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ElfQuestions – an interview with Wendy and Richard Pini

Reprinted by permission from the May 2001 issue of Sequential Tart, a Web Zine about the comics industry, published by an eclectic band of women … dedicated to providing exclusive interviews, in-depth articles and news, while working toward raising the awareness of women’s influence in the comics industry and other realms.”

By Dani Fletcher

Elfquest has been a classic of the comic scene for decades, and it’s responsible for introducing more than one fan to the medium of comics. The story of Cutter, Leetah, Skywise and their people has all the elements to make it an enduring story. Heavily influenced by manga and anime style, with a healthy dose of North American sensibility thrown in for good measure, Elfquest’s hybridity and adult storyline gives it a broad appeal that has led to a global fandom. This month, Sequential Tart presents the first of a two-part interview with Wendy and Richard Pini, discussing past projects and future hopes for the Wolfriders and their creators.

Sequential Tart: When did you discover comic books? What did you like about the medium?

Wendy Pini: Comics have always been part of my life in one form or another, just as the ability to create in different mediums always has. As a very little girl, I used to love reading Casper and Wendy the Good Little Witch and practice drawing the characters. In grade school I graduated to Superboy and went on to collect certain Marvel comics in high school.

Was I an avid comics fan for comics’ sake? No. To me, they were movies on paper – my imagination filled in the movement that was missing. My real childhood passion was for animation, from Disney to Hanna Barbera toWarner Bros. I thought nothing could top them. Then, at age ten, I discovered anime in the form of Tezuka Sensei’s Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, Marine Boy and Speed Racer and full-length features likeMagic Boy and The Littlest Warrior taught me a new way to think of animation as a medium for darkly dramatic, emotionally powerful storytelling. That changed my attitude toward comics as well. The comics I drew to entertain myself were manga-flavored from the get-go.

Richard Pini: I have a memory, from age 8 or so, of being laid low with a cold or some such, and being confined to home (which, given that my 3rd grade experience wasn’t so far different from what’s shown on South Park, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing). That weekend various aunts and uncles came over to visit, and they brought me an armload of comics – mostly DC titles, with a couple of the old 80-page Giants thrown in for good measure. I enjoyed reading them, but they didn’t “stick” with me just yet.

Some years later – I must have been 14 or so – I was enduring my weekly dose of torture, a.k.a. accordion lessons. Across the street from the studio where I took lessons was an old-fashioned drug-store, with a soda fountain and magazine rack and wooden floors and all the rest. And from that magazine rack they sold comics, and I happened to pick up an issue of Superman andBatman titles did. But Marvel Comics was doing something very different and daring, though at the time I didn’t know what it was. (It would still be a few years before the media got on the bandwagon, extolling Marvel’s innovations in storytelling.)

The end result was that I was hooked. That issue’s story fed into the next issue, and the next, and the next. I wasn’t reading comics; I was reading a kind of novel of great (seeming) depth and breadth, and it was exhilarating.

ST: What comics were your favorites and how did those comics affect your own creative processes?

WP: I adored Stan Lee and Jack Kirby‘s work on The Fantastic Four andThor. Such powerful, mythic writing and art! Later, I was awed by John Buscema‘s over-the-top sensuality of line and read anything he drew. My favorite characters were Marvel’s Avengers and especially The Inhumanswho resembled, in so many ways, the elfin beings of my own mythology. From masters like Jack Kirby, Alex Toth and Doug Wildey I learned how to give a character heft and masculine solidity – you can see that in my trolls and male elves today.

Then, in my teens, a good friend gave me a bunch of big, fat, pink n’ pretty girls’ romance manga. I went nuts with the huge, sparkly eye influence. Combine graceful, Japanese-type detail with Kirby-type exaggerated macho linework and you’ve pretty much got the evolution of my comic art style. Weird, huh?

RP: I was a total Marvelite at that age; I fit all the stereotypes. It’s just that the so-called “Marvel method” of doing comic book stories allowed (again, though I didn’t know it at the time) for much more story and character development than did the very linear method other comics companies used. I discovered that characters could behave in very human (read: very idiosyncratic and smart-alecky) ways, and that shaped how I approach writing.

ST: When did you discover manga and what did you like the best about the Japanese style of comic books?

WP: What did I like best? I loved the tension created when what looked like sugary cuteness came up against horrible, brute violence. It was such an extreme dynamic. Nothing was safe. Cuteness didn’t mean a character would survive. And the violence was portrayed so honestly and unsparingly. As a young, western woman with a decidedly Yang streak, reared on Disney, I felt utterly liberated by it all.

I also loved the sense of “otherness” achieved by manga artists. Their heroes, heroines, and, frequently, their villains have an idealized, mask-like, androgynous beauty – much like elves. Almost all manga artists, men and women, have a strong feminine sensibility in their work. It shows up in their eloquent use of line. Entertainment laced with sexual ambiguity goes way, way back in oriental culture. I still find it mysterious and compelling.

RP: I think Wendy was lucky in this respect that she grew up on the West Coast, where there was even a chance to find the rare manga comic book. They were unheard of on the East Coast, where I grew up, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. If it hadn’t been for Wendy’s introducing them to me, I probably wouldn’t have known about them at all until much later.

