Comics As Audiobooks

by John Holbo on September 24, 2012

Couple weeks back BoingBoing had a guestpost by Maja D’aoust, praising the undersung artistry of Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest. I think this is right. Elfquest doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Proto-American manga, early independent comics self-publishing. Why doesn’t everyone who prides themselves about knowing comics feel obliged to have read a bit of Elfquest? I’m sure this is due in large part to geek culture bias in favor of fanboyish – as opposed to fangirlish – productions. (Dumb guy stuff can be the greatest stories ever told. Everyone knows that. But dumb girly stuff generally can’t catch a break. Chick lit just isn’t cool.) So I’m glad to see new Pini stuff presented on BoingBoing. More power to them!

Anyway, I bring a unique perspective to this issue because my daughters forced me to read them most of the online archive of Elfquest in nightly audiobook installments. (I think I managed to convince them to let me give up after “Two-Spear”.) I have seriously read a lot of Elfquest out loud, dude. And the main thing I learned is: it’s written quite well, as comics go. My daughters have also made me read them other comics. X-Men, Fantastic Four, Teen Titans. Most of that stuff doesn’t read out at all well, and very little reads out as well as Elfquest. Also, Elfquest is the sort of thing that you might think would be – erm – a bit inappropriate for really young children, what with high elves mating with wolves and all that. But if you’ve already read the kids Greek mythology – and a bunch of other mythologies I could mention – you know there’s no problem here, so long as you are judiciously indefinite about the mechanics of it, as the Pinis are. (There’s nothing explicit in these comics.) Little girls are uninterested in sex but are interested in babies, and animals, so stories in which strange creatures have hybrid family trees are interesting to them. It doesn’t end up being any more squicky than reading them D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. (Not that I’m recommending you read your kid Elfquest, High Ones preserve us! That was a chore.)

It’s not the case that comics work as audiobooks to the extent that they are good comics, of course. Zoe is down with flu at the moment and I tried reading her some Tintin but it doesn’t work. Hergé is so good at storytelling in pictures that it’s hard to get the pacing right. Also, it sounds strange to read Snowy’s lines out loud. (Snowy ‘talks’ more than almost any other character, what with all those little asides.)

Atomic Robo reads out really well, on the other hand. As audiobook comics go, Robo is tops. Zoe gives it two thumbs up.

All Stan Lee stuff is just terrible. As Harrison Ford said to George Lucas: you can write this stuff, but you can’t say it.



Michael Harris 09.24.12 at 4:29 am

Vaguely recall that before Dave Sim went a bit nuts with Cerebus the Aardvark, he had some amusing references to Elfquest in there — something about Elf Request? Long time ago …


John Holbo 09.24.12 at 4:52 am

“Vaguely recall that before Dave Sim went a bit nuts with Cerebus the Aardvark, he had some amusing references to Elfquest”

I don’t remember any Elfquest parodies in Sim, but I do clearly remember seeing Cerebus and Elfquest side by side in Galdalf’s Den, in Eugene, OR, in the early 80’s. That’s where I went to get my D&D stuff, and they also sold independent comics. And those were practically the only two titles that weren’t stuff left over from the 60’s.


Michael Harris 09.24.12 at 7:27 am


Doug M. 09.24.12 at 9:43 am

There was an Elfquest parody/crossover in Cerebus #52. (Which, incidentally, I personally pinpoint as the issue where Dave Sim got on the motorcycle, picked up his helmet, and began to gaze thoughtfully in the direction of the shark tank.) I don’t know if it got reprinted in the “phone book” collections or not.

Doug M.


DorsetPirateGirl 09.24.12 at 1:02 pm

My kids went through a stage of wanting me to read them Asterix the Gaul books (in English, this wasn’t me trying to get them to read/understand French). Now I love Asterix, but they were hard work to read out loud, much more difficult than just reading a story.


Doug M. 09.24.12 at 2:13 pm

John, I’m going to push back a little. There are wonderful comics that can’t be read aloud, I agree. The converse, I think, is also true: there are comics that read aloud very well that are not actually all that great. I wonder if Elfquest doesn’t fall into this category.

I think we’re roughly of a fortysomething age, yeah? I was a huge, huge fan of Elfquest (and early, funny Cerebus) as a teenager back in the first Reagan administration. Elfquest came out just three times a year, which made every new issue super-special, and it was just so obviously a labor of love.

