Ryan Thomason

Comic industry veterans Richard and Wendy Pini talk to us about 35 years of Elfquest and the debut of ‘Final Quest’ with Dark Horse Comics!

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Elfquest is something special to me, and now that Dark Horse is releasing the new ‘Final Quest’ comics, I’m hoping it becomes special to you too. Yes, this is a comic series about a group of Elves that call their kids cubs, speak in ways that is more focused on love and is all very much rooted in a more primal culture than what modern gaming and movies will show Elves. For the past 35 years Richard and Wendy Pini have been creating Elfquest comics and moving the story that is Cutter, the leader of the Wolfriders. Yes, 35 years of Elfquest. It’s a longevity that most people dream about having with their creations, and there is a deep reasoning as to why they’ve been able to stay around for so long. Trying to condense the whole story would be daunting, they’ve boiled it down nicely on the Elfquest site. But what you should do is pick up the 60 page ‘introduction’ comic that Dark Horse recently released as a precursor to the new ‘Final Quest’ series. It serves as a refresher course for old fans like myself who haven’t read anything in nearly 20 years and the new, curious reader. Mind you, the cast is quite extensive. These are Elves that are ageless, have lots of offspring who have offspring and so on. I’m not saying that reading the one shot special is a requirement, but it will help you be more familiar with the large cast of characters and the general plot. If you have to boil it down to it though, Cutter is the leader, the one who is trying to connect all of his kind. He rides a wolf and is generally just awesome.

Why did I start reading Elfquest in the early 90’s? Curiosity for one, a kid that lived down my street had a copy of a trade that he got from the public library. I thumbed through it and then picked it up when he returned it. It’s hard to pinpoint what snagged me into the series, it’s not anything like my usual fantasy or even Sword and Sorcery that I’m so fond of. Elfquest has always been to me more about community, and working together to solve the issue at hand. Never about massive battles and bloodletting. There is that, but from what I remember on a minor scale. Humans are dangerous in their world, but they are more of an outside pressing force. The story is always about the elves and how they try to live their life and culture while trying to survive being forced into more seclusion to avoid a very primal culture of humanity.

Wendy Pini’s artwork has always fascinated me. She has a distinct style that sets her apart from other artists. In a comic book industry that is fanatical these days about things being severe, gritty and just having a more dark tone. These comics has always been full of vibrance and soft colors and artwork that try to warm you up. I don’t know how to put it other than reading these comics has always given me more of a feeling of warmth. I feel good generally after reading. They’re telling a gigantic story with a gigantic cast, bad things do happen, but generally the day will end better than it started. I can’t say enough that Elfquest deserves that you at least give it a try and see if it holds your interest. Hell, you can download essentially every comic they ever did in the last 35 years for FREE digitally on their site. I suggest you at least read issues #1 – #20.

Well, so much for my quick introduction to Elfquest before giving you the interview. I hope you enjoy it, and if you want to get yourself a physical copy of the ‘preview’ of sorts to Final Quest, you can do so here:

I want to thank Richard and Wendy Pini for taking the time to work with me on this interview. They’ve made 12 year old me that got hooked into Fantasy and reading books from the library very, very happy. We’re looking forward to more new adventures from Elfquest!

If you want to pre-order a physical copy for yourself to get delivered to you, do so here: Elfquest: The Final Quest #1

WPR- What has the progression in artwork been with the increase in digital tools for you Wendy since starting Elfquest? Spanning 35 years, are you still working how you started or has technology changed the way you work?

WP&RP_2013photoOh heavens, I’ve gotten so far away from the way I used to work, it’s not funny. I started drawing literally when I was two years old. We still have a book of fairy tales that I doodled in when I was that young. I always had a pencil in my hand, and any piece of blank paper was fair game. It was what I had available. As I grew up, I used anything and everything I could get my hands on to put line and color onto paper or canvas – pencil, pastel chalk, oil paints, acrylics, magic markers, white-out, make-up… I would glue cloth and glitter to the work if it would give the effect I wanted. It was very hands-on that way, very organic. But I also loved animated cartoons, and somewhere deep inside there was always the dream that someday I wanted to be able to paint with light, the way I saw the images on the screen made out of light. The art is actually the source of the light itself. But until relatively recently, the technology didn’t exist to do that.

