Fond Memories of America’s Earliest “Manga”

Reprinted by permission from the August 2000 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 Lisa Jonte

Comics industry pioneers (the original Elfquest’s publication beginning in 1978) Wendy Pini along with her husband Richard created a whole new comics genre and market. In an industry dominated by Marvel and DC, there had been little room for independently published works. But the ’70’s were kind of magical. Fantasy was in the air, and its influence spread like weeds, cropping up in the most unlikely places and manifesting in the most unusual ways. Dungeons and Dragons was born from the mingling of table-top wargames and Tolkien’s fantasy works. Rock groups like STYX and Kansas were grabbing people by the ears and dragging them of into new imaginary worlds with their lyrics. A few works had crossed the great cultural dived from Japan to America’s mainstream. Anime like Speed Racer, Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion had given us a tantalizing taste of a world beyond Superman and Scooby-Doo. We were primed.

The time was right for Elfquest.

While not (by strictest definition) actually Manga, the look and themes of the original Elfquest helped pave the way for the then emerging U.S. Anime/Manga following. Between the two of them, Wendy and Richard Pini proved that a work could be at once cute and serious and sexy. Long before the likes of The Slayers was due to appear, it was a refreshing change from the spandex-clad, superhero norm of the time. Suddenly, “big eyes” were in vogue, and the Fantasy genre as a whole gained new (if grudging) respect.

For my own part I felt as if I’d found my true home. My sketchbooks soon filled with big eyes and pointed ears. The Wolfriders and their kin were fodder for many an artistic ramble and no doubt set me on the manga-like road I now travel. For that, I am eternally grateful.

In the two + decades since Elfquest’s debut, the North American market for anime, manga and similar works has increased tremendously. I can only speculate at its impact in other countries. And it certainly has had plenty of opportunity to make an impact. The graphic novel collections have delighted readers in Australia, China, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Scandinavia and South Africa.

Another thing that made Elfquest so unique at the time was that fact that it was a complete story. It had a beginning, a middle and an obvious end. As with most Manga, the characters moved through a series of events to tell a set tale. Whereas, so many Western comics (then and now) follow a continuously evolving, loosely woven, plot line, often driven by nothing deeper than some corporate publisher’s bottom line.

The Pini’s gave us a whole host of well developed, unique characters. Each one was distinguishable from her/his fellows by personality AND looks. From Cutter’s impetuous immaturity to the slithery, seductive Winnowill to stolid, ass-kicking Nightfall, there was never any doubt that each one had a mind, heart and story all their own.

Would Manga have become so popular in recent years if not for the appearance of Elfquest? Probably, but somehow, I don’t think we’d have appreciated it in quite the same way. Besides? a world without Elfquest? Two-Spear’s madness! Who’d want to live in a world like that!?