Wendy Pini interviewed by Sequential Tart
Reproduced with permission from sequentialtart.com
ST: How does your take on Masque of the Red Death compare to Poe’s original? What elements are the same, and how does it differ?
W: Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death is a very, very short story…a mood piece, really. Its well-deserved fame is due to the haunting, almost hallucinatory images of horror and beauty the author evokes. It has only one named character, Prince Prospero. The tale does have a moral of sorts: those who retreat to their private castles thinking themselves superior to the rest of humanity are doomed to learn that even they cannot escape the world…or their fate.
I believe that Poe took influences from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the creation of his Prince Prospero. More than that, the concept of a nobleman in exile on an island whose inhabitants he dominates by means of sorcery is echoed strongly in Poe’s short story. This is where my fascination with re-envisioning Masque began…finding the resonances within Shakespeare and borrowing heavily from The Tempest to develop my own cast of characters.
ST: Give us a little run-down of the lead characters and their motivations.
W: Let’s start with Prince Prospero, whom I have translated into the ravishing, fabulously wealthy, morally and sexually ambiguous Anton “Prince” Prosper (“Prince” isn’t a title, it’s a fame name – like Donald Trump is called “The Donald”). Anton is a scientific genius who retreats from his futuristic, technologically overrun world to his own, private island. There he dedicates his gifted, young mind to perfecting the science of nanotechnology. His goal? No less than the achievement of eternal youth and immortality.
Aiding Prosper in his quest is his stunning assistant Steffan Kabala. Steffan, an ardent lover, is devoted to Anton to the point of obsession. Anton, on the other hand, sees no value in faithfulness; he intends, once he achieves immortality, to have it all and enjoy it all without consequence.
Steffan tries everything to gain Prosper’s love until young Daryel Mirrin, a simple robot-tech, innocently comes between them.
ST: How did this project come about? What prompted you to venture into a totally new story territory — especially after working almost exclusively with ElfQuest for well over a decade?
W: Three decades, darling! Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve taken a vacation from the elves to visit the realm of Gothic Romance. In the late eighties I did two graphic novels based on the cult hit TV series Beauty and the Beast. I enjoyed working on those graphic novels no end because it gave me the opportunity to stretch as an artist and to try an entirely different style of painting and storytelling.
The idea for Masque of the Red Death has been percolating at the back of my mind for some time. A couple of years ago at a manga/anime con in Chicago, I broached the subject with a number of yaoi fans. All I had to do was mention Poe and Masque of the Red Death and the girls were squealing with anticipation. The recognition factor for Poe is so high, I knew then and there I could reach another audience even beyond Elfquest’s. This got me really excited and eager, as soon as my schedule permitted, to plunge into the project.
ST: (When) this particular arc is “done,” might you be revisiting that territory at any point?
W: This being Poe, you know the story has elements of tragedy. Not everyone’s going to make it out alive. That said, without giving too much away, I’d say there would be an opportunity for more story if it were called for.
ST: You’ve called Masque “Erte meets the ’80s.” I find that the everyman isn’t often familiar with him. For the uninitiated, tell us who Erte is, how you discovered his work, why he appeals to you, and how it relates to Masque.
W: There’s never been a time in my life, even back to early childhood, when I wasn’t aware of the power and beauty of Erte’s design. Russian born, he’s considered the father of Art Deco. His costume designs graced the Ziegfield Follies through the 1920s and 30s and his amazing career continued well on into his 80s when he brought out his famous line of elegant bronzes. Posters, lithographs, books and calendars…his work is everywhere. His influence is felt in fashion and architecture to this day.
My favorite decade of all was the Eighties. It was ridiculously over the top fashion and entertainment-wise. Society was in a party mood, despite politics abroad. There was a juicy feeling of excess, prosperity and daring in the air. We wore anything and piled our hair as high as it would go.
In coming up with character and costume designs for Masque, I’m combining influence from both Erte’s design sense and his precise flow of line with the uninhibited, even somewhat tasteless fashion trends of the Eighties. We’ll see how successfully I accomplish my goal (and how many young Steffans, Prospers and other Masque characters start showing up in cosplay!) as the chapters mount up.
ST: The glimpse I’ve had of Masque so far reminds me a little of Etsuko Ikeda and Yuho Ashibe’s Bride of Deimos. Is that an accurate assessment?
