The fable that helped me find the others

Fables are portals to other worlds, writes Heather Johanssen—and to new places in this one.

“Life is full of choices," says punk rocker and activist Henry Rollins, "if you have the guts to go for it."

The thing about choices, though, is that we make them all the time without realizing it. The decisions that matter don't come as neat, freeze-framed challenges laid before us—they present themselves years after we've already made them, in the form of memories, regrets, and as tightening gooseflesh, synaptic trails lighting up the dark corners of experience.

On an evening warmed by the summer sun and the chaos of home, a few weeks before the start of 4th grade, I did something that didn't become a choice until years later. I grabbed a comic book from my brother.

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It was one thing to be be permitted into Russell's inner sanctum; it was another thing entirely to be allowed to sit among his collection, all carefully spread out across his floor. The Amazing Spiderman and The Avengers by the dozen; covers featuring Judge Dredd, all the way from England. Touching the cover of J. M. DeMatteis's Moonshadow, I sang the Cat Stevens song with the same title, instinctively drawing the connection. Russell raised his eyebrow, and I stopped; best keep him happy if I didn't want to wear out my welcome.

"You can only borrow one," he said, as I leafed through the fanned-out books, all glossy covers and cheap newsprint. He was merely asserting the limited promise he'd struck with our mom, a bargain born from some typical, trivial childhood sharing dispute that both of us had already forgotten. Perhaps, in another world, another me delved deeper into Moonshadow or discovered Alan Moore early in the pages of Warrior or Swamp Thing. But what caught my eye—a 4th-grade female eye at the earliest threshold of maturity—was nothing like anything I'd ever seen before. A flaxen figure with ears pointed like those of the gigantic wolf at his side, angling a sword at an unseen threat, protecting others of his kind, crouched, their faces taut with fear, surrounded by an inferno. As male, muscular and intense as everything else in the pile—but different. Across the top, the title: ElfQuest.

“This one.”

“That's a first issue.”

Years earlier, my chubby two-year-old hands slayed his '73-vintage, first edition of “Ghost Rider”, and he was in no mood to cut slack with the good stuff. The boy hadn't forgiven me, and the U.S. Marine still hasn't.

But there's a certain look that a little sister can give an older brother, a look that breaks their willpower down like waves on sandcastles. I wouldn't know how I did it, but I did it all the same, and didn't need to say another word.

“Fine, take it.”.

Clutching the comic—now a symbol of familial trust—I scurried away. “But bring it back to me exactly as it leaves this room,” he called after me.

From that moment I was obssessed with this weird, winsome tale, so unlike anything else I'd seen. It was my first other world, one of those places that certain among us head to like a second home, a base camp on the hill of childhood self-discovery. I grew up loving the adventures of the Wolf-riders, their own fragile lives held between each thin page. Each mylared issue added to my collection was stored in a huge German cookie tin resembling a treasure chest, always tucked under my bed: if the house burned to the ground, that was the first thing I'd be grabbing.

Few friends took an interest in my comic-book lit fix, but this only made it more a part of my own fledgeling identity. I was a geek, and my geeky idée fix was ElfQuest.

Grown-ups tend to call this stuff escapism, and maybe it is. But fabulous, fantastic stories are about more than getting away from one's troubles. They're how mythology, the shared hallucinations exposing the nature and nuture of mankind, find a way into us. They're a trip, a door to other places, where ideas can inspire and dreams can instruct.

And yet, that's just the easy explanation, the Hallmark card answer to what's going on here. Here's the real secret, the true story that no bro can deny: the portals opened by these fables, by stories told with such deep and abiding love that they free us to revel in our invincible geekliness, don't really lead to other worlds. They lead to other people.

For older generations, the finding happened slowly, by mail and by meeting in the flesh. But times have changed, and now there's no hiding from them. On a spring afternoon, years later, one of my oldest friends and I were figuring out the Internet, meditating on the screeching Om of AOL's dial-up sequence. I don't remember if it was on Altavista or Magellan or WebCrawler, but I remember the first thing we typed into one of those little white boxes: E L F Q U E S T. Results appeared by the dozen. Chills. Not only was I was not alone, but there were many of us. We were legion.

We stumbled upon sites set up to honor favorite characters and clans from the story's rambling cast, where each mouse click brought forth a smile and a deluge of artwork and fiction by other fans. The crafter of one such site had a tiny picture of himself tucked on a back page, linking to a bio. Something about his simple and honest way of writing attracted me; and after weeks of agonizing, I listened to my gut and sent him some of my own.

