It is spring, 1978. Richard Pini lurks near the entrance to a building in East Lansing, Michigan, and waits. He had flown on impulse from Boston to Detroit, then driven to this suburban town on the Red Cedar River, out of sheer frustration. His quest: to recover a comic-book fantasy, imagined and illustrated by his wife, Wendy, from the man who had taken it from them. Their publisher, the short-lived and so-called Independent Publishers Syndicate, wasn't returning her artwork.
What IPS's proprietor thought when confronted by an angry New Englander—no longer a mere voice on the phone—is his own business. But the look on his face, Pini says, was priceless. He handed over the artwork, and Pini was soon back on the road. With him in his rented car were 60 pages from another world, a place hidden somewhere between Japanese comics, American animated movies, and spooky Old World picturebooks.
ElfQuest would, henceforth, be self-published.
The story of Cutter and his clan of wolf-riding elves, burned from their ancient forest by vengeful humans, ElfQuest's inspirations are entirely different from Tolkien and his imitators. Their long search for a new home leads to more of their kind, to the derelict spaceship of their shapeshifting ancestors, and to an unsettling truth concerning their own nature. By the early 1980s, the magazine-sized books were selling 100,000 copies an issue.
Especially popular among young women, this romantic adventure was not didactic, and the Pinis say they didn't set out to push boundaries. But with a setting packed with novel "meta"—the heroes being an experiment in applied mythology both in and outside the story—ElfQuest's mix of mysticism and humanism renewed a gently subversive strain of arcadian fiction that had been long-eclipsed by the detail-obsessed worlds of high fantasy.
Marking the saga's 35th anniversary, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired the complete archives: thousands of comic pages, preliminary sketches, mockups, layouts and scripts.
From the clutches of a fly-by-night publisher to the permanent collection of one of America's oldest universities, ElfQuest's had a remarkable run. I asked Wendy and Richard about the forthcoming denouement, how times have changed, and the haunting connections it builds with its readers.
Rob: First, let me add one more huge thank you to your collection of thank yous. I read ElfQuest when I was nine or ten years old, and it rescued me from some really terrible genre fantasy.
Wendy: What you just said never gets old no matter how many times we hear it. Being told ‘thank you’ is worth more than an Eisner Award to us--just being told ‘thank you’ because we helped someone learn how to read, or helped them with their sexuality, or helped them get started professionally as writers or artists. The thank yous have been the biggest reward over the years for Richard and me. Richard, would you agree?
Richard: I would agree 110%. For over 30 years we keep getting letters from folks. The cycle renews itself. We hear from a parent and then we hear from the children of those parents and there’s no statuette, there’s no plaque that you could hang on your wall that makes us feel as good as just those very personal expressions.
Rob: What do people most misunderstand about ElfQuest?
Richard: Most misunderstand? What do they most misunderstand.
Rob: Is it a stupid question?
Richard: Ha, no, it’s one I don’t believe has been asked before. The simple answer, at least in my mind, comes down to a four letter word and that four letter word is ‘cute’. Between the title, which has ‘elf’ in it, and a very criminally superficial viewing of Wendy’s artwork, I think some people glance at it and think, ‘Oh, it’s cute, oh it’s girly. Oh, it’s this, oh, it’s that.’ And they dismiss it. Now that may be too superficial an answer for your question.
Wendy: I think Richard just opened Pandora’s Box there, because from the very beginning ElfQuest has been misunderstood particularly its influences and origins when we first brought it out. The entire comics industry was not really familiar with a drawing style inspired by Japanese manga and they didn’t know how to categorize it. ‘What in the world is this? They all have big eyes, the guys look like girls, it’s overly emotional, we’ve never seen anything like this. It’s not even a comic book.’ From the beginning ElfQuest has been very, very hard for mainstream comics fans to categorize and so instead of just educating themselves on what its background is they just decide, ‘It’s a chick book. Maybe it’s a good date book. Maybe I can meet a chick if I ask her if she reads ElfQuest.’ Yet we do have a very large male readership and, for sure, from the feedback we get from men such as yourself, we know they don’t think it’s a chick book! We know they’re getting a lot more out of it than that.
Rob: In England, it turned up as graphic novels, right there with Asterix and Tintin and so on. I remember being surprised the first time I saw the actual magazine-size comics, which were hard to find in England because I don’t think they’d ever been officially published there. I just never realized just how unusual the format was that you used.
Richard: What you saw there was the serendipitous result of us really not knowing how to do it any different, and just using the few examples that we had at the time as a template. It worked out amazingly well. Everything was "wrong" about it. It was the wrong size. It wasn’t in color. It was too expensive. It was, perish the thought, drawn by a woman. All the things that were ‘wrong’ about it made it blazingly distinctive.
Rob: Wendy, you fairly recently finished working on Masque of the Red Death, a big project that took several years. It has a very different vibe to ElfQuest. How do you go about moving artistically and creatively from one world back to the other?
