Wendy and Richard Pini Part One: There was nothing on the stands like ElfquestA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
One of the real thrills about running this website is in that it allows me to meet people whom I admire and have wonderful conversations with them. Right at the top of that list is the incomparable Wendy and Richard Pini, who are two of the great comics pioneers who led the way for independent, self-published and self-driven comics. Their Elfquest is one of the most important and trailblazing comics of the 1970s; as you'll see below, it broke the mold in many ways.
This is the first part of a three-part interview with the Pinis; as you'll see below we have a great talk about issues of sexuality in Elfquest as well as an exploration of their early days in the comics world. Be sure to come back tomorrow for more, and click here to read part three of this interview.
Wendy Pini: One of the fans was telling the story of how he discovered Elfquest when he was young, and I think it helped him find his gender identity.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: That's really powerful. You obviously never expected your comics to have that kind of impact on people.
Richard Pini: It's not the first time that happened.
Wendy: No it's not the first time. For a long time we've heard stories like that. Because Elfquest has a huge gay audience.
CB: And you were really out in front with that approach, too. There have always been prominent gay relationships in the stories.
Wendy: Well from the elves' standpoint, they don't really have a label like that, but to average comic reader's eyes it does look gay. But with the elves, anything goes.
CB: That's kind of why I think it's so appealing. The series is very centered on the characters. I think that's why people find it so real.
Richard: We discovered early on that the method in storytelling involves no preaching whatsoever. If characters are the way they are, we don't say "Hey, look they're being different from what you expect." As Wendy said, we don't have any labels. They're not gay relationships. Because gay is a label that we had to invent in this world, and this time, and this culture, so we can classify, but they don't do that. The Elves don't do that.
Wendy: Yeah, sometimes when we're doing a panel we get asked "Are there any gay elves in Elfquest?" and we just make funny faces and the audience cracks up. And it's like, have you read it?
Richard: Either that or we mess with them and say no, because you're asking from a label point of view and we don't have those.
CB: Not to leave your stories, but I have a daughter who is a lesbian. She's 21 now and she came out to us when she was 16. Our reaction – which is a very Pacific Northwest reaction – was, "Yeah that's fine, go clean your bedroom."
Wendy: This is what we've noticed about the Northwest. We have a huge following in the Pacific Northwest, and driving along 101, now we understand because we passed through pure Elf country. It's so beautiful. Just trees, trees, everywhere.
CB: To us it's just a normal thing.
Richard: We have lived also in the Northeast, and there are some similarities to the Pacific Northwest. I think that we're close in latitude so we get a lot of the same kind of weather patterns. But coming up through the redwoods was mind expanding.
Wendy: Oh I know, the trees are nice.
CB: That's one of my favorite parts of the country. Just to be around something that is that old and that majestic.
Wendy: Literally older than God. I mean five thousand years old. It's fantastic, and your lungs get full of all that incredible oxygen and you just get high. It's amazing. So yeah now we understand why we have so many fans here.
CB: It's the atmosphere, and the attitude of it.
Wendy: And we love the easy-going, accepting attitude.
CB: I just don't understand why it's not that way elsewhere in the country. There was a football player that recently came out as gay, and I put a note about that innocently on my facebook page "Why is this a story? Why does anyone care?" and my friends from elsewhere in the country had no idea where I was coming from. I have trouble imagining a world where that's not tolrated. My daughter said she had no problems with discrimination in high school. There was a gay/lesbian club at her school.
Wendy: Oh my god, how fantastic.
Richard: It's interesting just how big and varied this country is to go from North to Southeast to West. Country to city. Parts of it are very churchy. Just the differences are astounding, and yet it's trying to be one country. We're still in our infancy. Wondering what we're going to be when we grow up.
Wendy: And speaking of the '70s, the attitudes that are expressed in Elfquest symbolically work as a fairy tale come from the 1970s free thinking, free love era. We lived all of that. It was something that we truly believed in. It's something that we could see our country coming towards, and Richard and I are both so surprised that in 2014 those darned issues of prejudice, fear, and hatred are still there, and are still seemingly in some ways stronger than ever.
