(This is part of my Elfquest re-read. There will be spoilers.)
I like Fire and Flight, but this volume is where the story really hits its stride. After our simple, linear introduction, where the plot is straightforward and only a small number of characters get much in the way of attention, the narrative opens up: two strands, with Cutter and Skywise searching for more elf tribes, while back in Sorrow’s End Suntop receives a warning that sends nearly the entire tribe on the road again in pursuit of that pair.
The ensemble nature of this series has always been one of the things I like best about it. Yes, when all is said and done, Cutter is the protagonist. He’s the leader, not just in the sense that he’s the one making decisions, but also in the sense that it’s usually his needs and desires that are driving the main part of the story. (Keep his tribe alive; find more elves; get his kids back. Books five and six, Siege at Blue Mountain and The Secret of Two-Edge, are something of an exception to this.) But the Pinis are very, very good at making everyone around Cutter also matter.
Which is an achievement in comic book format, because in the end, you have such limited space to work with. One of the skills I hugely admire is the ability to characterize in an efficient fashion: Joss Whedon excels at that, and I wouldn’t put the Pinis far behind. In less than twenty panels of The Forbidden Grove, they give us a fantastic exchange between Redlance and Woodlock — two characters who barely got any lines in Fire and Flight — that brings both of them to vivid, breathing life. (For those who haven’t read it in a while, it’s the scene where humans show up outside Sorrow’s end. Woodlock wants to be one of their executioners; Redlance insists on hearing what they have to say because he wants to know why they tortured him; when Woodlock calls for their deaths again, Redlance tells him to shoot the kid first; Woodlock can’t, and Redlance consoles him.)
Those aren’t the only two that go from being images on the page to full characters in this volume. Nightfall, who got a little attention in Fire and Flight, gets more here. Strongbow has several great moments — and they’re not all the same kind of moment; his challenge against Cutter, his rare verbal outburst when the Sun Folk question Dart, and his annoyed “‘Think you can get him?’ Huh!” thought bubble when he’s about to shoot the bird show different aspects of his personality. I can’t off the top of my head recall Moonshade getting a single line in Fire and Flight; here the argument with Leetah about following Cutter, plus the single panel where she lets herself be taken by the eagles after they carry off Strongbow, sell us in four panels on Moonshade’s unshakeable traditionalism and devotion to her lifemate. (Since I posted about gender before, it’s worth mentioning that I 100% believe Moonshade would have delivered that exact same rant if she’d been talking to a male healer who stayed behind when his female chieftain lifemate went off to search.)
Plus there are new characters! Suntop and Ember both have personalities that don’t simply map to “kid,” and they aren’t the same personality; the differences between the twins are clear from the get-go. We get Picknose and Oddbit and Old Maggoty, Nonna and Adar, the Bone Woman and Thief and Olbar the Mountain-Tall and Petalwing. The cast in Fire and Flight was big, but almost entirely in the background. Here a much larger percentage of the characters get their moments in the spotlight, and those moments are not wasted. We’ll get even more as the series goes along, with narrative side strands that step away from Cutter’s concerns to show that other people have their own lives, their own problems, for which Cutter is the one playing a bit part (if he’s involved at all). Done poorly, a large cast winds up feeling like an undifferentiated mass, with the narrative flavor spread so thin nobody winds up with much at all. Done well, this is one of my favorite types of story.
I’ll be making a post at some later point about the art, but I want to note that the concern for rendering the characters with detail extends to how they’re drawn. Part of the reason I never got into the Wavedancers story was that I honestly couldn’t keep the elves of that tribe straight: I don’t know if that was because I read it in black-and-white and the artist depended heavily on color or what, but they all smeared together for me. The way Wendy Pini draws her elves, they can be tiny silhouettes in the background of a panel and I’m still able to tell which character I’m looking at. They are, in every respect, individuals.