ST: Which manga were your favorites and how did those compare to your other comic book experiences?

WP: Well, I’ve never had what you could call a collector’s mentality. Something intrigues me and I just absorb it – don’t generally go after repeated fixes of the same thing. But Kamui Gai Den was a favorite. Also Candy Candy and random romance mangas whose titles I didn’t know. Except for the generosity of fellow fans and collectors like Fred Patten, I could find few manga back in the late ’60s/early ’70s – not like lucky Americans, today, who have ready access to so many series translated into English.

Often, I’d discover a manga series from viewing anime based on that material. After seeing Lupin the 3rd, especially Cagliostro, I sought out and very much enjoyed Monkey Punch‘s work (now there’s a guy with real, personal style!). In the ’80s, after Elfquest was well established, I discovered a rather obscure series called Locke the Superman whose philosophical depth really excited me. That one I did collect, for a time, along with the movies based on it.

Not knowing the language, “reading” manga meant figuring out the story from the pictures. It’s a testament to the expressiveness of Japanese comic art that so much is so readily understandable. American comics used to be more like that in the ’60s and ’70s. Nowadays, for the most part, you can’t just look at a page and get the gist of a plot anymore. I miss that old-fashioned kind of clean storytelling.

ST: When you were contemplating creating your own series, did you know from the beginning that manga or the manga style was going to play a role? What made that artistic style so appealing at that point in time? Were there any other American comics being done in that form?

WP: Since Elfquest was one of the very first independent comics, and a heroic fantasy comic to boot, which was nigh unheard of at the time, we had few, if any, role models and were forced to create our own niche in the marketplace. While I did not consciously plan it that way, the manga and anime influences in my drawing style naturally complemented a high fantasy theme.

Fantasy is organic, born of the inner life of Man and Woman. In illustration, fantastic subjects are often rendered in the graceful curves of the art nouveau style, which I’ve always emulated. The art nouveau movement, of course, grew out of turn-of-the-century European artists’ discovery of Japanese wood block prints and other orientalia. That’s why Elfquest looks somewhat Japanese (though it’s regarded as a European style graphic novel series overseas). My use of multiple silent panels and “animations” allowing facial expression and body language to carry the story, combined with a big-eyed, diminutive, androgynous cast of characters obviously reflects the influence of manga techniques.

ST: Richard, the magical world of elves searching for their origins seems a long way from High School Astronomy. How did you go from teacher to comic book creator?

RP: Oh, it was a convoluted path! I’d already discovered comics, and still loved what the best writers and artists were doing. I was always a geek for science, and also for science fiction (and fantasy, though to a lesser extent). My first real job out of college was writing and producing shows for the Hayden Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science. From there I went into teaching, and it was while I was doing that that Wendy sat me down one day in 1977 and said, in essence, “I have a story, it wants telling, what do you think?” And then she proceeded to outline the beginnings of Elfquest.

I don’t see myself so much as “creator” as a bit of “co-creator” or more accurately, “facilitator.” I think that’s my role in the world, generally. Wendy wanted to tell this grand story of elves on a quest, and really wanted to do it via an animated film . . . but of course that was out of the question for a couple of twenty-somethings like us. Writing it out as a prose novel would strip it of all the beautiful imagery that Wendy was and is capable of. Will Eisner would define comic books years later as the perfect blend of words and movies, so that’s the format we settled upon.

Then it fell to me to do the homework and learn everything there was to learn about printing and publishing and distribution . . . and in 1977 and 1978 there wasn’t a whole lot of established knowledge out there! We made mistakes; we made all the known ones and invented a few new ones. But we kept at it, and I discovered that I really enjoyed being a creative facilitator.

ST: What were some of the early influences on your art and writing style?

WP: In addition to those already mentioned, I must also credit great, romantic illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish, Alphonse Mucha, Aubrey Beardsleyand Howard Pyle. While my writing of Elfquest scripts often goes ignored in favor of my art, being well brushed-up on Shakespeare, and on heroic myths and legends in general, hasn’t hurt either.

RP: As far as writing goes, I’d say the biggest “contemporary” influences have been Keith Laumer (a science fiction writer) and Robert B. Parker (author of the Spenser detective novels). Both writers have a punchy, almost tongue-in-cheek style that I like a lot. Aside from that, I just love using the language; I don’t know where I got that.

 

ST: When did you begin working on Elfquest and what was the work process like?WP: Early in 1977, when heroic fantasies such as Lord of the Rings andStar Wars exploded in popularity, pervading all media, I told Richard my idea for Elfquest. He gravitated to it immediately. For a while we debated how best to get the story out to the public. Should it be presented as a prose novel? A movie script? Finally we settled on a magazine-size comic book format; the combined strength of words and pictures was necessary to realize the project’s full potential.

My experience in the comics medium was limited to fan art and the scripting of one issue of Marvel’s Red Sonja. Richard was a selective comics collector and bibliophile who knew, at the time, very little about self-publishing. We had to learn our craft as we went, but it was always the telling of the story that drove us. No mistakes we made (and there were many) could throw us completely off track. This was our child, after all. We were obsessed with raising it right.