When Elfquest got started, I created the pages the same way that every other comic book artist did: I penciled the art onto a board, and then I inked it with brush and pen. I also lettered each page using felt-tip pen. The first issues of Elfquest were published in black and white, so that was the process. Once we began publishing Elfquest in color, I was able to use vivid watercolors (Dr. Martins) to achieve some really spectral jewel-like effects on the page. The book “Hidden Years” probably represents the most beautiful watercolor work I’ve ever done on Elfquest. But it was still putting a medium onto a piece of paper. In the early 2000s, I finally got my hands on a Wacom tablet and for the first time, using that and Photoshop, I was able to draw with actual light on the monitor screen. It allowed me to play with effects I was never able to achieve with pigments on paper. Before 2008, I created a number of paintings using first just the Wacom tablet, and then Richard got me a Cintiq, which is a digital artist’s dream machine. You draw directly on the image so your eye and hand are completely coordinated. I used that almost exclusively to create “Masque of the Red Death” (which went online as both an animated Flash webcomic and as a page-by-page graphic novel), just as I do now to work on “Final Quest.” I still sketch out ideas for characters, or page layouts on paper, but then I scan those into Photoshop and use them as the skeleton over which to paint with light digitally.

WPR- Has having an online presence changed they dynamics of your readership?

Absolutely. Back when we started in 1978, there was no such thing as “online presence.” Every bit of exposure we got was either ads that we paid for in print magazines, reviews in those same magazines, or plain old word of mouth. And that worked to such an amazing extent that by the time the “original quest” reached its conclusion in 1984, we were shipping 100,000 copies of each new issue right off the press – which was, at that time, totally unheard of for an indy, black and white comic book. Over the years, we’ve watched as Elfquest’s presence has waxed and waned, depending on whether or not we were between series or the direct market was booming or imploding or whatever. When the internet – and the web – started coming into its own in the early 1990s, we were right there at the forefront – in fact, Elfquest was the very first comic series to have its own domain (www.elfquest.com). Marvel and DC were on the web before that, but they were using AOL as a gateway.

So we’ve had an online presence for nearly 20 years now, but it’s been in the past five years or so that being on the web has really transformed our readership. From 2008 to 2012 Elfquest was under option to Warner Brothers, and during that time they made it known they’d prefer that we didn’t publish any new material – and our back stock was nearly all out of print. New readers weren’t able to find our books easily. So Richard decided, pretty much spur of the moment, to put the entire library online as digital comics – for free. Anyone could go to the Elfquest site and read to their heart’s content. We discovered an entirely new readership – thousands of people who’d heard of Elfquest but never had the chance to sample it. Add to that, social media like Facebook where these online readers have a chance to interact with each other, plus Dark Horse committing to releasing all our new and old material for their comic reader app on all the new platforms available, and we feel that Elfquest fandom is evolving in ways we could never have dreamed all those years ago.

WPR- You’ve gone through different publishers (DC Comics in the past) what was it like pitching for Dark Horse, or did they come to you?

We’ve known about Dark Horse since they began, and we’ve known Mike Richardson personally for nearly that long. One of their very first titles was “Boris the Bear” and in one issue Boris had an adventure with Elfquest’s Wolfriders – turns out we had fans at Dark Horse! Over time, as Warp Graphics (our publishing company) and Dark Horse would attend direct market distributor expos, we had the chance to meet Mike Richardson in person. We got along well, because we all shared a kind of scrappy, independent attitude about comics creation and publishing. Mike had always been generous in his appreciation for what Elfquest was and is. So when our option with Warner Brothers expired in 2012, and we’d decided that we didn’t want to get back into publishing ourselves, Richard contacted Dark Horse (among others) as a possible new home for the property. Mike made it abundantly clear that he was interested, and after weighing all the options for about a year, we ended up signing with Dark Horse.

