The ‘F’ Word Wins

Dear Elf Friends,

Over the years, Richard and I have had many deep conversations about how the media, and the public in general, look askance at works of fantasy. With its magical, mystical, even spiritual qualities, high fantasy in films tends to be shunned by adult audiences afraid of appearing uncool. It’s a peculiar prejudice – one that Star Wars, for example, avoids by having all of its fantastic elements coated with a high-tech science fiction sheen (sci-fi, y’see, is cool at any age and always will be).

Almost all the major fantasy films of the last two decades, from “Dark Crystal” to “Legend” to “Labyrinth” to “Willow” to the most recent version of “Peter Pan” have, despite their many merits and big budgets, done poorly at the box office. Even rare successes such as the Harry Potter movies have been lambasted by hip, cynical critics and dismissed as undeserving of serious recognition. Though the aforementioned films – and many others – suffer a problem in common, that of faulty storytelling, the majority of the blame for their artistic or financial failures has been laid squarely on the genre itself. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood – and Richard and I have experienced this firsthand – is that fantasy just doesn’t sell.

Yet in one glittering night, all that has suddenly changed. The thing has happened!

Just a few hours ago “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” swept the Oscars, making motion picture history and opening the door to a new era of acceptance for pop culture’s illegitimate stepchild, high fantasy. There is much celebration in the Pini household: Respectful applause for Peter Jackson’s monumental achievement and whoops of joy that “fantasy,” to paraphrase that gifted director, is now an ‘F’ word that won’t have to be bleeped.

Why has Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the LOTR Trilogy been so widely embraced where other efforts have failed? I believe his explanation (again paraphrasing) that, for all its fantasy trappings, it’s really about human emotions and human experience, is the pure and simple answer. Jackson believed in what he was doing and stayed focused on the things people could identify with most. He knew that despite all the special effects in the world, without that human element – without a hero whose journey you care deeply about – his epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece would fall flat.

Which brings me to my own, long-lived journey in the realm of fantasy. If Elfquest has not “fallen flat” in twenty-five years, it’s because I always try to approach the writing and drawing as if it were a movie with a powerfully character-driven script. Staying focused on what motivates the characters, what makes one elf different from another, what “notes” each one hits in the music of the story, helps me bring it all together in a way that reaches even those who are usually allergic to high fantasy. Again, it’s that human element that convinces readers to take the elves’ adventures seriously. But I could do none of it if I, myself, didn’t believe in it one hundred percent.

Elf fans, friends and future creators, from your feedback I know that many of you like to write and draw your own fantasy stories and that you’re eager to learn ways to improve your techniques. You’ve asked for hints, tips and how-tos which I hope to provide, as I can, in the coming months via our newly (and wonderfully) spruced-up web site.

In the meantime, what’s the best creative advice I can offer? It’s to take a page from Peter Jackson’s own life script and simply believe in what you’re doing. Don’t forget, he started out as a comics/horror/sci-fi fan and film buff. He’s a perfect example of pursuing what you love and turning it into your life’s work. Joseph Campbell would call it “following your bliss.”

In your own efforts at writing and drawing, stay focused on the characters you come up with. Study and refine them. Pay attention to the small details that make them individual and interesting. And be consistent. Characters may grow and change through the arc of a storyline, but they shouldn’t act against their essential natures. Consistency is what makes a character like Skywise, for example, seem real. You know him inside out. You know what he’s likely to think, feel and do in a given situation. Such well-defined characters contribute believability to a story – and where do they come from? No place but your own heart. Trust that and watch your ability to build worlds blossom.

I encourage you to keep practicing and exchanging ideas with each other – especially now that the climate in the media has changed so favorably toward the fantasy genre. If you’re a teenager or young adult, it’s none too soon to envision a career as writer, artist or both in comics, literature, illustration or some other field in which your imagination can soar. I support you wholeheartedly and can only wonder if someday there will be others, like the enchanting singer/composer Cree Summer, who will mention Elfquest as one of their sources of inspiration. I can’t tell you how proud and happy that would make this Elfmom feel.

‘Til next time – as Ms. Summer sings, “Let the dream take you!”