For 35 years, Wendy and Richard Pini have crafted and honed the world of “Elfquest.” Following a tribe of warrior hunters known as the Wolfriders on the planet Abode, “Elfquest’s” ongoing saga has spanned over three decades and numerous publishers — including Marvel Comics, DC Comics and the self-publishing realm. After publishing a new “Elfquest” story as a webcomic on Boing Boing last year, the duo returned to printed comics with a new series from Dark Horse Comics. A special prequel issue for “Elfquest: The Final Quest” released in late 2013 with the full series slated to launch January 22, and follows the adventures of Wolfrider Ember, daughter of Cutter — the main protagonist of “Elfquest” and chief of the Wolfriders.
Richard and Wendy Pini spoke with CBR News about “The Final Quest” and their vast experience during the evolution of the modern comics industry, the state of mind Ember and Cutter are in during the inception of the series, making 35 years of continuity seem friendly for new readers and another update on the “Elfquest” film. Plus, details on the “Elfquest” archival project at Columbia University and more.
Richard and Wendy, it’s an exciting time to be an “Elfquest” fan — the new series, “The Final Quest,” is set to debut in January, and though some plot details were revealed in “The Final Quest” one-shot, what can you tease about the state of the “Elfquest” world and its characters as the series begins?
Richard and Wendy Pini: To play a little bit with Charles Dickens, for a long while, life for the Wolfriders was the worst of times. But since they reclaimed the Palace of the High Ones, their ancestral star-home, things have been — if not always the best of times — certainly a lot easier for Cutter’s tribe. As you’ve said, the “Final Quest” one-shot contained a great deal of setup, both to reacquaint long-time readers with what’s been happening on the World of Two Moons, as well as to bring new readers up to speed in a single dose. The Wolfriders sacrificed much to get back to the Palace, from which they’d been exiled for thousands of years, and you’d think all would be peaches and cream now. But it’s definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for.”
What’s Cutter’s state of mind as “The Final Quest” begins? How does he plan to adapt to the coming changes?
That’s a wonderful question, both delicious and dangerous. Right now, by the conclusion of the “Final Quest” Special, Cutter has just been confronted — in a very shocking manner — with what we could call a real existential dilemma. There’s the Palace, and there’s the ancestral “Way” of the Wolfriders. What if they can’t coexist? As Skywise puts it, “A risky life outside, or endless quiet and safety behind doors…” And Cutter replies, “One thing’s for sure now. ‘The Way’ isn’t the only way!” So his state of mind, as we begin the actual story arc of “Final Quest” could be said to be that he’s beginning to see some dark clouds on the horizon. But he doesn’t know if the storm will pass by, or if it will hit — and if it does, how hard.
Tell us a bit about how Ember enters into the story and what challenges face her as “The Final Quest” progresses.
Ember is very much her father’s daughter, and yet she’s her very much her own free spirit. We can’t say too much without giving important — even crucial — plot or character developments away. Readers got a taste of what’s going on in her mind and heart in the Special issue — she’s feeling premonitions, and the stirrings of inner conflict. But what you’ve already seen is nothing compared to what’s going to come down within the first three issues of the actual series. She’s going to face tests the likes of which no one has yet seen in the pages of Elfquest.
The series had its 35th anniversary this year, celebrated at Comic-Con International. With the series around for that amount of time, how did you approach “The Final Quest” so it would be both accessible to those looking to jump into the world for the first time, but also rewarding for readers who have been with the world since the beginning?
We knew we had a major challenge facing us, to accomplish exactly that. Wendy, in particular, had to re-wrap her head around 35 years of continuity in order to begin to weave several disparate story threads back into a single tapestry once again. And some of those separate threads had gotten pretty frayed over time, what with Warp attempting to wrangle a bunch of Elfquest spin-off titles during the 1990s and early 2000s. But Wendy got her hands into this big glob of clay and, with some communal skull sessions over the first half of 2013, pushed and pulled and molded it all into an amazing and satisfying arc. We knew that we had many fans who’d followed all the various titles we’d published; we knew that we had fans who’d gone astray after the first four or eight collections; and we knew that there were many people out there who’d heard of Elfquest but had never read it. So in the span of just 60 pages, Wendy condensed as much back story as possible, all the while propelling the characters inevitably toward the launch of the series. (We also have, for the past five years, made every previously existing Elfquest story available for free online at Elfquest.com, so totally unfamiliar readers could get their feet wet without going crazy looking for all the print books.)
