You know when you meet someone early in your life how that’s the person they will always be in your mind’s eye?
That’s how I’ll always see Wendy Pini. I was a teenager with a comic book fixation, and she was a stunning redhead who dressed up at comic book conventions as Red Sonja, the chain-mail, bikini-wearing, female barbarian that emerged from Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comics.
She also participated in a nightclub show put together by comics artist Frank Thorne, with Thorne as “The Wizard.” My friend Bob Pinaha was a little older than me at the time. Well, I guess he’s still older than me, now that I think about it, and he had a real thing for Wendy, so I always saw his latest Polaroid snapshots of her. Wow!
We were all doubly impressed over the years as Wendy re-emerged in comics as a successful artist, writer, and publisher and the creator of the Japanese manga-influenced Elfquest books that have endured for the past 30 years. Elfquest, most recently published by DC Comics, was actually a production of Wendy and her husband, Richard Pini.
Wendy and Richard join me today to talk about Elfquest’s long run as well as their latest work, an online comics adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s novel, Masque of the Red Death.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: How did you get involved with the online comics and Masque of the Red Death in particular?
WENDY PINI: This actually goes way, way back to my roots. I never thought I was going to be a professional comic book artist and writer. When I was 16 years old, I started a project because Michael Moorcock, who created the “Elric” character in the Elric series, was my guru, and I used to correspond with him. I asked his permission if I could do a semi-animated movie adaptation of Stormbringer. I started the project when I was 16 years old. I carried it all the way through college and through the first couple of years of our marriage until it drove Richard crazy, and I abandoned it. It was simply too much work for one person to do. My vision was too big, but my vision of myself was always that I was going to be an independent, animated filmmaker.
Elfquest came along in the mid-70s. It was the biggest accident that ever happened to us, and it took us on a wildly different path for a long time.
That brings us up-to-date to Masque. Masque of the Red Death is an idea that I’ve had for some years now, but, of course, because of commitments and deadlines for Elfquest, I really didn’t have much of a chance to do anything with it. I would make the odd sketch here and there. My friends at Go! Comi, David Wise and Audry Taylor, were just forming their little manga publishing company, and we all got together, and I told them this idea, and they thought it was great. It expanded into the idea of doing it as a web comic first in order to gain an audience, to let an audience know it was out there and that it would be coming as a book eventually. David and Audry and I did a deal, and the result of it is that, since July, Masque has been appearing more or less weekly as a weekly episode on gocomi.com. The thing of it is that Masque isn’t really a web comic. What it is is actually a semi-animated movie because I do about four pages, manga-style layout pages, per week in full color, and each panel becomes a frame of the movie. And I animate that in Flash, and then it goes up every Friday or Saturday.
ANDELMAN: Wow. It sounds like a tremendous amount of work.
WENDY PINI: It’s very labor-intensive, but I am totally in love with this project. The characters are wonderful. Basically, Poe’s story, Masque of the Red Death, is just an eight-page mood piece. It’s not really a novel. It’s not even really a story per se, although it does have sort of a moral to the ending. Basically, I just took that skeleton and populated it with characters and some real soap opera plotline because I wanted to aim it at what I consider to be a rather underserved audience, which is women ages 17 and up. This is definitely adult material. It includes some adult erotica, and it is definitely gothic romance, and it couldn’t possibly be more different from Elfquest.
ANDELMAN: We have a caller. Do you have a question for Wendy or Richard Pini?
CALLER (Curt): Yes, I do. Wendy, this is Curt. I’m in Illinois, and I’ve been sort of a fan of yours for a while, just sort of off and on, but have recently just sort of delved into Elfquest head-first. And actually, we have some mutual friends who confirmed that one of your influences for Elfquest was Vedic literature, so I want ask about that a little bit. I can see sort of the opening panel of the first issue would be Floating Castle. Well, that’s clearly like the Pushpaka that is the Ramayana but more so the depth of intimacy between Skywise and Cutter I think…
WENDY PINI: Rama and Lakshman, right?
CURT: Right, and also Krishna and Arjuna, as well. I just wanted to know how much that sort of literature figured into the creation of those characters.
WENDY PINI: First of all, let me thank you for a wonderful, wonderful question. I read the Ramayana and the Bhagavad-gita when I was very young, and they did not overwhelm me. They just felt like fabulous stories, and they stayed with me all my life. And I’m sure that images that I’ve come up with in Elfquest, some of the more spiritual imagery, is definitely drawn from those sources.
