Say Hello to Elfquest

Reprinted from the July 1985 issue of MARVEL AGE, “the official Marvel news magazine,” which was published from 1983 through 1994. This interview was given to promote the launch of Elfquest in Marvel’s Epic Comics line of creator-owned comics.

By Peter Sanderson

Perhaps the greatest success story in the growth of independently produced “alternative” comics has been that of Elfquest, the fantasy adventure series created by Wendy and Richard Pini and published by their company, Warp Graphics, over the course of the last eight years. The series, which is co-plotted by her husband Richard, finally came to its conclusion last year after building a widespread readership among the customers of direct sales comics shops, where it was sold. However, comics fans who do not live near direct sales shops and instead buy their comics from newsstands may never have gotten to see an issue of Elfquest That situation has now been corrected: We at Marvel are proud to be reprinting the Elfquest saga in color as part of the Epic comics line. It’ll be available both at direct sales outlets and on newsstands.
The first issue of Elfquest introduces the Wolfriders, the tribe of elves who comprise most of the saga’s principal characters. “They’re led by their young chief, Cutter,” says Wendy. “They exist on a primitive planet that is very similar to Earth; we call it the World of Two Moons. The elves are aliens in this world. They are hunted and hated as demons by the primitive humans. The story opens with the elves being burned out of their forest home by the humans. The elves go to the trolls, a race of beings that burrow underground, for help, and the trolls trick them into the desert. They wander across the desert and discover another tribe of elves, the Sun Folk, which they had not imagined even existed. These two tribes form a bond, and Cutter seeks to become the lifemate of one of the members of this tribe, Leetah.”

The actual quest begins later. “Cutter’s quest, initially, is to find other elf tribes and unite them all,” Wendy continues, “so they can, by strength through numbers, hold their place in the world against the humans. But as his quest proceeds, he finds out that the humans aren’t their real enemies; the elves are enemies to themselves because they don’t know who they are, or where they truly came from.” So Cutter becomes determined to discover the origin of the elves, and as the quest continues, he and his friends ,encounter yet more groups of elves and various dangers as well.

“Through Cutter,” Wendy observes, “we examine growth from adolescence to manhood, which is a very traditional fairy tale theme. But we also examine leadership. Cutter is a leader who questions himself a good deal more than most fantasy heroes question themselves. He expresses doubt freely because he’s very secure about how his people feel about him. So he isn’t worried about his image, and this makes him an unusual male hero.”

“Skywise,” she goes on, “is Cutter’s confidant, his advisor, and his best friend. They’re extremely close. Skywise sees the world a little differently from the way Cutter does. Cutter is a visionary in spite of himself. He would really just like to play and eat dreamberries all day, but he’s got this driving obsession inside him. Skywise is a pragmatist. He is the first astronomer elf. He observes the heavens and sees the pattems in the stars, and tends to look at the world in a very scientific way. He believes that you deal with just what is observable.”

“Leetah is a healer who, through the course of the story, comes to explore the extent of her powers and the moral implications of her powers over life and death.

“We definitely try to show equality between the males and females in the story without beating people over the head with a feminist message,” Wendy points out. “I think that the more relaxed you are about the statement you make, the more natural it seems and the less threatening.”

Elfquest originated as Wendy’s concept. “I have had an interest in fantasy and the symbols of fantasy all my life,” she states. “Around about 1977 it seemed there was a tremendous boom in interest in science fiction and fantasy. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had come out, a number of fantasy films had really hit the public very hard, and the consumers were screaming for more. We felt that if any time would be right to attempt to do a comic book with a pure fantasy theme – which had never really been attempted before – that this would be the time.

“So I proposed the idea to Richard, and we put together a promotion package and took it to the two mainstream comics companies. Both of them rejected the idea as not being potentially commercial enough. So we went to the very few independent publishers that were then extant, and we finally did locate a publisher who was willing to try Elfquest.” Unfortunately, that company folded after publishing the first issue. “By that time it was 1978 and we were very, very discouraged. But the fans responded to it very, very favorably, and they wanted more.

“It was suggested to us that we publish it ourselves. We knew about as much about publishing as about hunting polar bears in the Arctic. But Richard set about finding a printer, and basically turning himself into a publisher and an editor overnight. We borrowed some money to put out our first issue, which was issue #2 of Elfquest.” This issue was a commercial success, “with a circulation of 10,000, and we ended up with our last issue having a circulation of 100,000.” Elfquest has not only proved to be one of the most successful of the alternative comic books, but has also given rise to a trade paperback series that reprints the comics stories (which has made best seller lists), a novel, merchandise ranging from T-shirts to statuettes, art portfolios, and even a forthcoming animated film on which the Pinis are now working.

