Classic Fantasy Comic 'ElfQuest' Comes to an End After 40 Years

Creators Wendy and Richard Pini describe concluding Cutter's journey as "something that can only be described as a strange kind of postpartum."
Courtesy of ElfQuest/Wendy and Richard Pini

A piece of comic book history appears in comic book stores Wednesday — the final issue of ElfQuest: The Final Quest, which doesn’t just bring the current series to a conclusion, but ends the storyline that began all the way back in 1978 in the very first ElfQuest comic.

The 40-year-long storyline of Cutter and the Wolfriders on the world of Two Moons has, for its entire run, been the work of married team Wendy and Richard Pini, who debuted the comic in the pages of Fantasy Quarterly No. 1, released Feb. 28, 1978. (Yes, the final chapter of the story is released 40 years to the day after it began.) Since that issue, it has gone on to be published across multiple series from the Pinis' own publishing company, WaRP Graphics, as well as Marvel, DC and current publisher Dark Horse Comics. The fantasy storyline has also broken out of the comics medium to appear in prose, role-playing games, toys and other collectibles, as well as inspiring an album of folk music.

With the end of the story now in stores, the Pinis are ramping up for a celebratory tour of comic book conventions — called, wonderfully, the Forty Years of Pointed Ears tour — and looking back at the extraordinary history of their groundbreaking series. Heat Vision talked to the two creators about their legacy.

ElfQuest: The Final Quest No. 24 isn’t just the end of the series, it’s the end of a story that you’ve both been creating for literally four decades. The obvious place to start is…. How does that feel? For your fans, it’s both exciting and sad, is it the same for you two?

Richard: Not so much sad, but there’s a bittersweet quality, there’s a wistfulness to it, and there’s something that can only be described as a strange kind of postpartum — I mean, imagine being pregnant for 40 years. (Laughs) Now it’s done, and…what do we do?

Wendy: One of the things that was tough about it was, things that happen in the last two or three issues of Final Quest were planned out, and actually drawn, over 20 years ago. We had to keep our lips zipped on all the secrets, all the fans were guessing what might happen in the story and we knew! We just had to keep it a big secret for more than 20 years!

Pages were actually drawn back then? I understand that you knew what would happen in the story for that length of time, but to have had pages drawn for that length of time, that’s amazing.

Richard: We have artwork that is over 20 years old that, almost line for line, appears in the final issue.

Wendy: When Dark Horse Comics brings out the fourth and final [collected] volume of Final Quest, we’re going to show some of that artwork so that the fans can see for themselves.

In terms of the history of American comics, ElfQuest is such an important series: It’s one of the earliest independent comic hits along with Star Reach; to my mind, one of the earliest western/manga crossovers, and it also had some of the earliest collected editions with the Donning books in the early 1980s — it really feels as if you were ahead of the curve not only in terms of comics culture, but also pop culture in general. You look at what has happened in wider popular culture in terms of the acceptance of fantasy and comic books, and…. Is it rewarding to know that you had a hand in this?

Wendy: It’s more than rewarding, because if you think of how we started, the field was wide open. We got in on the ground level of ground -level comics, and we really were very naive about it all, and we really had to make it up as we went along. To look back at it now, and see how far we came and what influences we had, I think, to find a different word than rewarding, it’s amazing.

Richard: It is, and here’s the thing, to spin a little bit off of what Wendy was saying: We didn’t know what we were doing. We only wanted to get the story told and out there. We didn’t know much about what the market was like, and to have discovered after the fact that we were one of the first two [titles] to, in essence, create the field — and by far the most successful, until the [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles came along seven or eight years later — was tremendously gratifying. To know that we broke open the shelves at stores like Barnes and Noble, and opened the floodgates for all the graphic novels that you see in there today, is an amazing thing to learn.

You both say, essentially, that you didn’t know what you didn’t know. Looking back at the history of the series as a whole, as it got reprinted and repurposed by Donning and Marvel in the 1980s, you were growing awareness and acceptance for, simultaneously, independent comics and fantasy comics —

Wendy: Especially when Marvel licensed us in the mid-1980s. There was a growing awareness in mainstream comics that they’d better get with the program and respect creator-owned titles, because then they could form a different kind of relationship with creators and it would be profitable for everybody. Creators would retain the rights to their properties which is something that they previously hadn’t done!

Richard: They hadn’t done it because there was no example. We were amongst the first of the groundbreakers for that, as well. It just hadn’t happened before. Marvel had turned ElfQuest down in 1977, and in 1984, they were only too happy to come back and say, “Can we pretty please reprint…?” And we were only too happy to say, “Of course you can!”