WPR- What’s the status since Warner Brothers dropped their option for a movie? Do you think that shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones shows studios that big, expansive book series can have a home somewhere?

Warner Brothers was all very enthusiastic in the beginning stages of their option, in 2008 and 2009. They wanted to make Elfquest into a “tentpole” movie, they wanted to turn it into a huge franchise. And we were OK with that, because whatever changes they brought to a film adaptation, we knew we still had the books as we’d created them. But as time passed, and we didn’t hear from them and didn’t hear from them, we began to wonder. Finally, early in 2012, they let us know they weren’t going to green light the movie. It was a disappointment, but not unexpected by that time. We got all the rights back, and put our focus on bringing out the next comic book series, called “Final Quest.” Actually, being dropped gave us the opportunity to re-examine a lot of how we’d been working over the previous half-dozen years; it allowed us to drop back into a very basic headspace and to simplify our lives and work a lot. We stopped focusing on trying to have a huge film project, and got back to writing and drawing Elfquest. We took on some new agents, who are still beating the bushes in Hollywood, but we’re not nearly so invested in this or that result any more. We’re aware that yes, big book projects can become big episodic TV series, and if Elfquest goes there, great. But it could also go in other directions, simpler ones. It could be live action or it could be animation. We’ve learned that when you don’t focus narrowly, your field of vision gets very large, with lots of options. That’s where we are now.

headscutter

WPR- I got my first library card as a kid because a friend of mine had gotten a copy of Elfquest in the early 90’s from our local library. I would ride my bike from the middle of nowhere for 30 minutes into the downtown of where I grew up to get to the Library.  You guys were my gateway drug into the world of Fantasy and graphic novels. (Though, I’m a big fan of Dwarves now, doh!) What was it that was your first book obsession and started you on the path to where you are today?

We’re both voracious readers – or at least we were when we were very young. These days it’s a little more difficult finding the time to simply relax in an easy chair with a book. But Wendy grew up in a household where there were lots of classic illustrated fairy-tale books, and Richard started reading around age 3 and soon after discovered juvenile (they’d be called “YA” today) science fiction at the library. So we both got our feet planted on the paths to other worlds early on. If we had to focus in on specific examples of what drove us, for Wendy it would have been books of fantasy and Shakespeare illustrated by masters like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, examples of truly beautiful artwork. For Richard, it would have been juvenile series about proto-geeks like Danny Dunn and then Tom Swift Jr. The technology was totally smoke and mirrors but the stories were still engaging and showed that science could be cool.

WPR- Staying on the topic of library’s have you ever gone into one and just looked to see if they had any Elfquest in stock?

All the time! Libraries, and book stores and comics shops as well. If we happen to be in a used book store and find anything Elfquest, we’ll surreptitiously sign it and then slip it back onto the shelf. More than once we’ve heard that someone got a nice surprise when they discovered they’d actually purchased an autographed copy!

WPR- I had my first nostalgic Elfquest trip in college when it popped in my head one day. After having gone through every Elfquest book in my local public library system as a kid, I like kids do, forgot about it. I went online, found your site, and bought the first 5 graphic novels. Has the online marketplace been a driver of keeping Elfquest alive?

A little bit, we suppose. It all depends on your definition of “keeping alive.” The shop that we maintain at Elfquest.com does provide some income, but we’ve been fortunate in that during the times when Elfquest is producing new product, it sells really well and that supports us during the leaner times. That and option money from this or that studio, which isn’t anything to sneeze at. But if you mean, keeping it alive in the sense that people can find the comics to read, whether they are new to the story or if they’re having a nostalgic blast and want to reconnect or if they’ve read some of the tale and want to find out what they’ve missed – then yes, definitely, being online has kept Elfquest very much alive and well. The online comics have been responsible for a real resurgence of interest; the web site logs tens of millions of hits every month.

