How an an indie cartoonist faced down prudes, pain and the patriarchy.
By Rob Beschizza – Originally appeared on BoingBoing.net July 25, 2018
Note: “Weird” is almost always used as an adjective: “That’s a weird coincidence.” Its meaning here, however, comes from the archaic Scottish term meaning “a person’s destiny.”
It’s night and the trees are whispering. Wendy Pini approaches a young oak, its branches bare in winter. The artist behind the long-running fantasy series ElfQuest, she took me here to understand something of our relationship to art.
Though Wendy’s work flows from the line of beauty, a sinuous aesthetic defined by William Hogarth, the tree is angular, wandering and weird. It embodies nature’s indifference to our romance of its forms. The artist Eyvind Earle, she says, beautified this paradox.
The oak’s fingers trace gentle circles, pointing to the night sky.
ElfQuest began in 1978 and concluded this spring, forty years in the telling. [Update: Although a major story arc concluded February 2018, the series continues.] Devised and written with her husband Richard, its story follows the Wolfrider clan and its chief, Cutter, burned from their ancient forest home by vengeful humans. Sweeping from a rough fantasy premise to epic science fiction, the Wolfriders find other elfin refugees, the derelict spaceship of their shape-shifting ancestors, and unsettling truths concerning their own nature. At its sales peak, the magazine-sized pamphlets were selling 100,000 copies at an intersection of fandom rarely seen in comic book stores: women, queer folk, people of color.
The American Library Association describes ElfQuest as “one of the most important works in American fantasy”. Georgy Khoury and Alex Ross, in Comic Book Fever, call it one of the “first long-form sagas of the art form,” unique for its “confident and inspired storytelling.” Artist and historian Trina Robbins told me that Wendy’s strong women characters were responsible for getting countless young girls into comics. ElfQuest was one of the books targeted as obscene material in the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s first case. Buzzfeed ranked it as the most life-changing graphic novel of all time.
When it comes to her world’s differences from the norm, though, Wendy is more interested in detail than the abstractions surrounding it.
“My elves’ ears are vaginal,” she says, then bursts into laughter. But she means it. In fantasy fiction and art, the graceful ears of elves poke sharp through the Christianized hinterlands of myth—or jut out like priapic anime horns.
But hers are like shells or wings, open and labial. Once you notice it, it’s hard not to.
Her elves also differ from their cousins in the pop-culture legendarium by their carnality. They’re Dionysian and androgynous where Tolkien and his imitators fuss over an Apollonian genderlessness. Critics, in the early days, found the Wolfriders both cute and kooky. At a convention in 1978, Wendy ran into the novelist Marion Zimmer Bradley, then a feminist icon, only to be met with cold and critical dismissal.
“So you’re Wendy Pini,” Zimmer Bradley sneered. “Elves do not have cleavage.”
She disliked ElfQuest because to her, fantasy must rationalize rather than envision sexuality. Perhaps it was intolerable to see elves—a utopia of the self at the supernatural margins—embody such human things without enduring or inflicting pain.
“These are elves who thumb their noses at Tolkien and mythology,” wrote N.K. Jemisin, “elves who come in many colors and whose women don’t need roles shoehorned into movies to make them relevant; elves who get high and fuck like courtesans (sex-positively!); elves who say things like ‘You are meat to be wasted’ and send chills down your spine.”
Now in her mid-sixties, Wendy remains shamelessly elfin, serious when levity is expected yet able to deflate the pompous with a giggle.
Her studio looks out over a well-tended garden and a parched orchard, where lemons and oranges grow despite the Californian drought. Inside, two loudly borking Pomeranians greet me and skitter on the tile as Wendy pours chocolate-infused wine. An amazing collection of artifacts occupies the walls, shelves and tables: warm yet reserved, calm yet sharp, seemingly conventional but wonderfully bent, just like her art, just like her.
Born in 1951, Wendy was adopted as a baby by Beth and Stuart Fletcher of Gilroy, California, a town that reeked of garlic and was then a tenth of its current size. Beth was 47. Stuart, an atheist Bircher who so resembled Barry Goldwater he couldn’t attend Republican conventions without being mistaken for him, was older still. Wendy entered the Fletchers’ gloomy ranch house with a job to do: give meaning to their icy marriage.
“I was a bad girl because I didn’t make my mother feel better,” she says. Beth, a housewife who sometimes dreamed of more but didn’t believe she was capable of it, constantly told Wendy she loved her. But it was always bait cast for something in return. “My parents were hitters. If I got too far out of line, I’d get hit.”
Wendy had the dreamed-of gift, the power to create joy seemingly from nothing. When she wanted to ride a merry-go-round and was denied, she made five cardboard horses cut from refrigerator boxes, hung them from the clothes tree in her yard and created an illusion of the thing she imagined. “I couldn’t ride it, but I could watch it go around with the horses. That was my merry-go-round.”
Well-read yet uncomfortable with imaginary things, Beth hated Wendy’s “trash,” her cartoons and comic books. But Wendy lurked at the local cinema, watching Alakazam the Great over and over, only to come back the next day and watch it some more. And when it was gone, she’d return to it by drawing it, soon realizing that hidden intentions lurk in the inexactitude of replicas. Her classroom nickname was Fairyhead. At home, taking away her TV cartoons was a standard punishment short of violence. Wendy drew so she could still have her Astro Boy, her Kimba.
Anime was then a rare thing and often crudely localized for American consumption, but it appealed to Wendy most of all because of her “dark streak and a desire for gravitas.” In her stories Wendy, even as a small child, drew scenes of hurt and bittersweet comfort, not out of sadism or masochism but melancholy: “I was really aware that things were not right in my house and that my parents just didn’t like each other.”
Stuart Fletcher was embittered for obscure reasons. As a young man, he’d run his own father off the ranch, and couldn’t stand his sister. At his deathbed, years later, Wendy asked him if he wanted Helene to come down from Berkeley, to say goodbye. He didn’t even want to look at her.
Wendy was not permitted to meet her exiled grandfather. She always felt strange about the fact that her brother would be taken to him while she was kept away.
