Concluding our three-part conversation with the brilliant and gracious Wendy and Richard Pini, we discuss the Hero’s Journey, what it means to surprise fans, Wendy’s deep love for Shakespeare, and much more.
Click here to read part one of this interview.
Click here to read part two of this interview.
Thanks again to Wendy and Richard for being so gracious with their time with this wonderful and wide-spanning conversation.
Wendy Pini: Elfquest is a very involved – or as some say, convoluted — epic fantasy story. We have a continuing line of characters that evolve through the stories. It’s not just continuously repetitive. Things happen to these characters. They grow and so forth. Final Quest is just the end of a huge story that I’ve worked on over the years. Elfquest is sort of Richard’s and my summation of how we feel about things and perceive things in the world right now. Everything that we’ve done has been leading up to this. For me it has a strong spiritual content. There is a very strong spiritual side to the story. I can’t reveal anything, but characters that people have known and loved for decades are going to go through massive changes that you wouldn’t expect.
Richard Pini: The framework of Elfquest is modeled on the best of all possible models, which is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. One of our characters is completing the hero’s journey that they started 35 years ago. People say to us “Oh, you’re just making things up as you go along” and we say “Ha, you know what you read last week in the brand new issue? Well, we’re going to take you back to the third issue of original Quest, 1978, and you see that little clue we planted there? This has been here all along.”
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: So you really planned out how the story was going to go years ago?
Wendy: Oh, absolutely. I don’t believe in telling a story that you don’t know the ending of. So we have been planting red herrings and foreshadowing subtly all throughout the series, and when people finally get to the last issue of the Final Quest, then they’ll go back and re-read the series and find all these clues.
Richard: And we’ll be sitting there going neener neener neener!
CB: It must be very gratifying but at the same time a little bit strange to be tying this up after all this time.
Wendy: Here’s the thing: the fans have now become a part of the creative process in a way because I really don’t think there is any other series that has as much feedback, and input, and opinion from the fans as Elfquest has had for such a sustained period of time. I mean fans nowadays are used to giving their opinion whether it’s on Buffy or Torchwood, or Dr. Who, or whatever and they’re used to being very vocal with their opinions. But we’ve had that all along and the fans have become used to it. Which means that we’re often in an adversarial position with them because we know what they’re expecting, but we often have to take the story in a direction that no one is expecting because of what they’re normally expecting for a character to do, or something to happen in the story.
CB: Have you had an incident that really made people angry?
Wendy: Oh yeah, several times. In our most recent issue number two, there’s a death of a well-loved character, and they’re having their different reactions to it. But in Elfquest, rather than in Superman or Batman, when you kill a character they stay dead! And the fans know that. They know they’re not going to get that character back.
Richard: We’ve had the occasional — not arguments, but differences of feeling about some of that. Because early on, I grew up with comics where the good guys don’t die. They get better even if they get killed. In Elfquest, a beloved character was slated to die, and I was really just not comfortable with that, but she pointed out to me – and it makes perfect sense in retrospect, but we were all younger then – that the elves are going into a war. There are only 17, 18, 19, 20 of them in this tribe. It is unrealistic in the extreme that all of them are going to make it through unscathed. And this character isn’t going to make it through it at all. But we got into the process of evolving the story that spun off from that and discovered that this character’s death and the way it happened planted another seed for some incredibly emotional storytelling later down the line.
Wendy: So Richard began to appreciate that sometimes the end of one thing is the beginning of another.
CB: That’s a lesson for life for one thing.
Richard: And a lot of fiction today, a lot of comics today, they don’t go anywhere near that deep. It’s kind of superficial. You know I don’t want to put anybody or anything down. But there’s so much that storytellers could explore if they just took that time.
CB: I think one of the exciting things about the rise of the comics is that people might be writing these classic ideas, but they’re also creating their own books, and they control the surprise then. They can really change the status quo.
Wendy: Yes. You don’t have the Comics Code Authority standing over you.
CB: Maybe The Walking Dead is a perfect example for that. Changing things, killing characters, and that becomes the rhythm of the book – you really have no idea what’s going to happen.
Wendy: Yeah, and every time I think I’ve done something horrifying or crossed the line, I see the new comics out today and realize that I’m still just taking baby steps compared to what kids are used to in horror nowadays.
Richard: You’re taking baby steps in the horror and the gore and the violence while taking giant steps with the meaning of it. Which they’re not.
Wendy: Maybe blatant horror and gore and violence, with so little underneath it, makes it more palatable. I don’t know.
CB: We can cross off 35 years of history with the book, so everything just has more power. It’s like following a classic series of novels. These characters becomes so much of people’s lives that at a certain point they become so familiar.
Wendy: They become real to the readers so there’s more impact.
CB: I wanted to ask me about how your family background led into your decision to create this series.
Wendy: Oh that’s a whole ‘nother hour. It’s very easy to talk about that, and I’ve been very frank about it. I was adopted, I was born on the wrong side of the blanket. Adopted very very young into an extremely difficult family. So it was a tough upbringing, and I grew up with a gay brother who could not come out because of the judgementalism. Even within the family itself so there was lots of hostility. I found creativity to be a coping mechanism. I could most often be found in my room drawing. Making up stories. Inventing other worlds to go to get away from all the hassle.
