Richard and Wendy Pini are the husband-and-wife team responsible for creating the well-known Elfquest series of comics, graphic novels and prose works that started in 1977 and are still going strong today. We were recently lucky enough to be able to ask Richard some questions about comics: where they’ve been, where they are, and where they are going…
1. Can you introduce your self and your very famous fictional creations?
(I feel as if I should be sitting on a panel at a convention for this one.) My name is Richard Pini; I’ve been the president and publisher at Warp Graphics (the name is an acronym of Wendy and Richard Pini) for nearly 35 years now. I’d like to believe that our “fictional creations” are very famous, and truth to tell, they are largely the creation of Wendy Pini, to whom I’ve been married 40 years. Of course, I’m talking about Elfquest, the ongoing, sprawling tale of Cutter and his tribe of Wolfriders. I think rather than try to do more of an introduction than that, I’ll just refer people to www.elfquest.com where they can get an eyeful – as well as read every issue of Elfquest comics for free, online.
2. When you started out, was “self publishing” a specific choice you made, or just how it all shook out? Can you provide us with some details?
When we started, in 1977, we had no intention of self-publishing. We had no idea such a thing was possible, aside from very tiny efforts within comics fandom at the time – APAzines (amateur publishing association fanzines) and the like, cranked out on mimeograph machines in quantities of under 100 copies. We wanted someone to publish Elfquest, and pay us royalties, plain and simple. But neither Marvel nor DC was interested, nor were Bud Plant (who was publishing “First Kingsom”) or Mike Friedrich (who was publishing “Star*Reach”). So, faced with a lack of other options, we fell into doing it ourselves. I had no experience at all in publishing, or the related business area of distribution, so it was a learn-as-you-go endeavor. I took a copy of “First Kingdom” to a number of local printers and asked them, “Can you produce something like this and how much will it cost?” Once I had that information I borrowed money from my parents to print the first issue of Elfquest. Luckily, both Bud Plant and Phil Seuling, who were the two big districutors to the growing direct market, knew of Wendy’s reputation (from science fiction fandom) as a wonderful artist, so between them they took our entire first print run of 10,000 copies.
3. What were some of the challenges you faced in publishing your work early on?
It’s funny, looking back on it, but while common sense tells me that there must have been many challenges, because neither of us knew a thing about what we were setting out to do, memory says that it was just one problem to be solved after another, like putting puzzle pieces together. We needed to know how to prepare the art boards for a printer? Look at examples of original art that we saw at comics conventions, for the size and the proportions and the materials to use. We needed to find a printer? As I mentioned above, I simply took a sample of what we wanted our comic to look like (it would be black and white, magazine size, 32 pages, just like “First Kingdom”; that’s what we knew of independent comics) around to local printers and priced the project out. We had to get the printed comics to the shops? Again, we lucked out in that we knew both Bud Plant and Phil Seuling from comics conventions we had both attended, so we were able to approach them. I suppose the biggest challenge I personally faced was when, after publishing Elfquest as a sort of hobby, while keeping a full time day job at IBM, I needed to make a decision about where to put my time – since both IBM and Elfquest were asking more and more hours of every day from me. It took me six months to crunch the numbers and to determine that, in fact, we could live on what we were making off of Elfquest, but the emotional shock of quitting a very blue-chip job was still significant.
4. What were some hurdles you mastered, enabling you to publish easier or in a more convenient fashion?
I suppose like any learning curve, just getting down and dirty and “doing it” time after time taught me how to gain competence. Aside from the sheer creative effort of writing and drawing each issue, which was very much mostly Wendy’s bailiwick, we both established rhythms of production that let us budget our time and energies more and more efficiently. Plus, I was always on the lookout to learn new tricks from the printers we used, how better to prepare the raw materials that they would transform into finished comics. I also learned more and more about bookkeeping, invoicing, and all that, the more we grew alongside the growing direct market.
5. How did you see the future of “comics” (we’ll call them comics for conversation sake) and or the “comics” industry in the late seventies or early eighties? What did you hope for the future of “comics” if you had any at all?
To be honest, I really wasn’t aware of a comics industry at that point. (Aside: For better or worse, we’ve never in all the time we’ve been producing comics felt we are a part of an industry. We’re aware of much of what goes on in it now, of course, but back then, we were still fans buying our monthly allotment of Marvels and DCs, and doing our thrice-yearly comic, and that was that. The overarching business of comics didn’t make an impression on me until perhaps the late 1980s. All we knew was that we were producing Elfquest, it was selling like hotcakes, each issue outselling the previous one. We’d ship copies to the eight or ten distributors, large and small, who existed at that time, we’d get paid, and we did our thing. We had no hopes for the future of “comics” because there were the mainstream comics, which seemed to be doing just fine, and then there was our corner of the market, which also seemed to be growing and doing well. I only started to deal with the “larger business” side of things when the distributors began hosting trade shows, more or less forcing me to become more aware of things like advertising, discount structures, competition, shelf space, and so on.
Check back for part two tomorrow at this time.