RICHARD PINI: I can expand a bit on what she was talking about. We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. When she was about 10 years old, she saw the animated cartoon, “Alakazam the Great,” which is, of course, based on the journey west and the monkey king Hanuman and his adventures. And as she likes to phrase it, when she saw that, she was quietly mad. One, because it resonated with these works that she was reading and two, because it was a feature-length animated cartoon that was not Disney and told in such a spare but full style that it was one of the major pushes to her becoming the artist she is and in the genesis of Elfquest.
CURT: This may be entirely coincidental but, of course, one of your characters is called “Kahvi,” which in Sanskrit means “poet.”
WENDY PINI: I didn’t know that. I know it means “coffee” in Swedish, but I didn’t know Kavi meant poet. That’s really amazing.
CURT: In the Shastra, it says that one must be a poet or in your case, a graphic artist to become a guru or shamanite, so it’s pretty auspicious on your part, I suppose.
RICHARD PINI: There are no coincidences.
WENDY PINI: No, there aren’t. In fact, toward the end of the story, when the story of the palace is finally revealed, as I understand it, I used four images from the Tarot – the bull or maybe it was also Biblical. I’m not exactly sure. It was like the bull, the eagle, the sun, and the chariot, and I wasn’t even aware I was doing that. Sometimes I think a lot of this stuff is channeled and actually, when you think about fantasy, fantasy is a work of the imagination but what is the imagination other than getting closer and closer to your own soul, the own internal workings of yourself. And you draw upon what’s inside you to tell the story, and that’s what makes fantasy very universal — fantasy and myth.
ANDELMAN: Well, Curt, did that answer your question?
CURT: Yes it did, and I look forward to whatever the Pinis have coming next as far as Elfquest. And even though they’re not with DC anymore, I pity the loss of the archive editions, but I look forward to more Elfquest. And thank you all very much.
ANDELMAN: Thank you for calling. We appreciate it.
WENDY PINI: That was a lovely question. As to the archive editions, there may not be a loss there. I think we’re actually going to try and work something out to keep them going.
ANDELMAN: That’ll be good. Well, let’s come back to Masque. How close are you hewing to the original Poe material?
WENDY PINI: Absolutely, the story is there. Basically, it’s the story of a nobleman who retreats from the world thinking he’s superior to the rest of humanity, which is in the grip of a terrible epidemic. He takes a thousand of his cronies, and they hole up in a castle, and they party, and they debauch, and they have a very perverted lifestyle. And yet, in the end, the red death claims them all. The moral of the story is that no matter how superior you think you are, you can’t run away from the world. The lead character is Prince Prospero, and I have changed this character into a young man named Anton Prince Prosper and in his case, “Prince” is sort of a nickname like they call Donald Trump “The Donald.” And he’s fabulously wealthy, and he retreats to the island of Penumbra and very much his experiences in life follow the story of Prospero and the end he comes to.
ANDELMAN: And again, you sort of touched on this, but you spent 30 years developing your own material with Elfquest. Why do you want to adapt someone else’s? Why not just keep creating original material?
WENDY PINI: Well, two reasons. Don’t forget, my very first project was an adaptation, which was Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer.
WENDY PINI: I was deeply inspired by his works, and I’ve been a Poe lover. I love dark, gothic romance and always have, and the fact that the characters in my version of Masque of the Red Death are all new. They have nothing to do with the very sketchy portrait that Poe painted of his one character, Prospero. These are all brand-new characters. The plotline is new, and it actually takes the story into a science fictional direction. This takes place on a futuristic world, what appears to be a utopian world, but underneath, there’s a lot of decadence and decay.
RICHARD PINI: Poe’s story is eight pages, and it’s got some wonderful descriptions, but that’s it. It is almost a floor plan of the castle but very little action. So it was a great, huge, empty bucket into which Wendy could pour lots and lots and lots of new ideas.
WENDY PINI: Yes, and actually, the recognition factor of Poe is wonderful because I was at an anime convention about three years ago when I was first thinking of trying out the idea of Masque of the Red Death with Go! Comi. And I ran the idea past some manga and anime fans at this convention, and I said, “What do you guys think of the idea of an adaptation of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death?’ And they all squealed with delight because the recognition factor of Poe is very high.
ANDELMAN: You mentioned that Masque is mature and you’ve got warnings on it. So who is the audience? Who should be watching this and really who shouldn’t?
