Elfquest has had a wild publication history, and is alternately hard and easy to find, from year to year. One thing I almost never see are used Elfquest books for sale. I'm fairly sure that this is because no one who reads Elfquest ever wants to part with it.
THE GRAND QUEST PT 1. - THE ORIGINAL QUEST
You'll want to start with the first eight books, all of which were written by husband-and-wife team Wendy and Richard Pini, drawn by Wendy Pini, and published independently in black-and-white.
Begin with Elfquest: Archives - Volume 1 (DC Archive Editions), which contains the first Elfquest story ever published. The art at the beginning (each volume contains five comic books, collected) is charmingly amateurish, but by halfway through the book, Wendy's art and storytelling are authoritative and remain so for the rest of the series. This book is very self-contained, and serves as a prelude to the "Quest" itself. Nevertheless, you'll want to be introduced to the characters and the rules of the world. This book is also available in a more sensibly priced "Reader's Collection" edition, which is out of print but sometimes available on Amazon. This version is titled "Fire And Flight," as were all previous printings. There is also a manga-sized version of this book and the others that make up the "Grand Quest." These are discussed at the end of this guide.
There is no "Archive Edition" of Book 4: "Quest's End" so far, so your best bet is with a "Reader's Collection": Elfquest Reader's Collection #4: Quest's End This does end a storyline, so if you've really got to quit, for budgetary or other reasons, you can take a brief respite after this one.
I might add that neither the "Reader's Collection" nor "Archive" editions reproduce Elfquest in its original magazine size. All prior publications have reproduced them in their "proper" way. Starting with Book 5, Elfquest was published in comic-book format, and were blown back up to magazine size for compilation.
PT. 2 - SIEGE AT BLUE MOUNTAIN
A few years after the original quest ended, Wendy and Richard started publication of the "Siege At Blue Mountain" storyline, which makes up the fifth and sixth books in the saga. While perhaps not as masterful as the storylines which came immediately before and after it, it's very good Elfquest and deserves to be read -- not least because you'll be confused if you don't. As before, Wendy drew and she and Richard wrote.
Astoundingly, for someone who used to walk into Waldenbooks and see a fully-stocked Elfquest section, Book 5: "Siege At Blue Mountain" is out of print. Amazon has the "Complete Elfquest" version available, but it is rather pricey. A "Reader's Collection" edition was published, but all of the "Complete Elfquest" books (there are eight of them) are very lovely and authoritative, especially if you like to read Elfquest in color. There were hardcover and paperback versions of the Siege at Blue Mountain (Elfquest Graphic Novel Series, Book 5)
This audacious and masterful storyline picks up where "Siege" left off. In my opinion, "Kings" and the "Hidden Years" stories that immediately followed them make up the most inspired, controlled, and expert period in the Pini's ouevre. It's amazing to think that anything could approach the original quest, but these books take wild chances and land it everytime. Truly incredible, and a reason in itself to keep reading beyond the first four books.
Whew! If you've got this far, reward yourself IMMEDIATELY with Elfquest - Hidden Years. These, the first stories ever printed initially in gorgeous, virtuoso color paint, were published shortly after the conclusion of "Kings" by Wendy and Richard Pini. The series is a bit of a relief after the intensity of "Kings." Each of the five issues in this volume takes place at a diferent time and place in "history," and is a self-contained story focusing on a different character. Amazingly, every story is a perfect shot. Varying greatly in tone form one to the next, they are in my mind masterpieces that have all the hallmarks of the very best Elfquest. I know I said it before -- but, highly, highly recommended.
Another relaxing rest-stop on our high-action tour, "Dreamtime" takes place right after the events of "Kings," though it was drawn some time after. This book features Wendy's mature drawing style, which is rounded, "animation-like", and very pleasing. This book is not strictly essential in a continuity sense, but is another satisfying and excellently handled self-contained Wendy story. I can only find a "Reader's Collection" volume, Elfquest Reader's Collection #08a: Dreamtime on Amazon, but it is also available in a Manga format, which is still in print. See my disclaimer / apology for the manga versions at the tail end of this little sermon, if you're interested.
