Wendy and Richard Pini Part Two: Red Sonja goes to academiaA comics interview article by: Jason Sacks
Continuing our three-part interview with the legendary Wendy and Richard Pini, conducted at the 2014 Emerald City Comicon, we discuss Wendy's days cosplaying as Red Sonja, the charming story of how Wendy and Richard met, and the new Elfquest series.
Click here to read part one of this interview.
Click here to read part three of this interview.
Wendy Pini: I gave a talk at UC Berkeley a few years ago, and I opened my talk by all of these youngsters looking at me like they should be in high chairs. They looked so young. Can you conceive of a time when there were no cellphones, no video games?
Richard Pini: Well certainly the internet, the web.
Wendy: No Internet. No web.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: No 300 channels on TV, and no Netflix.
Wendy: Their eyes just got bigger and bigger. Can you conceive of a time when you went to see a movie in theater and you had to wait one to two years before that movie would come back around so you can see it again? Nowadays you can watch a movie in two months of its release. You can watch it on Netflix or buy it on Blu-ray. And their eyes just turned into saucers because they really couldn't believe in a time like that.
I said at that time in the mid-'60s to the early '70s, you sort of had to be a human VCR. If you saw something you loved, you had to record it with your mind and soul. I think I devolved my visual acuity as an artist that way because I was seeing movies I adored. People have asked me who are the women in comics who have influenced you, and I had an awkward time answering that because to be honest I wasn't really influenced by women in comics. It was movies and theater. Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, you know the concept of a powerful woman who ruled her own mind, and could speak her thoughts. I saw all of that in film and theater.
CB: Didn't you perform as Red Sonja back in the day?
Wendy: Oh of course!
CB: So you really were into the theatrical stuff at the time?
Wendy: In the early '70s I was a semi-professional belly dancer, and I was used to being on stage a lot. And I had done a lot of acting in high school and college. So yes I was an actress, never a professional one, but I was trained. So when we met Frank Thorne I think in '75, or earlier?
Richard: Might have been '76.
Wendy: Might have been '76, and he looked at me and he said "Look we're going to have a Red Sonja lookalike contest in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Would you please enter?" And having also been a costume designer. Richard and I worked on it together, and we built a genuine suit of armor. We built it out of solid steel disks.
CB: It must have been so heavy to wear around.
Wendy: It was over 20 pounds.
CB: Plus the sword.
Wendy: Plus the sword. You know, as bare as the chain mail bikini leaves you, it weighed that much. And I entered the contest in high schools because I clanked, and none of the other girls did. That's part of why I became the go-to Sonja.
Richard: Right, but the accuracy of the costume aside, and it was a spectacular costume. By the way that costume is going away to Columbia University for their archives because all of Wendy's original art, all of Elfquest's business papers are going there to their graphic novel collection. But they also want some other stuff related to what we had done. So they were definitely interested in Wendy's Sonja, so they're getting that costume.
Richard: Sonja goes to academia.
Wendy: Well we can hardly believe this, but it was Sonja that led to my first professional job in comics. Because through my work as Sonja I became acquainted with Frank Thorne and Roy Thomas, who was the writer and editor of the book at the time and Roy invited me to write an issue, which ended up being issue 6. And so my goodness, going from a costumer to actually professionally writing. I'm rather pleased that my first professional work for comics was writing because everyone thinks of me as an artist, but I also write Elfquest. So anytime I get recognition for that I am pleased.
Richard: But just to wrap it up and bring it around, she brought to her portrayal of Sonja that sensibility coming from strong actresses in movies who knew what they were, who knew what they wanted. Who did not take crap. Whereas all of the other Sonja portrayers, one of them did Sonja as Mae West. They had different takes in the character, but none of them got in the deep dark soul of the character as Wendy did. And I think that all the people who ever saw her could tell "Alright, this fun. There's a lot of cheesecake running around in chain mail bikinis, but watch out for that one. Because you mess with her and you'll get that sword where you don't want it.
Wendy: Yeah, well I stayed in character the whole time. That was probably another reason.
CB: That's got to be so fun. That must have been wonderful.