WENDY PINI: Initially, the audience that we wanted to aim Masque at was the audience of young women ages seventeen and up. This kind of gothic romance is very, very popular with that age group, and if you throw in erotica and particularly gay erotica, which is called by the Japanese “yaoi.” It is not graphic. It is not crude or anything like that. It’s more romantic. A couple of our characters in Masque are gay. And Prosper, who’s the lead character, actually swings any which way so he has lots of opportunities for encounters in all sorts of ways, and so that definitely is a factor in the storytelling. And the emotions that come up around bonding and betrayal and who wants to get revenge against whom for what are the driving forces of the story. It really is pretty classic gothic romance.
ANDELMAN: And is that going to be a problem for your traditional readership, people who’ve grown up with Elfquest?
WENDY PINI: I know that there are some Elfquest fans out there that are pretty mad at me right now.
WENDY PINI: Oh yeah, but I expected that. There are some of them out there that wish I would just continue with what I was doing, and they weren’t particularly happy with what I did for DC. There are some fans out there who want Elfquest to look exactly like it looked 30 years ago when Elfquest was under an entirely different set of influences and in an entirely different comic environment than what exists today. There seems to be a factor out there that’s pretty mad at me for moving on, expanding in my knowledge of technology and the use of Photoshop coloring and different special effects techniques and getting into Flash animation and all that. They’re not interested in that. Some have come with us.
RICHARD PINI: We’re discovering on the Elfquest forums an entire spectrum of reactions, and it’s quite interesting to read. There are some who say, “It’s interesting, but not my cup of tea.” There are some who are saying, “Go Wendy, this is great!” There are some who are not happy, as Wendy has explained. It’s very educational for us to see this layer beneath of what our fans are thinking.
ANDELMAN: It’s strange isn’t it that people can’t accept that you can do more than one thing in a career, that everything you must do must be either Elfquest or Elfquest-like, that if you do something else that that throws them off?
WENDY PINI: That’s a very good point. David Wise, my publisher, says that the nature of fans is that they want more of the same but different. And for an artist, that’s almost impossible to give. The only folks I know who have managed to come even close to that are “South Park” and “The Simpsons.”
ANDELMAN: And maybe Bone.
WENDY PINI: Say again.
ANDELMAN: I was thinking of Bone also.
RICHARD PINI: Bone is done. Bone is very self-contained.
WENDY PINI: Yeah, Bone is finished.
ANDELMAN: It kept going. That was it for a long time. Actually, I was going to ask you. How do you do, in terms of Elfquest, how do you do that for 30 years?
RICHARD PINI: You keep having stories because the stories are out there. Actually, the entirety of Elfquest has been known for a long time from start to finish, and however long it takes to do that is how long it takes to complete.
Getting back to something you said, we know that a lot of our earlier fans just absolutely fell in love with Elfquest because it was so unlike anything else that was out there. They identified with it strongly. They felt a part of it very deeply in their souls. And when you have that kind of an initial reaction, a first impression, that’s not so easy to let go and to grow up from and away from. We know that that’s part of the reason why some fans are saying, “Can you give me again what I fell in love with years ago?”
WENDY PINI: The analogy I would make, and this takes me back to my early fan days was when Jack Kirby left Marvel, and he went to DC, and he created the Forever People and the New Gods. And I remember feeling, because I was such a huge Kirby fan and the Fantastic Four was it and only he could do it, I remember feeling almost kind of betrayed like, “How could he leave Marvel? How could he go and do these new characters that aren’t anywhere near as good as what he used to do?” And then I remember after a little while, these new characters grew on me and quite frankly, I would give anything for Jack to still be around and giving us more of the Forever People and the New Gods because that material was absolutely great. It just took a little while to open the mind and say okay, this is the direction he wants to go now. Let’s take the ride with him.
ANDELMAN: Doing comics online or doing animation as you’re doing it, it’s very appealing, of course, because you get that instant distribution and instant gratification.
WENDY PINI: Oh, yes.
ANDELMAN: But the financial model is a little iffy isn’t it?
WENDY PINI: Well, because the elves have been very, very good to us, Richard and I are in a position right now where we can work because we want to, not because we have to. And it was because of that precisely that I was able to make the kind of arrangement with Go! Comi that I did. The web comic is simply out there at the moment to attract readers and to let them know that the book is coming. Masque is actually going to be three books. It’s going to be slightly larger than average manga volumes, in full color. Each volume is going to be 160 pages long, and the first one will be released in October. So having a web comic up and generating the buzz is like having free advertisement everyday for it.