5,000 miles away, an email sat in the inbox of a total stranger. Whatever relationship followed would be built on words, underpinned by a mutual love of a choice made years earlier. My fourth grade self could never have known it, but that accident set a trajectory to a husband and best friend.

Everyone's flavor of fable is a little different, and what tickles me might not tickle you. But they all do the same thing. They help you find the others.

ElfQuest at Boing Boing

Friendly Darkness
In Wendy and Richard Pini's saga are the haunted echoes of utopian fantasy, removed from the epic to the intimate.

The secret history
The creation myths that bind all of us are at their most powerful when they're part of the plot, writes Maja D'Aoust.

Trajectory
Fables are portals to other worlds, writes Heather Johannsen—and to new places in this one.

A Girl at the 1978 Comic-Con
A snapshot of comics culture in the year that ElfQuest made its mark

Part 1 of the Final Quest Prologue
An all-new tale, published first here at Boing Boing

Read all 6500 pages of ElfQuest online
Fans acquire ElfQuest film rights
Columbia University acquires ElfQuest comic archives

Published 7:40 am Tue, Mar 26, 2013

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15 Responses to “The fable that helped me find the others”

  1. Beautifully written.

    I’ve never given Elfquest a shot. Perhaps I should try.

    • Christopher says:

      Your experience with it may be like what I experienced when I finally got around to reading The Lord of The Rings trilogy in my late thirties. I enjoyed it, but couldn’t get over the feeling that it would have meant more to me if I’d read it as a much younger person.

      I was lucky enough to have friends who had an earlier interest in comic books than I did, and, furthermore, knew where to buy them when I didn’t, so I was introduced to Elfquest at the beginning of my adolescence. If I started reading it now I think I’d enjoy it but I strongly doubt it would speak to me the way it did then.

  2. Rick Adams says:

    Second grade, 1987, borrowed from my school’s library.

  3. Tavie says:

    Me love this. Wonderful work.

  4. Tavie says:

    The love story – Pike and Dewshine (SORRY BUT COME ON HEATHER’S HAIR NOW) found eachother through ElfQuest. I never get tired of those stories. Met some of my best friends that way, too. <3

  5. Tavie says:

    Only then were you truly using light.
    ead since I started it.

    Hiccough?

  6. unit_1421 says:

    I didn’t learn about EQ until after the end of the first quest, when a kid brought his EQ graphic novels to one of our scout troop meetings. I got to devour the first 20 issues in one long sitting and I got my own copies of the glorious Donning edition graphic novels ASAP and it’s been downhill ever since…

  7. Jorpho says:

    Hmm, the comments link from http://boingboing.net/2013/03/26/friendlydarkness.html presently links here too.  So be it.  I just wanted to say that I really loved that parallax-scrolling thing going on there; I’ve never seen anything like it before for some strange reason.

    [I actually find the ElfQuest art style to be more than a little creepy, but I guess I am kind of alone on that. Or maybe someday my soulmate and I shall bond over our shared opinion! Or not.]

  8. That background is sweet.

  9. knappa says:

    I think your mean the Red Cedar River which flows through East Lansing, not the East Cedar River which I haven’t heard of.

  10. Mackay Bell says:

    Very moving.  Great writing.  But it’s driving me crazy, “find the others” is a key line in some famous movie, but I can’t remember what it is. 

  11. What fascinates me most about this post, is your relationship with your brother, and the emotional dynamic at play between you. 

    I often think back on my own childhood (as an older brother), and wonder what life would have been like for my younger brothers and I, if I’d been just a little bit more empathetic, a little bit more kind and generous to them, a little be more of a friend. 

    But like yourself, I realized years after the fact, that it wasn’t really anything like a real choice, back then. And it makes me profoundly sad and angry, thinking about it. 

    Because I realize why it wasn’t a choice. I had been preloaded with mistrust, resentments, cynicism, and competitive disdain for my brothers. Years before I had the emotional maturity and awareness to realize what was being done to me, or to do anything to stop it from happening. And, of course, by the time I did, it was far, far too late to resuscitate the corpse of hope for any kind of real relationship with them. 

    On the bright side, I enjoyed being reminded of midnights in 8th grade, sitting at the Atari 800 keyboard, running my father’s phone bill up all night long, on CompuServe and GEnie and a 100 other bulletin boards. Looking for someone to talk to. 

    Oh, what we would have done for an internet, in 1983. 

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