In 1978, Wendy and Richard Pini launched ElfQuest, which has become the longest-running fantasy graphic novel series in America. The series, which has tens of millions of copies of comics and graphic novels in print worldwide, centers on Cutter, the chief of the Wolfrider elves, and his quest to learn the truth about where the elves came from–as well as lead his people to safety and freedom.
The final issue, ElfQuest: The Final Quest #24 publishes on February 28, 2018, the same day as the original ElfQuest debuted in 1978. The creators are launching a year-long tour of appearances across the United States and Europe in their “Forty Years of Pointed Ears” tour. We had a chance to talk with Wendy and Richard about the conclusion of the series and what it has been like to create a story that stretched over forty years of comics.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length.
Den of Geek: First, congratulations on the forty-year mark with ElfQuest. That’s so exciting!
Wendy Pini: Oh, thank you.
Richard Pini: Thank you so much.
And this is the real conclusion of the series, right?
Wendy: Not the dead end of the series. This is the conclusion of a master hero’s journey story arc that we’ve been telling for forty years. But there still is more story to come.
The world is so rich I can see how it could expand in a bunch of different directions.
Richard: We have already dipped our toes into the water of some of those different directions. We have told some stories that take place in the future of this world, and there are some stories that I guess you could consider prequels. So there’s a lot more fertile ground. But this is the big forty year conclusion to a major hero’s journey.
And you had planned a conclusion from the beginning, is that correct?
So how has it changed since you started? Did you know exactly where it was going to end, and now you’ve gotten there?
Wendy: We had a skeleton, a treatment of the overall story. We knew where we wanted to get to. The wonderful thing about that is when you have that skeleton, you can hang all sorts of ornaments on it. You can come up with characters that take the story in interesting side-trips, and you can do lots of things that really enrich and make the world more believable and bigger. In the final analysis, you always come back to that skeleton treatment, and you always keep your hero on track on his hero’s journey.
How does it feel to get to the end of that skeleton?
Richard: Imagine being pregnant for forty years.
Oh gosh, no, please!
Richard: And then you finally get to give birth. There’s joy, there’s amazement, there’s all kinds of feelings, but one of them is that strange post-partum feeling of, “Okay, what now?” Because we’re used to a certain way of living, a certain way of interacting as we create, a certain way of producing things that’s been going on for four decades. And now, we have what looks like nothing but free time ahead of us, which isn’t really true because 2018 is jam-packed already. But it’s a medley of feelings: amazement, gratification, relief–you name it, it’s probably in there.
Wendy: But I bet you’d be surprised to hear that one of the emotions we feel the least is sadness. We are not sad that it’s over, because even though the story ends on a bittersweet note, we just feel that the ending is the only way it could have ended, and therefore it’s very cathartic. In that sense, we’re very pleased with it.
I’m actually a latecomer to the series–I didn’t start picking it up until the Dark Horse Complete ElfQuest volumes came out. Did you see a lot of readers like me come in when the series is released in a new format?
Richard: There have been several instances of that. The first goes back to about 1985 when Marvel took “The Original Quest” and reprinted it for their Epic brand. They got ElfQuest out of the direct market shops and onto newsstands, and many many new people discovered ElfQuest as a result. In 2008-2009 we were hearing [from readers] “My God, there’s so much stuff, how do I access it? A lot of these things are out of print; I can’t get the comics; how do I start?” So I said, I’m going to put the whole thing, 7000 pages worth, online, and I’m going to make it free. That took a while, let me tell you! But once word of that got out, people realized, even if they couldn’t hold it in their hands, they could read every page from start to finish for free. We got a lot of new readers that way. Now we’re looking at the Dark Horse Complete ElfQuest as serving the same function. If somebody says, “I’m forty years late to the party!” we can point them to Dark Horse and say, “Well, you start right there, and you’re perfectly welcome. There’s still punch, and there’s still cake.”
When you started putting everything online in 2008, that was an immense undertaking. What was it like to revisit the material as you were going along?
Richard: The point of this forty-year journey is that we have known how this is going to end almost from the beginning. So we have lived with all of these stories pretty much continuously throughout the creative process, making sure that if we refer to a character in 1997, it’s consistent with how we talked about that character in 1987. All I had was many, many, many pages of books to scan and to put online, but it wasn’t like “Oh my God, I have completely forgotten about this.” I’ve known all these stories as long as we’ve been doing this.
Wendy: One of the things that mainstream comics tend to play fast-and-loose with is continuity. That’s because they have to keep rebooting their stories and characters every few years as their audience, in their expectations, turns over. But it’s been a very different experience for us. Our audience doesn’t turn over so much as it builds. Older readers will bring new readers in. It’s a generational thing. Parents pass their ElfQuest books onto their children and their nieces and nephews and on and on. So with ElfQuest, for forty years you get great story continuity. You can go back and research something in the earliest issues that gets referenced in a very recent issue, and you find that it’s consistent.
That’s a lot for you to keep track of!
Wendy: Oh, very much. It’s like walking around with two universes in your head.
In the last forty years, you’ve seen the comics industry change quite a bit, especially with the rise of webcomics. You’ve published independently, and you’ve worked with the three largest comic book houses. What are the things you miss from the old days?
Richard: There are so many humorous answers, but I’ll give you a semi-serious one. What I miss as a co-creator and independent publisher from the old days is the feeling that you had room to make a mark. The field wasn’t so crowded as it is today. I’m not saying that [a] crowd is necessarily a bad thing, but we introduced ElfQuest into a brave new world that had very little competition in our segment of the market. I think what I miss most is the feeling that I could stretch my shoulders out and say “We’re going to do this” and have it mean something, have it be received easily–more easily than new things are received today.