Wendy: (Laughs) Richard has a sly look in his eye right now. I’m not sure if we can really characterize Marvel as being exactly like that, but it’s fun to imagine…!

The Marvel reprints were where I first found ElfQuest

Richard: You and hundred of thousands of others, because Marvel got us onto the newsstands. Previously, we’d only been available in [comic specialty] shops. I hear from so many people, “We discovered you from the Marvel reprints.” We owe them a great debt of gratitude for getting ElfQuest to a much larger audience.

Wendy: Basically, it created a whole new audience for ElfQuest from people, some of whom may have been skeptical before because they didn’t recognize the format, or the black and white art scared them, or whatever. But when ElfQuest started looking more like an ordinary mainstream comic, that brought in a new readership from an entirely different area. But the one thing that we’re the proudest of, is that, consistently, ElfQuest has brought in more and more women readers to comics.

I want to pivot off that. Looking at the DC version of the series in the early 2000s, I think those titles really brought a lot of women to ElfQuest because they happened when manga was really breaking through in the American market, and the DC collections were in a manga format…

Wendy: Because women were the manga readers at the time! 90 percent of the readers of manga in the late 1990s were women who collected them, and because ElfQuest had an incredible amount of manga in the drawing style, it was ideal to be translated into that format.

Richard: [When it debuted], it was the first and only American comic to really have a manga influence, because Wendy had access to manga years before it really got popular in this country, and she was really influenced by that.

Wendy, it was Tezuka that particularly captured your attention, wasn’t it?

Wendy: Yes, Osamu Tezuka was my long-distance sensei — sensei in Japanese means master — I discovered anime when I was in my early teens, I watched Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy [both created by Tezuka], and every once in a while on the rare occasion if we went to Japantown in San Francisco, I was able to actually see what the manga looked like. The drawing style and the storytelling style in there absolutely blew my young mind and changed my idea of what comics and cartooning could be forever after. So, I was especially influenced by Tezuka’s work.

And then you fulfilled that role yourself. ElfQuest redefined what comics could be for so many people. It’s such an important work for so many people.

Wendy: Thank you so much!

One of the things that I’m enjoying about the promotion around this final issue is that it really does bring a focus back to ElfQuest and its place in comics history.

Richard: We’re discovering more and more, now that the storyline is wrapping up, people in positions of power or influence in pop culture and even academia are looking at ElfQuest with serious eyes and discovering all this stuff, all of the treasure, the gold, that had been there all along: the elements of inclusivity, social commentary, gender politics…. All of that stuff has been there all along, sometimes more subversive than other times, but at last people are beginning to take note. This is incredibly thrilling for us, because we’ve known it all along. (Laughs.)

Wendy: I think this is the magic of knowing a story is going to finish. I think you can apply this to Tolkien, which didn’t take off into the stratosphere until the final book of the [Lord of the Rings] trilogy was finished, and ElfQuest has been this tremendous, ongoing story for 40 years, but now we have an ending. When a story has an ending, there’s this feeling of catharsis and you start looking back on all of it and putting it together as a whole.

Talking about looking back, Richard, you mentioned the postpartum feeling as a joke, but do you look back at the last 40 years and consider the work differently now that you’ve reached the ending? Has it changed how you feel about ElfQuest, now that Cutter’s story is over?

Richard: It is something that we can hold a little bit at arm’s length now. Up until, essentially, a month ago, we were immersed in it: the production, creation, the deadlines, all of the trivia and so on and so forth. Now that the final issue has come out, and has been done in our minds for a month, we are able to look at it from a little bit of a distance and go, “Oh my God. We did that. We honestly did that,” and a lot of the times, we didn’t quite know how things might turn out. You never quite know the future! But it’s very satisfying to be able to say, we started it, we finished it.

Wendy: We planted so many clues along the way, because we knew the ending. We knew what Cutter’s hero’s journey was going to be all about — we start the story with the burning of the Father Tree, and the story ends with the renewal of a new Father Tree, and that is a full circle for the story, and we knew we were going to get there. We planted lots of little clues along the way, in issues going as far back as the '80s, as to what was coming.

Richard: We intend to have some fun with our fans about that, just so you know. Someone is going to point to something in the last issue and say, “Now, did you know that that was going to be like that?” and we’re going to go back to an issue from 1981 and say, “Do you see this thing right there? Do you see that clue? That connects directly to what you’re talking about.” (Laughs) We’re going to enjoy the look of gobsmack on their faces.