Scott, six years older than her and also adopted, was obsessed with Victrolas and jazz and blues 78s, weird old music that reminded Wendy of her cartoon soundtracks. She has sharp eyes and a sunny smile; his wide face and round pale gaze were a reminder that no one in the family shared the slightest resemblance.
Scott was sexually attracted to men. Their father took the 14-year-old boy to a prostitute to straighten him out.
He fought with their parents, yelling in a voice deep from adolescence, fights that triggered Wendy’s habit of retreating to her room to draw. The siblings were never close and learned to take anger out on one another. But until he left home, Scott was the only other child in the house.
“He was literally my only witness,” Wendy says.
Her childhood art was not just inspired by Osama Tezuka and Jun’ichi Nakahara but eroticized, an act of sublimated rebellion. Their mother countered with her own strategies of denial, dressing Wendy in tan pencil skirts and modest blouses, trying to recreate an image of herself. She found the racy artwork—symbolically dragging the family’s shadows out into the light—under Wendy’s bed, and punished her for it.
In her mid-teens, Wendy wrote to the television animators at Grantray-Lawrence, then to Stan Lee, Joe Barbera, and Michael Moorcock, the new wave science fiction legend whose brooding antihero Elric she first saw in Safeway, a bone-white face glowering at her from the pulp spinner. To Moorcock, she declared that “you have hurt me and uplifted me with your tragedy.” He wrote back that “yours is the most beautiful letter I have ever received.”
But it was Lee and Linda Fite at Marvel Comics who awakened in her a stunning awareness of possibility. The only women artists Wendy knew of, then, were Marie Severin and Ramona Fradon, but she was asked to submit a portfolio of sample pages after Marvel took an interest in her juvenilia. Lee decided that Wendy, a high-schooler, wasn’t ready. She didn’t take it hard, she says, because she knew she wasn’t ready.
Instead, she dreamed of animating Elric. Moorcock’s frail, moralizing antihero gains strength from Stormbringer, a soul-eating sword that latches itself to his destiny. In such a man, she saw herself. Moorcock, though, looks like a tall, bearded viking.
“I asked, and it’s a naïve teenage question to ask, where does Elric come from? He said ‘Elric is me.’ It was a revelation to me that appearances are completely deceptive.”
Parental contempt for her inner life could not pull her from it. Wendy always found places to escape. Anime, the anima of her art. A Buddhist church, across the field from her family’s ranch, where during Obon they’d honor their ancestors’ spirits and welcome Wendy to join them in dance. Her grandmother Helen’s storybooks, a refuge from her parents’ arid worldview, pages where the worlds of Rackham and Pyle opened for her. The massive, bulging pepper tree on their land, covered in bracket fungus, where she climbed to read books and smell its pink pods, where the elves first spoke to her.
After graduating high school, she left home and never went back.
When she’s praised, at conventions and panels, you can see Wendy hunt for meaningful detail, proof of connection beyond the platitudes that dance around the word “love.” ElfQuest is an intimate tale and sincere in its avoidance of cynicism. She can sense when someone is into it, and when someone is just an eBay grifter looking for a sketch to flip.
“People say ‘you saved my life,’ and I don’t discount that,” Wendy says. “I know they’re telling the damn truth.”
The first time I met Wendy was amid the chaos of San Diego Comic-Con. As we tried to chat over the noise, a young woman approached, tense and taut and dressed as one of Wendy’s characters. I stood aside to let them talk. Their conversation was an indistinct murmur. Then tears streamed down the woman’s face and she began shaking. Wendy pulled her close. For long minutes they embraced in this vast hall, a silent family of two, surrounded by an immense disinterested crowd. I saw fear fall away, saw strength return.
Before she left Gilroy, Wendy came to know Richard Pini, a student at MIT, through the letters column of The Silver Surfer. Her critique of a previous issue, printed in a comic book in the late 1960s, was certain to receive an avalanche of responses, and it did, stuffed in the mailbox day after day. Richard’s stood out. Instead of telling her about himself, he invited her to ask.
They dated for four years over the phone, saw one other once a year, then wed.
Exploring Hollywood in her first months away from home, Wendy found Anton LaVey and attended his seminars (LaVeyan Satanism was more concerned with radical self-care than demonic worship) and one evening at the Magical Mystery Museum, a curio and head shop, experienced sensory deprivation in complete darkness. “People would see things in the dark—is there a bird in here?—and he would affirm their perceptions.”
Journalists from Esquire magazine were in attendance, including a photographer, putting together an article about the Church. LaVey invited Wendy to pose naked on the altar. Though she declined and another woman took the place of honor, Esquire’s photographer wasn’t paying attention and Wendy’s name ended up in the published caption. Richard was alarmed to see, in print, an indistinct photograph of what appeared to be his naked girlfriend acting as the Altar of Satan.
Though attracted to witchcraft and LaVey’s group, Wendy didn’t pursue the interests.
Her career as an illustrator began inauspiciously, flaking on a cousin’s book project. But her short film of Pirate Jenny, a lowly maid who orders pirates to slaughter the townsfolk who disrespected her, won top grades at Pitzer. She devised a novel method of limited animation, using two cameras and two easels to generate complicated sequences and fades between images without expensive equipment. Recorded on video, the then-expensive tapes were wiped for the next class.
A sense of belonging came through science-fiction fandom, cranking out purple mimeographed zine art for the comics amateur press association CAPA-Alpha, and selling work at conventions. Though wanting to become an animator, her skill as an illustrator impressed editors and she was soon producing Galaxy magazine covers and private commissions. A fellow student commissioned her to draw her and her boyfriend fucking, but as elves, just like those in Wendy’s notebooks.
After graduating, Richard worked for the Museum of Science in Boston, a photographer and a lecturer for the Hayden Planetarium. Newly wed, the couple lived first in Brighton, then Watertown, then Taunton, flitting around the Boston suburbs, a constellation studded around his alma mater. They always sought more space. As youngsters, they found their paths to solitude from opposite directions, Wendy from familial indifference, Richard from a three-child Italian Catholic household. But now they had a permanent hurdle to it: one another.
