong influence on Elfquest. The lack of lecturing makes the liberal portrayal of gender roles seem natural and lets it often go consciously unnoticed.
As a comic, Elfquest was definitely exceptional for its time and to a lesser degree, it is still so today. With its indie background and its author-led production, it comes close to being an artefact of popular culture in the sense of what Storey calls “the people’s culture” (Storey 10). The Pinis’ recent decision to upload all of the older books of their saga on their website for free supports this view.
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