RICHARD PINI: Not only that, we are both learning a lot more about what goes into the making of web comics, the technical side, than I think either of us would ever have learned not being involved in this. Wendy is becoming quite facile with Flash. I’m learning some things about electronic music that just sort of came out of nowhere. It’s quite the educational experience.
WENDY PINI: Yes. Richard’s mention of the electronic music is because, in addition to releasing Masque as manga volumes, there has been enough interest that it looks like we’re also going to release the episodes, the animated episodes, as a collection on DVD. And with any luck at all, there will also be music and voices.
ANDELMAN: Oh, that’ll be cool.
WENDY PINI: Won’t that be cool?
WENDY PINI podcast excerpt: “The elves have been very, very good to us, Richard and I are in a position right now where we can work because we want to, not because we have to.”
ANDELMAN: Will either of you provide a voice?
WENDY PINI: At this stage of the game, we’re just experimenting with who’s going to provide music. Richard just experimented with scoring episode one, and he did a fantastic job so it looks like at least that problem might be solved. As to the voices, that’s something that we’re discussing, but we don’t know exactly which direction we’ll go with that.
ANDELMAN: Let’s change topics a little bit and go back in time. How and when did the two of you meet?
WENDY PINI: Richard, take it away.
RICHARD PINI: This is apocryphal. In the late 1960s, I was in my first year in college and very much the comic geek and collector. And I was reading an early issue of the original run of Silver Surfer, and back then, they had actual letters pages with actual mailed in letters. The Internet and email did not exist. And in this issue of the Silver Surfer was a letter by one “Wendy Fletcher” living out in California. I was going to college in Massachusetts. And it was a very, very prescient letter. It was sensitive and compassionate, and I really liked what it said. I also appreciated the fact that it was written by a female. At that time, there were three women reading comics in all of the world, and so here was a letter by one of them. I wrote a letter back and, lo and behold, got a response. We began a correspondence cross-country and soon after that, we decided to meet, and that was literally how we met. Now people meet online all the time, and there are websites dedicated to making that happen, but back in the late 1960s, this was a very, very rare thing.
ANDELMAN: I guess those three women would’ve been Wendy, Maggie Thompson, and Trina Robbins.
RICHARD PINI: Possibly, possibly!
ANDELMAN: And how does the working relationship between the two of you work? Who does what?
WENDY PINI: This has always been a work in progress. When we first started doing Elfquest together, I sat Richard down in 1977, and I told him my idea, and we discussed whether we should try to bring this out as a prose novel, as a movie script idea, or exactly how we should do this. We landed on the idea of doing it as a comic simply because we could combine the visuals and the writing, which were both very strong. Richard just taught himself by the seat of the pants how to be a comic book publisher. We actually both taught ourselves as we went and pretty much that’s been the way it’s been ever since. If we wanted to make progress in some area, we simply taught ourselves how to do it. If you stay in the Little Red Hen mode for too long, it gets really exhausting, which explains why we’ve been with other publishers from time to time. Elfquest is the only series I know of that’s been with Marvel and DC and one other publisher. Who was it, Richard?
RICHARD PINI: Oh, we started out actually…Warp Graphics was not the first publisher of Elfquest.
WENDY PINI: Right, because we didn’t really want to do it ourselves. We were hoping to find a publisher.
RICHARD PINI: Yeah, we’ve been all over the map. Elfquest is so robust that it works well in many, many different formats and many different media so we’ve done a fair piece of licensing over the years. All we require is that, whatever somebody wants to do with Elfquest, they do it well and faithfully, and we’re pretty happy.
WENDY PINI: Yes.
ANDELMAN: Is there a simple divide between duties? It sounds like, and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, it sounds like, Wendy, you’re the creative half of the team, and Richard, you’re the business half.
RICHARD PINI: If you wanted to make it that simple a split, that would be a very good way to do it.
WENDY PINI: Yes, although Richard’s input, particularly on Elfquest, has been huge. We did what we always have done what we call talking story, which is before any new episode of Elfquest came up, we would talk the story thoroughly through then I would write the script. Richard would edit the script. So he certainly has filled the role of editor and story editor just from the inception. And he occasionally helps me with Masque, too, particularly on scientific queries that I have. I might call him and say would this work? Most of the science in Masque of the Red Death is bolognium.
