I had the immense honor of moderating the Q&A session with Richard and Wendy Pini at Convolution. The Pinis are the creators of the comic series Elfquest, which has now been running for 35 years. Wendy Pini is also the writer and illustrator of Masque of the Red Death.
Wendy and Richard Pini are huge heroes of mine and I had never done a public Q&A like this before so I was both very excited and horribly, horribly nervous. Luckily for me, the Pinis have been doing Q&A’s in every possible setting for a long, long time, and they told me in advance they wanted a very short intro and then for the audience to get to ask questions. So basically, my job was to avoid setting the room on fire. Here’s a few things that stood out from the session.
The Production of Elfquest
Wendy Pini talked about how she does the actual production of Elfquest. She used to do the art by hand on large sheets of paper. Sometimes, when she wasn’t happy with the flow of panels, or with one panel in particular, she’d cut them out and rearrange them by hand. Eventually someone gave her an early tablet, just to play with, and she loved it and very quickly switched to doing most of the work on the tablet, drawing with a mouse.
Richard Pini talked about some of their publishing processes. He had to borrow money from his parents to self-publish Elfquest. You can imagine his parent's concern when Richard said he wanted to borrow several thousand dollars so he could self-publish his girlfriends comic book! Luckily, his parents came through, and he was able to repay them. Elfquest has been involved with DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse Comics, but the Pini’s have never surrendered creative control.
Richard Pini thinks that is part of why the long arcs and surprises seem convincing – there’s never a room full of executives telling them what to do, so the Pinis can stay true to the story and the characters.
Staying True to the Story
Staying true to the story has been a major challenge when trying to adapt it to stage and screen. During the mid-1980’s, CBS and the Pinis discussed having Elfquest be a Saturday morning cartoon. The studio demanded the following:
• Leetah could not heal with her hands, because that would offend Fundamentalist Christians.
• Leetah would have to be pale-skinned, like Cutter, because the studio did not want an interracial couple on a cartoon show.
• Suntop (a gentle and introspective boy) and Ember (an active and fiery girl) would need to switch personalities.
Needless to say, the Pinis said no, and that’s why there was no Elfquest on our TV sets.
Wendy Pini completed another comics series, Masque of the Red Death (free online, very NSFW).
Her interpretation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story is an explicitly erotic, tragic m/m love story. She is developing it as a Broadway musical and in early talks she was asked to change the male character ‘Stefan’ into a female character, ‘Stephanie’.
Again – a big “no” from the Pinis.
A place for everyone
One thing that the audience kept coming back to was the theme of Elfquest as a story that readers feel personally passionate about, and relate to.
I asked Wendy how she creates this kind of engagement with her characters. One thing Wendy talked about was that so many people experience some form of “disenfranchisement”. Wendy herself came from a very judgmental family. She wanted to create a society that operates almost entirely without judgment, so that in Elfquest there is a place for everyone.
The Pinis also talked about how many of the events in Elfquest come from their own experiences, and that Elfquest shows people that you can make mistakes and grow.
On Letting People See Your Mistakes
Recently The Pini’s decided to allow Columbia University to archive their work.
While Wendy is ready to let an image go as soon as she’s done with it, Richard is more of a pack rat. He felt deeply sentimental about Wendy’s work but had begun to wonder what would happen to it in the future.
After Richard scanned all of Wendy’s art, the Pinis donated their entire collection (including, but not limited to, every piece of original art from Elfquest) to Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where future students will be able to study it.
Richard delivered the many, many boxes or art and correspondence personally, on a cart. He said it was like sending his child off to college, and that even though he thought he had come to terms with surrendering the collection, it was very difficult to let it go when the final moment came.
Wendy said was more concerned about her early mistakes being on view forever, but that she thought seeing her mistakes might help students learn more than seeing her successes.