“Richard and I have always needed a lot of room,” Wendy says. “We weren’t always good in close quarters with each other.”
Born with hip dysplasia, Wendy wore a hip abduction brace as an infant, and the assumption seemed to be that everything would be fixed and fine. It was not. From childhood, she was the slowest runner, ragged on by teachers for being out of condition, for not being able to perform the same flexibility exercises as the other girls. But they never followed up to suss why.
A belly-dancing class in 1973 brought relief. Snaking where other physical performance is kinetic, its range of motion corresponded perfectly to what Wendy was capable of. It was “a wonderful breakthrough that something connected with movement was something that I could excel at.” Wendy danced because dancing strengthened muscle to compensate for what she would later learn was the early onset of osteoarthritis.
“In belly dancing, you don’t do a lot of hopping around or kicking or anything like that, you glide,” Wendy says. “This is why I fell in love with it, because I could really get out there and move, but not in wide-ranging motions. Belly dancing is much more controlled. I danced every day. It shaped my body.”
She made her own costumes, began winning contests, and was was hired by Egyptian-American impresario George Abdo to perform onstage at the Averof supper club in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Wendy was also a fan of Red Sonja, a minor Robert E. Howard creation rebooted in 1975 at Marvel as a violently unapproachable warrior woman. Writer-artist Frank Thorne took over the series in 1976, doing much to define the character in the public imagination. After seeing Wendy dance, he suggested she enter a lookalike contest at a convention devoted to the character.
With Richard’s assistance, she crafted a chainmail bikini, bracers, guard and boots in perfect simulation of the character’s costume design. The effect was imposing, adding a deep metallic force to her every movement, without restricting her mobility or leadening the humorous menace Wendy brought to the act. The chainmail now resides, with much of her artwork and papers, in the archives of Columbia University; in late 1976, it helped Wendy establish herself at the masquerade.
She remembers fondly her peers in Sonja cosplay, especially Angelique Trouvere. But her fame grew fastest. With Thorne, she developed a show that distilled the character and her adventures to a half-hour of stage entertainment. They took it on the convention circuit, Richard developing a soundtrack and spectacular stage effects.
Wendy took the character seriously, honing her script, her performance and the artistry of its presentation, method-acting whenever in costume. It was popular, too: blurry 8mm film survives to this day, showing Wendy and Frank isolated in the darkness by a spotlight, a scratchy audio track hinting at a packed crowd.
It even led to her first professional writing work for Marvel—the script for Red Sonja #6—working with writer Roy Thomas, who had masterminded the character’s revival. Already known for her skill as an artist, Wendy found Thomas respectful and intrigued, “big enough in his vision to see past the chainmail bikini and honor my ability to write as well as draw.”
Wendy wrote, drew and performed as Red Sonja, in a multimedia presentation spanning fandom and professionalism long before such things were the business of Disney subsidiaries. She set out to make a statement of women’s empowerment in an environment—the smugly liberated but handsy fandom of the 1970s—that was often hypocritically averse to those ideals. Then, more so than today, science fiction and comics conventions were unsafe for cosplaying women. Wendy learned to navigate and repel unwelcome attention.
“Emotions around the Sonja show were so intense,” Wendy says. It had strange, electric effects. As she told author Dan Gearino in 2017, “it was unique in how it delivered a powerful feminist message with a spoonful of ale-soaked sugar.”
But others disagreed, seeing it as a tits-and-ass extravaganza, crafted to serve the male gaze. Rumors and gossip swirled around. Then as now, cosplayers had to face down trainee patriarchs and would-be radicals alike. All this made Wendy stronger in her convictions, but resentful of dogma.
“One journalist decided to go after me as being an antifeminist Antichrist,” Wendy says, giggling at the memory of it. “I kept saying to her, ‘Come to the show! You’ve never seen the fucking show! Then pass judgment.’ But she never came. Women associated with comics, including journalists, were rare back then. If you’re a woman and you’re going to attack another woman for doing something, at least get your facts straight.”
Sonja opened doors for her, but also closed them. Paul Levitz, longtime president of DC Comics, admitted in 2014 that Wendy’s Sonja cosplay still colored the business’s perception of her success, even after she had sold millions of books.
“It limited the level of respect you received by peers”, he told her.
“That was well over 30 years ago!” Wendy replied, stunned.
“Fanboys have long memories,” he said.
The high point of Wendy’s cosplay campaign was a 1977 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show. In the closing moments, in character, she waved a sword menacingly in Jamie Farr’s face for the pleasure of six million viewers.
She called her parents afterward: “Did you see? Did you see?”
Well, they said, you weren’t on long enough. Why was your appearance so short?
“Nothing was ever quite good enough,” Wendy says.
But if parental indifference still hurt, she had no time for it: “I graduated out of that when I left home.” She danced, and dreamed, and drew. There was a sense of creative propulsion, she says, a powerful feeling of being caught in a current.
Her plan to do a more elaborate Red Sonja show—complete with limited animation, refining the camera techniques she had developed to create the Pirate Jenny video—petered out with a growing awareness of who would really benefit from it: Marvel. The company had talked about Wendy illustrating issues of Red Sonja, but this only deepened her awareness of who owned what: “Why aren’t we doing our own stuff?”
Wendy lost interest in the character. Outside the printed page, Red Sonja is a woman ultimately owned and controlled by men.
Besides, the elves still spoke to her, and they are never quite one thing nor the other.
Two things had galvanized her in the months before the Mike Douglas appearance: George Lucas’s Star Wars, with its visionary heart, and the elves drawn by Mike Ploog for Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, an unforgettable post-apocalyptic animated film.
Those elves, she said, blew her mind. She watched Wizards five times in a row, just to stay close to them. She’d been drawing characters like them all her life, and now they were alive, beyond her own creative space, on the big screen.
She contacted Bakshi, already on his next project, a successful if infamously unfinished animated production of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Though ElfQuest was already taking shape, she taught herself how to draw Bakshi’s characters and went out to Hollywood to work on Rings.
She only stayed two weeks—a few moments in the movie were rotoscoped by her—before Bakshi suggested that she was headed for something else: “I’m not convinced that this is the best thing for you to do with your talent, he told me. It was a very respectful thing to say.”