WENDY PINI: Bolognium, yes, but if you can make it convincing bologna-um…
RICHARD PINI: And I’m real good at that.
WENDY PINI: Richard is great at bolognium.
RICHARD PINI: Four years at MIT, and I can sling the bull with the best of them.
ANDELMAN: I didn’t know about MIT, but I do know that you even worked for IBM up until, I think I read, 1981.
RICHARD PINI: That’s what they tell me I was doing there.
ANDELMAN: Listeners, if you’re interested in this, you should check out Richard’s biography at kitchenandhansen.com because it talks about how he had put together a biography, and it used to say that it was this and this and then somehow it got shortened to say that Richard worked at IBM until 1981, and then it got shortened to say Richard worked, something to that effect. It was very interesting and not very revealing.
WENDY PINI: Let me jump in here and say that for the first few years, we didn’t know what Elfquest was going to be. Was it going to be an elaborate hobby? It was certainly making money for us, but at the time, Richard was working for IBM, and we just felt that having that security blanket, in other words, flying with the safety net of IBM, made things a lot less stressful. The decision Richard had to go through as to whether or not to quit IBM and go full time as an independent publisher, particularly when there was no precedent for this. We really had no role models at the time. Elfquest was one of the very first independents, and we knew a few other people who were doing things in different ways, but there was no situation that was particularly like ours. It really took months and months for the decision to be made to let go of the safety net and to just fly in freefall. And fortunately, Elfquest did have wings — and how many flying metaphors am I piling up here? So we were very lucky in that regard. For the “Classic ‘Quest,” which is covered by the first four volumes, the sales just kept going up and up and up and up to the point where, around about issue #18, we were selling 100,000 copies. We were selling as much as X-Men at the time.
RICHARD PINI: This was at a time when a real hot-selling Marvel title might be selling 200,000. So we were, with our little piddly independent company, on up there in the same atmosphere with the heavy hitters from Marvel and DC which, in the independent market of that day, was completely unheard of.
WENDY PINI: Given the rough start we had because Elfquest, as you pointed out in the very beginning of the interview, was manga-influenced, it took Overstreet about three years to even acknowledge Elfquest as a comic book. It was written and drawn by a woman. It was magazine-size. It was black and white. It was drawn in this weird style that nobody had ever seen before. And there was a certain amount of resistance and hostility to it from the more traditional comics community.
RICHARD PINI: It had everything wrong with it that a comic could have, and I suppose that’s probably why it did so well.
ANDELMAN: Wendy, when we spoke, I guess, a few days ago, maybe a week ago, you had said that Elfquest was a big accident.
WENDY PINI: Yes.
ANDELMAN: Is that what you’re talking about?
WENDY PINI: We had no idea when we first started it, that it would take us on the journey that it’s taken us on, that the journey would last thirty years, that these characters would become as dear to us as our own children, that we would have so many experiences, particularly learning experiences, in the entertainment industry. Elfquest has been the most enlarging and enlightening thing that I can ever imagine that could happen to anybody. I have been one lucky girl because, throughout it all, no matter what kind of deal we did that went awry, and there have been many, oh my God, Elfquest always stayed in our hands, and we were always able to have control over it and do pretty much exactly what we wanted to with it.
ANDELMAN: Now, on the property’s 25th anniversary, the two of you signed a major distribution deal with DC Comics. What did you expect from that at the time, and how did it work out in reality?
WENDY PINI: Richard?
RICHARD PINI: Oooh. Yeah, well, the year before we signed that contract, we sat down with some of the high-ups at DC at the San Diego Comic-Con. We had a wonderful conversation around a big table. There were several of us there, Wendy and I and our agents and the DC folks. And the sky was the limit. We talked about a publishing program. We talked about merchandising programs. We talked about media programs, the possibility of movies or television or whatever. It was a great conversation. And when we signed the contract, which happened coincidentally on the exact day of the 25th anniversary, and we had a 24-hour online chatroom going so that fans all over the world could participate, we were riding high. We were feeling very, very buzzed.
In retrospect, five years later, I think it is fair to say that we have been very, very happy with the quality of the publications that DC put out for us. The archives, there are four of them. There are a dozen-plus volumes of manga adaptation. There are some new works that Wendy did that are absolutely superb in the quality and no complaints at all there. Where we might raise an eyebrow would be at how DC approached the marketing of the books. They’re spectacular but not a whole lot of people knew that they were out.