If nothing else, it’s rare for a comic book series to have lasted 40 years with its original creators working on it, never mind laying threads that will play out in an issue that comes out 27 years later.

Wendy: That’s the importance of having the basic skeleton of your story figured out ahead of time. Once you know where your story is going, you have so much room to play around and mislead and plant red herrings and keep people interested! I think, very much, this is what it’s like to be a writer on a long-running soap opera like All My Children or One Life to Live that goes for 40 or 50 years. They just keep going on side trips but keep the main characters in the vein they always were. We sometimes like to joke and call ElfQuest a soap opera with pointed ears.

Looking back, are there things that surprised you about the series? I ask because you mentioned the inclusivity, the social commentary…. Were those things that were consciously worked into the comic as you created it, or something that only became apparent in retrospect.

Richard: We like to say that ElfQuest is largely autobiographical; it’s the story of the struggles that Wendy and I have endured, gone through and learned from as we have come from the late '70s to the '80s and the '90s. The world had changed and culture had changed, and we had changed, so we put that into it. We knew what we wanted the world to be like: an idealized — or a better world than the one we have now, and we let that inform the storytelling. But it was never a conscious bit of business, not even in these last few issues, where — to pick one very, very hot button topic, gun control — guns were always going to be introduced into ElfQuest as the ending of an era for that world.Yet now, when these issues that were plotted many many years ago are coming out at a time when the country is so, forgive the pun, up in arms about the issue of gun control…! We didn’t set out to make a parable about gun control, and yet, it is timely all the same.

Wendy: It was an amazing coincidence that we brought those elements of the story out at a time when the controversy is happening in real life. But another thing about the inclusivity is that, we simply included things in the story that we loved. I am absolutely fascinated with many of the cultures of the world, so in ElfQuest, there is Russian influence, there is Asian influence, there is Nordic influence, certainly Native American, and on and on and on. From those influences, I can take inspiration for costumes, for characters…. I don’t know what I would do as an artist without that wonderful diversity to draw from.

We’ve mentioned the Marvel and DC runs, but Dark Horse Comics has been your home for the last five years. What has it been like working with them?

Richard: Oh, it has been heaven. This is not to say that we didn’t enjoy working with Marvel or DC, because both those companies did wonderful things for us. But there is a…vibe, there is a simpatico at Dark Horse that we’ve not had anywhere else. I think it’s because Mike Richardson, who founded Dark Horse in the 1980s was maverick just the way that we were a few years earlier. He still has that independent spirit, and he knows what it means to work with independent creators. Everybody at Dark Horse understands what creators hope for from a publisher, and they deliver 99.9% of the time. It has been, I would say, the best licensed publishing experience that we’ve had. So far, at least.

You’re also going on tour to promote the conclusion of the story, with an appearance at Emerald City Comic Con this weekend ahead of appearances in Chicago, Denver, San Diego, New York and many more locations across the U.S. between now and October. Are you excited about this, and seeing your fans after bringing this decades-long epic to a close? Emotions are sure to be heightened.

Wendy: Emotions are going to be very high. We have this phrase we’ve used in ElfQuest a number of times, “going from feast to famine.” While Richard and I were in the process of creating Final Quest, it was a very monastic existence in many ways, we didn’t go to that many conventions because it simply didn’t fit in with our work schedule — producing a bimonthly comic book from scratch will eat up all of your time and more. So now, here we are, out and about — we just got back from a wonderful tour in France. We’re in the feast period now.

Richard: We had no time to go and interact with our readers for, literally, the last five years. They have asked us, every year, “When are you coming to my show, when are you coming to my state?” and now we have the opportunity to do that, to meet them, to talk with them and see their eyes when they tell us how they feel about this issue, or ElfQuest in general. We want to take advantage of 2018 to do that as much as we possibly can.

ElfQuest is not actually finishing as a property with this issue, is that right? Cutter’s story ends, but there will be more ElfQuest in some form…?

Richard: This is correct. The story arc that has been 40 years in the making wraps up, it concludes — we hope — very satisfyingly, but the ElfQuest. I hate to use the word universe, but everyone else is doing it, but the “Elfiverse” goes on. We have told stories that take place in the future of this world, things that take place in the past of this world, so, yes, ElfQuest will continue.

Wendy: The mid-90s were the period where we worked all of this out. We were publishing a series of comics that we published under the umbrella “Future Quest,” and these were just imaginations, and speculations, about what might have happened in the World of Two Moons after the elves seemingly disappeared. There are definitely future stories to explore, even with some of the main characters [of the core storyline].

ElfQuest: The Final Quest No. 24 is in stores and available digitally now.

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