Wendy: Both worlds have always been inside me. There’s a video we put up on YouTube recently of me drawing a piece of Masque. It’s about a 45 minute film and during the course of it I talk about the very first story I really ever worked on, and it was a prose story that I was writing for English class. It was yaoi before anyone had ever heard or even thought of such a term. When I was 16 years old, I hadn’t really even discovered manga yet, because there was just no way to have access to it.
But one of the earliest stories I ever wrote was a dramatic story, and it had a gay protagonist. I may have been ahead of my time with it, but that type of thing has always been a part of my psyche: a darker feel for gothic romance. I’m a horror fan, particularly anything with Vincent Price in it. Anything by Roger Corman—I love delicious, dark horror. I’m a huge Edgar Allan Poe fan, too, and that had been simmering for some time with me. After our contract with DC Comics was fulfilled in 2007, I realized that I had an opening where I could actually tackle Masque. I set out to do it, and it took me four years to finish. It was one of the happiest and most enjoyable and creative experiences I’ve ever had.
Rob: You guys have been in the front lines for 35 years. How has the web changed how the business and the work of comics goes?
Richard: Good heavens. I’m afraid I’m not going to have a terrifically reasoned answer to that and the reason is that, in around about 2002, I decided that I was, as a publisher, getting burned out. All of the administrative trivia, day to day stuff, was wearing me out and I was losing sight of the fun of being part of a creative team. That’s when we picked up a literary agent, licensed to DC, and they did a very nice production job on the archive books, the manga books, and the new work that Wendy did, Discovery and The Searcher and the Sword. At that same time, the web was really beginning to make its presence known in the world of publishing. I realized that, just as I came to print publishing not knowing a damned thing and learning as we went when ElfQuest was first conceived and born, that’s how I would come to the web. The desire to do new things is very strong, but not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t send me an email and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got the perfect platform! I’ve got the perfect app! I’ve got the perfect method!’"
Wendy: I think things are in the same state as they were in 1977, when we were learning how to publish by the seat of our pants. I think independent publishing has moved to the internet, and people are discovering their own ways of doing things just like we did back in the 70s.
Richard: I absolutely agree with you. However, I cut my teeth on paper and ink. And all of this new stuff is... Heaven knows I’m not Grandpa sitting wondering what the hell a mouse is for, but it is still muchly arcane to me and I am doing my best to hack my way through the brambles. But, to bring it back to your question, personally the web has affected the business of ElfQuest in that I find myself and we find ourselves much more desirous of forming partnerships with people who are savvy about this new frontier, so that we can just tell the stories.
Rob: I think you might have just answered my next question, which was if you were doing it all over again, or if you were just starting in it, how do you think it might be different?
Wendy: I don’t think we would have anywhere near the chance of getting started now the way we did back then. In the mid-70s—and I know it’s kind of hard to picture—the way was really clear for us. The independent comics movement was just getting started, and we were among the pioneers. There was not the competition for shelf space. There was not the competition for audience attention and, quite frankly, the audience’s attention span was a lot longer back then than it is now. ElfQuest happened to happen at the right place and the right time. It took off like wildfire. It was lightning in a bottle, and I really don’t think we could have that opportunity again right now. I think if we were trying to launch ElfQuest today, the amount of competition, the sheer amount of product that is out there, would make us just one among thousands.
Richard: Never mind the sheer amount of product, which you’re absolutely right about. Just the sheer amount of noise. Consider, in 1978, a lot of things didn’t exist. There was no web, books existed only on paper, you only got them in shops, and people mostly wrote letters back and forth. Communication between and among us was laborious compared to the instantaneous abilities of email and Skype and chat and all that. And because it was laborious, you paid more attention to it, because you invested more of yourself into the effort of getting these things, reading these things, and interacting with others who were interested in these things.
Wendy: Absolutely. Back then our audience was willing to wait four months between issues. ElfQuest only came out three times a year, for 32 pages of goodness, and they were willing to wait four months! And not only just wait but the audience grew with every issue. Again, it was a magical period that could never, ever possibly come again.
Richard: I think that’s the essence of it. The attention span, the amount of patience was infinite compared to what it is now.
Wendy: And that affects how I tell stories now because I’m quite aware that I can't really be as glacially leisurely, with the pace of the stories, as I was back in the early days.
Rob: Four hours is the new four months! So we recently installed a live monitoring system at Boing Boing, and it really shows how the ‘long tail’ works. This is the idea that while everything big happens at the beginning, there is this long tailing-off of attention for any given thing. Especially on the internet. The long tail works when you're abstracting bookstore inventories at Amazon or other huge aggregations of content, but people will apply to everything--and on the level of individual stories on our site, it really doesn’t exist. The long tail is homeopathic--it only appears to exist when you aggregate loads of different things together. But individuals have a hard time benefiting from it. So the web, damn, it's scary.