WENDY PINI: In the end, part of it was that DC went through three different marketing departments while we were with them, a complete rotation of new people each time, so each marketing department had to have Elfquest explained to it, and each marketing department didn’t get it. While they wanted to break into the now fabulously hot manga market that’s out there, manga and anime just couldn’t possibly be hotter right now, and they wanted to ride that bandwagon. And they felt, initially, that Elfquest was the way to do it. They simply didn’t know whom the audience was or how to market to it, and so they kept trying to market it to the traditional superhero audience, which was never interested in Elfquest to begin with.
RICHARD PINI: And manga has nothing to do with superheroes, really.
WENDY PINI: Absolutely not.
RICHARD PINI: Japanese comics have very little to do with superheroes. They didn’t know that, and the merchandising and the media stuff just really never got off the ground with them for reasons which we’ll never know, and we’ve moved on.
ANDELMAN: Was this a case of the creative people acquired a property that they were interested in and turned it over to the marketing people who just didn’t know and didn’t care?
WENDY PINI: It seems that somebody dropped the ball somewhere. We’re not pointing fingers, and once again, I rush to say that we are thrilled with the quality of the material that was published, but basically, this is something we could’ve done. Basically, they didn’t do anything for us that we hadn’t already been doing. My goodness, the fabulous color volumes that Richard had put out for the 10th anniversary edition and so forth measures up to anything that DC did.
RICHARD PINI: Well, I will thank her for that, but I am…
WENDY PINI: C’mon now.
RICHARD PINI: I am a big fan of bookmaking, and their production values are very, very high. I think someone said to us that one reason that more did not happen with DC was that, while DC had licensed Elfquest, they did not own Elfquest. And they, understandably, wanted to put more attention into their owned properties like Superman, Batman, and so on than they would into a licensed property. Who knows?
ANDELMAN: Is there a cautionary tale here for other creators who might be talking to DC about bringing their properties over? Is there something you would want to tell them?
WENDY PINI: I think it depends on the property. If some young hotshot has an idea for a superhero character or a Punisher-type character or something like that, I think that they have a much better shot of going through the DC fanboy system and getting understood. I really think it’s a case that DC wanted to jump on the manga and anime bandwagon, but they really didn’t understand the nature of the wagon. And other manga and anime-influenced books that they have put out just aren’t doing so well.
RICHARD PINI: The cautionary tale would be, whether you’re going to DC or Marvel or any company other than yourself, go there with your eyes wide open, make sure you understand what the deal is, and then decide what you want to do and, having made the decision, live with it and be happy with it because you made the decision out of knowledge and not ignorance. It’s that simple.
ANDELMAN: So it’s now 30 years for Elfquest. I guess that the license is in play. What’s ahead for the property? Will you go back to publishing? Will you be producing new material? Are you looking for another publisher?
WENDY PINI: Richard and I will never go back to publishing in the Little Red Hen style that we had up to this point. We have really moved on from that. And at the moment, Elfquest is in our agents’ hands and, because of the writers’ strike, not much is going on right now in Hollywood, but as soon as that’s been resolved, Denis and Judy will pick up where they left off. There are some wonderful people that are interested, and those conversations will resume, and we’ll see what comes of that.
ANDELMAN: Wendy, we have to talk about Red Sonja.
WENDY PINI: Absolutely.
ANDELMAN: How did you get involved with the character and Frank Thorne way back when?
WENDY PINI: Before I even got involved with comics, Richard and I had been married a couple years. We were very, very young. And here it comes: I was, in addition to being a rising, young illustrator for Galaxy and Worlds of If magazines, I was a semi-professional belly dancer.
ANDELMAN: Ah. Ah-hah!
WENDY PINI: And so, because of that, I was in very good shape. And I was at a convention in Boston, and Frank Thorne happened to notice me. And, of course, at the time, I was a fan of Frank’s work and a fan of Red Sonja, and we got to talking, and Frank said, “There’s going to be a Red Sonja look-alike contest in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, coming up. Do you want to dress up as Red Sonja and enter the contest?” I looked at Richard, and I said, “That sounds cool.” And Richard helped me by going to a factory and finding 500 solid steel, quarter-size disks in which he drilled holes, and I made the chain mail bikini out of that. So during the contest, I was the only Red Sonja that clanked, so it sounded like real armor.
RICHARD PINI: That costume weighs 10, 15 pounds?
