In conceiving View from the Gutters, one thing we agreed about early on was that we didn’t want to just do another review show where we yacked about which issues we’d picked up new that week. We wanted to engage in a conversation; not just amongst ourselves but with the whole comics reading community. To discuss stories—both new and old—and to learn more about the medium we love by experiencing comics we wouldn’t normally read on our own.
That conversation, however, extends beyond what we can meaningfully discuss in our weekly book club format. I—perhaps more than the other hosts—have on occasion steered us away from getting lost in conversations too far afield from what is ostensibly our topic for the week. However, those are important conversations to have, and as our club matures we intend to delve into those topics more deeply.
One way we’ll be doing this is in special bonus episodes devoted to topics we feel to be important to comics both as a medium and a community, rather than discussing a specific comic work. Another is through a regular series of blog posts in which one member of our group or another will attempt to speak on a particular subject important to them. We invite our listeners to comment on these posts, as with all of our content, and add your own voice to the discussion.
In this, the first such blog post, I wanted to talk a bit both about a comic which is near and dear to my heart and more broadly about genre, setting, and the idea of “conceptual space” as it relates to comics. The particular comic I want to discuss is one I’ve pitched on the show, but as of the date of this writing we have not yet discussed: Elfquest.
SPOILER WARNING: I will be discussing major details from Volumes 1-4 of Elfquest. Although I do not feel that anything discussed will actively diminish your enjoyment of the series should you not have read it, SPOILERS are contained within. You have been warned.
Briefly, for those who are unfamiliar with Elfquest, it is a comic series by Wendy and Richard Pini which began in 1978 and has been released at a varying pace up through today (although the Pini’s have begun work on “The Final Quest” which promises to resolve the series).
To describe Elfquest succinctly is difficult. On the surface it is a fantasy story about elves, trolls, and fairies. However, the themes it explores and the stories it tells are not typical fantasy themes and stories. No magic swords, no lost princes, no great armies of darkness threatening to overrun the land. It’s a story of another world, similar to our own in some ways and yet vastly different in others.
Most importantly, it focuses on a cast of characters that—for all of their humanity—are explicitly not human. They have, for one, the ability to “send” their thoughts; communicating words, images, and feelings in a way which cannot be used for deception. For me it is this element of the elves, more so than their long lifespans or other magic powers, that can make them seem so otherworldly. This one aspect, which is entirely natural to the elves themselves, utterly alters their society in a way that no human has ever experienced.
As the story develops we learn that the elves are more than just magic forest folk. They are—in actuality—the descendants of a race of psychic immortal shape-shifting aliens from the future who, visiting a human planet, took on the forms of elves from the humans’ myths so as to be able to interact with the humans without frightening them.
However, the then elf-shaped aliens were/will be betrayed by the trolls (another species brought by the aliens from their home world) and accidentally thrown backwards through time into the paleolithic—the “now” of the story. Quickly set upon by savage humans, the elf-formed aliens scatter into the wilderness, abandoning their palace/starship.
The series features, amongst other things: bloody warfare, pansexual orgies, flesh-molding, psychic manipulation, “soul names”, and astral projection. But it’s also about love, family, community, and learning to appreciate and live with those who are different from you. There is also a subtle implication—or so it has always seemed to me—that these aliens may be the distant descendents of our own human race.
It’s easy to look at the series on the shelf, see the elves and magic, and immediately file it away under “fantasy.” But when you strip away the setting elements down to the story underneath, Elfquest isn’t a very fantasy story. But neither is it particularly an SF story either, and it’s at that point that the mind begins to struggle a little.
This is a good point to talk a bit about the meaning of “genre.” For the most part, we tend to think of genre as synonymous with setting: This is set in outer space, so it’s sci-fi, or, this story is all about wizards and dragons, so it’s fantasy. When we talk about setting in this sense we’re talking not just about the where, but the who and what as well.
While particular settings are closely associated with certain genres, the two are not inextricably linked. Star Wars, for example, is a fantasy story in space. Space wizards aside, it is the story of a young boy embracing his destiny, taking up the sword passed down from his father to confront a great evil that threatens the land. It is these elements, what I refer to as the “narrative conventions”, that define the genre of the story. That is, particular chains of narrative logic which are held in common between unrelated stories.
For example, superhero stories traditionally contain the convention that heroes can never harm an innocent, even by accident. Any innocent bystanders will conveniently be thrown clear of explosions, or evacuate collapsing buildings just in the nick of time. Fantasy stories often focus on destiny, fulfilling one’s role in the cosmic order, and existential conflicts between good and evil.
