Elves in the Balance: An interview with naturalist David Mizejewski

I first saw the elves on the floor of my best friend’s station wagon when I was seven. Grinning up from the back of a big book, these elves looked different from any other elves I’d seen. I’d always thought elves were a little wimpy, but instead of being fragile fey, these elves seemed fun. Even better–they had wolves!

This was my first experience with Elfquest, a fantasy comic series that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The series, created by Wendy and Richard Pini, chronicles the adventures of an elfin tribe that has a deep connection to their landscape and to wolves. Years ago, I read and re-read the first four graphic novel compilations so often that the pages grew soft. Recently, I came back to Elfquest after a long absence to find that not only had new installments had appeared, but that an extensive community of Elfquest lovers was frolicking (and also, delving into extensive analysis and speculation) online.

One of these Elfquest superfans is David Mizejewski, who has been the co-host of a podcast dedicated to the most recent part of the series, Elfquest: The Final Quest. He’s also a naturalist who works for the National Wildlife Federation and he appears regularly on television and radio shows to talk about wildlife.

As I listened to the podcast, I found that Mizejweski was sprinkling in details about altruism in nature and wolf social structure as he discussed the latest cliffhanger with co-host Ryan Browne. Last month I talked with him about the connection between his work as a naturalist and his interest in the series. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

 

How did you become a naturalist?

I have a degree in human and natural ecology from Emory University. My original plan was to pursue a career in policy and advocacy for strong wildlife and environmental protection laws, which is a critically important area of work for effective conservation, so I paired my ecology degree with a political science one. But I realized that I hated working in the political realm—it’s hard, and it’s adversarial, and it wasn’t where my personal passion or, frankly, where my skillset was. I graduated feeling a little bit deflated.

For lack of something better to do, I got a seasonal job out of college at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Georgia, where I taught seven- and eight-year-old kids about nature and wildlife. I realized that what I’m good at is being a nature geek and sharing my knowledge about wildlife in a way that educates and inspires people to care about wildlife and support conservation. That is the definition of a naturalist.

And then how did you get interested in Elfquest?

The very first spark was the art. It was the cover of the Donning Starblaze edition of Elfquest, Book 2, that shows two of the main characters, Cutter and Skywise, with the forest as the backdrop. There was this lush, dense woodland with these fascinating, beautiful, spooky elves–flanked by wolves. It struck a chord with me. And it was 100 percent because that art depicted nature.

Lots has been written and said about Elfquest’s uniqueness in the comic space. And one of the things that makes the series different is that it starts in a prehistoric era, and it follows characters who live in nature and have a tight connection to nature.

In the very first issue, you have something happen—humans burning down the elves’ forest home—that sets up this major environmental theme, the human destruction of nature. And this theme is so intricately woven into the whole story.

 

One of the things that drew me to Elfquest in the first place was the relationship that one of the groups of elves, the Wolfriders, has with their wolves. Why do you think that’s so important to the story, and how similar are the wolves in Elfquest to wolves in our world?

For whatever reason, a lot of people are really drawn to wolves. They are social animals. They have families. They are the ancestors of domesticated dogs. They are part of the mythologies of cultures around the world. And this social aspect is probably why they were chosen to be so important to the main characters of Elfquest.

One of the things that I most love and appreciate about Elfquest is the accurate representation of wolves. This goes deep to the core of what Elfquest is about. The elves’ whole society is loosely based on wolf society. Very quickly, in developing Elfquest, Wendy and Richard Pini learned more about wolves in the real world, including wolf behavior and social structure. And they pretty much nailed it. The wolfpack is a family, just like the tribe.

There are dominance struggles, both in nature and in the series. In The Kings of the Broken Wheel, the Wolfriders meet up with another tribe, and the two wolf packs meet as well. One of the new wolves attacks Starjumper, a beloved older wolf, and Skywise, his elf companion, has to put the old wolf down. That happens. Wolves are territorial, they will kill each other. The Pinis used that knowledge of natural wolf behavior to create a huge emotional wallop and gutpunch for the readers.

 

Did reading Elfquest influence your work as a naturalist?

Being an Elfquest fan from a young age definitely helped me form my conservation ethic, and helped me understand ecology. And this is a big thing. If you’re familiar with Elfquest, it’s all about living in harmony with the natural world, and being in balance with the world. That’s what ecology is all about.

In particular, Elfquest really helped me as I’ve developed a more mature viewpoint of how life works on this planet. It’s helped me manage on a psychological and emotional level that horrible things happen to animals every day on this planet. I mean, baby animals are brutally ripped apart by their predators, and it’s totally part of the natural process.

The thing that makes me be able to accept that is knowing that it’s normal and natural and part of a natural process. To conservationists, the unit of importance is not necessarily the individual animal, but the species. In the series, the Wolfriders kill and eat animals, but not with cruelty, and not in a way that causes things to go extinct. Elfquest helped me understand just that point—that the science of conservation is about habitat and species and protecting this bigger-picture balance.

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Elfquest images © Warp Graphics, Inc., used with permission.

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