Reprinted by permission from the May 2001 issue of
ElfQuestions - part 1
an interview with Wendy and Richard Pini
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 to Warner 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 like Magic 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 and Batman 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 and Thor. 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 Inhumans who 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 Beardsley and 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.
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: 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 Limits were 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.
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, cancelled Dungeons and Dragons. Zander's Animation Parlor was producing and we had a great team of writers, Larry DiTillio and Joe Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame. 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)!
Read Part Two of Sequential Tart's ElfQuestions here.