Wendy: It’s scary, but that’s an absolutely brilliant description.
Richard: I really like the use of the homeopathic metaphor. Homeopathy is, literally, one or two molecules of something in a bottle of water. Essentially nothing, and yet aggregate enough of those and you’ll have the appearance of something.
Rob: 35 years!
Richard: You know, there’s young, there’s old, and then there’s post-old. I think I’ve gone past. Now whether that’s denial, or simply a new state of being, I don’t much care to analyze in depth. But that I’m still here, to be talking about what we can do next, is rejuvenating. So we’ll take it.
Wendy: I know. Just think about it: 35 years and here we are getting ready to tell another story.
Rob: You mentioned on Facebook how Photoshop makes it easy to experiment with different ideas, to change the lighting in a scene without destroying the art, experiment with spatial relationships, and so on. How has your creative workflow changed since the pencil and ink days?
Wendy: You see, the experience of working with Masque wasn’t just satisfying creatively, but was an enormous learning experience as well. I developed techniques while working on Masque for saving time with characters. The style of artwork in Masque of the Red Death is very stylized, very theatrical, and one of the techniques I used was to create the characters on several different layers so that, for example, if I wanted to reposition an arm or change the angle of a head but not necessarily change the facial expression. that limb or that appendage would be on a layer and I could simply grab it and not have to redraw it and simply reposition it.
But, at the same time, I didn’t feel that I wanted to cheat. I didn’t feel I just wanted to constantly repeat art—so I might grab an already existing drawing, but once I had laid it into the new panel I would change it.
In the case of working on Final Quest now, the artwork for ElfQuest is quite a bit more detailed and organic than the artwork in Masque, and so it requires a lot more initial drawing than Masque did. But I will be using some of those same techniques, especially with weapons. All the elves have signature weapons; Cutter’s sword, New Moon, is kind of famous. I have that existing in my files at different angles so that no matter how he’s standing, I can grab it and attach it to his breeches. Then, I just change the lighting on it to make it fit into the panel. It saves a tremendous amount of time, and it also keeps the artwork looking very, very consistent.
Rob: I wonder if in a few years there’ll be 3D modelling programs that help with that kind of scene setting. Not rendering the final image in 3D, but posing characters and blocking out the scenes to help make drawing the panels easier.
Wendy: They already exist. They already exist. I don’t use them but things like that definitely already exist.
Richard: A lot of fans have, over recent years, sent us 3D renderings of the ElfQuest characters. There is still that ‘uncanny valley’ element to deal with. You can get a somewhat decent-looking, somewhat on-model character, but it’s just off enough to be a little bit creepy rather than appealing. The day that some magical application is able to allow someone to capture what Wendy does every time she puts stylus to tablet, that’s going to be a very interesting day.
Wendy: Here’s the thing. One of the things that’s driving my work on Final Quest is my understanding of the fans’ expectations. They expect a certain level of artwork, they expect a certain level of consistency and especially attention to detail. One of the things that ElfQuest fans are very devoted to is the amount of detail in the artwork. So that’s important to me as well. As much as it might be tempting to–I hate to use the word ‘cheat’, but it’s a good word–as much as it might be tempting to cheat by constantly reusing files and files and files of different drawings and it wouldn’t look bad, I’m not going to do that with Final Quest. I’m still going to approach it pretty much the old fashioned way, and let what is needed in the panel to tell the story dictate what I draw.
Rob: European fans are much more OCD about that stuff than American fans.
Wendy: That’s what I’ve noticed. The primary backlash against my digital art work, which started with my relationship with DC because both the Discovery and Searcher and the Sword were done entirely digitally. That’s when I made my move into the digital realm, and there was a pretty strong backlash.
There were fans that absolutely hated the work, even though it came from the same hand and heart that had always done it. There were a number of fans that just thought it was abysmal! And they said so, and we did notice a large number of them were European. The preference we see expressed over and over again was to see brushstrokes and pencil lines existing within the artwork. The European sensibility seems to be more oriented towards a classical approach, where you can see the work of the artist’s hand. I can understand that, but not many of them understand that coloring ElfQuest was always very frustrating to me until I went digital. The artwork itself is so detailed that it requires a rather simple coloring technique for it not to get muddy. Back in the day before I even started working on computer, using watercolors and the like, really frustrated me because I personally didn’t like those brushstrokes–the extra ‘spinach’, I call it–that made the artwork look kind of muddy to me.
Rob: I’ll admit that I’m fond of the hand-painted Starblaze editions, even though I understand you also had to paint over substandard reproductions. And the watercolor Hidden Years. And one of the things I like about it is the texture. Perhaps its that cultural European thing.