She toyed with transplanting ElfQuest itself into Bakshi’s universe. Traces of the idea are found in drawings of Wizards‘ grim elves made Piniesque: androgynous, sweeter, and shaggier.
“If I had pushed hard to come out and work for Bakshi,” Wendy says, “ElfQuest might not have happened.”
When Wendy and Bakshi’s elf thugs Cutter and Weehawk are posed together, her manga-influenced elegance contrasts clearly against Ploog’s whimsy and Bakshi’s reckless energy. But you’re still left with the sense of a shared milieu, elves freed from Tolkien’s Catholic aesthetic of preservation and projected into a new dark age of romantic barbarity and vestigial technology. Wally Wood’s Wizard King was another example of this vibe and elements of it are echoed in Wizards itself, Wood reportedly telling Comic-Con organizer Shel Dorf that “they” [Bakshi] stole his work. But of all her peers, only Wendy committed herself completely to elaborating this particular vision of modern fantasy.
It was Lucas, though, whose achievements showed her and Richard what was possible.
“Star Wars,” Wendy says. “The entire audience rose to its feet cheering, absolutely bugfuck. We went mad because someone got us. Someone finally got us.”
ElfQuest first appeared in February 1978, with several months between issues. Burned out of the woods, Cutter’s band of Wolfriders strongarm an industrious warren of trolls who turn the tables, turfing them out to wander a scorching desert. They find an oasis and plunder it despite it being obvious the dark-skinned inhabitants are other elves. The contrast of savage pale-skinned protagonists against sophisticated and powerful elves of color was subversive but accessible and immediately successful. Fleeting suggestions of polyamory and pansexuality were implied, easy to miss by parents yet keenly felt by young readers who had never seen anything quite like it.
Early on, Wendy roped Richard into the effort by telling him that a key character, Skywise, was an astronomer. Their creative process has gone roughly so since 1977: Wendy forms the story, then Richard offers feedback. Then they argue. Then they script it and Wendy draws it. It’s tempting to see Wendy as ElfQuest’s fantasy side, source of the emotionally-appealing elves, with scientist Richard giving it the bones of science fiction and a muscular lore to wrap it in. But the truth, as with all couples, is more complex and often precisely opposite to appearances. Always present in ElfQuest are metaphors for their intense and sometimes difficult relationship.
After working with a shady small-time publisher who stamped the first issue on newsprint and stole Wendy’s artwork—ultimately retrieved—they decided to self-publish. Taking Jack Katz’ First Kingdom and Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach as a model, they impressed distributors Bud Plant and Phil Seuling into carrying it, and shifted 20,000 copies of the second issue. This was an absolutely unheard of run for an “independent” comic, and instantly marked Elfquest as something other than an underground comic.
But it wasn’t a mainstream one, either. Everyone in the trade, from the beginning, either loved it or loathed it, for extremely sincere reasons.
The earliest issues are cartoonish, embodying fantasy clichés with an eye to gently tipping them over. A few issues in, though, the Pinis sense something about the powerful connection they’d formed with readers and the art becomes more refined, the writing more serious and conscious of its own emerging world. Cutter starts out as a miniature Conan with a foul disposition, but soon learns that his tribe, far from being innocent victims of the humans who torched them out, are colonists; his quest is triggered by the realization that they do not belong on this land, and by the moral impetus to learn why.
The Pinis’ elves tend to be either androgynous, conspicuously gendered, or a curious mix of both.
“Men don’t look at one another like that!” MAD magazine artist Sergio Aragonés once told Wendy, concerning Cutter and his friend Skywise.
“They aren’t men,” she replied. “They’re elves!”
But of course, Cutter and Skywise are men. Just as some of us are elves, at least in the foggy woods of dreaming and belonging.
Issue #6, however, opens with two elf women of color discussing something that has nothing whatever to do with men. ElfQuest passed the Bechdel test years before it existed, and in an unselfconscious way whose significance the Pinis only dimly understood, at least by the exhausting standards of modern fan critique.
People wrote in who could not quite articulate why what they had seen was so powerful to them. An intense following sprang up. At conventions, fans would pursue them into bathrooms and talk at them through toilet cubicle doors.
Visiting Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana, to improve her skill at depicting canines, Wendy learned that one of the staff was an ElfQuest fan. This ethologist was haunted by it and didn’t know why. She presented a drawing to Wendy, something furtive, if not plainly erotic.
“It was two guys and one was wounded and the other was holding him,” Wendy says. “I looked at it and I nodded because I knew what this was.”
“It’s so weird,” the ethologist said. “I don’t understand it but just between you and me this kind of thing really turns me on.”
“She looked very shocked,” Wendy recalls, “… I explained to her, ‘If you’ve ever worried about this, don’t. More women are into this than you can imagine.'”
To the mainstream and alt-comics counterculture alike, ElfQuest’s appeal was obvious yet somehow obscure. It was fannish yet commercial, creative but cute, ingenious but derivative. Its fans, mostly women, went to comics stores to get it, then walked right out without stopping to smell the roses.
Cosplayers started turning up at conventions dressed as their favorite ElfQuest characters. Wendy noticed odd comments from peers. At a party thrown by Marvel Comics, the famed cartoonist Jim Starlin, a plush boa constrictor draped over his shoulders, approached her, shook it at her, and said “We hate elves!”
“It was just weird,” Wendy says. She figured he was joking, but it stuck with her. If not his own opinion, it was an ironic reflection of things unseen.
Robert Crumb knocked ElfQuest (and the other breakout indie hit, Dave Sim’s Cerebus) for infecting the social realism of underground comics with fantasy. “You never see an automobile or telephone pole in ElfQuest,” he wrote, “or a piece of trash in the street. Or anything from the real world they’ve lived in.”
Others, though, were keenly aware of ElfQuest’s political payload, especially its presentation of women elves as strong, and the menfolk as sensitive.
“It is a fact of anthropology that in hunter-gathering societies … hunting is an exclusive male task; yet there go the women elves, riding wolves and stalking prey,” wrote critic John Clifton in a review published by The Comics Journal, describing ElfQuest as lacking the “essential operants of fantasy” in favor of “girlish emotionalism”, “falsely sensitized males” and other “feminist nonsense.”