WPR- What are your plans for Elfquest with Dark Horse Comics and the Final Quest? Are you indeed done after the last issue of Final Quest is published?

We’re very pleased with our relationship with Dark Horse, because they’ve got so many ideas for what they want to do with Elfquest. After years of relative inaction on the part of other licensees, their enthusiasm is completely refreshing. The first thing they wanted to do was to get the newest installment of the overall story, called “Final Quest,” out in time for a big premiere at the 2013 New York Comic-Con. Just like all the other big story arcs – the Original Quest, Siege at Blue Mountain, Kings of the Broken Wheel, and so on – Final Quest is going to span a bunch of issues, perhaps as many as twenty or more, and it’s going to provide a spectacular wrap-up to elements and threads that were set out as far back as the very beginning in 1978. The first issue was a 60-page special that sets the stage, so to speak, reintroduces the characters both for long-time fans and for those who’ve never read Elfquest before. It also holds some shocking surprises! Then, the series will continue as a bi-monthly comic. Once Final Quest is completed, well, as we like to say, it’s not the end of Elfquest, but it is the hopefully very satisfying conclusion to the hero’s journey of the lead character, Cutter.

WPR- Do you have a favorite fan engagement moment?

That’s a tough one, because there have been many over the years, and even more recently as a result of our 35th anniversary tour. One amazing moment from the past has to be from 1981, at the San Diego Comic Con, when two separate groups of Elfquest fans, totaling over sixty kids, dressed up as their favorite characters (the word “cosplay” didn’t even exist back then) and overwhelmed the hallways and the costume competition all day Saturday. And then, just this past year, there were several instances where individual fans, often shyly, came up to us and told us how Elfquest had – in some cases literally – saved their lives. Even in the midst of thousands of convention goers, those moments – when a quiet hug makes all the chaos disappear – become personal gems of memory.

WPR- After so many years of Elfquest, I assume it is just a central part of your world, do you guys ever find yourself wanting to take a break and do something different? Is that why there was “Masque of the Red Death“?

“Masque” is a very special case, for which there are really two tipping points leading to its birth. One is that while Warner Brothers held the option to develop Elfquest as a movie, they wanted us to hold off on producing or publishing any new Elfquest comics or stories. So for about four years, Wendy was more or less forced into hiatus with respect to the elves. The second is that, as an artist, Wendy – to paraphrase Walt Whitman – is large, she contains multitudes. Elfquest is her magnum opus to the idea that people (whether as characters in a story or in real life) can operate from their higher selves, can choose to behave well toward each other. We like to say that Elfquest represents a way of looking at life from the positive, the light side. But Wendy (as do we all) also has a darker aspect, the shadow side. It’s not evil – we don’t believe in the clichéd notion of “good versus evil.” We lean toward the idea that there is light, and there is shadow – knowledge versus ignorance, if you will. Just as people can behave well toward each other, so they can also behave badly toward each other, and “Masque” is Wendy’s grand opera that looks at what happens when people do just that. After years of telling a tale about characters using their higher natures, she really wanted to give some balance to the other side. She’d always been fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name. In it, a wealthy prince isolates himself and all his friends in a castle to party, while the rest of the country is devastated by a horrible plague. Wendy wondered what would have to happen to a person’s soul to cause him to act like that. So she took the short story as the seed, and nurtured it into a 400-page, futuristic, dystopian, totally adult and X-rated (but still very classy), homoerotic examination of just that theme. And, because it’s completely true to the spirit of Poe, it does not end well. It allowed her to get a lot of built-up dark ideas out of her system, so that when it was finished, she was able to turn once again to continuing the Elfquest saga.