Wendy: But you see, that’s okay. In a way I was grateful for it, because any time you experience criticism from readers, or from critics, you can either get knocked down by it or take a really good look at yourself and decide what it is that you truly like, what you truly want to express. When it comes to comics, as a comic artist, clarity and a very strong line, and a very powerful relationship to animation, are what I have always striven for. Nothing has gotten me closer to the look of animation cells on rich backgrounds than working digitally.
Richard: One of your very favorite things to say these days has been that the way you’ve done comics for most of these 35 years has been almost a detour, because you used to say that what you wanted to do most of all was to paint with light. And when you put line on paper and you put paint on it you are using reflected light, which can be very beautiful, but to paint with light needed the computer, and the tablet, and the monitor. Only then were you truly using light.
Wendy: ElfQuest is an animated film that’s been running in my head since Richard and I started it together. ElfQuest and animation are indelibly connected; all I’ve ever wanted is a beautiful 2D cartoon. If I can’t have it on the big screen, for whatever reason, I can come as close to it on paper as I can, and that will be what satisfies me as I finish work on Final Quest.
Rob: You use a Wacom Cintiq, right? How have you found it?
Wendy: I remember how I learned about them. I was down at Disney MGM. They were working on Mulan at the time, and all the animators were using them. That was the first time I ever tried drawing on one, and I just lost my mind. I was trying to figure out how to smuggle one out under my blouse, or something! It was just the most wonderful drawing tool I’d ever seen, and I just took to it immediately. I remember telling you about that, Richard and I think you went looking online.
Richard: They were relatively new at that time and it was just a matter of finding one and then biting the bullet, and saying, ‘Okay, here you go.’
Wendy: I was just going to say, that’s a very important aspect of our relationship. Richard is not just the CEO of Warp Graphics and the editor and publisher and co-creator of the stories. He’s also a facilitator. If I discover something that I think is going to be useful, he will just do what it takes to make it happen for me. We really try to stay up on the tools that people are using, and the techniques, and that sort of thing. He’s just marvellous at finding tools and things that I ask for. That’s his primary role. He likes the label of ‘facilitator’. I think everything is lumped into that basket when you describe him.
Rob: Have you had a chance to check out the pressure sensitive pens that just came out for the iPad amd Android tablets?
Richard: I’ve heard of them. I know that people are starting to use the iPad now the way they used the graphics tablets before. Since I’m not that type of artist, and I can’t draw to save my life, I can’t see how it’s going to affect me all that much. And since Wendy went from an 8 x 8 to a 12 x 12 to a 21” Cintiq tablet, she seems to be going in the other direction, toward the larger and larger workspace.
Wendy: Definitely. Going back to my 12” Wacom tablet, I don’t foresee that ever happening.
Richard: Can you see yourself, we’re at a convention, and it’s after hours, and you’ve got your iPad. Can you see yourself drawing the next page of FinalQuest on the iPad?
Wendy: Shoot me, shoot me!
Rob: What's the iPad? About ten inches? Tiny, isn’t it?
Wendy: Oh my gosh, I’m going to leave that one alone.
Richard: Yeah. Where are you from?
Rob: Next question!
Wendy: Next question!
Richard: That’s one of those things that if you overheard it at a convention it would be on Twitter and Facebook within seconds.
Rob: Haha. I started out as a tech writer, so I’m obsessed with all these gadgets and how they influence our creativity, but also how they influence the execution of the work.
Wendy: And this new technology is very interesting stuff. It’s very interesting.
Rob: In 20 years time, there'll be something completely new at hand, and European ElfQuest Fans will be complaining because the gradients aren’t the perfect clean Photoshop ones anymore.
Wendy: [Laughs] That’s great.
Richard: Clearly he knows these people.
Rob: We Europeans, we do have a thing about obsessive continuity.
Wendy: In working so hard to preserve the past for people to study, you’ve certainly got to be detail orientated, don’t you?
Rob: Someone pointed out that to them the elves have been taller in the new work, and that seems to reflect what you’re talking about: the art remains consistent, but you’ve changed style over the years. Looking back, I remember that in the Siege at Blue Mountain series, the art was starker. The proportions were more human. Whereas in, say, the Dreamtime series, the characters are more cartoonish. You’ve said that in the Final Quest, they’re going to become lean and mean. Is that an art thing, or foreshadowing for the story?
Wendy: Oh, boy. All the threads and clues, planted along the way for these three decades? This is the story that’s going to reveal those. We’ve been leading up to Final Quest for a long, long time. As we’ve said many times, in different places, Final Quest doesn’t mean the end of ElfQuest. But what it is the end of is a long, long arc: our hero’s journey.
We are now going to take Cutter into to what Joseph Campbell calls ‘ the cave’, and we’ll see what happens, whether he emerges from the cave or not. Cutter has always been the central figure, the guiding spirit of the story. He’s the one we follow, and yet at the same time, there’s all this stuff that happens around him. Well, that’s never been more true than in Final Quest, because we have so many elf tribes, so many new characters, we have the next generation, the children, to take a look at, as they grow up, during the course of this story.