Richard: You know, I get through the day by looking at it from a longer historical perspective. It's like the stock market. The Dow Jones in the 192's was $200, now it's 13, 14, 15,000. It says over the last century there has been a slow but continuous rise, but if you look at any part of it closely there are ups and downs that look like jagged teeth. Culturally I think that's what we're doing. Over time, over long time we're getting better but we have these ticks, and we have these tocks in the other direction. When you're living in the moment of them it seems like "Oh god, this is never going to get any better."
Richard: I think we're in better shape than we feel sometimes.
Wendy: I agree with Richard completely, but when you hear the news of a hate crime going on you just go "How old this is". How embarrassing. We should have outgrown this a long time ago.
CB: But we're always going to have some element to that, and it's grown fewer and fewer over the years and that's progress.
Richard: News wants violence. If it bleeds, it leads.
Wendy: We always put forth enough in Elfquest from the very beginning about stories that we cared about. And we started with a theme of knowledge vs. ignorance. Heroic fantasy normally has a good vs. evil theme. There's always the dark bad guy, and the light-emanating good guy. Emphasis on guys.
CB: Lord of the Rings, right? A man on a quest to fight the ultimate evil.
Wendy: Right. Exactly. And that is the tradition of heroic fantasy. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it, but it was never for me. I don't think I ever believed in good and evil. So when I told Richard the story for the first time in the mid '70s, right from the get-go it was more about a group of people, the elves, who are misunderstood. Who cause fear in those that don't understand them because they're so different. And how they survived that, and how they protect their community. At the same time they reach out and try to find out more about where they came from and he origin of their strangeness. Why are they different, and where did they really come from? That's been the theme of Elfquest all along.
CB I think that's the thing that people find so resonant. We all go through that stage in our lives when we try to figure out who we are and what we've been through.
Richard: And where we're going. Where's home? Externally and internally.
Wendy: Yes because you can't ever find home externally until you're at home in here first [points at her head], and why that's a lot of our characters to this day are still looking to find out who they are.
CB: So I have to ask, how did you end up deciding to put up the first issue of the comic?
Wendy: Can you tell the story this time?
CB: I'm sorry, I'm sure you've told it a hundred times. A thousand times even at this point.
Wendy: But he's more patient about it.
Richard: People are going to read this article for the first time and this is going to be their introduction to "What's this Elfquest thing?" and it's a good story. It's one thing we've learned as many times as we've said this or as many times as we've had a convention and somebody comes up, and asks us the same question for the 5000th time. And we go "Urg!" We take a step back and realize that every experience is someone's first. So we want to make it a good one for them.
To answer the question, Wendy has been a story teller all her life. In both words and pictures. Mostly pictures because she's that good. But all of her stories have to do with family, pride, finding yourself, finding home, overcoming problems, having good relationships with others. So when she told me in 1977 that she had an idea for this long sprawling story. I was intrigued. We had just seen Star Wars. Star Wars broke America's mind culturally because for years science fiction was that weirdo Buck Rogers stuff. Suddenly science fiction and fantasy was great for everybody. Everybody loved it.
We were in our middle twenties then. And we realized "Whoa". Because we'd been into comic fandom for a while. But this was a game changer. And we realized that if the acceptance level was that much greater for science fiction and fantasy, maybe we had a shot. So she told me the bare bones, the framework, the skeleton of Elfquest and we set about figuring out how we were going to get this out there, and we thought about doing this as a prose novelization but then you wouldn't see her fantastic artwork. We heard from so many people that when you put the words along with the subtle and beautiful facial expressions, it's a much more powerful experience. So we ended up going with the medium of comics. Words and pictures. We had no idea what we were doing. We knew that there were underground comics. Of course there was the Big Two. We took it to Marvel and DC because we were not interested in doing it ourselves, but they thought it was too strange for them. And so we ended up, just like the little red hen- if you want something done right, you do it yourself.
Wendy: Now I'll step in and say that we were incredibly fortunate to be friends with the two major distributors at the time, with Pacific on the west coast, and Seagate on the east coast, and because I had a reputation already as a professional science fiction fantasy illustrator for Galaxy and IF magazines, they knew my work. And so my name on a comic book, and the quality of what we put together.
