Friday, January 25, 2013

Evan Dorkin: On Defying Genre

 Words: Christopher Irving  Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I don’t know how to go to an office. I don’t know how to tie a tie. I don’t know what to do,” Evan Dorkin half jokes, half admits. “I’m a comic book jerk! My parents didn’t teach me to do anything—I’m one of the broken kids who makes comics.”

Dorkin’s trademark style, his in-your-face/smack-you-over-the-head with run on sentences and angry characters could only come from him—a Brooklyn cartoonist prone to rants and frenetic cartooning crammed to the panel borders. His indie comics have starred angry dairy products with pupil-less eyes, aliens in suits, and raving fanboys.

But there’s another side to Dorkin, a surprisingly sensitive one that emerges in Beasts of Burden with artist Jill Thompson, the comic he writes about a team of supernatural investigators, who just happen to be dogs and cats. Dorkin has navigated the waters of independent comics since his breakout in the ‘80s, starting from his job at his local Staten Island comic store that was the precursor to Jim Hanley’s Universe—The Fantastic Store, co-owned by Jim Hanley and Dave Brucas.

“Like a lot of comic shops, it was a social club for the unsocial and a lot of people who drifted in there wound up working there or becoming a friend of the store,” Dorkin jokes. “I got fired because I had a lousy attitude and was making out with my girlfriend a lot in the store, which was unprofessional. When Jim [Hanley] broke off and started Jim Hanley’s Universe in Eltingville (which is where the Eltingville Club’s name comes from), he took three guys from the store and rehired me. He and I had stayed in touch. When he rehired me, we were at a bar and I drunkenly called up the place I was washing dishes at and quit.”

Change was in the air, as the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets was coming out at the same time as Pete Bagge’s Neat Stuff at Fantagraphics. The independent mentality of the post underground alternative comics was shaken up in 1984, when Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-published the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a black and white Daredevil satire that became independent comics’ biggest commercial success story, earning a popular toy and cartoon line a mere five years later.

“It was a much smaller industry at the time, although it was opened up by the post-Turtles boom, and then everyone was publishing comics after that hit,” Evan notes. “Everybody who could pick up a pencil got in, which is how I got hired.”

So comic shop guy Evan Dorkin, helped out by his friend Alan Rowlands, landed his first gig at DC Comics in 1984. The book? New Talent Showcase, meant for emerging talent, though Dorkin coins it differently:
“I got my first work at DC on No Talent Showcase in ’84 that was never printed. I drew a thirteen-page story that this guy Alan Rowlands wrote,” Evan says. “Alan was getting fill-in work back at DC and Marvel, back when they had fill-in work for when they blew a deadline or need to put something in an anthology. He took me around and I got the New Talent job, and both my check and my artwork got lost. Paul Levitz literally found the missing artwork when I was up at the office doing World’s Funnest fifteen years later. He walks into the office I’m sitting in and goes ‘Does Evan Dorkin do anything for us anymore?’ I’m sitting right there in [editor] Joey Cavalieri’s office (which shows you how well-known I am in the industry). I took the artwork home and ripped it up, because it was awful, awful stuff. My check had fallen behind a door and I didn’t get paid for a couple of months."
“It was a great introduction to the comic book industry: no print, no art, and no check. But still, nobody did it on purpose. It was pretty funny.”

You remember that moment in the ‘90s when “alternative” went from being cult bands played only on college rock stations to becoming a buzzword for heavily studio-produced bands? Much the same way “indie” music has come to encompass lots of bands that all sound the same?

The term “independent comics” may not have suffered a similar fate, but it has found itself made more malleable over the past couple of decades. When Dorkin emerged in 1987 with his off-kilter sci-fi/independent book Pirate Corp$ (later rechristened Hectic Planet) for first Eternity Comics, then Slave Labor Graphics, independent comics were just that—weird, wonky, mixed genre and (most of the time) devoid of any specific category of story.