Adds Clifton: “You can tell a woman is writing this, not an ethnologist.”
As what passed as serious critique in 1981, this know-it-all mysogynist resentment at the undeserved attention a woman is getting foreshadows attacks on indie game developers and cartoonists decades later: “ElfQuest wasn’t considered a ‘real’ comic,” Wendy says. “Why does that all that sound so familiar to me? Because things haven’t changed.”
When one respondent averred that feminism cannot be dismissed from fantasy, Clifton wrote that “it most assuredly can, and easily.” It’s his bafflement at Pini’s narrative art, though, that now seems the more revealing cri de virilité: “…godless numbers of panels [of] elves building in anger or madness, pulling keys out of their mouths, or romancing each other.” He didn’t want to see women on the hunt, but he didn’t want to see them in love, either.
There was also critique of the elves’ lack of explicit feminist coding. Robbins, in a 1978 letter to Wendy, urged her to veer harder into the fight: “Why are the female elves such spineless saps? Why do they dance and sew and deliver blankets to the wolf children while male elves hunt and fight?”
As the series unfolded, so did the slow momentum of Wendy’s subversions.
Pini “sculpts a progressive future for an evolved humanity,” writes Robert A. Saunders in The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, undermining tropes of gender while (quoting journalist Isabelle Guillaume) “not being quite radical enough” to attract academic attention.
Fans sometimes ask if the dark-skinned elves might display a more explicit connection to the experiences of people of color; a more representative blackness. But where allegory is expected, ElfQuest places metaphor. The Pinis know their utopia is set an uneasy distance from our world and must stay true to its own ignorance of it. ElfQuest is not woke—it is a dream.
Wendy tried to keep dancing as the dream took over her waking life. The dream grew within her, even has her body slowly became a prison.
She sat on a convention panel with three men, somewhere in the midwest. One turned to her.
“I really hate you,” he said. “You’re doing what I always wanted to do.”
Wendy admits she is not thick-skinned. She just knows how to bounce back. You can hurt her with words. You can hurt her with criticism. Events hurt her too, the things that leave holes that can never really be filled.
Her father lost interest after the first set of issues. Her mother died before she drew the first one.
Wendy’s best narrative work shapes characters with irony and humor. Scenes where an arched brow unravels the selfishness lurking in noble affectation. Scenes where everyone is convinced to get high so that they can remember their dreams. Scenes where children change the world by posing questions the grown-ups have forgotten how to ask.
She’s earned praise for the efficient world building and cinematic quality of her art, but its those scenes that expose her humanity: the intimate appreciation that gravitas is meaningless without levity, that there’s nothing more important, in the end, than people finding themselves and one another.
A more tangible pain presented itself.
“In my left hip,” Wendy remembers. Perhaps she’d pulled a muscle. Perhaps she’d overdone it. “I didn’t know what was going on. The hip gradually got weaker and weaker to the point where I lost my balance.”
She fell, once and then again, then again and again. X-rays revealed that both hips were hopelessly damaged.
Hip dysplasia, affecting about 1 in 1,000 babies, is the misalignment of pelvis and femur. Many cases resolve in childhood, but some sufferers’ cartilage and bone is slowly ground down until loss of function leaves them immobile. Its causes are not well-known, with both developmental and genetic risk factors. Women are affected more often than men.
“I was known for my physical strength,” Wendy says, her voice trailing off. “To have that taken away…”
She journaled a lot, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Pain journals. Journals about how it felt, where it took her. She writes about different kinds of suffering, the way it seeps into you, the connections that link physical pain to emotional pain.
“When you feel sorry for yourself, there’s the ‘why me’ and then there are feelings of quiet acceptance and feelings of rage,” Wendy says. “Pain gave me a palette to paint with.”
Professional appreciation for ElfQuest grew. Young artists and writers followed the trail they and Dave Sim had blazed, the first seedlings of many indie hits. Wendy and Richard became frequent guests and panelists at events. At one show, Chris Claremont led an ovation for their self-publishing success, not eclipsed until Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird launched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. ElfQuest won awards, among them the Balrog, a cultish prize that died before it could be coveted by too many people, and the Inkpot, a more traditional measure of mastery awarded by the San Diego Comic-Con.
Rougher at first, with strong hints of leathery 1970s parody, Wendy’s artwork matures quickly as ElfQuest heads into the 1980s. It takes control of its environments, combining manga’s elegant lines with the spatial poise of old European picture books. Bernie Wrightson sent her a box of his ink pen nibs; the busier linework of ElfQuest‘s middle issues reflects experimentation with these inherited tools. Subterranean backdrops turn austere and sinuous, a cool Art Nouveau vibe offset by body horror and spiritual conflict. The Pinis have a photo of Erte, 90 years old, delightedly reading an issue.
If its artistic and commercial success suggests happiness, though, the carefully-constructed spaces around Wendy and Richard instead filled with pressure, driving them apart. Everybody was making money off of the elves, so a swarm of pesky humans were always lurking, seeking to exploit it, to remake it in forms that might continue to exist after the Pinis were done.
Wendy’s obsession with ElfQuest grew, but so did her unhappiness. She and Richard struggled to maintain connection, waking up in the morning and going to sleep under stress, “…living in each other’s sweat.”
And bone pressed against bone.
“Too much is too much,” she says, “yet I had the obsession to finish the tale, so I did. I felt miserable after, like all my life force was drained out.”
Wendy has many avatars in ElfQuest, but one in particular exists only in others’ memories. Yurek, a telekinetic sculptor of stone, extends a rocky precipice to form an arch, looming over the Sun Village’s horizon. This becomes the Bridge of Destiny to his descendants, a place that figures strongly in their ritual imagination but remains mysterious to them. Creating it was a task of such magnitude that nothing is left of Yurek when it is done. So “he just walked out on it and spread himself on the wind.”
In the final issues of the first series, Pini’s inking gets more intense. Realism sharpens her characters’ neotenous qualities; they seem vulnerably young yet dangerously old.