RP: I’ve mentioned earlier how things got started, and Wendy has added here. We really didn’t know much of anything about the process of going from idea to finished magazine, so we simply set about learning. It’s no great secret. For example, we knew we’d have to get the things printed somehow, somewhere. So I went to the Yellow Pages, looked up every printer within about an hour’s drive, and took a sample comic to them and asked “Can you do this? How much will it cost?” That’s how I began my education in that area.

In terms of working together on the actual story and art, the inspiration has always been Wendy’s, or at least 98% of it. I’m a much better editor and helper than I am a creator, but when it came time to flesh out each issue’s plot, we’d have some rollicking story sessions – usually over pizza-and these would give us the chance to see what the other was doing from a different angle.

 

ST: Before publishing Elfquest as an independent comic, had you tried to propose the series to Marvel or DC?

WP: Yes. But both companies thought the property too peculiar to be commercially viable. So it was something of an ironic triumph when Marvel undertook to reprint the existing series through its Epic line in the early ’80s.

ST: How hard was it to publish the series independently?

RP: Oy. As Wendy mentions above, we’d tried taking Elfquest to both Marvel and DC, and also to the two best-known alternative publishers extant at the time, Bud Plant and Star*Reach. No one wanted it, because it was just too quirky for them. But in the beginning, we still didn’t want to have to publish it ourselves; we just wanted to produce the story and art and have someone else pay us for it. We did find one interested publisher who had already put out an eclectic line of comics, and we signed on with him.

However, the experience that eventually culminated in Elfquest’s maiden appearance – Fantasy Quarterly #1 – was quite a bit less than satisfying. It took us some months to recover from that, and it was only then that we decided that the old adage is true: If you want something done well, do it yourself.

ST: What were the advantages to a mix of sci-fi and fantasy as the setting? At that point in time, were there a lot of sci-fi comics out there?

WP: As I recall, once I got into the process of co-plotting, scripting, penciling, inking and lettering Elfquest – and meeting those brutal deadlines – my interest in reading comics waned drastically. I guess it’s natural not to want to occupy your leisure time with the very thing you make your living at. So I can’t say I was aware of many sci-fi comics beyond the Star Wars franchise, nor were they a major influence.

Of course, the superhero comics I grew up with always had sci-fi elements…Reed Richards’ gadgets, Superman’s adventures in outer space, etc. But the blend of science fiction and fantasy you find in Elfquest is basically a reflection of Richard’s and my personalities.

Richard’s approach is more logical, more scientific – he likes to know the why of things and requires sound reasons for fantastic events. I tend to take a more spiritual, intuitive approach, placing emphasis on the heart rather than the head. The advantage is: the fantasy world we’ve created is consistent and believable because it holds to certain boundaries: no dragons, no unicorns, no deus ex machina magical manifestations to try the readers’ credibility.

ST: Were you at all influenced by the various TV sci-fi shows that were predominant during the late ’70s and early ’80s?

WP: [laughs] You have to go back much further than that. The original Star Trek series, with its optimistic, egalitarian world view and its tight-knit family of main characters, along with the original, deeply moralistic Outer Limitswere instrumental in forming my sense of what makes a good story. By the early ’80s Elfquest had come so well into its own that we were actually pretty fanatic about protecting it from outside influences. Other comics companies, both mainstream and independent, suggested crossover collaborations which we generally (and, I hope, politely) refused. Elfquest was a thing unto itself and we wanted to keep it pure.

ST: When I think of elves I see Keebler cookies or those cute little guys and gals that help Santa each year, yet you took the concept and the preconceived notion that almost everyone has of elves and turned it upside down with these awesome warriors and clansmen. What inspired you to utilize elves in this fashion, and what was the initial reaction to this series like?

WP: We’re down to the nitty gritty, eh? Well, I guess I’ll have to go out on a limb, here, and say I believe in elves – and in all sorts of inhabitants of other dimensions who dwell right next to us, though we seldom get to see them. To me, elves are somewhere between humans and angels. They are nature spirits, devas if you like, possessed of an innate sense of all life’s sacredness. Their manipulation of certain energies (some would call it magic) stays within the realm of nature’s laws. Morally, they don’t follow the same rules we do; they’re pan-sexual, not hung-up on taboos. However, being clear about who they are and what their responsibility is to the universe, they make every effort to do no harm.

That said, it occurred to me that it would be really fascinating to wrench these ethereal beings out of a particular comfort zone they’d prepared for themselves and into a harsh, completely unfamiliar environment to which they must adapt. Elfquest’s elves come in different sizes and shapes. The dwarfish ones, hardened warriors like the Wolfriders, evolved compact, muscular bodies in order to survive. That’s the scientific explanation. The artistic one is that I simply get a kick out of the way these buff little hunks and babes look. They’re adorable, but I wouldn’t want one mad at me, would you?

