Elfworld was first conceived of by Jeffrey Brown, best known for his autobiographical comics. Fans of Brown will also know that he's fond of doing skewed takes on genre conventions as well. His Bighead is his version of a superhero character (adapted from stuff he used to do as a kid), and his upcoming Incredible Change-Bots does the same for The Transformers. On the Comics Journal message board back in 2004, he solicited entries for an anthology dealing with sword-and-sorcery type fantasy tales from fellow indy artists, to be called Elfworld. For a variety of reasons, he abandoned the project, but it was taken up by San Francisco artist Francois Vigneault, who started his own publishing concern (Family Style) for this and other projects. Most of the entries in this volume came from that original solicitation by Brown, in a nice-looking package edited by Vigneault and designed by Jonas Madden-Connor.
It's clear that the audience for this book is supposed to be indy-comics fans, and there are a few big names in here, like Brown, Martin Cendreda, Souther Salazar and Ron Rege'. It's unfortunate that their contributions are among the weakest in the book--single or two-page strips that don't really go anywhere. The problem with doing this kind of story is that a straight-up parody is going to be as tedious as one that slavishly adheres to the trappings of the genre. Cendreda does a parody of indy comics with his, with an elf character falling into the same kind of "lonely-boy" loser situations as one might see in some typical autobiographical comics. Even at just four pages, it feels like the joke was beaten to death in the first panel or two. The same went for Ansis Purins' "Gnome Gathering", which tried to meld fantasy with Freak Brothers-style humor. While the final joke about eagles was clever, this was another story that beat the same concept into the ground on page after page.
The stories that work best here are the sort that take after Lewis Trondheim's approach in Dungeon. There, the sword-and-sorcery stories are ridiculous but told with a straight face, and the humor comes out of the situations that arise rather than with easy parodic targets. Walking the line between understanding what makes the genre work and how to transcend its limitations isn't easy, and only a few of the artists in Elfworld got it right to my eyes.
The best stories by far were "Adventures In Mead", by Matt Wiegle, "Basilisk" by Kaz Strzepek, and an untitled story by K. Thor Jensen. Wiegle's story is spaced interstially throughout the story, and involves a drunk fighter with an uncanny knack for killing everything in his path. As we learn as the story proceeds, this ability isn't necessarily helpful. Wiegle's art is beautifully scratchy and cartoony, a nice balance between the strip's violence and its goofiness.
Jensen's story is familiar: a group of adventurers in an underground cavern looking for a fabulous lost city. This tale has a lot going for it. First, Jensen's art style resembles classic Elzie (Popeye) Segar here--a perfect model to emulate in terms of melding humor with adventure. Jensen's secret weapon here is his spot-on dialogue, especially with one member of the party whose constant complaining and skepticism about everything winds up saving them. This was one of the few stories in the book where the characters and situation were interesting enough for me to want to see more of them. Jensen takes the adventure seriously, but his funny art lightens up the action. It's a perfect compromise between the two sensibilities seen so often in this book.
"Basilisk" is a fantastic story about a smart-ass researcher trying to find the legendary basilisk near a small town. The creature is supposedly part-bird and has the power to turn anything it gazes upon into stone. The researcher talks a kobold in a bar to take him to the where his party encountered the creature so he could draw it. The basilisk turns out to be both more and less than what was expected, and the story's ending has a delightful twist. This story has it all--humor, a deep vein of D&D/fantasy references (I especially liked the appearance of a beholder), and a liveliness to its line. It's both funny and exciting, with a great final punchline. I don't think it was a coincidence that Strzepek was able to succeed here because of his comfort with stories that deal with fantastic elements. It was clear which artists were in their element and which weren't in this volume.
There are several other stories that pretty much took on a serious approach to the subject that didn't do enough to entertain as pure genre stories, or else tried to inject a "poignant moment" into fantasy settings. The one other story I did want to note was Erik Nebel & Jesse Reklaw's "The Little People", about a sort of blob-couple. The male is always off on some kind of quest, leaving his mate behind, and never gives her any details. Years later, when she and their son finally leave them, the real reason for his vagueness came out and it's not clear if he's a raving paranoid or had good reason for his actions. It's not quite as accomplished or interesting as the best stories in this book, but it's still clever and visually interesting. The story is quite grim, but it's balanced by the fact that the blobs are funny-looking.
Overall, this book falls prey to some of the traps that indy books tackling genre subjects fall into, but there are several stories that transcend these difficulties. When dealing with the same topic, story after story, there's a certain numbing effect that can take over for the reader. At the same time, the stories that manage to capture the theme in a unique manner are all the more memorable. Writing genre fiction creates a certain set of limitations and expectations for an artist, and it's a testament to an artist's skill if they can create something truly memorable given a reduced palette of storytelling options. There will be a second volume of Elfworld in 2008, and it'll be interesting to see which artists return and what new voices Vigneault brings in. While I appreciate Vigneault's attempt to bring a variety of approaches (serious and otherwise), the next volume may work better as a whole if every artist successfully walks the line between genre fantasy and playfulness. The book was solicited through Diamond and is also available at Family Style's website at http://www.family-style.com