Wendy’s fondness for the hurt-comfort fetish becomes compulsive, like a wolf worrying a sore. A beloved character gets his head bashed in but is not quite killed, his soul snagged on the last thorn of a perversely extended life, all but howling for death. All the charming and problematic elements of classic fantasy pop off like a rack of Chekov’s guns. The Wolfriders, presented with vaguely Native American and Celtic qualities, learn their ancestors were not only colonists but keepers of slaves: the trolls, whose descendants feel just as entitled as them to possession of the ancestral home. They chop each other to bits for control of this structure, which all dimly understand to have been a spaceship, but which turns out, in the end, to be a useless ruin.
The truths here were lost on readers hoping for a more heroic or material resolution. Home, for many of us, isn’t something our ancestors can pass to us. Home is something we find ourselves, something no one can take from us.
To some, all this seemed a bit downbeat.
Wendy wanted to enjoy it, to feel it in her, but her heart was empty after years of obsession. And her body was filling with something else.
“Just pain,” says Wendy, searching for other words and giving up. A slight shake of her head. A slight shrug. “Pain.”
They hosted a party at Anaheim’s 1984 World Science Fiction Convention to celebrate the Quest’s end, a place where fans, in all their costumes, could gather to feast and send and recognize and howl together.
Richard rented a large room, expecting a hundred fans, peers and hacks to show up. More than a thousand poured in, sending him off to rent the next space over and drag open the divider to accommodate the crowd.
“It was insane,” Wendy says.
An album of ElfQuest-themed music played on loop. Personages from comics and science fiction filtered in, some to play, some to pay respects. Frank Kelly Freas, the dean of science fiction artists, put his arm around Wendy and said, “Look what you did.”
But Wendy was two weeks away from an important date with an osteopathic surgeon, and had spent her time preparing for hip surgery. It was Yin-Yang, she says, facing up to major surgery “yet at the same time just taking in the fact that, yes, we did accomplish this!”
While Richard struggled to manage the event, Wendy danced with fans as best she could.
She remembers the evening spent apart, but a photo shows the couple together, posing with dozens of costumed elves, old and young, all elated at being together in this perfect moment, where all that hurts them in this world is lost in the shared song of another.
Amid the chaos, Wendy saw two faces she had not expected. Her brother, Scott, and her father, Stuart. They’d driven hundreds of miles to be there.
Her father hugged her and said “You will never know how proud I am of you.”
He couldn’t look her in the eye.
“I guess I never will,” she replied.
Here and now, remembering, Wendy falls silent for a long time.
“I regret it now,” she says. “I should have been more appreciative of what he was trying to say. It’s so distant, it feels cold, but there is no pain. When I cross the Rainbow Bridge, if I get to see him, that’s one of the first things I’m going to say to him. ‘I wish I had appreciated what you said that day.'”
Richard was and remains Wendy’s facilitator, a role he’s filled from the beginning and proudly declares. In truth, though, he is more, intimately involved in ElfQuest’s creation and singularly responsible—directly or indirectly—for publishing and promoting it. He insulates Wendy from all the bullshit, except that which involves deadlines.
The convention-circuit elf infestation peaked in the 1980s, clusters of waggle-eared fey folk waving knives and howling at passers-by. So many turned out for the masquerade at the 1981 San Diego Comic-Con that the whole bunch was awarded “Best Group.” Gary Owens, veteran emcee, noted that a phenomenon was at hand. He summoned all the elves up on the stage. Every last one. Then he leaned into the mic.
“Wendy Pini,” he said. “Creator of these characters. Come on up.”
Amid the applause, Wendy turned to Richard.
Perhaps she should have gone up, reminded the audience of her co-creator, and summoned him herself. Perhaps she should have left him there and given him his space. In the event, she refused to go up unless he came with her.
“Richard took it very hard, that he was not called up too,” Wendy says. “It really hurt him.”
She’s felt a pattern in their lives ever since. It’s the way karma works with them, a sense of instant balance. At every moment of wonderment, a corresponding reminder of limitation, cosmic retribution for indefinite sins.
Her vacation, after completing the first ElfQuest series, was a hip operation.
Too young for a hip replacement, an experimental procedure, a quadruple osteotomy, took her pelvis apart and reshaped it. She was in the hospital, in a cast, for a month.
She didn’t fall down so much, after it healed. But she knew that the dancing was done. It also did nothing to relieve the pain.
Wendy and Richard visited Britain late in 1984, perhaps the worst place on earth to seek refuge from elves and spirits. Wendy needed a cane to walk. They went to the British Museum, the world’s greatest collection of stolen beauty. A guard approached them as they got their tickets.
He didn’t look at Wendy. Instead he looked at her cane, then addressed Richard directly.
“Can you vouch for her?” he said
Determined to find out who she was when “free of the claw-hold of Elfquest,” Wendy corresponded with George R. R. Martin, then working to transpose the classic fairy tale Beauty and The Beast to the mean streets and sewers of New York City. She pitched and won the job of turning the TV show into a graphic novel. The show’s creator, Ron Koslow, initially rejected her drafts. But she persisted, nailed it, and spent two years working on two successful graphic novels.
She worked for Marvel and DC Comics, too, one-offs to remind herself, perhaps, that she could hack mainstream floppy work. In 1985 Marvel licensed Elfquest and distributed a reprint run to newsstands and groceries, putting it on the margins of mass culture. Collections of the material were bestsellers, dramatically expanding the market for graphic novels through retail book chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and extending Elfquest’s audience internationally. Translations popped up in a dozen languages. It wasn’t going away.
The claws were an embrace, as warm and loving as a child’s.
For decades, near-constant efforts were made to develop an Elfquest TV show or movie. Studios “optioned” the rights for hefty sums, then slowly became baffled by what they had acquired.
To become a Saturday morning series on CBS in the 1980s, for example, much had to change. Leetah, a sophisticated dark-skinned woman, senior to her pale lifemate in emotional and spiritual maturity, would have to be made white. Mixed-race couples, the Pinis were told, would alienate viewers. Cutter and Leetah’s son, a gentle mystic, and their daughter, a firestorm of action, would have to have their genders swapped.