It’s my job, as the storyteller, to keep a central theme going that has been there from the beginning—and yet, at the same time, weave all these new storylines and all these new characters into it. Therefore, when it comes to the idea of lean and mean, I’m taking a lean and mean approach to telling the story.
It would be very easy to get sidetracked into the minutiae of what is going on with all of these characters, and I want to give everybody the spotlight and give everybody their due, but not to get bogged down at any point. To keep the story moving. So I’m taking a lean and mean approach. And the characters themselves, because of all they’re going to get into, are really going to be in survival mode.
Rob: ElfQuest is the love story of Cutter and Skywise. Given that they’re...
Wendy: I like that!
Rob: It wasn’t me who said it, I can't take credit! You know, I can’t remember who did. I was probably drinking when I read it. But that seemed to me to be another way of saying that ElfQuest is really your love story.
Wendy: I would not deny that. How about you, Richard?
Richard: I wouldn’t even if I...I’m tongue tied simply at the notion that it could be conceived otherwise.
Wendy: You know, at times, we’ve said that this is the story of our friendship, because Richard and I have been together for, is it 43 years now? It is 43 years, right?
Richard: Going on 44, yes.
Wendy: 44 years and the relationship has gone through as many changes and evolutions as the elves' have. ElfQuest has reflected our lives all the way along. Many times we’ve said it’s also a reflection of my and Richard’s friendship, because beyond the husband and wife relationship, beyond the business relationship, there is a true friendship there.
Rob: The elves’ journey is intimately tied to your journey.
Wendy: Oh my gosh, yes. Anybody who knows us can see how autobiographical it is.
Richard: We’ve taken great delight in pointing this out almost from the very beginning. To a greater or less extent, ElfQuest is autobiographical, all the way from the nearly literal to the really, really bait and switch symbolic.
Wendy: A perfect example is the Kings of the Broken Wheel storyline because between the two of us, Richard is actually a more in the moment kind of person than I am. I tend to have a really powerful sense of time and of time passing. Everything is kind of urgent to me. Richard is constantly having to remind me to stay in The Now, stay in the moment because I’m thinking about the past, the present, the future all at the same time. In Kings of the Broken Wheel Cutter was, I’ll say, ‘afflicted’ because it changed him for good, by developing a sense of time passing as he was waiting for his family. Unlike the other elves who can stay in the moment and have a blessed gift of forgetfulness that he doesn’t. That is absolutely autobiographical in the sense that it reflects where I am and how I feel about time and my awareness of it.
Rob: I remember reading that series, and getting the feeling. Cutter knew soon enough that Rayek had failed, somehow, that the cyclical story was inexorable. So there was a kind of sense of destiny to the whole thing, that they’re still there, that the only thing left to do was wait.
Wendy: Now you’re going to make me cry.
Richard: This was one of the things that I remember more clearly than many that Wendy and I needed to talk about, because when you play with time travel in any fiction, it’s dangerous. You introduce the possibility of paradox, you introduce the butterfly effect and all of this . We were hung up for a brief time when Rayek steals the Palace [into a different time]. How do we let it be known...how do the elves come to realize that in some way he had to have failed? We talked about this, and what we came up with is that the instant after the Palace disappears, the fact that they are still there, asking the question of what happens, means that he has to have failed. Because, if he had succeeded, they wouldn’t be there.
Rob: A temporal paradox is threatened but not introduced to the story. I liked how Rayek's daughter, Venka, has the power to stop whatever he might do, but but says, ‘I won’t stop you.’ Perhaps she's giving him a moral choice, but maybe she knows she doesn’t have to. She's just waiting for him to do what was already, from their point of view, ancient history.
Rob: Next question! You’ve also described ElfQuest as ‘herding’, because of the size of the cast. I’m one of those people who love minor characters and the archetypes they represent and all that jazz. Outside of the main batch, whose stories will we see more of in the new books?
Wendy: There’s nobody’s story that won’t be addressed. If you’re interested in what happened to Kahvi and Tyldak, you’re going to find out. If you’re interested in what happened to Venka and Aroree and Two-Edge, who went off looking for Kahvi, you’re going to find out. If you want to know what happened to Ember’s Tribe, either minor characters in her tribe or Ember and Teir, you’re going to find out. If you want to know what happens to the Wavedancers, you’re going to find out.
The premise of the story which is ‘be careful what you wish for, because when you get what you want there are consequences that come with it.’ When the elves gave all their blood, sweat and tears to achieve the Palace, they won their war, and they achieved their goal, and now the Palace is with them. It is right beside the Wolfriders in the Holt, disguised as a forest-covered mountain. But beneath this illusion is the Crystal Palace of the High Ones. Now that they’ve achieved it, they’re beginning to discover that the mere ability to have the palace, which gives them the power to travel anywhere at the speed of thought, on the world or off, is eliminating a lot of the elements of life that, in particular, made the Wolfriders who they are. Day-to-day survival is no longer the difficult problem that it used to be. They have an over-abundance of food, which they can store up in the Palace. It is changing the way they are, and this is the core problem of the story. If it comes down to a choice between the Palace and the Way, what are they going to choose? This affects all the known elves on the planet of Abode; what happens, how it all plays out, what choices are made. It affects all of the characters, major and minor.
