July 3 – the day before Independence Day. There’s a monstrous irony there; what with all the new work that Warp’s license deal with DC Comics has thrust upon Wendy and me, “independence” is an elusive concept lately! (And yes, I’m aware of the double pun, as Warp’s status as an “independent comics publisher” goes by the wayside, according to some. I’ll have a few things to say about that in a future editorial…)
I had email the other day from Locus, the premier magazine of science fiction news. Turns out they were putting together an issue featuring graphic novels, with words from the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, and – particularly since it’s Elfquest’s 25th anniversary year – did I want to add some thoughts from my own point of view?
Does a bear… Well, you know the rest. Or, in other words, you betchum!
The following essay appears in the current (July 2003) issue of Locus, which you should be able to find at most decent bookstores and comics shops. I find it sufficiently oPINIonated that it ought to have a home here as well.
The first rule of acting is: “Whatever happens, look as if it was intended.”
Elfquest is one of the longest-running and most successful series in independent comics. It is arguably the longest-running and most successful series in the still-evolving American graphic novel market. Many of the indy comics creators whose names show up frequently in histories of comics have credited Elfquest with “showing them the way” – defined as “making a go of self-publishing.” It must be that there are two kinds of success, though – flashy or quiet. Elfquest’s is the quiet sort that doesn’t get touted a whole lot. Which is irksome, because there have been many benchmarks that have never been adequately acknowledged, in my opinion. For example, if you want to talk about getting graphic novel trade paperbacks into the bookstore market, a process that started haltingly over twenty years ago, you need to know that Elfquest was the key that opened that door.
You don’t set out on a quest with the expectation of success. Hope is allowed, but you must leave any sense of entitlement at home. Elfquest is, at its core, simply a story – albeit one that’s been simmering in Wendy’s mind and soul for most of her life. She’s a natural storyteller, and for such a person the primary impulse is to Tell The Story; to start with “Once upon a time…” and go from there. That’s all she really wanted to do, one day in 1977 when she announced to me “I have this idea, how can we get it out there?” and laid out for the first time the grand scheme of Elfquest. Self-producing a movie was out of the question, and simple prose would have suffered the loss of Wendy’s exquisite artwork. The comic book format seemed to us, paraphrasing Will Eisner, to be the best synthesis of film and the written word.
And that’s how it started. Wendy never set out to be a comic book artist, but that’s what she became. I had no idea how to be a publisher, but that’s what I learned to do. Warp (for Wendy and Richard Pini) Graphics didn’t anticipate that Elfquest would outsell every other independent comic book title by at least a factor of ten, but that’s what happened. Wendy had no formal education in art; she’d learned her craft by drawing something every day of her life. I had no business education, and simply learned by doing. We made every mistake that could be made, and invented new ones. From the outset, Elfquest was all wrong: It was black and white, it was the wrong size, it was too expensive, it was fantasy, it was created by a woman… But no one told us it was impossible, so we buggered on.
Little did we foresee that Elfquest’s success in the burgeoning direct (comics shops) market in the early 1980s would pave the way for a (now deservedly defunct) licensee publishing company to demonstrate to a skeptical bookstore market that these “comic books on steroids” – what we have all come to call graphic novels – could sell like hotcakes. And fly off the shelves Elfquest did, hitting the Locus best-seller lists with every release, introducing a whole new readership that had never set foot into a specialty comics shop to the World of Two Moons.
Nothing succeeds like success. On the other hand, Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. When the no-longer-here publisher tried to duplicate Elfquest’s sales luster with other properties, they discovered early what so many other publishers (and booksellers) have rediscovered since: Putting the contents of a fat funnybook on shiny paper between heavy covers is not what makes a graphic novel that a lot of people want to buy and read. More than anything else, you need a story, in the primal, mythic sense of the word.
And that’s where Elfquest shines. Long before she ever heard of Joseph Campbell, Wendy was familiar through voracious reading with the Hero’s Journey, the narrative structure that informs every enduring myth from the beginning of storytelling. It is the underpinning of Cutter’s quest as well. It is what makes the tales of the Wolfriders accessible to readers on a gut-emotional level, allowing a wide range of human minds and hearts and personal histories to identify strongly with these little alien point-eared cretures. It is also what makes spinning these stories so much fun! For twenty-five years, as partner and co-plotter and editor and publisher, I’ve been able to aid and abet the spreading of the Elfquest saga. It’s been both bloody hard work and a positive joy and honor. It’s why after all this time I’m still Elfquest’s and Wendy’s biggest fan.
Now, of course, since we’ve very recently concluded a comprehensive licensing agreement with DC Comics to take over the publication and marketing and – oh, just say it – the exploitation of Elfquest, we’ve been hearing from the flag-waving faction of the independent publishing crowd that we’ve sold out. (As if that same crowd ever gave a hoot during those years when, despite severe tumult in the comics market, Elfquest kept on going, just like the Energizer bunny, no matter the cost to us. We guess Elfquest just hasn’t been avant-garde or trendy enough for the self-styled comics cognoscenti. It’s only been successful and loved.) The simple truth is that after two and a half decades, we have realized that we’ve taken the elves just as far on our own as we can, even though they want to go much further. If a million people have already read the adventures of Cutter and company, we want that number to be ten million. If readers have enjoyed Wendy’s pictures, we want them to see those pictures move in animation. If there are more stories to be told, then allow us our choice of resources to tell them. To the flag-wavers we say, don’t blame us if we have bigger dreams than you, and are willing to welcome helping hands to realize them.
So once again, Elfquest is – we hope – poised to be an overnight success after many years of hard work. Often, over the past quarter century, we’ve been asked, “Did you know, when you started, that Elfquest was going to get this big?” And with a Clark Kent-like wink to the fourth-wall audience we reply: Of course we did; it was intended!
Shade and Sweet Intentions!