“Fuck all that,” Wendy says.
For better or for worse, Elfquest was never made into a Saturday-morning toon and never consigned to the uncertain retro glory of the Hot Topic t-shirt rack or the Twitter-exploding reboot.
A challenge for filmmakers is Wendy’s deceptively approachable style. Animation seems to lie beneath her lines, but her panels rarely suggest keyframes, even when they mark time’s passage. When her character designs are simplified to make it reasonable to draw them 24 times per second, their souls slip away. To draw them perfectly requires the skills not of an animator or cartoonist, but a forger.
Fragments of Elfquest, though, surfaced throughout the 1980s and 1990s—tributes, hat tips, ripoffs and uncanny echoes. A young, towheaded elf pirate from an animated adventure show. The stocky elves infiltrating troll caverns in an 8-bit computer game, then beating one another up in a 16-bit one. Rankin-Bass had wanted Elfquest; Thundercats shared much of its superficial appeal. Nelvana, a Canadian studio, also tried to license it; its Ewoks cartoon series, fleshing out the culture of the primitive Star Wars bears, borrowed elements suitable for younger children. “I put a Wolfrider in Ewoks,” episode writer Paul Dini told the Pinis.
Though among America’s most successful cartoonists, as responsible as any for attracting women readers to comic stores, Wendy Pini’s influence is deepest at the margins. She has inspired albums of folk music, tattoo flash and cracktro pixel art. She is context-shifted in a painting by the artist and musician Brian Chippendale, featured in a 2012 issue of Juxtapoz magazine. She draws and inks crisp narrative art, but her paintings often glow with a cosmic lowbrow aesthetic.
When I first spotted an ElfQuest book, growing up in Worthing, England, it caught my eye because I’d seen its characters as graffiti in nearby Brighton, where the Earth Liberation Front was born. One article about this group cunningly titles their ideology as an “Elf Quest”. Pini’s characters taught lonely latchkey kids how to find their true families while serving as street art avatars for an organization the FBI considered, until September 2001, America’s most significant domestic terrorist threat. If there is an unsettling ambiguity in Pini’s outlook, it’s that she understands too well the power of staying hidden.
In 1994, the film producer Ed Pressman optioned Elfquest. Wendy moved to Los Angeles and worked on the project for years, but Pressman’s disastrous production of Judge Dredd slowed his roll for indie comics. Another film studio, Sceneries, paid handsomely to pick up the rights. Just as pre-production began, its corporate parent was bought by the French multinational Vivendi, which immediately downsized its acquisition.
Wendy, Richard, and their creative partners, ignorant of the fast-moving corporate slaughter, showed up to a meeting to find Sceneries’ offices had become an empty warehouse, denuded of workstations and staff.
“Completed vacated overnight. Gone. Everything. Filing cabinets, everything. Just some shit on the floor,” Wendy says. “All gone!”
They knew how bizarre a place Hollywood was. Moorcock had warned Wendy about it, and published a book about it to warn everyone else. Until that moment, though, it hadn’t sunk in.
“Hollywood kills you a lot with ‘Yes,'” says Wendy.
ElfQuest’s first sequel in print was a mini-series, Siege at Blue Mountain, published in the late 1980s. The next series, Kings of the Broken Wheel, was followed by the beautifully-painted Hidden Years. Warp Graphics survived the 1994 comics direct-market crash by the skin of its teeth.
In 2000, for the first time, Wendy took an apprentice. Sonny Strait, a talented voice actor who played Krillin on Dragonball Z, a show Wendy loved. He was also a skilled cartoonist with a knack for the fast-moving storytelling instincts of anime. They met while stuck in adjacent convention booths. He said he was a fan, then proved it by tossing off a manga rendering of Cutter. She’d worked with assistants and inkers over the years, including Joe Barruso and Joe Staton, but Strait was the first whose work was compelling enough to realize ElfQuest’s most intimate moments.
In a scene drawn by Strait, Cutter—Wendy’s avatar—is assailed by a feverish Skywise—Richard—but holds on until his friend calms and returns to sanity.
“The book comes out, and I get this beautiful bouquet of white roses from Richard and a note that says, ‘You didn’t let go,'” Wendy says, smiling at the memory. “ElfQuest is always autobiographical. Always.”
Times change. Wendy learned to use Photoshop, Warp signed a new deal with DC Comics, and she spent years recoloring her saga and adapting the entire thing to fit the small Tankōbon-style book format that DC pitched to younger, manga-obsessed readers.
As she learned new techniques in digital art, Wendy also learned techniques to keep her right hip from grinding agonizingly and dangerously against her femur. Entering the 2000s, though, she lived in daily level 10 pain: “I was so accustomed to it that it would just ride over me every day.”
Believing herself ineligible for further medical work but desperate, she went to a new osteopath. She went for scans. After examining them, the surgeon came out and stood in front of her.
“How the hell have you been walking on this?” he said. “I cannot conceive the amount of pain you’ve been living in. We know how to fix this, and you waited this long?”
Recalling it more than a decade later, Wendy pauses. Her eyes are shining, her smile breathless. Energy seems to crackle through her.
“I was so ready for it!” she says. Shifting onto a hand, she pushes herself up. “The best surgery I ever had!”
She’s poised on her feet, hip out, pointing to it with two fingers spread about an inch or two apart.
“Now, the incision is only about this big, and the whole thing takes an hour and a half. They put you in twilight sleep, they don’t even put you fully out.”
She folds her hands to resemble the bionic augmentations inside her. There’s a certain rhythm to the way she presents each component, a beat.
“This is a space age plastic cup, and then here’s a metal femur. There’s cement down inside the femur to hold this ball-thing, pure metal, positioned inside the femur. The bone will just grow right into it.”
She’s almost dancing. It’s back with her, a spirit left for years in darkness.
“Two working hips for the first time in my life! ‘Get this woman fixed!’ And they did, man. To wake up and to be in less pain than you’ve been in years, it’s like a miracle. A joyous experience!”