Ultimately, Elfquest does follow the manga dynamic of thrusting the petite and apparently vulnerable up against horrific odds. Richard and I like to joke that our formula for coming up with a story line is to think of the worst possible thing that could happen to a character, or group of characters, and just let ’em have it.

RP: Another element to the answer is that elves are creatures that human readers (as far as we know, the only audience – so far – for Elfquest) can identify with, because they are mostly humanoid . . . and yet, they are alien enough so that readers don’t feel they’re reading a simple human tale. Reader identification is very important to the acceptance of any story, and that the Elfquest elves are human in general form, as well as appealing aesthetically and sensually, gives readers easy access to that identification. From the beginning, we’ve gotten feedback that’s just about unanimous about how beautiful readers perceive the elves to be, and how much they – the readers – would like to be elves or be like the elves.

 

ST: What was the Indy scene like back when Elfquest began?RP: It was almost non-existent. Underground comics had been around since about the middle 1960s, and fanzines had been published since around the same time, but there was no “alternative” or “independent” publishing until about 1974, when Bud Plant began to put out Jack Katz’s First Kingdom and Mike Friedrich began Star*Reach comics. These two were about it until late 1977 and early 1978 when Cerebus and Elfquest appeared.

The point is that back then, the market was wide open; there was almost no competition. Trying to start up Elfquest today, we’d have a harder row to hoe, that’s for certain. But back then, we were able to take the infant direct distribution market by storm.

ST: How do you think that Elfquest helped change the way independent comics are viewed?

WP: Before independent comics, there were the “undergrounds” – brilliantly entertaining, totally subversive stuff thumbing its collective nose at the mainstream comics code. Then, in the mid 70s, Elfquest, Cerebus, First Kingdom and a few other rogue black and whites hit the stands. That was the beginning of the independent comics movement.

The establishment didn’t know what to make of us. Our material was neither taboo nor conventional, neither mainstream nor underground. It fit no known mould. But it was clearly wildly popular. So a new term, “ground level,” was coined. Elfquest went on to make a bit more history as the first “graphic novel series” (another newly minted term) to be published in America and sold in big chain book stores. Before then, popular comics collected and bound in hardcover, color volumes could only be found overseas.

It must be admitted that Elfquest is something of a comics industry wallflower, having received only a handful of awards over the years, none major. Most of its recognition has come from the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community, literary groups, libraries and such. It took the Overstreet Price Guide several years to even acknowledge our existence, whereas Cerebus and other b/w independents were regularly listed. As in their own story line, the elves have had to face prejudice in the real world marketplace. In a superhero-saturated, male-dominated industry, a pretty fantasy comic written and drawn by a woman was highly suspect. Cute isn’t cool. To some non-mangawise critics, Elfquest has looked and always will look too precious to be taken seriously.

But retailers, distributors and creators all agree that Elfquest’s one, major influence, still unequaled by any other title, is the large, previously untapped female audience it brought into comic shops. Richard and I are thrilled that over half our readership is female. This is no accident. Women are drawn to story content that focuses on relationships rather than body counts. I write and draw what pleases me, so it naturally attracts women readers.

RP: All I can add to that is that, at the start of the “Indy” comics market, an issue that was selling one or two thousand copies was considered to be doing well. Elfquest started at ten thousand copies, and the circulation steadily grew. I believe firmly that it was Elfquest’s initial and highly visible success that inspired other independent publishers to take a shot at it too.

ST: How has your involvement in the Indy scene changed over the years?

RP: This is a bit of a tough one . . . I guess for a long time, perhaps as long as we’ve been creating and publishing Elfquest, we haven’t particularly felt that we were part of the Indy (or any other) “scene.” For a long time, when Elfquest was starting out and being really popular and outselling all other Indy comics by a factor of ten, we were in the strange position of being both envied and ignored. Envied, because we were at the top of the heap, in a place other publishers admitted they wanted to be; and ignored, because the style and content of Elfquest wasn’t cutting-edge or avant-garde enough to warrant coverage in the comics press of the time. We often were given to understand that Elfquest just wasn’t categorizable enough; it was the wrong size, it was not color, it was written and drawn by a woman (who didn’t draw like a “girl”, however), it only came out three times a year . . . and it was successful! The early days of Indy publishing were marked by a feeling of “the Indies against the mainstream”, and if one was successful, somehow that was a betrayal of the struggle. So we never really felt a part of the “scene” from the beginning. We simply did our work, told our story the best we could, and stayed in business without espousing any particular cause or voice.

ST: In the ’80s there were rumors of an animated Elfquest series in the works. Which of your cast was going to be included in that and why didn’t that series ever see fruitation?

WP: The short version is that, in the mid ’80s, Elfquest was in development at CBS as a Saturday morning cartoon show slated to replace the, then, cancelledDungeons and Dragons. Zander’s Animation Parlor was producing and we had a great team of writers, Larry DiTillio and Joe Straczynski of Babylon 5fame. We structured a new quest which included most of the elves, trolls and Winnowill. However, Judy Price, head of children’s programming, didn’t really “get” Elfquest and kept bumping it to an earlier time slot, which meant we had to aim it at successively younger audiences. Finally, to avoid ending up as “Elf Muppet Babies,” we let the deal fall apart. Richard and I have turned down an awful lot of money, over the years, rather than see Elfquest destroyed.