Wendy: I’ll tell you what I don’t miss! I don’t miss India ink under my fingernails that I can’t get rid of. I don’t miss spilling an entire bottle of ink over a page that I’ve just drawn and having to start over again from scratch. I became digitally savvy in the early 2000s and taught myself how to draw on a Wacom tablet. I have not looked back since. Digital is enormously forgiving. You don’t spill bottles of ink in digital. If you make a mistake you can go simply back through history and go back to where you started, and it will preserve everything up to the point of the mistake.
Richard: Unless your computer crashes and you haven’t saved.
Wendy: Which happens every once in a while. In every creative endeavor you have to expect a disaster or two. But I do not miss messing around with eraser rubbings and paper tearing and all of that. I’m very much a creature of the digital age, and I look forward to doing more. I look forward to getting into animation now that I’m done with this project.
I know there was a failed animated version of ElfQuest at one point–is there any thought of revisiting the series in animation?
Wendy: Oh, always.
Richard: Hollywood has been after ElfQuest since about 1981. We get taken to the altar all the time, and we get jilted there all the time. We’ve made a kind of peace with the process. There are discussions happening now about ElfQuest as an animated series, or a Game of Thrones style series, or an animated movie, or a CGI movie… we feel very calm and level about that. What Wendy’s talking about with regard to animation, though, is not directly related to ElfQuest. She’s been a lover of animation all her life, and I think she’s looking forward to just seeing what she can do on her own with all of these amazing, high-powered technological tools that are available today.
Wendy: I think the reason that we get jilted at the altar so often is because Hollywood auctions ElfQuest with one expectation, and they don’t really read it. When they finally do read it, they realize they haven’t got what they thought they’d got. Hollywood wants ElfQuest to be Lord of the Rings. They always want ElfQuest to be about Good vs. Evil. They want villains and heroes bashing the snot out of each other. That is not what we have in ElfQuest. It’s never been that. ElfQuest is a hero’s journey of discovery, about identity and the origins of the [elves], and if there’s any conflict at all, it’s ignorance vs. knowledge.
In your final pages, there seems to be a goal of peace, and of being able to cross bridges and reach out to people who are different. I don’t want to ask if that’s a greater metaphor for humanity right now, but how do you see that message playing out in a world that’s often so conflicted?
Richard: We’ve known the skeleton of ElfQuest for forty years. There’s stuff in the final issue that was written down and drawn twenty years ago. We knew that long ago where certain things were headed and what events had to take place. We’re really kind of surprised over the last year or two of Final Quest at how amazingly and disturbingly the real world that we’re all forced to live in seems to be mirroring issues that we wanted to tackle ten and twenty years ago, about identity, about violence, about intolerance, about prejudice, about getting over these things. We have kept telling the story the way it was meant to be told. We have not changed the story to adapt it to current events. Current events, in a very scary way, seem to be mirroring what we wanted to do all those years ago. We’re not quite sure what that’s all about!
Wendy: ElfQuest was born in an era of bellbottoms and Flower Children and hippies and free love and peace and all of that. Those were our ideals when we were starting, and we wanted to tell a story about characters that lived that way. They treated each other as well as they could, given circumstances. Forty years later, here we are, looking at racial intolerance and homophobia and all these issues that we thought [we] were going to be done with in forty years. It’s a little disheartening, but if our story is more relevant now than ever, then maybe that’s a good thing.
In a series that stretches this long, there will always be characters that don’t make it to the end. What was it like to say goodbye to those characters along the way?
Wendy: We have such love and affection for these characters, and it was really tough, because we knew twenty years ago that all of this was going to happen to several of the characters. We had to keep our lips zipped whenever fans would ask us or speculate, “What’s going to happen to this character?” We would just have to keep our peace, knowing exactly where the story was going to go. That was tough. But saying goodbye to the characters, if what happens to them in the story is inevitable, there’s a certain peace with it.
Richard: There’s also the element of, if I’m looking at a given character, I know, in ten years, you’re going to bite the bullet. But we’ve got, between now and then, 100 issues with you in it. And so the challenge is to just forget that you know that this is happening and get with that character, get with that family, get with that situation, in the moment of the now of that particular bit of story. They’re alive now, they’re vital now, they’re acting now, they’re doing their thing now, and forget that you know. Because otherwise, I think it would cripple some writers or artists to portray a character being all kinds of happy knowing that down the line they’re going to die.
Wendy: We never wrote any of the characters with a sense of doom. It’s kind of like being alive in this world. When you’re born, you’re not going to get out of Earth alive. And you know you’re not. But it’s all those wonderful times in between that make it worthwhile, and we have a line very much like that in issue 24.
What comes next?
Richard: Speaking only for myself, I’ve still got a lot of ElfQuest kittens to herd, because the publishing program, the reprint program, and the repurposing program with Dark Horse are scheduled for at least the next two or three years. I’m going to be overseeing that. Plus, we are talking with them about the possibility of engaging new and different and exciting writers and artists to create and produce some of these stories in the future of the world of ElfQuest, or maybe in the past, to keep ElfQuest itself going.
Wendy: Not many people know that I have a great love of musical theater. In a four-year period when I wasn’t doing ElfQuest, I did a graphic novel called Masque of the Red Death based on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story. Out of that grew the book and lyrics for a musical Masque of the Red Death. I’m working with an amazing young composer, Gregory Nabours, and we are getting ready to do our third staged reading of the musical this year. It’s as different as can be from doing ElfQuest, but at the same time, it’s graphic novel related.
ElfQuest: The Final Quest #24 hits the stands on February 28, 2018.