Rob: Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say that ElfQuest is symbolic fantasy? I guess this is opposed to the wikis-with-plots fantasy that we get from the Tolklones.
Richard: We have often said that ElfQuest is either really a story about real life; or it’s a story about us in an autobiographical way but just wrapped up in symbols of fantasy. Cutter is Wendy and Skywise is me; that’s just one use of telling the story using symbols of fantasy.
Wendy: ElfQuest is a giant metaphor. I’m not a World of Warcraft type of girl. I’m not even a Lords of the Rings girl. I’m not about dragons and unicorns, and that sort of thing don’t interest me very much. I like to use fantasy to make a statement about the experiences of life. I like to use the characters that we’ve created to talk about real life in a metaphorical way. To me it’s the only way to keep it interesting, to give them problems to solve that don’t involve slaying a dragon—although one could go to the very depths of what metaphor a dragon is.
I choose smaller metaphors: the issue of racial prejudice, the issue of gender identity. Perhaps a male character does not want to be a warrior; he wants to be more of a nurturing type. Things like that are still on everybody’s minds, to this day. I will tell you something that has surprised me is when we started in the 70s all of these things were on my mind. It was the height of the feminist movement, nudity, sexuality, gay rights, all of these things were hot-button issues back then, and I think Richard and I both envisioned that these would be problems and issues that would be resolved by 2012. Both of us are very surprised that all of these issues, that were so hot in the mid-70s, are even hotter now . People seem more lost, and more confused about them, than ever. To us that makes ElfQuest more relevant than ever. We can talk about the things that we’ve always been talking about in ElfQuest maybe with even a stronger sense of urgency. 
Rob: It transgressed in subtle ways.
Richard: I’ve said for a long time that it’s our mission to be subversive. 
Wendy: Yeah, pardon my French, but the shit we’ve gotten away with just because it’s been subtle enough to fly under the radar. 
Richard: Which is going to be very interesting because the radar is different these days.
Wendy: The radar is different these days, isn’t it?
Richard: But by the same token, we’re so much further along our own path and, at least in my mind, have achieved a certain place in the process of storytelling, that we’re going to tell it the way we want. And if it pushes the same buttons it used to, or if it’s as subversive as it used to be, or if it’s not as subversive as it used to be, hey, we’re going to tell it the way we want it. That’s how we’ve always done it. That’s why we’ve always done it.
Wendy: I used Masque partly to get out of my system all the things that I couldn’t do in ElfQuest, because Richard and I have created a certain border for ourselves. It’s not self-censorship; it’s just what we feel is appropriate for ElfQuest. We bear in mind that many younger readers, age 10 and under, read ElfQuest. We don’t feel there’s anything we should hold back or protect them from. At the same time there are ways to get a point across without being too adult about it.
Rob: Subtlety can make it more powerful.
Richard: It’s the difference between a story and a sermon.
Wendy: Yeah. Yeah. Or a diatribe. Maybe they’re the same thing. I don’t know.
Rob: Do you see your influence felt?
Wendy: I think I can sum it up by talking about last year’s San Diego Con, which was one of the most brilliant experiences that Richard and I have had in a long time. For some reason, and I don’t know why, an awful lot of people, an awful lot of industry people, people in show business, sought out our table specifically to let us know how much ElfQuest was an early influence on their careers.
The people who came by ranged from one of the producers of Xena, Warrior Princess to Chris Sanders, who created Lilo and Stitch, to one of the head writers of Avatar. People just kept coming by and of course when I was on the Gays and Comics Panel, or I should say ‘Celebration Event’, so many LGBT cartoonists, writers came up and told us that they got their start because of ElfQuest. That ElfQuest showed them it was all right to be different. It was all right to be who they are.
You ask me where I feel my influence has been felt. People tell us it changed their lives. Now, this is just a comic book. It’s just a story, but stories do have the power to transform, and maybe even some of the most unlikely stories do. For sure, ElfQuest has been one of those. I don’t mean to sound so sentimental here, but it moves me when someone comes up and does exactly what you did at the beginning of our conversation which is to say thank you.
Rob: At Boing Boing, here's there's a strong connection to comics and counterculture, especially the indie and DIY side of things, and I keep finding myself chatting to people who were influenced by ElfQuest. There's a 'find the others' type thing going on ... and suddenly the others are just all over the place. There's a certain... I don’t know what the word is. Now, hang on a moment, I don’t want to use a stupid word. A certain feeling that one is slightly detuned from the world. A kind of indefinite differentness that isn’t quite covered by geekiness or queerness or something as obvious as that.