RP: And yet, had we not turned those earlier deals down, we wouldn’t be answering these questions now, because Elfquest would have been made into a mediocre animated film – perhaps – and it would be pretty well dead now.

ST: How does that series relate to the rumored one for Fox? Are there still plans with Fox?

WP: At this time we have no relationship with Fox, but that could change. The Elfquest movie, which is being fully financed in Europe, is well into storyboard phase, a co-production of Project Sceneries and Wolfmill Entertainment. The screenplay, written by Marv Wolfman, Craig Miller and myself, was completed last year and is based on the original quest, Books One through Four. Most of Elfquest’s best-loved characters made it in.

ST: What else can viewers expect?

WP: Many incidents in the script were lifted whole cloth from the EQ comics. However, they don’t necessarily happen in the order you find them in the series. Also there is much new material specifically invented for the screen. The changes were vital and Richard and I are more than satisfied. We hope the fans will be too. As Hijiri Yuki, creator of Locke the Superman, so aptly put it, “Movie is movie and manga is manga.”

ST: How hard has it been to animate the Elfquest series? Were these characters easily adapted to the Silver Screen? What has been the most difficult?

WP: You’ll be pleased to know that our Belgian director, Patrick Claeys, right off the bat said he felt we should maintain a Japanese anime quality in the Elfquest movie. The elves and other characters, having been designed all along with animation in mind, are easily adapted. At this point we’re still exploring how we want the film to look. Tests are in progress. Full CGI animation is only acceptable to us if the cast comes across as warm and believable. We’re actually leaning more toward Disney’s Tarzan as a role model – lush, 3-D backgrounds behind more traditionally rendered characters.

Fortunately, Richard, I and our partners at Wolfmill are contractually in a position of influence. Our approval carries significant weight with the European animation studios. Normally, in Hollywood, that’s not so. To protect Elfquest’s integrity, and ours, we had to take our time and set this up very carefully.

RP: Actually, we have pretty much complete creative control over every aspect of the production. This doesn’t mean, for example, that once a storyboard sequence is done and approved, we can later go in willy-nilly and change something. But then, why would we want to? But other than reasonable limitations like that, we get to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down on just about every aspect of the production.

ST: When making an animated movie of Elfquest, whom would you like to see cast as your leads for this endeavor?

WP: Well, many famous names have been batted around. We need a few big ones for publicity’s sake. The actors I’d LIKE to see cast aren’t necessarily big names, though. They just have the right quality. For example, in my mind, Rayek always sounds like a young George Takei, minus that weird laugh. Skywise sounds to me like a Michael J. Fox type. Winnowill could be played by Kim Novak, Kathleen Turner or perhaps Sharon Stone. And Cutter? Well, whatever you may think of his acting (I think he’s incredible) Leonardo Di Caprio has the voice and the looks.

ST: Films are a collaborative effort. How do you create a film and maintain the distinctive ElfQuest look and spirit? Did you feel any anxiety over relinquishing some control?

WP: The issue of control is what has stood in the way, over two decades, of Elfquest’s debut on film. We’ve been optioned several times, and there have been many attempts at screenplay adaptations. Call us crazy, naive or plain stupid, but Richard and I just kept holding out, waiting for the right time and the right creative team to help us produce as faithful a film as possible. We think that time is now. When the Elfquest animated feature finally premiers, there’ll be purists among our fan base who will claim we compromised too much, or worse, sold out. They have no idea what hoops we jumped through to retain the spirit, if not the letter of the original quest. Remember, “Movie is movie and manga is manga.”

ST: Why do you think that ElfQuest has had such an enduring popularity?

WP: Although our characters are not human, they’re easy to identify with and root for. The theme of “different ones” attempting to survive in a world that constantly misunderstands them is one everybody can relate to. The Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, is a timeless, universal myth which speaks to the ideals and yearnings of one generation to the next. I think, behind Elfquest’s odd, unconventional window dressing, Richard and I somehow latched onto a classic Hero’s Journey that a good chunk of the world, thankfully, continues to embrace.

RP: We’ve said often that the characters of Elfquest – the elves – are human-seeming enough so that readers can relate to them easily, yet different-seeming enough so that reading Elfquest is not the same as reading an everyday romance or adventure story. In the elves’ faces, you can see and feel what’s going on inside their minds, which would be a bit more difficult to do if the main characters were iguanas or the like.

ST: What do you like best about it?

WP: That it’s a record of Richard’s and my growth as individuals and best friends. The comic book medium is our Rosetta Stone and the elves are hieroglyphs enabling us to express all we care about, all we’ve learned, all we’ve suffered and all we celebrate in the language of fairy tale.

RP: [smiles] What she said.

ST: If someone has never heard about the series–say they were living in an alternative non-elf dimension–what would you say to them about the main cast to get them interested in reading Elfquest?

WP: I’d say don’t be fooled by appearances. Don’t be put off by child-like proportions and fanciful trappings. If you give it a chance and let it transport you, you will find yourself in the story, because Elfquest is a Self Quest.