W: I wasn’t familiar with that title, but after checking it out I’d have to say no, not at all. Bride of Deimos looks very traditional to me. There will be absolutely no chibi, no hyper-exaggerated expressions or oversized, googly eyes in Masque. These were elements I could always do without, even in my early teens, when I first discovered manga. I’ve barely used them in Elfquest and such techniques are even less appropriate for a dark, adult-oriented (dare I say sophisticated?) series such as Masque.
ST: While ElfQuest had its mature moments, the “boy’s love” Masque, with it’s “R” rating, suggests that it delves into significantly more adult territory than you’ve been able to go into before. Were you nervous about telling this kind of story? Excited?
W: Both nervous and excited, definitely! For so long I’ve been known as a “family friendly” creator. Elfquest is generational. Parents read it to their kids, grandparents to their grandkids. They tell me they just gloss over the sexier parts. When the kids get more mature and can read it for themselves, they get a whole new level of meaning out of the story. That’s what Richard and I always intended: keep it subtle but don’t talk down to the reader.
With Masque I’m taking an artistic risk, perhaps even a career risk. But the truth is I’m ready for that. The elements that I’m putting into Masque have strong appeal for an underserved audience – specifically females age 17 and up (though guys are absolutely welcome, too).
In educating myself, with the help of the GoComi staff, as to what yaoi fans are accustomed to these days, I’m astounded by the frankness of the imagery and the ease with which the fans openly share their delight in it. This is wonderful, liberating stuff. Things Richard and I have hinted at in Elfquest, which at the time surely pushed the envelope, are quite tame compared to the homoerotic material available today (some of which, I think, is beautifully done).
It doesn’t seem that erotic fantasy will ever receive wide acceptance in our puritanical (read hung-up) Western society. What that does is introduce the element of the forbidden, which makes enjoying “naughty” material all the more delicious. Males traditionally indulge in fantasies of girl on girl action. But most guys still get uncomfortable realizing that girls fantasize just as often about “boys love.” Somehow guy/guy action remains more taboo. I’ve never been able to figure out why.
ST: How does your story differ from more typical “boy’s love” manga?
W: It’s a delicate, mysterious path to walk. From what I’ve seen, a lot of “boy’s love” manga has a youth element that makes me uncomfortable. Initiation scenes often take place between very young boys and older men, after which the boys are shown to be in doubt and turmoil. I understand this can be a titillating metaphor for a young woman’s first sexual experience – with the added fantasy of being a boy and therefore, somehow, less helpless. My quibble is: youngsters of either sex can give consent, but are they truly ready? The protective instinct this question rouses in me cancels any ability to find “old on young” action sexy.
Therefore, readers can expect a truly adult level of erotica in Masque. I’m looking forward to showing relationships between men – and between women – which our biased culture would label “gay,” yet in the context of Masque’s storyline and advanced society they are perfectly normal. Always I hold the hope that someday all judgments and taboos about sexual orientation will disappear.
Anton Prosper obeys one law…his own: Nothing against another’s will. He doesn’t give a damn what happens in his house among his adult guests, so long as it’s by mutual consent. But anyone violating his law receives swift and just retribution.
ST: How do you feel the industry’s reaction to the female comics reader has evolved (or perhaps not evolved) over the years you’ve been a part of it?
W: I think it’s the female comics reader herself that has shaped the industry’s current uneasy-but-interested attitude. Bluntly, they want her dough. They’re aware she’s out there spending like crazy collecting manga, and they want in on the action. So they try to capitalize through imitation. But they can’t figure out how because they really don’t yet “get” the appeal of manga.
Believe me, whatever they say, no one at the big mainstream companies gives a damn about political correctness or raising girls’ self esteem. They care about numbers. And there are more female fans vocally demanding more of the type of entertainment they want than ever before. So the industry is at least listening and trying to learn the language. Isn’t that great?
ST: I know manga/anime was an influence to your art growing up; now that it’s more readily available, do you find yourself reading or watching a lot of it? Are there any titles you would recommend?
W: You’d be amazed at the extent of my ignorance of a majority of current manga series. I tend to find out about “newer” ones (hardly new, of course, to avid otaku), such as Gankutsou and Peacemaker by catching the anime versions on ImaginAsian TV. Watching anime with the original Japanese cast is most enjoyable, and sometimes I get curious enough to check out the manga.
