ElfQuest began in 1978, and wrapped up in February of this year, a full 40 years of pointy ears, Wolfriders, and magic. Creators Wendy and Richard Pini started their own publishing company by ElfQuest #2, and had a runaway hit on their hands. ElfQuest has been published by WaRP Graphic, Marvel, DC, and now Dark Horse, but its never lost its indie spirit. I was fortunate enough to sit down with the pair at San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) to ask them about upcoming projects. I also brought with me to SDCC some questions from friend of the site and huge ElfQuest fan, Val Freire, whose questions will be denoted in parentheses.
(Val Freire): What is the best story you’ve ever heard about yourself?
Wendy Pini: The best story I’ve heard about us is that I made him up, because I was a member of the LA Science Fiction Society at about age nineteen through my early twenties. A young woman who drew and wrote and was inclined toward geekdom was rare back then, so there were a lot of guys that were interested, and I kept telling them about this guy I was really interested in who happened to be attending MIT as a student. We were dating basically over the phone, me being in California and he being in Massachusettes, and they thought I made him up to avoid getting hit on.
I mean, not the worst strategy.
Wendy: No! But I was telling the truth, and it wasn’t until I brought him to a meeting of the LA SFS that they actually believed he existed.
Richard Pini: And boy, they hated me.
So, you’ve just wrapped up ElfQuest and have said that you’ll continue ElfQuest stories as supervising other artists. Did you consider keeping the ElfQuest series and publishing it on your own as a publishing house again?
Wendy: Oh God no! We’ve been at this for forty years, and I am done meeting deadlines. I don’t know how Richard would want to put it for himself.
Richard: Let me say this: back in the early to mid-1980s, WaRP Graphics did exactly that. We were still publishing ElfQuest, but I had delusions of grandeur and thought, “Hey I want to be a big comic book company too and put out lots of different titles.” And so we did, I think, seven or eight totally unrelated to ElfQuest titles that were creator-owned from other people, and that experiment lasted a few years. It wasn’t the right thing for us to do. Wendy and I wanted to do our own story, and we have told that now. We are perfectly happy to oversee other people working with ElfQuest concepts, because that’s who we are, but something totally unrelated, no.
(Val Freire): Your art has changed over time, and seems more stylized now with different flavor to the detail, along with coloring that is less traditional. Can you talk about how your style has evolved and if it been influenced by changing technology?
Wendy: Well, I went digital in 2002, fully digital, and trained and taught myself to take advantage of all that that involves. It can be tempting to use a lot of special effects that exist in Photoshop, but I avoided that because I wouldn’t want the reader to be taken out of the story by looking at it and saying, “Oh that’s Photoshop filter so-and-so.” I wouldn’t say that my drawing style has become more stylized, I would say it’s become more precise, and that is probably due to working digitally, because digital is extremely forgiving. If you make an error rather than having to just throw the art away and start over again, you simply go back thru history to the point that you made the error and simply go from there. So it’s faster, and in many cases in terms of the color, it’s richer, because you can create so many different layers that give it a three dimensional feeling. And also, I myself have not been coloring recently except for the covers of Final Quest. My colorist is Sonny Strait, who has done a remarkable job. He’s stuck with it through six years, and he’s really helped me and Richard realize Final Quest as best it could possibly be.
(Val Freire): When the comics get translated into different languages, how much input do you have? Do things ever need to be changed for cultural reasons?
Richard: We tend to trust the translators that the foreign publishers provide. Now as an example of something going really, really well, our new French publisher—they just started translating not even a year ago and they have a fellow translating who himself is a charming guy, he’s a fan, and he not only corresponds with us about what does this particular English colloquialism mean, because he wants to put it into French colloquial as much as possible. He also engages the fans, particularly on Facebook, and they all weigh in because a lot of them, they’re the ones who are reading it. We’ve had translations that were good and some that were not so good. None of them were bad, but we don’t have input directly unless we get asked a direct question. We trust, between the publisher, the translator, and the fans, it comes out okay.
Tell me a little about your collaboration process, now and previously, and how you think it will be going forward now that you’ll working with other artists again for more ElfQuest stories?
Wendy: Nothing’s going to change. We’ve kind of got it down to a system after forty years, it’s a really easy role to fall into as collaborators on the story. The process is really simple, I explain to Richard what’s going to happen in a given episode of the story, and Richard gives his input, we talk it through, we refine the idea, he contributes, and we let go of things that aren’t working. It’s very, very collaborative at that stage, then I write the script, he edits the script, and while he’s busy editing I’m busy drawing. Everything ends up in his hands: he formats the artwork and the finished lettering with the lettering guides for Dark Horse comics. But of course, that’s probably going to change some when we’re working with other artists and writers
Richard: We don’t know because we haven’t gotten to the stage yet where we are engaging other artists and writers. I have a suspicion that the process once we get past that point will be very similar. I like to say that Wendy, she’s the battery, she is the electricity, the fans are the light bulb, I’m the wire. I help get it from there to there [gestures]. And I expect when we work with other writers they’re going to have some ideas, some of which, I hope, will surprise us in a very positive way. And we will then fold those into our creative collaborative process and come out with what we hope is the best possible story.
A few years ago you caused a bit of a stir with a “politically incorrect” take on harassment in the comics industry in a BleedingCool interview:
“Before moving on, I just want to say I seriously think aspiring women creators need to learn how to take better care of themselves, re: the sexual harassment issue. For sure, I respect and support the women who are eloquently and rationally speaking out for change. But there’s just too much online vituperation and victimhood going on. Let’s face it, the entire entertainment industry is dominated by highly charged male egos. That isn’t going to change soon, if at all. So, if you want in, you need to cultivate a strong sense of your own self worth, patience, smarts, and a very thick skin.”
