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Interview: Wendy Pini

Artist and Creator of Masque of the Red Death and Elfquest

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Wendy Pini, artist and creator of Elfquest and Masque of the Red Death

Wendy Pini

Courtesy of Wendy Pini

2008 has been quite the year for Wendy Pini. Besides celebrating the 30th anniversary of Elfquest, Pini and husband/co-creator Richard celebrated signing a movie deal for their perennially popular fantasy comics series with Warner Brothers in July, with Rawson Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) at the helm.

Pini has also been exploring new creative ground with her online webcomic, Masque of the Red Death. Masque takes the basic premise of Edgar Allen Poe's short story and gives it a sci-fi / erotic / yaoi manga-inspired twist. New animated episodes have been featured weekly on Go! Comi's website since June 2007, and now the first volume of the graphic novel made its debut at Yaoi-Con 2008.

I first spoke with Wendy Pini at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco earlier this year, and had several other conversations with her over the phone and at various conventions. While I've always enjoyed her work, I found her to be a vivacious, gracious and refreshingly opinionated creator who has no problem speaking her mind about manga, the comics industry, erotica, and even revealing the personal pain from her past that inspired Elfquest and Masque.

(NOTE: Most of my conversations with Wendy took place in the earlier half of 2008, so I asked her to add a few updates about the announcement of the Elfquest movie, and the September '08 debut of Masque at Yaoi-Con.)

ELFQUEST: AMERICA'S FIRST OEL MANGA?

Q: Now that manga and anime is so big in America, it’s a bit difficult to appreciate how different Elfquest looked than any other comic on the shelves in the late '70s / early '80s -- the way you drew your characters, the kind of stories you told, the anime-inspired artwork. You were basically the first original English language manga artist, before anyone even thought of coining the term. Was the mainstream comics community perplexed by Elfquest when it first came out?

Wendy Pini: Oh, completely. It took Overstreet (the price guide for collectible comics) three years to recognize and list Elfquest. It was black and white, it was magazine-sized, and it was drawn by a woman. It was high fantasy, which was not a big subject matter for comics at the time, and it was influenced by manga, which hardly anyone had ever heard of.

'What kind of drawing style is this?' 'Why do your characters look the way they do? Your guys are so effeminate! That’s creepy!' Oh, the criticism in certain circles was great. They were angered by it.

Meanwhile, other people embraced it immediately. I got some support from The Comics Journal because it was so different. They asked me, 'This is not drawn in any known style... why are you putting it out in this way?'

In the comics community, we received reactions of jealousy, because it was an instant success. We were just lucky enough to find an audience instantly. A lot of them were women, which was another thing that was really weird in 1977. (laughs) so there was this reaction toward us of really strong envy, because weren’t doing it for a company, we were doing it for ourselves.

Those people who worked for the major comics companies for a long time told us, 'Gee, I wish I could do what you’re doing. How did you do it?' We just did it. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were completely innocent, and too stupid to know that it couldn’t be done. (laughs)


ENTICING FEMALES TO THE COMICS SHOP AND FACING THE HATERS

Wendy Pini: I went to a party at Marvel once, and Jim Starlin came up to me and said, 'We hate elves!' And I had never spoken to this guy ever before! These were his first words to me!

Q: Wow. That’s intense, to have that come from complete strangers.

Wendy Pini: I’d been on a panel at a convention sitting next to a guy who’d been in the business for a long time, and he turned around and told me, 'I hate you.' And I said, 'Huh?' I’d never met the guy in my life. Then he said, 'I hate that you’re doing what I’ve always wanted to do, but have never been able to.'

So we literally kick-started the independent, self-published comics movement in a big way. Elfquest was also the first serialized American graphic novel epic to make it into the big chain bookstores.

Q: I didn’t know that! How did you do that?

Wendy Pini: We were first published by Donning/Starblaze, a science fiction / fantasy publisher, and as screwy and disreputable as they were, they put out our first graphic novel collection into the big chain bookstores. It sold incredibly well. And the reason it did was that the timing was right. It’s not so much that Elfquest was so wonderful, it’s more that when the timing is right, you just can’t stop it.

We made every mistake you could make, we alienated people, we didn’t kiss ass, because we didn’t need them. And still, the sales were phenomenal.

Q: That’s astounding. As I understand the history of Elfquest, you and Richard didn’t know anything about the publishing business when you started out on this venture.

Wendy Pini: Not a thing. And that’s the miracle of synchronicity. When the timing is right, nothing can stop you, even if you know nothing. It’s a blessing from the universe and you just accept it. We will always look back on those days in awe, because we made so many mistakes, and yet, nothing stopped us.

Q: I know how much hard work goes into self-publishing comics – getting a printer, finding a distributor, doing the publicity. How do you get your book noticed when there’s so much else out there?

Wendy Pini: Well, at the time, the field was wide open. We had no competitors, because we were one of the first. There was an audience out there that was hungry, starving for something different. They were tired of superheroes, they were tired of big muscled guys punching each other out. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were giving a certain audience what they wanted by injecting soap opera type plots into superhero stories.

Women were just discovering comics. Elfquest is famous for for bringing women into the comics shops. Guys who were into comics who wanted to get their girlfriends into it would show them Elfquest. They'd read it and enjoy it and read more comics. We heard that story a thousand times! (laughs) Elfquest is a date comic!

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