Part of “Elfquest’s” distinct identity is that there are many shades of grey — the stories have never really quite been about good and evil. What’s the challenge for you in maintaining that theme for the lifespan of the series?
That’s actually easier than it might sound. We’ve never considered Elfquest to be a story about the ages-old — and, in our view, way too simplistic — conflict between good and evil. We’ve always couched the story as the struggle between ignorance and knowledge or wisdom. That, to us, is the biggest, most troublesome challenge for the world today as we’re living in it. All the prejudice, all the intolerance, those all come from deep fears within us all, the fear of “the other” who is not like us. And those fears come from not knowing what the other is like, from not taking the time to get to know your neighbor, from not walking a mile in his or her moccasins. We’ve all felt it, and we see its effects in the world right now. We’ve often said the the world of Elfquest is not the Earth as it is, but rather it’s the Earth as we’d like it to be, so it’s not really a challenge to direct the characters in such a way that they feel, struggle with, and — hopefully — overcome their own ignorance.
Although “The Final Quest” is publishing through Dark Horse, “Elfquest” has had a home at many different publishers over the years. As you’ve seen the landscape of comics change and “Elfquest” has changed publishers, why do you think the series has managed to maintain a loyal readership?
It’s a secret we discovered long ago when we published “Elfquest” ourselves, and then shared with our various partner publishers. There’s a special chemical, you see, in the printing ink, very addictive —
Seriously, the only answer that makes any sense to us is that no matter what storyline we’ve put out there — whether the “Original Quest” or “Kings of the Broken Wheel” or “Dreamtime” or now, “Final Quest” — we’ve consistently and faithfully told our own story, even though it’s been fancied up in fantasy garb. Someone once said that the reason classic fairy tales still have meaning today is that they tell truths about real life, just in symbolic language. “Elfquest” is autobiographical, to greater or lesser degree. We’ve gone through highs and lows in our lives, figured out how to enjoy or survive those as best we could, and have put those life-lessons into the story of the elves. Just as we’re both the same people we once were, and yet changed as well, so too are the Wolfriders and their kind and friends. Readers know when they’re being treated with respect, and when they’re being jerked around for the sake of market whim or creator cleverness.
You’ve both had the opportunity to see the changes in how comics are viewed by the general public over the years. What are your views on the state of the medium today?
It’s funny. Comic book movies (just to pick one example) are bigger blockbusters than ever, and yet the comic books themselves haven’t really evolved from what they were years and decades ago. Sure, the channels of delivery have evolved — you can read “Elfquest” now on your iPad or whatever. But it sure doesn’t seem as though the general public knows or cares any more about actual comics now than they did in the 1960s or 1970s. Maybe even less than then, because at least back then you had the frequent and obligatory “POW! ZAP! WHAM!” magazine or newspaper article that popularized what comics were becoming, in terms of cultural awareness. These days, it may be the byproducts of comics are of far more interest to the world at large, than the floppy little pamphlets we grew up with. Or maybe we’re just old school, and happy to be that way.
You’ve been posting some interesting tidbits on Elfquest.com, chronicling some of the items that have gone to Columbia University’s Elfquest archive. What has the experience been like for the two of you, preserving your original work in Columbia’s archives?
It’s one of the most bittersweet experiences we’ve ever had. We’d always wondered, way in the back of our minds, what might become of all the materials we’d collected over many years, once we were no longer here. We’d never come up with a satisfying answer until, at the 2012 Comic-Con International, Karen Green of Columbia University approached us with the request to consider donating our collection to their then-nascent graphic novel archive. It was the perfect solution! Everything in one very-well curated and preserved location, for all time! But it is, as we said, bittersweet. Richard’s pretty much in charge of the actual process of scanning all of Wendy’s original art, all the business papers, letters, contracts, scripts, etc. Every time he scans a page, a painting, a layout, we’re both aware that soon it’s going to be out of our hands forever. No more simply going to the flat files and reminiscing.
Finally — and I know this is a question that comes up a lot — is there any progress in finding the right fit for an “Elfquest” film?
The road goes ever on. As you no doubt know, Warner Bros. declined to green light “Elfquest” back in 2012, and since then we’ve had some more talks with some more interested parties. We’re actually learning how to be optimistically dispassionate about the whole thing. The interconnected worlds of Hollywood, of movies, of comics, of publishing are all different from what they were when we cut our teeth launching “Elfquest” in 1978. For us, the medium isn’t necessarily the message. But the underlying dream — to tell our story using these feisty characters as our voices — is the same as it ever was.
“Elfquest: The Final Quest” #1 releases January 22 from Dark Horse.