Next, pick up Elfquest Book #09: Rogue's Challenge, which moves the storyline on from "Kings." The edition I've linked to is the preferred edition in my view, but there's also a Manga version, published as "The Grand Quest" part 14. This is the first book on our journey that is not entirely written by the Pinis, nor entirely drawn by Wendy. I'll forgo getting in-depth as to Elfquest's tangled publication history in the nineties, but suffice to say that having other personnel write and draw Elfquest was, and remains, extremely controversial. My general opinion of the non-Wendy stories in this book is not terribly high, but the Wendy-drawn story (inked by John Byrne) is another delight along the lines of the "Hidden Years" stories. A battle royale settles a long grudge. You won't want to miss it. In fact, many Elfquest fans reread that story over and over, for grins and comfort.
My next choice is bound to be controversial. The "Forevergreen" storyline, written and drawn by Barry Blair, is one of the least popular amongst Elfquest fans. Personally, I never got my feathers ruffled about it, and find a lot of it very enjoyable. Still, whatever your take on Blair in general, make sure that you get Elfquest Reader's Collection #15: Forevergreen, the first book in the "Forevergreen" trilogy. I say this because it contains the two-part storyline "War," which is essential to continuity, and one of the few non-Wendy-drawn stories that I consider up there with the Elfquest classics. It's touching and fascinating in the way that much of "Kings" was. Don't cheat yourself -- check it out.
Finally, if you're interested, read Elfquest Reader's Collection #9a: Wolfrider!. This is another (mainly) Wendy-drawn book in the mature style of "Dreamtime," that takes place before the events of the first book. Not essential, but very good, and a favorite of many. It was also published in a two-part manga edition, also titled "Wolfrider!"
Geesh. It feels like I've written a ton. But no, we're only now getting to the tricky part.
Next up we have Elfquest Reader's Collection #10: Shards. This is the beginning of a major new storyline, and the first truly major storyline not drawn by Wendy. This book in particular is not a favorite of mine, but the writing (by Wendy and Richard) is good, and it is a crucial book to read.
Oh, god -- I'm still stalling.
This is where we have multiple storylines by different artists all taking place at the same time. In essence, we not have the choice to follow Cutter and his warriors in the "Shards War," or we can follow the rest of the Wolfriders as they struggle for survival in unfamiliar surroundings. At the time of publication, I found myself more interested in the "War" storyline, but anecdotal evidence suggests to me that the Wolfrider-tribe storyline was and is more popular amongst fans.
EMBER'S TRIBE: Sorry to blow the secret, but yeah, it's Ember's tribe. I somewhat suggest reading the Cutter books first, as events in it are revealed in this storyline. Elfquest Reader's Collection #11: Legacy and Elfquest Reader's Collection #11a: Huntress run concurrent to the war. I'm not a big fan of these books, but they do introduce us to an important and likeable new character. Wendy Pini did not draw any of these stories.
After this, you can continue to read about Ember's Wolfriders in Elfquest Reader's Collection #11b: Wild Hunt and Elfquest Reader's Collection #11c: Shadowstalker. These stories take place after the Shards War, and are absolutely amongst the best of the non-Wendy books. The story is engrossing and the art is excellent. I ignored these when they first came out, and was delighted when I found years later that there was an A-list Elfquest storyline yet to read.
These books are not essential in my opinion, and some are better than others. Hopefully, I'll be able to help you find out which ones are for you, though this guide will only give a cursory glance to most of them.
Elfquest Reader's Collection #9c: Kahvi follows the adventures of the title character, and was widely panned. Unfortunately, some of its more dubious story-points have been integrated into the main "Elfquest" narrative -- a very rare false move for the series. I've never read it, and it is possibly the most hard-to-find Elfquest book. It looks as though it might end up as a "collector's item," which is too bad for us fans. No Wendy.
There are currently 14 manga editions of the "Grand Quest" in print. They are a good introduction for a casual reader, but require some warning. Much of Wendy's original page layout has been changed to fit the smaller format, giving a very different experience. The tempering factor is that Wendy herself has created the new layouts. These 14 volumes cover the story of what has traditionally been the "first eight" books, plus "Dreamtime" and "Rogue's Challenge."