RP: I guess I might ask this hypothetical person, “Have you ever felt like you just didn’t belong?” And I’d bet the odds would be pretty good that the answer would be “Yes.” And then I’d be able to say something along the lines of “Well then, this might just be YOUR story. Give it a shot.”

ST: Which character is your favorite?

WP: Cutter speaks for me. He IS me.

RP: Skywise is my avatar in the series. It’s funny – people often ask if we are Cutter (me) and Leetah (Wendy), and they get the most interesting expressions when we say that actually we’re Cutter (Wendy) and Skywise (me)!

 

Sequential Tart: What other non-EQ works have you done?

Wendy Pini: My first professional illustration work was for science fiction periodicals such as Galaxy and Worlds of If magazines. I’ve done a smattering of short pieces for Marvel and DC and I’m quite proud of the two“Beauty and the Beast” graphic novels I wrote and painted in the late 80s. As for Elric, rather than rehash it all here, there’s an excellent illustrated feature on our official Elfquest web site that discusses my early work in detail. For those interested, I recommend it.

ST: When you each met, was it like meeting your long lost soulmate? Did you feel complete?

WP: In 1969, Richard and I fell in love and dated over the phone for many months before he spontaneously drove from Boston, across country, in a tiny Renault, non-stop for two and a half days, and ended up in the hallway of my college dormitory in Claremont, CA. I just happened to come out of a room into the hall as he arrived. Our eyes met (we’d already exchanged photos) and, as I recall, he spun around in his tracks. Then I ran to him and we hugged ’til our ribs cracked. Later, we sat on a stoop holding hands. We hadn’t kissed yet. Richard had his reasons. He said, “One: scared. Two: nervous. Three: terrified.” Feeling everything he was feeling, I went ahead and said, “Four: ridiculous!” And we had our first kiss. How’s that for romantic?

Richard Pini: Just to put some balance to this tale, keep in mind that after 60 solid hours on the road, I managed – barely – to maintain sufficient presence of mind to check myself into a motel and take a sorely needed shower BEFORE I went that last wee bit of distance to the college! Else none of this might have happened. . . .

ST: How long were you friends before you realized that this relationship was going to be permanent?

WP: I think we knew almost from the beginning that we were “mission mates.” We talked of marriage very matter-of-factly, like it was already a done deal. Certain decisions, like focusing on our careers instead of having children, came quickly and easily, which isn’t usual for most couples. Spiritually speaking, I think much of this must have been planned long before we were born.

We’ve been together over thirty years. I know Richard will agree that juggling a marriage and a business partnership is a roller coaster ride with huge ups and downs. Herding Elfquest along has been one of two grand consistencies in our lives. The other is that, in all this time, through many trials, neither one of us has been able to bear the thought of life without the other.

ST: Have you ever argued about the way parts of the story or one of the characters should be presented? What do you do to compromise?

RP: Have we ever argued? [laughs] Might as well ask, have we ever breathed air? There’s no doubt that Wendy is the wellspring from whom just about all of the characters and story elements spring. She’s the originator. On the other hand, I know that I bring a certain “nuts and bolts” sensitivity to the process, which is why a lot of Elfquest is semi-grounded in a kind of science. Sometimes one of us will feel that the story should go in a certain direction that might swing too far in the direction of the spiritual or the purely physical/scientific, and the other of us will have to guide the discussion back to a middle course. This is often done over pizza, by the way, which is an excellent moderating medium.

As for compromise, by this time, that’s an automatic element of the mix. Time was, years ago, when one or the other of us could carry a snit for hours or days (if it was a really good one). Now, the air gets cleared almost as soon as contention shows its face.

ST: Elfquest=NASA? How have the twin moon folks helped out the U.S. Space Program?

RP: I’ve always been a space buff, literally all my life. One day, about four years ago I got an email out of the blue from a fellow at one of the NASAcenters, out near Cleveland. He was the project director for an experiment scheduled to fly on a then-upcoming Shuttle mission. The experiment was the study of the behavior of flames in zero (or rather, micro) gravity; the formal name of the experiment was Enclosed Laminar Flames. Or, for acronym buffs, ELF. This fellow was also an Elfquest reader, and what he wanted to know via his email was, did we want to take part in the design of a project logo to go into space on this mission?

I must have thought about this request for three, maybe four milliseconds before roaring back a reply, “You betcha!”

Wendy was equally excited about the prospect and set about designing a kind of “generic” Elfquest elf – that we named Starfire – to grace the mission patch. (The reason for the design of a new elf, and not using one of the established characters, is simple: NASA doesn’t copyright its material-it’s some sort of governmental loophole, I think – and we didn’t want any of the established Elfquest characters falling into the public domain.) I figure, passenger seats aboard the Shuttle may not be available to average folks like me before I’m too decrepit to take advantage of them, but this way a little piece of us has actually gone up into space.

ST: I’ve seen a website for a convention in Germany devoted to Elfquest alone. How global is the Elfquest phenomenon? What’s the most exotic fan letter you’ve received?

