by Rob Beschizza (with Richard Pini)Elfquest was one of the first independently published American comic series. It premiered in February 1978, the work of artist/writer Wendy Pini and her husband, Richard. Since its release, it has continued to this day, evolving through many sequels and formats, retaining an artistic and thematic unity rare in the world of comic literature. In its heyday, at a time when other independent comics were selling a few hundred or a few thousand copies, each Elfquest issue sold 100,000 copies worldwide, and was the most popular comic among female readers in the United States. Since 1992, when the Pini's finally allowed other artists and writers to produce Elfquest stories, the epic has expanded into a multi-faceted universe of characters and tales. The purpose of this text is to critically examine the saga, to explore its contribution to popular culture, and to attempt to unravel the themes within it that make it of greater literary value than has been hitherto acknowledged.
Wendy Fletcher was born in San Francisco in 1951, and from an early age demonstrated the talents later to come to fruition as a professional illustrator, and eventually as the creator of Elfquest.
Baptized an Episcopalian she is now, like her husband, agnostic yet spiritual, which might perhaps help to explain the ever-present rationality of the world-view presented within Elfquest. She talks of her belief thus: "I very much believe in God, but he's mine, he's not a god that anybody is putting me into, or setting down rules about how long his beard is!"
Wendy's youthful interest in fantasy was inspired in part by such luminaries as Shakespeare and Kipling. She took artistic inspiration from Victorian illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, designers such as Walt Disney, Doug Wildey and Erte, as well as comic book greats such as Jack Kirby and Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka.
Elves came into her imagination early, as demonstrated by her juvenalia, a magical, anthropomorphic world of wizards, aliens and heroes.
Richard Pini was born in 1950, in New Haven, Connecticut. Like Wendy, an early religious upbringing, though not an oppressively observed one, lapsed into agnosticism with maturity: "I simply grew away from it". After an exemplary academic performance at school, he was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for an astrophysics degree. Always fan of science fiction, at college he found new diversion in comic books, and it was in the letters pages of "The Silver Surfer" in 1969 that he chanced upon a letter written by one Wendy Fletcher.
A correspondence began, spanning a period of four years. The two eventually married in 1972, and Wendy embarked upon a career as an illustrator for sci-fi magazines. Speaking of Richard, Wendy states "When Richard and I first met, a lot of things fell in place for me. Almost immediately we began working on our life together - it was almost pre-ordained. Richard and I have a lot to accomplish in this lifetime."
A degree in astronomy from MIT led Richard to a position at Boston's Hayden Planetarium as lecturer, photographer, script writer and special effects technician.
In 1977, Wendy and Richard Pini decided to spin Wendy's fantasy/adventure series in to the self-published, ongoing series called Elfquest. They created Warp (an acronym from "Wendy and Richard Pini") Graphics and got to work. As the first continuing fantasy/adventure series created, written and illustrated by a woman, Elfquest became a phenomenon in the comic and fantasy/science fiction industries.
In 1979, Richard and Wendy moved to Poughkeepsie, New York. Two years later they made the decision that Richard would leave his job with IBM to become a full-time publisher, editor, marketer and co-creator of Elfquest. It is Richard that Wendy credits with ensuring the success of the company. "Richard learned publishing by the seat of his pants. Neither of us knew anything of publishing, but after being turned down by Marvel and DC, and after a run-in with a unscrupulous mid-Western publisher, Richard figured it out. It is and was his business ingenuity and problem-solving ability which makes Elfquest the small press giant that it is."
At this time, Richard firmly established Warp Graphics in the publishing world when he made the bold move away from selling Elfquest volumes only in comic book shops, thus garnering new respect from the comic genre and introducing new readers and fans to Elfquest at mainstream bookstores.
Beauty and the Beast
At about the same time, Elfquest was not the only outlet for Wendy's vision. Using her considerable talent, Wendy painted and wrote two graphic novels based on the popular television show "Beauty and the Beast." Wendy was intrigued by how special that fairy tale was as a vehicle for television and she feared that it was too good to last. Wendy felt that if there were more visual mentions of the story available, the television series would have a better chance for survival. Alas, the television series was cancelled soon after, but the two "Beauty and the Beast" volumes remain some of Wendy's most beautiful work.
Having started by publishing soft-cover books, Warp Graphics became aware of two important pieces of information: One, that Elfquest readers are so fanatical they will read, and re-read the soft covers to tatters; and the other, that schools and libraries prefer a more durable book to a soft cover comic. Richard investigated the hard cover format and found that he could produce economical yet quality hardcovers. These sold for many years, until market conditions generally in the bookselling trade softened in the mid- to late-1990s. Taking the shifting currents in stride, Warp launched yet another edition of the Elfquest tale, this one an ambitious reprinting of nearly every story told originally in comic book format, into an ongoing series of inexpensive black-and-white collections.
The Elves and Beyond
"I know that Wendy has always loved the mythical 'little people' - and there has got to be a reason why every culture in the world has their own 'little people' or 'spirits'," Richard Pini recently said. "Every culture has a version of elves. The attraction (to elves) is that they represent a very deep archetype - the spirit. They are more than human, yet less than angels. Wendy has always been very much in tune with that. As to why we use elves in Elfquest, it's that we want characters that are human enough and beautiful enough so readers can identify with them. But we also want characters that are alien enough so readers know that this is not happening down the street. The Elfquest world is a world we would all like to live in but a place we have to work to achieve."
"Where are we going to take the Elfquest elves? We want to take the elves where they want to go. It's sort of like the 'How do you train a wolf?' question. Well, you can train a wolf to do exactly what it wants to do. These guys have a life of their own. They speak through us and they want their stories told. We [Warp Graphics] are working to give them every possible forum to tell their stories. We started with comic books, went to graphic novels, we do children's books and now there is the animated film. Those small elves have a larger voice - they want it heard and it is our job to give them the platform."
With ongoing forays into the world of animation, marketing and licensing, and other new print incarnations for Elfquest, it seems assured that the elves will have that platform for a long time to come.
This addendum is being written in April 2008 by Richard Pini. The text above covers Warp Graphics until the end of the twentieth century, and just into the first year or two of the twenty-first. Warp published its black-and-white Reader's Collection volumes up until 2002, at which point we'd pretty much exhausted the library of Elfquest material accumulated over the previous twenty-something years.
By 2002, the library was not all that had been exhausted. Publisher Richard Pini made the command decision that he wanted to get back to a more creatively supportive role, and set about seeking someone else to license the Elfquest property. With the help of literary agents, Warp licensed Elfquest to DC Comics in February 2003, with the hope and expectation that this large company, a longtime player in the comic book industry as well as an adjunct to the Warner Bros. and New Line movie studios, would propel the elves into new media arenas. DC did produce several beautiful Elfquest volumes, but hoped-for breakthroughs in merchandising and media did not materialize. The license was terminated in 2007.
So where does that leave Warp Graphics, the company? It has survived a turbulent industry for thirty years by being flexible. Only a month ago, I made the decision to release, over the course of 2008, every issue of every comic book published by Warp, online and for free. The response has been amazing and gratifying, and new expressions of interest in Elfquest are coming in as a result. It's safe to say. I think, that Warp Graphics will be around for quite a while yet. After all, there are still stories to be told.