Then look at Milk and Cheese—perhaps Dorkin’s most (in)famous creations—an anthromorphic milk carton and block of cheese who exist to do nothing short of unleash absolute anarchy over their frenetic and crammed pages. With thick, hawkish black eyebrows and squinted eyes, the devious pair have moments of innocence, their eyes turning Little Orphan Annie blank, as they flip from being punks to child-like (case in point: when they discover what sex is on a porn theater visit). The ramblings of the dairy pair are on par with their creator, who admittedly bounces from topic to topic in a conversation, and they’re arguably mascots of the black and white ‘90s indie scene: irreverent, hard to pin down, and all over the place. 

“There was a ton of black and white tomfoolery,” Evan observes. “There was a lot of synergy with the superhero genre stuff and movement back and forth. There were a lot more anthologies and no web, so anything anybody spit out on a lark was in a mini-comic.

“The direct market has always leaned towards stuff that was genre. There’s just no two ways about it. A lot of stuff that the direct market applauds tends to be superheroes with a pedigree or still guys with a gun and chicks looking hot and blood all over the place, but just presented better and done better. It’s never been a great industry for Love and Rockets, for Neat Stuff, for Eightball. Those people have been and seen as successful for different reasons.”

“A lot of people coming up in the comic world now don’t know what the direct market is,” he adds later. “They don’t necessarily go to comic shops and don’t know that they’re not wanted. A lot of them are thriving because of avoiding the direct market, to be honest.”

Dorkin and his wife Sarah Dyer successfully broke into writing for animation in the ‘90s, as the comics market collapsed on top of everyone, penning scripts for Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and the Superman cartoon. Meanwhile, comic book distributor Diamond earned a virtual distribution monopoly on the industry as shops closed and newsstand distribution died. Through most of it, Dorkin still published through Slave Labor Graphics, one of the top indie publishers of the ‘90s.

“Most of my time with SLG were good times, but it was really indie wrestling: you didn’t just wrestle, but you helped take the ring down and sold your own t-shirts,” Evan observes. “Sarah was doing our own prepress most of the time. It was fun while it lasted and, after a while, we just couldn’t do that anymore. Their business model was such that with the death of the paying anthologies, I couldn’t produce enough work anymore for them. Without a page rate, I couldn’t keep going. [publisher] Dan Vado had never changed with the times, and I couldn’t stay, and I was with them almost twenty years.”

With one primary distributor to the direct market, new outlets like digital publishing hubs like Comixology and even Amazon (both digital and print-on-demand) are allowing creators to sell their books in a virtual baby carriage like the early underground cartoonists of the ‘60s.

“I love comic shops,” Evan posits. “Retailers are businessmen and do what is best for them 99% of the time, right? But creators are not supposed to and publishers are not supposed to. You’re not supposed to bite the hand that feeds you, even if they’re not feeding you. There are only a couple of hundred stores that are full-line stores; I think they’ll survive Amazon because they’re the real deal and sell by hand.

“I don’t want to see stores disappear, but I don’t want to disappear either. You ask about the atmosphere in 1986 as opposed to now, and all I know is from people on my level of doing things. It’s been 25 years of ‘When’s it going to collapse? When am I going to have to get a real job and do comics as a hobby?’

“The direct market mostly doesn’t give a shit about me. I used to resent that and, of course I still do to a degree, but I’ve come to accept that. I read an interview with Peter Bagge and he said ‘It isn’t ever going to change,’ and it isn’t. Even though Sarah and I are working for Warner Brothers Animation and have written for Batman Beyond, worked on Yo Gabba Gabba and do things for magazines, [and are hired by] people who see our work and say ‘I think you can entertain hundreds of thousands or even millions of people.’

“[But] comic books? They couldn’t give a flying shit about us.
 “A group of readers do give a shit, and the average person on a message board will go ‘That’s because you must suck,’ but if I work on Batman tomorrow, all of a sudden my Twitter feed would jump by 10,000 followers.”

“I’ve come to hate when people say ‘Don’t get into comics.’ I learned to say ‘Fuck that. If you want to get into comics, get into comics.’”

“I hate the solo work, just to let you know,” Evan admits. “I’ll tell you the truth: I hate doing everything. I’ve come to the point where I hate writing and hate drawing. It’s just a fight. I love having written or having drawn. I like coming up with ideas, but when I get to the actual scripting stage, or actual drawing, I become a mess. I feel like I wrestle with scripts and fight the pages. There’s always been a touch of that, but when I was younger I didn’t know how awful my work was and I just did it. I thought about the work but didn’t obsess about it. Over time people started paying attention to my stuff, and that made me think about my stuff more and I just collapsed. I just thought about the work to the point where I froze. In general the only work of mine that I can look at and enjoy are the ones that I wrote and other people drew.”