Richard: They we're buying a pig and the pork.
Wendy: Plus it was something crazy.
Richard: We did something crazy, but direct market was just beginning to grow. We entered it at a perfect time with a beautiful product, with someone's art who had some chops. At this time, 1978, if you were doing a fanzine, and there were fanzines, that were not digital because there was no digital. If you had two hundred circulation you were doing pretty well.
We didn't know what the heck we were doing. We had a first print of ten thousand, and it sold out within weeks. So we were whoa. Word of mouth just took off.
Wendy: Right, and it was only because of timing. I don't think anything like that could be repeated nowadays. But we happened to have a product that the world was ready for. We happened to know the right distributors at the right time. It was all timing.
Richard: There was nothing on the stands like Elfquest. There were superhero comics, there were underground comics, and there was Elfquest. Now there were other people who were pioneering as well. There was Cerebus, there was First Kingdom and there was Star*Reach. But there was nothing as human, as getting into the soul of the reader, as Elfquest.
Wendy: Oh and one other thing, it's the first manga-influenced comic in America. It holds that distinction, and we're very proud of that.
Richard: Elfquest has been called the first American Manga, and that's because Wendy from a young age was exposed in subtle ways, living on the west coast to eastern culture. Manga was unknown in this country in the '70s except if you knew where to look and if you had friends.
Wendy: Very tiny culture.
Richard: Very tiny fandom. Which she found it and absorbed it, and made it her own along with a lot of other artistic influences.
Wendy: I'm also a child of Jack Kirby.
CB: It's an interesting mix of influences. One couldn't really come around that era and not be a child of Jack Kirby.
Wendy: But for a girl to be a child of Jack Kirby was.
CB: Well that's one of the things I wanted to ask about too was that it's hard to think of any other women creators of that era.
Wendy: There was Ramona Fradon; there were a number of women that were coming into the business editorially as writers or editors and publishers themselves.
CB: You were talking about earlier how your book is very, I don't want to use a sexist term for it, but it seems that it has more female values than male values. Community, acceptance, Growth.
Wendy: Yeah, and that's not sexist, and we own that. Yes you're right.
Richard: It is the perfect storm. Of a lot of things. There were women in mainstream comics. Marie Severin and Ramona Fradon are the first ones that come to mind, but they were still subsumed within the Big Two, mostly male industry. There were some underground artists like Trina Robins and Lee Mars, but they were, and I don't want this to sound like a judgment, but it was just more political what they were trying to accomplish.
We have always taken a stand. We have always wanted to do tell this story. So Wendy took influences from this culture, and other influences from that culture. I'd like to say that she is one of the very few --and the only one that I can think of right now -- who manages to combine all the best qualities of what we would call feminine art and storytelling. Which is spiritual, light, and delicate, the opposite of masculine art and storytelling which is massive and direct, and full of action. To blend those two perfectly in a combination that I don't think has been seen before since.
Wendy: See I love high contrast. I get thrilled by high contrast. So to take the manga influence, which is great. I like the drawing style, it's graceful. Delicate. Very often drawn by women, but my earliest Japanese influence was Osamu Tezuka who created Astro Boy. He's God of Manga, you know what I'm talking about.
And as I like to say, Tezuka was a cruel guy. His artwork was adorable, but he did the worst things possible to his characters. And the contrast with his work that no character was safe, you could never predict that a character that was a favorite of yours was going to last through the story or not. It was thrilling to me because there's always been a tendency in American storytelling, especially stories aimed at younger people, to hold back from throwing punches.
Disney, I think educated the American audience for decades that there was always going to be a happy ending. We were going to have serious moments in the story, but it would never get too serious. I grew up as a very young kid on Disney of course, so when I discovered Japanese anime when I was ten, and I saw an entirely different way of telling a story, I became mad! I was thrilled. I was excited, I was beyond myself. Because something in me wanted more. Something in me wanted truth, and wanted to face the darker side of things. If the character died, the character should die. There should be no namby-pamby about it. And the Japanese always go there with their storytelling. Because they're willing.
CB: It's probably better in the long term that Marvel and DC didn't accept the book and gave you the chance to do what you wanted to do without their editorial oversight.