Wendy: Oh yeah. Oh sure because fanboys were rude back then, so if a fanboy was rude to me back then, I would just be Sonja usually by bringing the sword out and scaring them to death. And so it was tremendous, and this was a brand new thing back then.
CB: The comics industry was so different at that time. Marvel tried that abortive line of women's comics. Like Claws of the Cat, Night Nurse and Shanna the She-Devil that were supposed to appeal to women and failed completely.
Richard: Creation by corporation.
CB: Right, and then Thomas sort of essentially organically creates Sonja, and it's because she's naturally such a strong character, she catches on. She had a very empowered attitude.
Wendy: Absolutely and her motivations often didn't have much to do with her gender. She was a female version of Conan. Except she had this backstory that a woman could totally relate to. You know, women were pretty angry back then. Women were feeling it. There was something going on in all of us that wanted to bust out, and I found that from portraying Sonja, was a socially acceptable way of getting a lot of anger out. I would be on stage playing the character and I would parade in front of the audience, and so taking that onward into Elfquest was our really strong female characters in it Elfquest. We have Kahvi the warrior chief, and even Leetah, knew exactly who she was and what she wanted.
CB: They're not just strong female characters, they're strong characters.
Richard: They're characters and some of them have male characteristics, and some of them have female characteristics. There's a whole thing, TV shows and books now are getting the SFC rating. The "Strong Female Character" rating. You see that in more and more reviews, and it's like everything else. Okay we're in that portion of history where we have to label it. We have to pay attention to it. And I'm so waiting for when "That's a great story. Those characters are wonderful." and you're not labeling them one or the other.
CB: This is what you were talking about earlier, this is how societies evolve. Now it's so much a normal part of the landscape that there be LGBT characters in the media that no one even thinks about it.
Richard: The historical view shows we are getting better slowly. We will probably survive the next hundred years.
Wendy: To get off the subject of Elfquest, and to talk about my other graphic novel, Masque of the Red Death which is entirely about a gay relationship. And yet at the same time it's not about how hard it is to be gay. This takes place in a futuristic society where they're completely over that. So Elfquest is like a primitive society that's completely over that, or never got into it. Masque is about a society that maybe went through it at one time, but got over it completely.
CB: So who's publishing Masque?
Richard: Well, the first volume of a planned three came out from another company, but they've gone under. Now I, being a bibliophile, have done a print on demand. It's 400 pages. It's five pounds of book. We would love to find somebody who can manage the logistics, who has the contacts in printing and distribution because we're out of that now. We're just creators. To do a nice, affordable mass market edition, that would be spectacular. So the answer is nobody is publishing it right now. We will do print on demand for those bibliophiles who ask for it, but we're still looking for that final Masque home.
Wendy: The point I was going to make relating to what you were both saying about how it's getting better, is that Masque was finished a little over four years ago. Simultaneously while finishing the graphic novel, I was starting to develop it for the stage in a Broadway style musical. I was writing the libretto, and I was already kind of poking around and talking to anyone in the theater community or the music industry that I could about this. And we finally obtained a theatrical agent who told us on initial the initial reading, what I keep hearing is "This is new, this is different, this is dark, it's edgy. It really could be something if you will change Anton and Stefan into Anton and Stephanie. We'd be interested." This was four years ago. Today, I've got a composer, I've got a producer, I've got a director.
Richard: We've got a New York lawyer.
Wendy: A New York lawyer.
Richard: Who is saying to us "Oh, don't worry about that. That's fine."
CB: I think it's more intriguing now because it feels very contemporary-
Richard: Exactly. In just four years we went from "Oh you're going to need to make changes" to "This is great as it is!" and she didn't change a thing.
CB: That's amazing. Did you ever expect that before there was an Elfquest movie, you might have a show on Broadway?
Wendy: No, I never expected that.
CB: It's a strange way for things to work out.
Richard: We laugh about that. The universe works in mysterious ways.
Wendy: He laughs at the irony because we've been trying to get an Elfquest movie done for 36 years, and Masque is just kind of like PSHEW.
Richard: Spider Robinson came up with this phrase which I love and I live by, "God is an iron." do you get it?