 Dorkin’s self-critical neuroses, detrimental to his output, is ironically what forces his own creative growth, pushing out of the boundaries of his frenetic Milk and Cheese or Eltingville comics, sending him into animation and working with a bevy of collaborators. Through it all, he admits he doesn’t “want to put out a piece of shit, ever, if I can help it.”
“I just got a copy of The Goon trade that Eric Powell asked me to write a script for, and I’m getting a kick out of it,” he points out. “I’m looking back at the Beasts of Burden work Jill and I had done; I can reread Beasts of Burden and cringe at some of my choices and dialogue, but the experience is pleasurable.

“When I look at my own work, the stuff that I drew, I just want to burn it all. I like the Milk and Cheese book, but it’s like a high school yearbook for me, embarrassing in a lot of ways.
“Most of the stuff that I’ve done was a lark. The nice thing about owning and doing your own work is that a bar napkin can become Milk and Cheese and then get you work on Space Ghost, and then a small animation career. Eltingville was a response to the industry that became an Adult Swim pilot and a bunch of comics people seem to have liked. All the stuff in Dork! are just goofs. You can’t turn them into gold but maybe copper or Fools’ Gold. The Beasts of Burden was a one-off story I came up with that took off.”
Beasts of Burden follows a group of monster hunters in the sleepy neighborhood of Burden Hill, a dedicated group that fights every monster known to man or, more appropriately, beast. The twist of Beasts is in the title: the members of this brave crew consist of dogs and a couple of cats.

With painted art by Jill Thompson, Beasts of Burden started as a short story in 2003’s Dark Horse Book of Hauntings. Several award wins and nominations (including a National Cartoonist Society win for Thompson), and a handful of comic books later, Beasts of Burden shows a sensitivity to the characters not always seen in the typical corporate superhero comic book, and has an appeal that stretches beyond the established comic book reading audience.
Hard to believe it’s co-created and written by the same chatty, hyper cartoonist who gave us a couple of violent dairy products gone bad, yet the ever-accessible Beasts of Burden is one of those comics that deserves every bit of critical praise…and then some. 

“Everything we’ve done so far is a done-in-one” Dorkin notes after a rant on the closed fort “Smart Mark” insider view of today’s superhero comics. “You can pick up any issue of Beasts of Burden and there’s a beginning, middle, and ending. There’s a set-up, an obstacle or situation, and then it gets resolved. It might not get resolved 100% because there might be some narrative or emotional hangover, but there’s no cliffhanger.”

With Marvel taken over by Disney and DC Comics more closely handled by parent company Time/Warner AOL, more creators are working their way towards creator-friendly publishers like Image Comics or, in Evan’s case, Dark Horse Comics.

“I’ve been working with Dark Horse since 1991, and now they’re my publisher. I’m very happy there. You can work on something creator owned and have a great relationship with the editor of your work. I love working with Scott Allie: he’s helped shape Beasts of Burden, not just from commissioning the work, but he’s also given input. Even the people who design the book have an impact.” 

Dorkin doesn’t really hate the solo work—it’s obvious—but balances it out with a combination of bread and butter paid gigs and collaborations. Like it or not, he’s married to his older work, and may never be able to fully just give it up, especially now that he’s comfortably ensconced at Dark Horse.  

“Basically Dork has become House of Fun. I got tired of that title for my comic book a long time ago, but since leaving SLG and going to Dark Horse, I’m overhauling that and hoping to do more issues of that. Right now, I’m hoping to finish Eltingville off; it’s been a long time and I haven’t finished those last stories. There’s never been a collection of it. I’ve done six stories and three of them won Eisners, but there’s no book of it except in Spain. I’m not going to print 70 pages of a 90-page book. I want to do a story about the break-up of the group and the reunion at a San Diego Comic Con ten years later. I wasn’t able to do that at SLG; it just got too tenuous.”

A version of this piece originally appeared in Creator Owned Heroes #7.