Richard: There is a term for that. It’s one that we’ve used for a long time, not necessarily in ElfQuest because it would call attention to itself by its use in ElfQuest, but the term is ‘otherness’ and it doesn’t speak specifically to being a nerd, being a geek or being gay or being anything else. It’s just as you say, a slight turning aside of perception or of how one feels about the world in which one lives and moves and interacts.
Wendy: Or more classically, ‘marching to a different drummer’.
Rob: What is it about ElfQuest that speaks to otherness?
Wendy: Now we’re almost getting to the point where I wonder if we’re trying to pin the butterfly to the board because... I don’t know. I don’t know how. I know how Richard and I feel inside. I know that we’ve always felt a little bit out of step, and we express ourselves from the heart in the stories and we trust it. We trust our intuition as to what feels right to go into the story, but beyond that I don’t know. I don’t know why it speaks to that.
Richard: Back in the 60s, and this is at best an indirect comparison, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and half a dozen other really talented, idiosyncratic, rabble-rousing people tapped into a vibe, a cultural vibration waiting to happen, and the golden age of Marvel Comics began. Stan Lee famously said, ‘I just wanted to write stories that I would like to read.’
In the first place, the ElfQuest story, the underlying bedrock bare-bones ElfQuest story, is something that Wendy has been telling since she’s been about two years old, in one form or another. That’s always been there. In the late 70s, she said, ‘I have this idea for a story. How can we get it out there?’ I listened and I said, ‘Well maybe we can do this or that’, and when we both set about learning how to do this thing, I think that there was another cultural vibration waiting to break loose.
We simply told the story that was in us the way we wanted to tell it, the way we would want to read it. There was a synchronicity of cause and effect; that’s really the best answer anyone could give. Stan and Jack and all the rest couldn’t tell you how they caught lightning in a bottle. They just did, and they wrote it, and we’re the same way. We just did what we wanted to do and it had the effect, and it continues to have the effect, and we’re just being true to ourselves. We’re more savvy about the world into which ElfQuest must go these days, but at the bottom of it all it’s still just the story that we need to get out, from inside to outside.
Homily on social mores has always been abundant in social science fiction. ElfQuest's utopian qualities are crafted to speak not with the voice of reason, but with what H.G. Wells called the "shot-silk texture" of subversive storytelling.
Inhabitants of arcadia may recall the narrator of The Green Child, who spoke of his ability to "escape from the sense of time, to live in the eternity of what he was accustomed to call the divine essence of things." In their saga, Wendy and Richard Pini speak of life with the same joy, but also of death—of time—in terms of unrecoverable bliss. The Green Man smiles, but offers just a suggestion of his form, with no rite to honor him, and he is gone forever once lost.
More like Andy Goldsworthy's forest vortices than Digory Kirke's magical wardrobe, the void looks back into you.
"In the new utopian fictions, the traveler feels lost in the evening gloom, haunted by strange forebodings lurking in the uncertain light," mythologist Richard Gerber wrote in 1976, at about the time Wendy Pini sat her husband down and told him a story. "The utopian journey, if it is to survive on a literary level, will have to assume the form of a spiritual and symbolic quest."
Behind these modern fables and their eerie forests is a friendly darkness: the unknown potential of oneself, drawn from the secret history of all of us. We find ourselves drawn to it, but uneasy within it, uneasy at utopia's new promise, where the journey passes not through the avenues of a perfect republic, but a more intimate landscape.
To learn that one must change or die, or choose death itself, are callings singular to human experience. But not everyone hears them.
1. Even before Tolkien's entirely different vision of fantasy—an elaborate and fine-grained taxonomy of the fantastic past—utopian fantasy was eclipsed by the golden age of science fiction, World War 2, and the withering criticism implied by Orwell and Huxley's dystopias. The terrestrial arcadian imagination slept, more or less, until the beatniks moved to San Francisco; ElfQuest is often identified as a sort of post-New Wave hybrid of high fantasy and science fiction. ("I am very glad to see this sort of thing goes on in Poughkeepsie" — Ursula K. LeGuin, author of From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, reviewing an early issue)
2. In ElfQuest, there are no gay or straight elves; instead, there is generally polyamorous pansexuality, free love in omnino. Much was gotten away with on the periphery of a heavily self-censored comic industry—"everyone's visited everyone's tree sometime or other"— though Wendy Pini has also expressed a desire to maintain the books themselves as family-friendly.
3. "If one were to simply glance through the pages," writes psychologist Maja D'Aoust, "a scoff or a pfft! might escape the lips of the typical Pantera T-shirt-clad comic enthusiast who picked it up. [But] ElfQuest is telling the secret history of our existence."