It’s perverse, but I get a kick out of seeing just how sick and twisted Chrono Crusade or Loveless can get. A real fave is Ruroni Kenshin. But, you know, a lot of the material imported from Asia, today, seems very repetitive. I’ll be watching newer anime releases and thinking, “boy they did that before, and better, in Captain Harlock.” As always, a huge demand for product causes the quality of the product to thin out. I’ve never been one of those “can’t get enough” consumers. While I acknowledge my influences, when it comes to world building I prefer to rely most heavily on my own inventive imagination.
ST: Masque is being released first as a webcomic, and you’ve said the final arc of ElfQuest may be released as a webcomic as well. Having been in the comics industry for so long, do you feel webcomics are just another media, or the wave the future? Will they ever surpass, or even replace, print medium?
W: Stubbornly, perhaps, I hold to the belief that the print medium is here to stay. Nothing compares to being able to hold your favorite book in your hand and browse through it at leisure, without that insistent computer whine and glaring screen.
That said, with shelf space ever more at a premium, I do see web comics as the wave of the future, particularly for independent publishers who could not, otherwise, establish themselves with a distributor or find a sales venue.
ST: In recent years, you’ve taken up colouring through digital means, whereas once upon a time you worked a lot with markers and coloured pencils (such as with Law & Chaos and Hidden Years). Tell us about the pros and cons of working with digital vs traditional media.
W: Mostly I’d have to speak about the pros. The chief advantage of drawing directly on a Wacom tablet or a Cintiq is the amount of time it saves. The ability to work in layers, having any or all of them active at one time, is sheer heaven compared to the old fashioned, step-by-step pencil, ink and color process. And forget airbrush! What a noisy mess! The painstaking cutting of masks…I never had any patience with that!
I start with a rough digital sketch on one layer, do my “inks” on the next, my “paints” on the next, my “airbrush” shading and modeling on the next, word balloons and lettering on the next and so on. It’s an enormously forgiving process that allows you to go back through the history of your project to make changes or corrections at any point. If I decide far into the work that I don’t like the composition, I can literally go back and rearrange it rather than having to start over from scratch. When you’re working against a tight deadline, that’s a Godsend.
Magic markers are actually quite dangerous, due to the fumes. I haven’t used them in many years. Hidden Years was drawn and shaded with Prismacolor pencils and painted with Dr. Martin’s watercolors. It worked all right at the time, but I had to let each page go at about 70% of what I wanted, just to meet my bi-monthly schedule.
While some old school fans seem to prefer seeing brush strokes and noodly, hand-done inks, I have to say that working in PhotoShop enables me to achieve the polished look of a lavishly colored anime cartoon, airbrush fx and all. Thanks to Richard, who keeps my computer equipment constantly upgraded, I no longer have to struggle to approximate this look by means of brush and paint.
With a science fictional project like Masque, the more I do digitally, the more I learn what far-out special effects are available to me. That’s a real plus.
ST: Is music an influence when you work? What do you listen to, if anything?
W: A huge influence, always. Whatever comic project I’m working on is like a movie running inside my head – and that includes an appropriate score. Pieces like Tubular Bells and the score for The Dark Crystal were wonderful inspirations in Elfquest’s early days.
Lately, to get me in a brooding mood for Masque, I listen to the Broadway musical thrillers Jekyll and Hyde or Sweeny Todd. Bernard Herman’s score for Vertigo and Jerry Goldsmith’s Basic Instinct really go to dark, sexy places, too. I also love to listen to old time horror radio on Live 365.
ST: (Lastly), if you were a reader trying to get a friend to read Masque by comparing it to something familiar to them, what would you compare it to?
W: Well, what I’m aiming for is a sustained mood of deep, dark romance and creepiness. I’m going for a look of seductive, sensual beauty in a futuristic sci fi/ horror atmosphere. For me, the gold standard of all that is the supremely gorgeous anime Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Realizing, humbly, that I’m a one-woman act, that’s the standard I aspire to.
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is a free adaptation of the old, romantic chestnut Mayerling, so that’s another element in common. My dream is to have people view the Masque web comic and wonder, “has this already been released as an anime? How did I miss it?”