Wendy: Well explain what you mean, politically incorrect. You mean because I told women to stand up for themselves? I’m not backing off of that position.
I was wondering if you had anymore thoughts now that the #MeToo movement is really taking off, and—
Wendy: The #MeToo movement is no joke; it’s absolutely real. I still I entirely advocate that women help each other in learning how to stand up to harassment and bullying. I still find that some women, for reasons I can’t figure out, if they are harassed by a guy or guys, they will just back up and get upset about it. Rather than… there’s nothing that turns a guy off more than a direct stare, and there are girls who haven’t learned the direct stare yet, and I advocate that they do.
It’s right all of society everybody should help this come to an end, everybody should be talking about this, it should have ended a long time ago, the way some guys treat some women. And there are guys who think they are perfectly entitled to push women around and treat them as sex objects and so forth and so on. And they get that entitlement from the community online that bolsters them up and says sure it’s okay to treat women that way. Online has plus and minuses, and the minuses is that really bad behavior can get encouraged by groups, just as good. Groups that encourage good behavior need to get strong and stay strong.
I will never stop encouraging women to stand up for themselves, to know what to learn, what to say, when a guy harasses you and won’t let up. You have got to stand up to him and face him and give him that direct stare. Because they will back down. [Women] have to learn to do that.
Okay, but what about the fight/flight/freeze response, you know?
Wendy: Yeah, the flight or freeze response is something that has to be unlearned.
Alright, next question. You guys really explored a lot of unconventional relationship structures in ElfQuest, and I know the fans were excited since there was a same-sex couple that got together in Final Quest—
It was a same-sex—by our standards it would be a marriage, a wedding.
Do you think there will be more exploration of those kinds of relationships in anything coming up?
Wendy: As much as ever has been in ElfQuest, which is always. We’ve always had—what do they call it when the relationship is like three or more people?
Wendy: We’ve always had polyamorous relationships. We have had lesbian relationships, we have had pansexual, particularly pansexual. Every single one of our characters is pansexual. Anything goes. Some of them have preferences, and those preferences are as naturally expressed as any other kind of sexuality. Because they’re not human, they don’t live by human rules and human standards. They’re also immortal, so they don’t have to worry about the kinda stuff human beings do, even something as basic as getting pregnant, they don’t have to worry about that. So the females are just as free as the males.
Richard: Here’s something you won’t see in ElfQuest, you never have and never will. You won’t see the exploration of a relationship because, “Oh we should do that because we haven’t done it in a while or we haven’t done it at all.” The thing that frosts my butt about a lot of popular culture is there’s good work being done in terms of diversification of relationship, diversification of the make up of a group for example, diversification of attitude, but there’s behind the curtain a sense of, “Oh society’s moving a certain direction we better do a group, we better craft a story that takes advantage of this because it’s current.” And that’s what people expect, that that’s what we need to do.
Wendy: People pressured us over the years asking when are you going to do an openly gay relationship, to which our response was, have you been reading the stories? [laughs] We didn’t want to put it on a stage and shine a spotlight on it and say, “Look at our gay couple here!” But when it was the right time for Dart and Mender to become lifemates, it was the right time in the story for that to happen. We have never sacrificed story in order to please the fans. They want certain characters to have babies and we’re like, “No, these characters are not ready to have babies, they’re not gonna have them right now.” We don’t cater to the fans, we don’t do stuff just because they harass us about it.
Since you guys have been online earlier than a lot of indie comics, especially from your era, how do you feel about the ElfQuest online community?
Wendy: I think ElfQuest fans are exceptional there’s just no fandom like them. They are so kind to each other; if someone is hurting all the others will flock around to help. They like to live by the precepts that we’ve put forth in the comic, family treat each other as well as you can, they like to live by that. So we admire our fans very much, they’re very kind, very gentle, you won’t find a lot of toxic fandom in ElfQuest fandom.
Well I think that’s about time for me—
Richard: You got one more?
Wendy: One more for Richard
Well, what’s your favorite story about yourself? Aside from not existing.
Richard: My favorite story about myself?
Richard: I think…
Wendy: That you saved Skywise.
Richard: I’ll go with that one. I don’t know how familiar you are with ElfQuest down to the fine granular details, but the main three characters are Cutter the chief, Leeta his lifemate and the healer, and Skywise his best friend and the tribe’s, for lack of a better term, astronomer. Early on in the story, Wendy was telling me about how it was gonna go, and Skywise was gonna die a very heroic death, and it was gonna give Cutter the whole “friend dies in his arms thing.” Very—what was it? Hurt/comfort?
Wendy: Hurt/comfort, romantic.
Richard: Romantic, and all that. Now see I graduated MIT with a degree in astronomy, and I’ve always loved studying the stars, the universe, the cosmos. He’s the tribe’s astronomer, he’s the stargazer, and I said, “No way, he is my elf from here on in, you are not killing him.” And I think it was possibly a good decision.
Wendy: Since he’s the most popular character in ElfQuest.
Richard: That probably is my favorite ElfQuest story.
Is there anything that you’re reading particularly that you think would be interesting to your fanbase or women looking to read comics.
Wendy: No, I personally don’t have any time for reading. Directly after I finished Final Quest, I became a political activist because I’m super concerned about what’s going on in Washington. So I got to rallies, I go to meetings, I’m online constantly! My main goal is to inspire anyone who is currently sitting on the fence to vote blue in November.
Interview edited for clarity and length.