Richard observes that “Elfquest fans are very, very devoted.. There’s a very strong identifitation on the part of the readers with the characters and, to a certain extent, with the situations they find themselves in. I think that’s because the things that the characters undergo, their trials and triumphs, their ups and down, are things that we have, to greater or lesser extents, undergone ourselves.” Wendy adds that “the grabber is the fantasy imagery, which piques the interest of people when they look at the artwork. Then as they read the story, they realize that the fantasy symbols have been used to crystallize the human experience that we’re trying to get across in the story. We deal with racial prejudice and feminism; we deal with all the feelings that I think your average comic book reader has to have experienced at one time or another, especially the feeling of alienation and of not knowing exactly where you belong in the world. So what holds people is the reality underneath the story, and I think that’s the secret of Elfquest’s success.”

The Pinis have discovered through their fan mail and through a reader survey that they conducted that Elfquest has readers ranging in age from the very young to the very old. “We get letters from parents saying that they read it to their children, and when they come to a rough part or a controversial part of the story, they discuss it with their children.” The Pinis also take pride in the fact that Elfquest has attracted so many female readers who do not otherwise read comics; indeed, their readership is divided virtually equally between the sexes, whereas the typical adventure comic is read primarily by a male audience.

Having succeeded in the direct sales comics stores and even in regular bookstores with Elfquest, the Pinis next wanted to try bringing Elfquest into the newsstand market. For this they turned again to Marvel. We had already published an Elfquest-related stdry by the Pinis in the first issue of Epic Illustrated, so Richard asked his longtime friend Carol Kalish, our Director of Specialty Sales, if we would be interested in reprinting Elfquest for newsstand sales. She replied that we were already considering the idea. Negotiations followed, and an agreement was reached between us and the Pinis’ Warp Graphics, resulting in the first contract for a creator-owned comics series to be distributed by one of the major comics companies through newsstands (and, of course through direct sales outlets as well). The second such contract was for Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Wanderer, which we began distributing before our reprinting of Elfquest started.

Like Groo, Elfquest will be a monthly 75-cent 32-page comic book printed on Mando paper. It will be supervised by Epic Comics editor Archie Goodwin and associate editor Jo Duffy. Jo, an Elfquest fan from the very beginning, says about the series, “I think it’s just swell. I’m very happy that Marvel is publishing it and that I’m working on it.” Wendy says that “I’m deeply appreciative of her interest in it and her caring that it gets as much attention and truthful adaptation in the Marvel version as possible.” Whereas the original Elfquest issues were in black and white, our version will be colored by Glynis Oliver. The original Elfquest also had thirty-two pages of story per issue, but our version will have only twenty-two story pages. Therefore the Pinis, along with Archie and Jo, will break up the original installments into segments of eighteen or nineteen pages, and Wendy will do three or four new pages of “transitional” art per issue. Richard states, “Those three or four extra pages will give us a chance to go a little bit more behind certain scenes than there was space for in the original edition.” Wendy adds, “For example, in the first issue you’ll get -to see a good deal more of the troll caverns and of how the troIIs live. Wendy will also do new covers for the new version.

Hence, the Epic Elfquest will have something new even for readers who already own copies of the original issues. Since the original twenty issues are being divided up for our new version, this Elfquest will run for thirty-four or thirty-five issues, one a month for nearly three years!

The Pinis emphasize their continuing involvement with Elfquest to make our new version more than just a reprint. Richard states, “We have over eight years built up a strong feeling of kinship with the readers that here are these two people who care about this product, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so good. Now that it’s being done by Marvel, we are not divorcing ourselves from it. We are as involved with it on a personal level through Marvel as we were through Warp Graphics.”

There has been some question among fans as to whether there will be any changes in Elfquest due to the fact that our version will be submitted to the Comics Code Authority, but the Pinis are confident that few if any changes will be requested by the Code.

The art in Elfquest is sure to be seen as something new by the newsstand audience. Wendy’s style for the series is very much influenced by Japanese animation, and indeed, she designed the look of the series with the hope that Elfquest would one day be an animated film, as indeed it will be. “I think your average comic book reader is a little uncomfortable with cartooning,” Wendy comments. “They’re geared to think that comics art is super-hero art, that this is what comics are all about.” Richard says that “some few people look at it, see the elves, and say, ‘Oh, this is cute stuff. I don’t like cute.’ Luckily, most of them get hit on by their friends or by the store owner, who tells them, ‘I’m not lefting you out of here until you’ve read this.’ And nearly all of those who have taken the initial plunge discover, ‘Aha, this is really meaty stuff.'” Indeed it is, mixing as it does suspense, high adventure, affecting personal drama, sensuality, humor, and a true sense of wonder with an underlying mature wisdom about life and the soul.

Wendy and Richard are happy to see their creation made available to a larger audience, and pleased to see it at Marvel. A long-time comics fan, Wendy notes that “Marvel is famous for working as much psychological and emotional interplay as possible into the stories.” That makes it all the more appropriate for Elfquest to be published by Marvel, since many fans of the series suggest that Wendy and Richard have done for fantasy in comics what Stan Lee did for the super hero genre – they have made it a means for exploring characterization and through doing so creating more affecting drama than an ordinary adventure tale could.

Join the fans who’ve joined the quest! It kicks off this May, and it’s a journey you’ll never forget!