Elfquest inside page

Elfquest inside page from “Final Quest” One-shot

WPR- Some creative partnerships find it easier when they don’t have to be around their other creative half all the time, what has it been like for the both of you?

We’ve experienced every possible variation on the working relationship over the years. When Elfquest started, we were living in a little two-bedroom apartment south of Boston, and one of the bedrooms was a combination studio for Wendy and office for Richard. Desks, drawing board, comic book collection, everything was jammed into that one room. We were, as we’ve often said, living in each other’s sweat. Sometimes the closeness made for amazingly collaborative story sessions, and sometimes it made for conflict because we both needed more “elbow room” to work or think. When we moved to an actual house, we each had our own studio or office, and that worked until Warp Graphics started growing and taking on employees. Then we found we needed to rent office space in town to accommodate more people. Wendy discovered that the office environment was too distracting so we found her a studio nearby, where she could fully concentrate on her artwork. Being able to physically separate one kind of work from another, as well as one kind of personal energy from another (Wendy’s is quite, focused and creative, Richard’s is more busy, multi-tasking and administrative) was beneficial. Then, in 1994, when an option came in from a serious producer in Hollywood, the decision was made that Wendy should spend at least some time out in California, to oversee the potential project – to be its “passionate advocate.” So we rented her an apartment out there for a while. But then the movie business seemed to be heating up and we were spending a fortune on rent, so we ended up buying a house near Los Angeles, as a sort of west coast complement to our original house in New York. We’ve been bicoastal since then, the latest evolutionary stage in our work-in-progress relationship. Sometimes the distance is beneficial for the work, and it’s also given each and both of us the ability to see the other in ways you just don’t get if you’re in each other’s presence 24/7. But other times it’s difficult, it gets lonely if you want to share an exciting new idea or a beautiful day.

WPR- Wendy, it’s said on your Wiki you used to dress up as Red Sonja at conventions, when was the last time you cosplayed? Richard, have you joined in? (Hopefully not as Red Sonja)

Probably the last time we cosplayed together was back in the 1970s. Wendy’s always been great at designing costumes and then putting them together; she often went to science fiction conventions dressed up as Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty or some other character from books or movies. I was never that into it, but Wendy prevailed upon me to do Elric from Michael Moorcock’s “Stormbringer” at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston in 1971. Wendy did Elric’s mate Zarozinia – she built both costumes from scratch, with the exception of this huge sword that I built – and we took the prize for “Most Beautiful.” We put on different costumes a few times after that, usually to participate in the beloved annual Rutland (Vermont) Hallowe’en parade in the mid-1970s. One year we went as Crystal and the Vision, another year it was Green Arrow and Black Canary. Wendy still loves very much to get dressed up in all the finery; recently, to go along with her adaptation of “Masque of the Red Death,” she’s taken on the persona of Madame Masque (definitely not the Marvel villainess) at fantasy fairs and such. Madame Masque is definitely from the “Carnivale” school of design, all reds and blacks and very ornate and opulent. Me, I’m happy to stick to jeans.

WPR- Are you guys going to be joining Dark Horse on any of the convention circuits are there any places people can look forward to seeing you at? (We suggest the 2nd Salt Lake Comic Con next year!)

Right now, after a very busy and strenuous 2013, we’re looking forward to something a little more humane for 2014. We’re not sure what shows we’ll be attending, but we do hope to join with Dark Horse at as many of the shows they attend, as we can. They’ve made us feel very welcome whenever we’ve done autograph sessions at their booth, and we’re willing to go an extra mile to work with them to promote their Elfquest projects.

Just another reminder that if you want to pre-order a physical copy for yourself to get delivered to you, do so here: Elfquest: The Final Quest #1

Thanks again to Richard and Wendy for taking the time to talk to me, Elfquest will always be something special to me because of my history with it since I was a kid and I think it’s worth a try for everyone! Here is a sneak peek preview for you all to enjoy of The Final Quest #1!

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