CB: Was it the same world you built in Elfquest?
Wendy: A version of it. It’s always been the same world, where I could create a different family. A different tribal structure. Where there was more room to breathe. Where someone wasn’t trying to make you into something you weren’t. Because in many ways I experienced the same problems my brother did. Him through his sexual orientation, me through my weirdness. I was simply a weirdo. They wanted me to be Shirley Temple — a nice, obedient, neat, gentle girl. I honestly tried to be as gentle as I could, but I was wild. I had a wild imagination. I could not be contained, and they found me to be quite a handful. The relationship was pretty adversarial. Out of that experience and just getting out of the household made the difference. Re-raising myself, and meeting Richard, and he had some re-raising of himself that he had to do.
CB: Re-raising yourself. What an interesting idea.
Wendy: When you had a family where you were like an alien, you never wanted to associate with people like that if you had the choice. And so it’s a huge learning experience. You take that with you, and if you’re lucky enough to get out and make your own life, you re-raise yourself with a value system that you can appreciate. I think I must have been as young as eight when I decided that my parents were wrong about everything. I took that with me and it’s expressed in an Elfquest relationship between Cutter and his father, who was always trying to make Cutter into his own image. Cutter was like an Indigo Child.
Richard: Now there is a flip side to that, and the flip side is that Wendy’s grandmother was a teacher, and her library was full of illustrated books from the early 20th century. For all of her rough times dealing with her parents, she had the seeds of these wonderful illustrations that showed other wonderful and fantastic worlds for inspiration and for technique.
Wendy: And to give my parents their due, they introduced me to the classics and encouraged me to read fine literature. I was into Shakespeare by the time I was five. They were big on education.
Richard: As long as it was classical and approved.
Wendy: Yes, I mean comic books or cartoons forget about it.
Richard: And yet others of her influences came from comics. We talked about classic comics and, you know, there was a show in the 60’s called Jonny Quest and it was designed by a guy named Doug Wildey who did something for cartoons that had never been done before. Light and shadow and mass and —
Wendy: And I became a human VCR and just ate that up. And so I learned more about putting light and shadow into my inking from watching Johnny Quest than from almost any other source.
CB: That’s very interesting, because your characters have that kind of classic approach to them. That’s one of the aspects of your work that doesn’t follow the current fashion. They’re kind of their own specific people. They’re archetypal themselves.
Wendy: This is what I was just told recently by the gentleman who is going to be producing the Masque musical, he said “You know, I have to congratulate you because even though you’ve written a science fiction story, the way your characters speak is rather Shakespearean” by just the lilt of their language. And I told him that I am very pleased that you recognize that, because that was something that I learned early on, that kind of poetry. What always blew my mind about Shakespeare were lines as simple as Lady Macbeth, who is sleepwalking and her maid is watching her dance and says “Her eyes are open” and her companion says “Ah, but her senses are shut.” When I was five I remember telling my mother “That means she can’t see. Even though her eyes are open.” I’m five and I’m so excited. Her eyes are open but her senses are shut. Stuff like that has always intrigued me.
CB: Does that make you a little more purposeful with the writing you’ve been doing?
Wendy: Yes. We have always wanted to stay away from the technique of Tolkien. We wanted to be relatable. So our characters do talk local English, but we never introduce any kind of phrase that would lift the reader up out of the universe that we created and put them back here. The characters never use kooky phrases. It’s plain. Just plain talk. And we’ve felt that was best.
Richard: See for me, and I know that this was a breakthrough, but in TV, Xena and Hercules were at the forefront of using modern day colloquialisms in a historical setting. I know that it was groundbreaking, and it made them immensely popular, but it bugged me – as a viewer it never carried the power what Wendy is talking about. You can speak modern English and still give it music. Those shows didn’t.
Wendy: It’s like the word “okay.” I remember watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and the young girl gets the boy off the deck and she says “Are you okay?” When I met the scriptwriter I said, “There is one thing that I want to ask you. When was ‘okay’ introduced in the language?”
Richard: In the 1830s.
Wendy: It’s an abbreviation.
Richard: It’s the early 1800s but the point is that it’s totally not appropriate for that setting.
CB: It would have been a lot more effective as “are you alright?”
Wendy: “Are you alright?” yes, but apparently there was a screenwriter who wanted to seem modern. It’s just a trend and it’s all through the comics. No matter what era they’re writing about the characters talk that way, but we have never gone that far. You will never see the word “Okay” at all in Elfquest.
Richard: And that’s okay!
CB: What’s coming after Final Quest?
Richard: Final Quest is the harvesting of a whole lot of seeds planted over the last 35 years.
CB: The whole world is now up in the air.
Richard: And here’s the thing, people are asking “IS THIS THE END OF ELFQUEST?” No, it’s not the end of Elfquest.
Wendy: No, because then how could there be a Future Quest!
Richard: There is a future history to this world in which some of the current characters still exist. We’re not turning our backs on Elfquest, but right after this monumental effort, we are going to at the very least circle the wagons. Figure out what we want to do and how we want to do it. Then we go on from there in whatever direction. What that might be, I’m not prepared to say. Other than Tahiti.
Click here to read part one of this interview.
Click here to read part two of this interview.