Elfquest Reader’s Collection: Rogue’s Curse

Author: Pini, McKinney, et al
Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy Adventure
Publisher: Wolfrider Books
Cost: $13.95
Rating: **• (2 1/2 out of 4)
Availability: Widely Available

Rogue’s Curse is number 9 in the new Elfquest Reader’s Collection series. The series reprints all of the stories from ElfQuest’s long and winding road, and presents new material on occasion.

When you’re dealing with something like Rogue’s Curse – a later installment in what has become one of the most successful indie comics franchises ever – you’re dealing with something that has quite a few expectations stacked up against it. This is made even more true by the fact that the franchise is ElfQuest, and Wendy Pini’s readers are used to a certain high standard of writing and art. The day that ElfQuest opened its doors to new artists and writers was the day that those writers opened themselves up to a heap of scorn and resentment from the fans. It was also – very nearly – the day the music died.

This is where it starts to get a little bit confusing. Rogue’s Curse follows the story of former desert-dweller Rayek and the spirit of his dead lover, Winnowill. Both are members of an ancient race of elves who fell to the world of two moons (“Abode”) many centuries ago. Rayek and Winnowill were both proud, ambitious, and a little bit stuck on themselves. The primary difference between them was that Rayek had friends, while Winnowill only had tools. When Winnowill was killed in the collapse of her lair, her spirit was unleashed. She would have brought untold horrors upon the world, except that Rayek willingly took her spirit into himself and made himself her jailer.

That all takes place before the book begins.

In the course of the book, Rayek is accompanied by his mentor, the wizened partial-amputee Ekuar. Rogue’s Curse abandons the tribal world that has been part of ElfQuest from the beginning in favor of a much more medieval world. In the course of the book, Rayek and Ekuar join a circus, act as bouncers for a high-class madam, and take comissions from a travelling knight to bring back his kidnapped daughter.

Along the way, Rayek is constantly reminded of the dark spirit that he keeps in check. When he lets his guard down for the merest moment, Winnowill takes the chance to cause whatever chaos she can. She mutilates two thieves in a back alley – turning one into a walking corpse and the other into a giant sewer rat. She uses her powers to found a cult and takes human sacrifices. She kills person after person – and Rayek cannot stop her.

As I said, ElfQuest very nearly lost something when people other than Wendy Pini began working on the book. Pini has set a high standard in terms of her lushly beautiful artwork over the years, and her writing has made the characters so real that they can seem at times to be friends of yours. The influx of new talents trying to emulate Pini came close to destroying the special rapport she had built with her fans.

It is books like Rogue’s Curse that saved the ElfQuest franchise. Ironically enough, one of the reasons that Curse works so well as ElfQuest is because it is so different from what Pini used to do. Certainly, you recognize the characters and the situations. But the world of Curse is truly a world to itself. Nothing else in ElfQuest compares to it. From the schizophrenia of Rayek and his relationship with his internal demon to the high adventures that he has on the road with Ekuar, Curse allows various artists the opportunity to put their own stamp on ElfQuest. The artwork ranges from simple black and white to high-contrast impressionism, and the stories range from tales of dark internal struggle to tales ripped from the pages of Robin Hood.

Of course, the crowning achievement of the book is the very last story, when Wendy Pini herself steps in and takes control of the character who has come so far and been so different from what he was. Once again, she puts everybody else to shame and shows that – even stepping away from her usual storylines – she can still prove that the characters are hers.

ElfQuest: Rogue’s Curse loses one star for two reasons. First, it’s got a story by Barry Blair (late of his own comic series, ElfLord). Sadly, it’s a wonderful story – but Barry Blair’s round-faced artwork never quite meshed in my mind with ElfQuest. Second, it’s not a good book to hand to somebody to introduce them to the series. While it’s true that ElfQuest – not being a situational story – has never been something you could just pick up in the middle, the reliance on references to past events makes this story particularly opaque to new readers. If you’re not an ElfQuest fan already, do yourself a favor and start from Book 1: Fire and Flight. If you are an ElfQuest fan, pick this book up for yourself – but get Fire and Flight for your unenlightened comrades.