RP: As far as we know, Elfquest is read all over the globe. If you go to the Elfquest site, there’s a page that contains links to hundreds of fan-generated web sites, with more being reported to us every day, and those URLs are located all over the planet. Before we got involved with the internet, we knew that Elfquest was probably an international phenomenon – it’s been translated into several foreign languages like French and Russian and Italian and such (not Japanese yet, though we’re working on that) – and we would receive occasional fan mail with distant postmarks. But the ‘net and the Web have shown us in spades that Elfquest is truly all over the place.

I suspect the most exotic fan letter is going to be one that we haven’t yet received. Over the years we’ve gotten some pretty strange letters (and gifts too) through the mail. When One-Eye was killed and Clearbrook cut off her long braid in mourning, one girl cut off her own braided hair and sent it to us, in sympathy. We’ve gotten letters from people who’ve told us how Elfquest has changed their lives, we’ve heard from parents who’ve named their children after some of the characters in the story! We’ve gotten some beautifully sad and personal letters.

When someone sends a couple of first-class tickets to some warm, white sand island paradise in the South Seas, along with a lot of money in small unmarked bills, we’ll definitely consider that to be in the running for “most exotic”!

ST: What do you think of the increasing popularity of anime and manga in North America?

WP: I think it’s about time. I think today’s youth are looking for stories and art that engage their minds and hearts deeply. I think the power of art to penetrate and transform is something we crave, and we know when we’re being served watered-down pap. I think many young Americans are drawn to the exotic, finding the oriental world-view refreshing, challenging and seductive.

Currently, I’m a huge fan of the animated Dragonball Z. It’s a broad retelling of the Buddhist myth “The Way West,” the legend of Sun Goku the Monkey King, which I first encountered in “Alakazam the Great.” Dragonball Z, which many parents decry as a mindless slugfest, actually contains huge doses of spiritual enlightenment cleverly disguised as martial arts mayhem. It tickles me that American kids are eating it up, all unawares. No doubt about it, anime and manga can be addictive to the western mind. If Toonami and the Cartoon Network had existed when I was a teen, I’d probably have ended up a jibbering, housebound zombie.

ST: What sort of influence do you think it could have on the North American comic industry?

WP: I think it has had an enormous influence already. Famous example, and one of the first: Frank Miller’s ‘Ronin”. These days you can’t miss the manga references in the drawing style and layout of nearly every action superhero comic, mainstream or independent. It’s hip, cool and happening. By the way, we owe a great debt to Kevin Altieri and Bruce Timm for elevating the content and look of children’s television, starting with the thoroughly anime Batman animated series. Since then, when it comes to American kids’ TV, Japan practically owns the airwaves. You don’t see me complaining.

For all the western influence they’ve absorbed (and not always to the good), for all the crass commercialism of Pokemon and the like, somehow the Japanese always manage to slip a moment of serious reflection, a dramatic pause in which life itself is on the line, into their storytelling. I deeply respect this. Nonstop, Disneyesque lightheartedness never nourished me, even as a kid. I craved deep things to think about. And I like it that the Japanese assume kids all over the world have the depth of soul to want that still.

ST: What is Elfquest?

WP: Elfquest is an ongoing heroic fantasy graphic novel series, with science fictional undertones, about a band of alien beings who look like elves trying to survive on a hostile world that is not their ancestors’ planet of origin. The storyline focuses on the elves’ struggle to remain true to their harmonious, nature-loving ways despite the encroachment into their territories of an ever-increasing human population. The art style of Elfquest, whether mine or any of the other talented artists’ Warp Graphics employs, is a combination of influences from classic fairytale illustration to Japanese anime or manga. Although our elfin cast of characters, like Cutter, Leetah, Skywise and Rayek, have a big-eyed, childlike appearance, their adventures take them psychologically, spiritually and physically to very dark, very grown-up places. It’s my firm belief, based on years of fan feedback, that anyone willing to fully explore the epic-sized world of Elfquest will find their views of modern society mirrored, their prejudices challenged and their understanding of relationships – of all kinds – forever changed.

RP: We’ve also called Elfquest “fantasy with teeth” and “a soap opera with pointed ears.” What is it about soap operas on TV that attract such loyal followings for such long periods? One of the major reasons must be that viewers are allowed to get right down into even the picayune details of the characters’ lives – sometimes to the point where the actor fades into the background, and the character is the “real” persona. Elfquest affords this close a look into the characters, their lives and their struggles. I might even go so far as to say that Elfquest does for fantasy comics what Marvel is touted as having done for superhero comics – given the players real and believable characteristics, foibles and all.

 

ST: Elfquest is a series that for over 25 years has been recognized by people both in and out of comics as one of the best. So many other series have come and gone in this time, but Elfquest seems eternal. What do you attribute this to?WP: Over the past quarter century Elfquest has grown and changed right along with the rest of the world. It has not stagnated. The characters have evolved, remaining fresh and, I think, getting even more interesting. But one thing that never changes about Elfquest is the amount of love that goes into it. Richard and I are not dumb. Our readers are not dumb. We all know when we’re getting a story that’s truthful and heartfelt. And we crave that. Even people who think they’re too cool and above-it-all are secretly starving for that. Stories about relationship complications, heroism, sacrifice and family loyalty may not be considered hip or edgy, but they make a lasting impression and never go out of style.