Richard: We give thanks all the time on the one hand, that neither Marvel nor DC took the book at the time because they did not have the whole creator-owned thing going at that time.
Wendy: Oh they couldn't even conceive of that.
Richard: And so I don't know what they would have done with it, and they kind of forced us to get up there on the firing lane. The same thing with everyone asked about Elfquest movies. We have been to that altar many times. We've lived on that film money at times, and we've never made it all the way. And when we've seen evidence of what it would have been, we give thanks that it would not have happened. We can wait to afford it for it to be right.
Wendy: And this is what we tell the fans, because the fans are really impatient for a movie or TV series. And I keep telling them- and I keep using Mike Mignola as an example because Mike say's "There's Mike Mignola's Hellboy, and then there's Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy." and never the twain shall meet. Guillermo Del Toro introduced a huge audience to Hellboy that didn't previously know him through film. So there are certainly advantages, but at the same time the film audience knows the Hellboy that isn't necessarily the original character the creator envisioned. We are holding out for a film that at least 70% comes close to what we originally envisioned.
Richard: So you're absolutely right. We have been blessed by rejection.
CB: It's funny how often that's true in life.
Richard: Yup. You can spin the "what if" story, but we are happier now continuing on with the Elfquest saga. Getting to pick and choose our helpers of most recent which is of course Dark Horse, such that we have a good time working with them. As I've always said, we are independent, but we are not always isolated. We have always owned Elfquest, we've always told our own story. We love working with people who get it, and who are fun to work with. And if that's the rest of our lives, our livelihood, it's not a bad livelihood at all.
CB: That's not a bad livelihood at all.
Wendy: But that does not stop us from enjoying the fact that Elfquest also has the distinction of having been published by every mainstream publisher.
CB: Including Marvel back in the day. So many people discovered the book during that time.
Richard: Well that's because Marvel turned us down in 1977. So we had to do it ourselves. When we were getting close to what we would call "the classic quest story" in 1984, we knew people at Marvel. It was a smaller community then. We all had dinner with each other, and swapped jokes.
Wendy: And Marvel was starting to open its mind to create your own properties.
Richard: They were realizing that these upstarts were taking up shelf space. And if we can't beat them maybe we can somehow join with them, well anyway-
CB: We can make money off of Sergio Aragones and Groo, and make money off you as well.
Richard: There you go. So a friend of ours was working on a new project and I went to her and said "Well you said no once, would you think about reprinting?" and she said "I've been wanting to talk to you about that for years." So yes we did a preprint with Marvel, and they got us something that we could never have which was newsstand distribution. The direct market was great back then, but newsstands were still a potent force. So we got hundreds of thousands of new readers simply via that. Very grateful to Marvel for that. Later we worked with DC, and did some new material and did some reprint with them. Very grateful to them because they put out some gorgeous volumes.
Wendy: Archive collections.
Richard: They were wonderful at the craft of bookwork, we were grateful for that but they just did not know how to get. Now we're with Dark Horse. They're doing reprints, and they're doing new material because Mike Richardson grew up in the same bad neighborhood that we did in terms of the early independent comics scene. He knows what it's like to be both scrappy and very corporate and to know what marketing moves to make.
Wendy: That's one of the things that we love about Dark Horse, visiting the offices, is that you can see that they are growing like kudzu. At the same time they've really preserved the atmosphere of independent publication, and they're extremely focused on the work. On putting together the best product possible. You can see that just by touring the offices.
CB: You can see it by looking at their booth too. They're diversity of content they put out, but by a readers standpoint and coverage standpoint it's thrilling to have such a wide diverse line. They may be the most diverse line in comics.
Wendy: I think easily. I think easily they are. Yes.
Richard: And we are working with them very closely. You know, other companies have layers between the creators and marketing. Maybe you're working with editorial directly, but you don't talk to marketing. You don't talk to the front office. We know almost everybody there, and they talk to us directly. If they have questions, it's wonderful. The best time that we've had since we started.
CB: That's high praise considering how long you've been involvedin this industry.
Wendy: 36 years.
CB: 36 years? Wow.
Click here to read part two of this interview.
Click here to read part three of this interview.