But I was hugely disappointed by the end of the first volume: basically everything after Cutter climbs out of that hole with the wolves in it. The whole “elves live on as spirits” thing came completely out of left field, and didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, given the worldbuilding up to then. The elf orgy had me rolling my eyes. The “golden hoard” seemed like a bait and switch, not just on Two-Edge’s part but on the authors’. The war was a disappointment, won in a very obvious way. (Two Edge didn’t anticipate the elves freeing the slave? “Oh he would never think of that because HE SO CRAZY!” Bah.) The attack on the children seemed like a cheap way to escalate the violence and tension — and then it gets magically resolved without anyone we care about being hurt. And the final issue was pretty much a big infodump of backstory. Underwhelming backstory.

And after that, it just seemed like the story never quite recovered. Time travel? dolphins? It all seemed to get terribly fannish and ingrown and twee.

But I am a person who doesn’t love Bone, so my judgment in these manners may be suspect.

(As to Elfquest being girly stuff: I don’t think it was widely identified as such back in the day. Did that change at some point?)

Doug M.


John Holbo 09.24.12 at 2:22 pm

I’m not going to go defend the absolute greatness of Elfquest but it is 1) innovative formally and distributionally (early indie stuff)); 2) perfectly solid adventure storytelling and distinctive visually.

“Time travel? dolphins? It all seemed to get terribly fannish and ingrown and twee.”

So true! But nothing cures you of being bothered by that more than watching an 8-year old and a 10-year old utterly enraptured by it all.

I liked the Two-Edge story line. I liked his craziness. I thought he was rather an original character, actually. But granted: there’s tons of stuff wrong with it all, if you want to be picky, which is fair enough.

As to Elfquest being girly? Yes, it definitely acquired that reputation. I’m not sure whether it had it early on. I read it early on without any embarrassment, but I didn’t know anyone else who cared about it one way or the other. Later I realized that Cerebus, which I also read, was way cooler. At some point Elfquest became definitely a comic for girls.


Doug M. 09.24.12 at 3:02 pm

Hi John,

I have a 10 yo and a 9 yo (boys) and I suspect they’d like Elfquest just fine. Of course, they utterly adore Bone.

I liked crazy Two-Edge too! which is why I found stupid Two-Edge annoying. But okay.

I bailed on Cerebus before the end of the first Church and State — roughly around the time Denise Loubert left the building, say issue 70 or so. I know I missed a lot of interesting and original stuff (though I picked some of it up later). But even that early, it was already turning into a tour of the inside of Dave Sim’s head. — The early funny stuff still holds up amazingly well, though. Issues 20 or so through 51? Brilliant. Brilliant.

BTW, you mentioned D’Aulaire. If your girls enjoyed that, then let me strongly recommend George O’Connor’s “Olympians” books. He’s working his way through the Twelve Olympians, one graphic novel at a time; he’s done Zeus, Athena, Hera and Hades so far, and Poseidon is coming out early next year. Both the art and the storytelling are excellent.

Doug M.


NickS 09.24.12 at 3:32 pm

Comics as audiobooks sounds like fun. If you don’t mind, I can think of a couple recommendations.

1) It isn’t a comic, but you should try reading Bill The Galactic Hero out-loud, it’s been a while since I tried that but I remember being astonished at how good it was on a sentence-to-sentence level. It’s done with an impressive level of craft.

2) One of my favorite comic series, that nobody else likes as much as I do, Wandering Star is an excellent fangirl production. It tells a relatively standard space-opera story with some great characters (including a wonderful female lead), tighter-than-average plotting, and a palpable love of the genre.

I like it enough that I’ve given copies of the series (which, thankfully, turn up on e-bay from time to time) to four different people but now the whole thing is available online.

3) For a contemporary comic you might look at Aaron Williams’ PS238. It isn’t as good as Atomic Robo, partially because it doesn’t have the range of tone, and never has the moments of complete seriousness — it stays at a medium-jokey level almost the whole time and is a little too comfortable with the occasional Deus Ex Machina. But even if it isn’t as good as Atomic Robo it’s still pretty good, with interesting storylines and good characters.


NickS 09.24.12 at 3:38 pm

As far as Elfquest goes, I wonder if people dismiss it because it lacks some element of compulsiveness that we associate with interesting indie comics. It does a very good job of worldbuilding and plotting (and is a great adventure story), but it can also feel cautious artistically — it tells the story first and foremost and mostly sticks to that.

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