RP: Everything old is new again. The window-dressing may change, but the down-deep core values (and that’s a word I am usually leery of using in today’s “political-correctness” hung-up culture) remain. Why else, after over two decades of publication, would we be seeing young parents, who grew up through high-school reading Elfquest, now letting us know that they are reading the books to their own children? Something inherent in Elfquest is trans-generational; it goes on and on through the years. And that “something” is the quest for connection, for completion, as individuals and as groups.

ST: Why did Elfquest expand to include other writers/artists in the early 90’s after such success with its creators?

WP: You just answered your own question. The downside of success is there’s less and less time to “do it yourself.” Richard and I discovered that the world of Elfquest was expanding past our capacity to produce it as a Mom and Pop team. So we did our best to locate artists and writers who could capture at least the spirit of the elves. Some have been better at it that others, but all have helped us keep Elfquest in the public eye.

Speaking of which, here’s some anime-related news you might enjoy. Recently, Warp Graphics hired Sonny Strait, voice of Krillin and other characters on DBZ to draw an entire new volume of Elfquest stories! Richard and I met and fell in love with the Dragonball Z voice cast at this year’s San Diego Con. Apparently, the feeling was mutual. Sonny, to my amazement, is a longtime Elfquest fan who’s drawing style is inspired, in part, by mine. It turned out his main ambition is to be a comic book artist; he’d already had experience self-publishing a title called Mr. Average. He’s good, very good at drawing the elves, and also very aware of art nouveau. So this is truly a partnership made in manga heaven.

ST: What can you tell us of this project with Sonny Strait?

WP: The Elfquest 2001 Summer Special #1 is a 48 page comic called“Wolfshadow” that is scheduled for release just in time for the San Diego Comic Con in July. I’m very excited about it because it’s a tale that sheds light on Cutter and Skywise’s first days of reunion after a time-travelling, ten thousand year separation. It’s a love story, in a way, plus a rollicking rescue co-plotted by Sonny Strait and me, scripted and laid out by me, with finished art by Sonny. Be prepared to laugh AND cry. Sneak peekers already have! I’m not kidding! Sonny’s an enormously talented actor/artist/comedian/puppeteer/dancer/storyteller with a dash of wise Shaman and wise-ass Trickster thrown in. A self-published comic book creator in his own right, his love and understanding of the Elfquest universe is genuine and overwhelming. He wants to learn how to do it the way I do it – and he’s gotten spookily close in his few months of apprenticeship at my studio. He’s Treestump to my Cutter, Percival to my Arthur, Bre’r Rabbit to my Uncle Remus. If it doesn’t have heart, spirit, integrity and a few big laughs, Sonny’s just not interested.

RP: Wendy and I have talked about this story a lot, and like just about everything else connected with Elfquest, it will lead to others dealing with the same theme – the deep and very special relationship between Cutter and Skywise.

ST: Cutter and Skywise are two of your favorites! What other plans do you have for them?

WP: Working story ideas/titles that we’ve come up and played with so far are:“Troll Games and Soul Names,” a tale of Cutter and Skywise’s youth in the Holt at the end of Bearclaw’s reign. As the title suggests, it’s about how Cutter and Skywise come to realize, through hardship, that their bond is a strange form of Recognition. Then there’s “The Heart’s Way,” written and illustrated by me, which takes place in the Sun Village years later. It asks the titillating question: what happens when a brother’s love for a brother is challenged by a smitten maiden’s jealousy? Finally there’s “Full Circle” which brings the Wolfriders, as they are today, back to the original Holt. This story takes Cutter and Skywise to new levels of understanding and friendship as they both try to help Cutter’s son Suntop through a difficult phase.

RP: As much as I love helping out when it comes to bouncing around ideas for stories with Wendy (and Sonny, and whoever else may be working with us at any given time on any given project), another of the hats I wear is that of the publisher. And as you know, I put aside publishing comics a little over two years ago, because of market conditions, in favor of concentrating Warp Graphics’ energies in the book/graphic novel market. It was a good move for us at the time. As a book publisher, I’d love to be able to offer something brand new to Elfquest’s readers, not a reprint volume as many of the Elfquest Reader’s Collection books have been, but new material. If this first Summer Special comic book goes well, I’ll be very happy to compile these other stories into a new volume for release sometime later this year, or early next year.

But just so everyone knows, I’m already planning a second Summer Special for August, in time for the Wizard World convention in Chicago. This one will showcase the first chapter in a new Wild Hunt saga entitled “Recognition” – the storyline is being written by Wendy and Joellyn Auklandus, with gorgeous toned art by Brandon McKinney (who’s done a lot of Elfquest work for us in the past, as well as for Dark Horse, Lucasfilm, and others). These stories will also be collected into a Reader’s Collection volume next year, but the Summer Special will have material that won’t be available anywhere else but in the comic book.


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