Every page of ElfQuest right up until the mid-2000s, she makes absolutely clear, was executed in physical pain, growing to agony in two overlapping waves, one for each hip, one replaced at the turn of the 1990s and the other a decade and a half later.
“Then, I drew inspiration from the pain, motivation for my storytelling,” Wendy says. “What kind of story am I going to tell now that I’m out of pain? Am I going to get ridiculous? Am I going to enjoy this so much that I’m not going to be motivated to draw anymore?” I was asking myself all kinds of questions. I got a little ridiculous for the first few months. Very giddy, very lightheaded!”
If pain is a muse, what does its absence betray? As she spoke, I was struck by the impression that even when she doesn’t love her work, she loves the people it reaches.
Her first new effort, The Searcher and The Sword, was about a human character. Her next story, The Discovery, was bathed in weird color.
“It is entirely possible,” Wendy says, “that I got a little drunk on the psychedelics of it all.”
She set out to produce an animated “American yaoi,” a homoerotic science-fiction mix of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death and Hanna-Barbera-style limited animation. It is a tale of privileged people behaving badly, starving for connection, and being devoured by an apocalyptic gray goo (in this case, though, the rampant nanotechnology is a shmeaty red). She wanted to be a fan of such a story, but it didn’t exist, so she made it herself.
Unlike ElfQuest, which avoided overt depiction of same-sex romance for reasons both obvious and obscure, Masque lets loose.
It was a challenge, though, to execute the cold erotica that her futuristic gothic scenario demanded. As Wendy suspected it might, it found a small, intense audience indifferent to her other work. It completed an artistic and emotional loop she’d opened for herself decades earlier.
“Masque is my Stormbringer,” Wendy says, “the realization of the experience I wanted to have back when I was a kid, but couldn’t finish.”
Wendy and her brother, two adopted children far apart in age and only briefly glued into their family, were never close. He left home at age 17 and traveled the world. She named a character in his honor but their personalities were opposite: “Skot” a scrappy extrovert, Scott distant to the point of seeming fugitive, even from himself.
In the 2000s, though, they reconnected. Scott, then in his late fifties, was renovating a beautiful Victorian house in San Francisco, and the passion and workmanship involved was immediately apparent to her. He adopted shelter dogs and lavished them with affection.
He didn’t like people much, Wendy says, and didn’t seem to have many friends. “I was getting to know him better, getting to have more complex conversations with him that weren’t so evasive.”
The only people he seemed to talk to were tenants living in his old place in Palm Springs. Though Scott did not ever admit to being gay, she learned that someone important to him had died of AIDS. He gave the impression of having overcome a severe alcohol problem, of burying two partners and being alone since.
He was damaged growing up, but she already knew this. Getting close to anybody, even Wendy, represented a trust issue for him. He wanted to discuss their shared experiences of childhood, “how awful growing up in that house was.” Wendy felt it too, and understood that healing was taking place. But their conversations became rituals, dwelling on the same things, over and over. She wanted to bond, but not over misery. He was not resolving anything, she says, just reliving it. Eventually, she had to say no, if only to the repetitions.
Then one of Scott’s tenants called.
“I’ve been trying to reach him for days, but his answering machine is full,” he said. “That’s not like him.”
A sick feeling arose in the pit of Wendy’s stomach. It was Thanksgiving 2006. She was with Richard at their home near Los Angeles. She hung up and walked into his office.
“We’ve got to go to San Francisco.”
“Wait a minute…”
“No. We’re not going to wait. We’re going to San Francisco.”
They sped up the 101 freeway, hellbent, a five-hour trip at Richard speed. Halfway there, her cellphone rang again. It was Scott’s tenant. He’d called the police and they’d already broken into Scott’s house.
“He was dead,” Wendy says. “He’d been dead for 10 days. That drive to San Francisco was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, to realize where we were going.”
The dogs had been in the house the whole time. They were saved. They went back to the shelter.
Wendy cries as easily as she laughs, but these tears are different.
“There is a horror that nobody can talk about or write about or get anybody else to understand,” Wendy says. “We did the cleanup. They told us when we got to the house, the cops were there and they said, “You need to be aware that there was insect activity.” It was very hard for them to determine how he died. They think it was his heart. We did the cleanup.”
Wendy still dreams of another world where Scott survived, where he came out to her, and she came out to him.
Wendy and Richard plotted out ElfQuest‘s Final Quest in the 1990s as a last outing for Cutter, Skywise and their tribesmates, and were concerned about its freshness producing it twenty years later. But the introduction of handguns to the tale, imagined in the wake of Columbine, only seemed more symbolic than ever in the 2010s. Final Quest’s suggestions of gender trouble, embodiment and spiritual self-determination seem almost tailored for the Now.
It’s grueling work, too, with long nights and weekends lost to five years of bimonthly deadlines. But the trees still whisper.
“Nothing eats at me. It’s full of joy,” Wendy says. She smiles and waggles her stylus. “Fourteen hours a fucking day of joy!”
Online, she rails against her generation’s political failures, at lies she used to believe, at the mistreatment of women and transfolk and queer people and the American dream. But even her rants about Trump take a positive tack, reaffirming love for the noncomforming and marginalized. In 2016, her pansexuality, sublimated in ElfQuest, was given public voice beyond the boundaries of art and personal intimacy.
Her elves’ ears are vaginal, she says, simply because they describe beautiful lines, lines that “automatically propel you into the feminine.” But their souls take whatever form they please. Though awake, Wendy’s is the gnostic happiness of those who know that we are dreaming.
ElfQuest‘s book-jacket pitches are cover stories for two different needs that it meets. There are readers to whom the Wolfriders become a surrogate family, and then there are those who are themselves elves. People who seek others to love, and people who are others in love.
“That’s what elves represent,” Wendy says. “This is about how you get through it, how you survive it, how you find out who you really are. How you find your strength in the very thing that people are attacking.”
She is at her desk, poised over her tablet display. Notes and reminders hang from her monitor: remember to take breaks, remember to drink water, remember to breathe. She places a hand upon the screen. A cursor flickers under the pen’s tip. She commits to a line, an elegant slash of pixel ink spreading across the display. There is no pain.