WENDY PINI: It weighed about 15 pounds, not including the sword. I don’t know how much the sword weighed. The sword was made out of a harpoon that we had found at an antique store, and we decorated the hilt with jewels and things like that. So every bit of me was just about as authentic metallic-wise as it could get. Most of the other girls were wearing the plastic belly dancing bangles, which look fine, but they don’t clank.
ANDELMAN: Oh my goodness. And…
RICHARD PINI: And she won.
Video interview with Elfquest creator Wendy Pini
ANDELMAN: And she won. How did you get up the courage to wear that little metal bikini?
WENDY PINI: First of all, when you wear a belly dancing costume, you’re wearing…The only thing that’s more than the bikini is the skirt, and the skirt isn’t much to speak of so I was used to that.
WENDY PINI: And, again, I was built like a greyhound at the time and very, very body confident, and I was also a dancer. I had had stage training so I included my acting abilities and my dancing abilities, and Frank and I formed a kind of a, I guess you could call it, almost like a touring vaudeville show. And we would appear on stage, and there would be monologues, and there would be dancing, and there would be music. And Richard did all our special effects for us. And there was a monster that I fought on stage that was animated in slide form. And for the time, it was quite a special effects spectacular.
ANDELMAN: Richard, I have to ask: Was that difficult for you? You obviously participated, but was it difficult for you as a young, married guy to see your wife exposed and dressed up? And obviously, I know from first-hand experience with my friend Bob, that the fanboys were very taken with Wendy.
RICHARD PINI: It was a little bit of a mixed bag. There was a sense of, “Okay, fellas, keep your distance.” But I’ve always enjoyed being the facilitator, the spear-carrier, the one who works behind, pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain kind of guy, so I got to watch all of this. And your question to Wendy about, “Where’d you get the nerve?” or “How’d you do this dressing up in that skimpy thing?” She was channeling Sonja when she did those shows, and she was more than capable of taking that sword and sticking it close to a guy’s ego if he got too close.
WENDY PINI: I was going to jump in here and say it may surprise you to hear that I really didn’t get overtly flirted with a lot.
ANDELMAN: If they were fanboys, it was all in their head.
WENDY PINI: The guys would stay about four feet away and take pictures. Richard was the one that got the groupies.
WENDY PINI: The little girls in hot pants who kind of want to flutter around a star. But me, with that sword and that armor, everybody kind of kept their distance because I did portray the character accurately, and she was very hostile to men, and she was just kind of an angry little character.
ANDELMAN: It’s so funny. I noticed on Google that there’s a picture of you from “The Mike Douglas Show,” right?
WENDY PINI: Yes.
RICHARD PINI: That was during one of the conventions at which Wendy and Frank Thorne did the stage show.
WENDY PINI: I have a wonderful story to tell you about that because we missed Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher by one day. They were the guests on the previous day. We went in there with kind of an, “Oh, darn!” attitude because Star Wars was just out, and we were dying to meet them. So the guests for that day were Jamie Farr, General Westmoreland, and Phil Seuling — of course, if you remember Phil, he was on as a comic book expert and also to tout the convention that was in town. So Mike Douglas asked Phil if there was a costumed hero that could come on the show, and Phil decided he would play a trick on Mike, and he said, “Sure, we’ll bring a superhero.” Mike thought he was going to get Captain America. I’m back in the green room, and General Westmoreland is on the phone, and I go clanking into the green room totally in character. I never broke character for a moment. And General Westmoreland stopped in the middle of his conversation and looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, a woman in full armor just walked in.” And he hung up the phone, and he came over to me. He said, “I didn’t realize we were at war.” The other guest was Fabian. You remember Fabian?
ANDELMAN: I’m afraid I do, yeah.
WENDY PINI: You know, the guy with the big pompadour? Well, even back then he was like a caricature of himself. He just kind of stood there, looking me up and down. I don’t think he knew what to make of the sword.
ANDELMAN: That’s so funny.
WENDY PINI: So comes time to come out. Mike Douglas goes, “May we have our superhero, please?” And I go smashing out of the green room doors, walking past the cameras. The audience goes absolutely berserk because I was the last thing they were expecting, and I went right up to Jamie Farr, and I grabbed the front of his shirt put the sword up to him, and he goes, “You’re Red Sonja, aren’t you?” The camera cut to a commercial. After that, I came to find out that Mike Douglas was really pissed off because he thought that the costume was way too racy for the typical “Mike Douglas” audience.