4. Pini elves are the descendants of shape-shifting, post-singularity aliens who took on the form of creatures from human myth, got stuck with it, and were then subject to adaptation over subsequent generations. They are under five feet tall, with large, slanting eyes and pointed ears. They have paranomal powers such as telepathy and telekinesis, and elves may experience an involuntary and overwhelming mating imperative, recognition, which guarantees gifted offspring. Most elves are ageless, with a notable exception in the Wolfriders, whose natural lifespans may nevertheless extend to thousands of years. H.G. Wells' Men Like Gods are among the miniature supermen of his time that anticipate the Pini-elf (as opposed to the late Victorian elf or the smug Tolkien-elf): comfortably naked and red-skinned, they age slowly and communicate through telepathy. Wells' "elves" were mythological offspring of the Native American noble savage and Old World fairy-lore—parochial antecedents for Pini's own Magonian visitors.
5. European and American appreciations of ElfQuest are intriguingly dissimilar. For example, American fans generally prefer the animation-style colors found in the current editions, which look like stills from a high-quality animated feature film, whereas European fans often voice a preference for the watercolors used in earlier editions, which more closely resemble classic childrens' books. The answer to why may be found in the context brought to ElfQuest by its readers. In America, it "manifested" as an independently-published comic book, interpreted in the traditions of the medium and of screen animation. In Europe, however, critics were struck by its resemblance to local graphic traditions, in particular picturebooks: there, perhaps, it presented as an intoxicating mix of local fable and foreign (i.e. American) novelty.
6. The original series of ElfQuest ran from 1978-1984, Siege at Blue Mountain from 1986-1988, and Kings of the Broken Wheel from 1990-1992. From then until 1996, ElfQuest became multiple concurrent series, consolidated to a single monthly issue from 1996-1999. The Searcher and The Sword was published in 2004, and a miniseries, The Discovery, ran in 2005. The first part of Final Quest's prologue was published right here at Boing Boing (and on Elfquest.com) from 2012-2013.
7. ElfQuest's elves have their own utopian vision: the Crystal Palace of the High Ones, a symbol of past and future possibility. They find it to be a derelict star-ship, as used by their space-faring ancestors to escape an ecological dystopia that they had created on their own planet. Clues to the content of Final Quest suggest that the tension between the starship's nature and that of its wolf-blooded occupants will result in a final reckoning.
8. Upon their arrival on the World of Two Moons, the elves' ancestors are thrown far back in time by an accident. After their vessel is restored, generations later, the powerful Rayek plans to travel in time to the moment of the mistake, in order to prevent it from having occurred in the first place&. In doing so he kidnaps the hero's family, forcing him to count the years until the cycle of time completes.
9. The Wolfriders live by an indefinite code called The Way, closely tied to the lives of their wolf companions, which stresses tradition and recognition of the eternal now. It's an unromantic but sensual life—think Eloi with teeth!—sharpened by the need for savage self-determination.
(Compare to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which satirized the eternal now of contemporaneous socialist utopias—especially of the lure of forgetfulness—as the official present of the Party, where history is manipulated and memory suppressed. ElfQuest returns to the earlier tradition of the compassionate, arcadian now—the now of wolf-thought—as civilization's rusted keel descended to ferity.)
11. Black elves were a striking feature of a 1970s comic. But the elves themselves—with one or two exceptions—are more or less color-blind. Issues of prejudice are illustrated by the general mix of trolls, humans and elf tribes. But there are still contextual ironies—such as barbaric "European" Wolfriders plundering the civilized "African" Sun Folk village—to enjoy.
13. Sex for elves is fun, and there are no sexually-transmitted deseases, religious dicta or institutionalized monogamy to make things complicated. Recognition, the biological urge that mediates procreation, means that females know when they are fertile.
"Nature prescribes to us a joyful life," Sir Thomas More attributes to his utopians, "with pleasure as the end of all our operations. And they define virtue to be life ordered according to the prescription of nature." Though it might be added that More's utopians weren't much into omnisexual orgies.
14. "The modern utopia must not be static but kinetic" — good old H.G. Wells.
15. The new wave science fiction of the 60s and 70s addressed issues such as sexuality and race more directly than ElfQuest or mainstream U.S. comics (which were forbidden by a self-censorship regime from depicting or mentioning homosexuality), but tended toward a more wildy cerebral focus on gender-bending sociology than ElfQuest's straightforwardly-embodied polyamory and pansexuality. [Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror]
16. "Family-friendliness" allows a subversive message to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, but necessitates compromise with arbitrary standards. For example, ElfQuest’s depiction of same-sex relationships are usually implicit, whereas heterosexual pairings are more explicitly rendered. On the other hand, when she presented her Masque of the Red Death, a Yaoi-tinged remix of Edgar Allan Poe's classic, some ElfQuest fans found it obscene. (In fandom, entitlement is the only variable that never changes.) Pini says a new same-sex relationship will emerge in a forthcoming ElfQuest story.