Narrative convention is particularly important when discussing superhero universes because they are typically composed of a mish-mash of setting elements, including super-science, magic, mutants, space-travel, talking gorillas, and masked detectives. It is the “hero” element of story—and the conventions derived from that heroism—that defines the genre more than the “super” part.
Which brings me around to the idea of “conceptual space”, which I mentioned at the top of the post. Imagine, if you will, a universe whose length and breadth are defined by these sorts of conventions, or you might perhaps call them tones. Instead of up and down we have gritty and campy. Instead of left and right we have hard science and fantasy. This space has untold countless dimensions, as large as the whole of the human imagination, and every possible fictional work exists as a discrete point somewhere in this conceptual space.
When we identify a story as existing within a particular genre we are, in a sense, plotting points in conceptual space and then naming them, like mapping stars. Each genre is like a galaxy, a cluster of stories grouped together based on the narrative conventions to which they conform, none exactly the same but all grouped and moving together in the same area of conceptual space.
But then, having placed a work in one genre or another, grouped into a particular part of conceptual space, we start to expect that they must conform to our preconception of that genre. We decide that Gandalf isn’t allowed to fight off an invasion of Martian tripods, nor is Superman allowed to pick up a magic sword and go off to confront the evil Lord Zod to avenge his father and reclaim the lost throne of Krypton.
And yet there are those stories which refuse to be neatly categorized into one genre or another, not simply because their narrative conventions and setting don’t mesh but because the narrative itself defies convention.
Elfquest presses on the boundaries of “this” or “that”, and refuses to be neatly categorized. It struck me, reading it recently, as though I were looking at a conceptual map trying to find where this book fit and not finding it; until I suddenly realized there was a third dimension—an entire other realm utterly outside the confines of my two dimensional map of which I was now suddenly, staggeringly, aware. That two stars I thought were close together in the sky are in fact light-years apart.
Beyond that, however, I began to realize the extent to which the ideas which it presented—foreign in many ways to the mainstream American culture I grew up in—had inculcated themselves in my mind. I initially began this piece with a much (much) longer—and largely unnecessary—introduction explaining in detail where Elfquest entered my awareness and the extent to which it has been meaningful to me. But suffice it to say that it’s a story that I’ve read a lot, and from a very young age.
In rereading it for the first time in perhaps 10 or 15 years, I began to re-examine the story through a different lens, both having matured and having read a great deal more in the intervening years. The first thing that occured to me on this read is that Elfquest is pulling heavily from aspects of the hippie movement of the late sixties and seventies which seem to have been in large part forgotten. Ideas about free love, about living in tune with the natural world, and about allowing people to live free from the roles that society assigns to them.
It was interesting to me, partially because it’s rare to see those sorts of ideas in operation in fiction these days—part of the reason I enjoy going back to read the fiction (and futures) of decades past. But more so because it seems like a divergent evolution of some of the same narrative conventions that underpin superheroes, both arising from aspects of the pulp stories of the 1910s-1930s involving astral planes, lost races, vital energy, theosophy, and evolution.
It strikes me that you could look at Elfquest as the single example of a non-existent genre for which we have no name… one, perhaps, of many such genre-defying and defining works which usually are placed under the banner of “weird” comics. That concept intrigues me because extending our map of conceptual space offers us new possibilities. It is as though you were looking at a scrap of coastline labeled “Here be Dragons” which is really the edge of a vast new unexplored continent, or that fuzzy patch in the night sky which is actually a hundred thousand galaxies. It pushes out all of the boundaries, expanding the conceptual space as a whole.
I’ve always liked Elfquest. First as a pre-literate child for the beautiful artwork, and the later again for the fantasy story with elves and trolls and psychic powers. But now as an adult I’m learning to appreciate it all over again, both for the implications of a society in which everyone is free to be themself, but also precisely because its so undefinable along current lines of demarcation between genres.
In short, it grows our conceptual space simply by virtue of not fitting in. It challenges the reader to abandon preconceived notions of order, and thereby opens up new possible forms of story. (And I wanted to note, as a final aside, that everything that I’ve said can be applied equally to the medium of video games, where in recent times the game Minecraft has begun spawning its own new genre, partially by virtue of the fact that it cannot be easily categorized as anything else.)
I think that works of this nature are critically important because they challenge the imagination far more than something which fits neatly into our preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to be ever could. They make you question the things that you read, and bend your mind in new, unknown directions.
If you have not read Elfquest, I encourage you to do so. It may be just the right weird thing you didn’t know you were missing. And if you have read it, I encourage you to contemplate the narratives the define Elfquest and consider what possibilities they suggest to you.