CB: God is an iron.
Richard: If someone who commits gluttony, is glutton. If someone commits a felony, is a felon. God is an iron.
CB: Let's talk about the new series.
Wendy: Oh yes. This is something that's been in the works since the mid-'90s. The treatment for that story got done long ago. We knew we would get through it eventually. We didn't know how we would get to it whether we would publish it ourselves, or to another publisher or whether it might just put it up online. We were prepared for all of those things.
Richard: I think we did want some way for it to be on paper. For years we would go to bookstores and comic shops and there was no Elfquest because everything that we did up to the early '90s was out of print. In the 2000s DC was publishing stuff by us, and that was fine. When Warner Brothers had another option from 2008-2012, they had hinted to us that they would prefer that we not make any new Elfquest. It was during that four-year hiatus where we conceived and finished Masque but realized that when you go into a shop and you don't see what you've been working on for 30+ years, it's a little discomfiting. So when we got with Dark Horse we were able to have wonderful production values. Now when we go to comic shops we see our books again, and when the compilations come out it'll be all over the bookstores. So it really makes our hearts full.
CB: You guys were in the bookstores way way back.
Richard: Elfquest was the first graphic novel to bust out of comic shops. In 1981, another company put together the first volume of what would become an ongoing graphic novel series. And they sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the bookstores. And that's kind of what our move is. Cause back then there were a lot of kids or girls who would not go into a comic shop, but they found Elfquest in Barnes and Noble and that was a first. That's why there are graphic novel entire sections in bookstores today.
Wendy: He's very proud of that, as you can see.
Richard: We did surveys and that's where we learned that our leadership is like 55/45 female to male, and this is at a time when it was like 95/5 male to female.
CB: That must have been extremely rewarding to you.
Wendy: We didn't know what we were doing. I think we were dumb enough to take the fact that we were getting a lot of female readers for granted. Girls loved fantasy. I had a lot of girlfriends from my other work that I've done and I think that we just took it for granted that- and it wasn't when The Comics Journal and other critical sources started pointing out that Elfquest had this unusual high reading of female readers, and we didn't really quite pay attention to that ourselves.
Richard: When I was 19 I was a fan of Marvel and I read all their titles. And there was one, the original incarnation of Silver Surfer. And issue number five was published in 1969. There was a letter in the letter page, when they had letter pages, from one Wendy Fletcher, and they included her address. It was a really nice letter. It was thoughtful and philosophical, but it was so obviously from a girl. In 1969 there was what, four girls reading comics? So I was a freshman in college, and a geek, and this was MIT which was all guys. Here's a girl, she likes comics, she's smart. I'm gonna write her a letter. Turns out at least a couple hundred other guys wrote letters to her.
CB: Was that right?
Wendy: That's true.
Richard: But I got lucky. At that time being a girl into comics was like an oddity, and I like that we play a part in bringing more women readers.
Wendy: Oh, Elfquest is a known gateway drug for girls in comics. It gets them started and then their interests move onto better things. So we do take a lot of pride in that. You can't imagine the hundreds of girls coming up in a convention saying "This is the only graphic novel I've ever read" or "This got me started reading comics."
CB: I gotta ask, how'd you feel getting letter after letter?
Wendy: These were all the guys in the U.S. and Canada that wanted to meet a girl who read comics. Most of them told me what color their eyes were, and how many dimples they had and you know.
CB: It must have been kind of flattering.
Wendy: It was, and my parents thought it was very strange and bizarre. But his letter had the return address of MIT and my mother's eyes lit up with dollar signs and said "Open that one." and so I did and his was especially intriguing because he said "I really liked what you have to say in your letter to the Silver Surfer, but if you want to know more about me you have to write to me and I promise you surprises await." And he was the only one that did that. So I wrote back.
Richard: And here we are.
CB: That's amazing. You may have one of the best first meeting stories I've ever heard.
Wendy: It is kind of a legend now.
Richard: It happens a lot more now, of course with internet and comics groups all over and social media, but back then it was pretty much unheard of.
Click here to read part one of this interview.
Click here to read part three of this interview.