EXCLUSIVE: Dorkin & Dyer Hear "Calla Cthulhu" in Lovecraftian Stela Series

Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer have a long comic book history and a passionate fanbase. Dorkin's indie books "Dork" and "Milk & Cheese" remain beloved among fandom, and his "Beasts of Burden" series with Jill Thompson has won both critical acclaim and awards. Sarah Dyer helped lay the groundwork for today's push for strong women heroes with her seminal anthology series "Action Girl Comics." Together they've written for cartoons including "Superman: The Animated Series" (where they introduced the popular villain Livewire) and "Space Ghost: Coast to Coast."

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Now the duo, in collaboration with illustrator and co-creator Erin Humiston, are unveiling their latest creation, "Calla Cthulhu," on the phone-based Stēla digital comics platform, available to download now. Carrying the bloodline of the Great Ones in her, Calla rejects the family ways. It's a teenage thing. Now she's fighting monsters and dreading reunions where she has to see her uncle, the King in Yellow. She's fighting the chaos in herself while hoping that the Dread Dead One in the corpse city R'lyeh stays as he is.

CBR News caught up with Dorkin and Dyer to get their thoughts on "Calla Cthulhu," teen rebellion, the Ancient Ones, strong women and telling stories in new ways with Stēla.

CBR News: Considering Stēla is a brand new outfit, how did you two get involved with it?

Sarah Dyer: [Stēla founder] Sam [Lu] approached us last spring with an invitation to pitch ideas -- and once we'd gotten the details on the project we knew we wanted to be involved; their creator-oriented philosophy was a big draw of course, but I was also really excited about their ideas for digital. It's been really cool watching the app develop. I'm still as excited about it as I was last year! I love holding a comic or a book, but I'm also really interested in the potential of digital and what Stēla is trying to accomplish (and, I think, pulling off).

Evan Dorkin: It's always a nice situation when you're asked to create something and you not only own it, but you're also properly taken care of. It was a very welcome invitation and I'm glad it turned into an opportunity for us to create a series both for Stēla and ourselves.

Was "Calla Cthulhu" created for Stēla's platform or did you have to modify it for this storytelling form?

Dyer: "Calla" was created for Stēla! Originally we were sifting through some existing concepts, and they did like the one we'd already pitched -- but developing it was just dragging. One night I was talking to our daughter, Emily, about books she'd been reading and she was complaining about the lack of female horror characters outside of horror-themed romance books -- she was wishing for more action horror with female leads -- and I started thinking about the possibilities. We'd just given Evan the gorgeous "New Annotated Lovecraft" book (by Leslie S. Klinger), and she thought the family tree Lovecraft drew up showing himself and Clark Ashton Smith as descended from Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and was hysterical, but again -- no girls. I asked her, "What if Cthulhu had a teen girl descendant, who fought monsters?" And we both decided that was the best idea ever. The next morning Evan and I were planning our day, and he was going to work more on breaking down the project we were planning to do. I said, "What if... we were to do something totally new?" And I pitched him the basic idea. A few hours later we had a full pitch and within a day or two Stēla enthusiastically agreed.

Dorkin: Yeah, if you know anything about Lovecraft's work at all, it's not exactly a friendly place for female characters, let alone positive female characters -- or for anyone different from Lovecraft himself, for that matter. I've basically been on a weird fiction kick for the last few years, reading or re-reading Lovecraft, M.R. James, Chambers, Blackwood, Hodgson, Machen and on and on and on. Sarah and Emily have been getting me related gifts, books and tiki mugs, because I've gone full-on fanboy for this stuff. So, I had the Klinger book out a lot while I was working on a script for the "Peanuts" tribute anthology for BOOM! last year, which was a Lovecraft/Schulz mashup. That's where Emily saw the genealogy of the elder races that Lovecraft wrote out, which is pretty hilarious. Anyway, Sarah pitched the core concept for "Calla" to me while I was heading out the door for an appointment, and I had more ideas for it by the time I got home, a lot of churning during the drive over and back. We started knocking ideas around and a lot fell into place very quickly, and we were having fun -- which is always a good sign. Hopefully that sense of fun comes across in the comics.

Calla is fighting on several fronts -- against her own chaotic nature; against family, in this case her uncle, the King in Yellow; and against monsters. It seems pretty typical of the teenage experience, doesn't it?

Dyer: Exactly! Not a lot of teens have to fight tentacle monsters in the sewers, but almost everyone can relate to a family that is trying to make you do things you don't believe in or just don't want to do. She may have some supernatural reasons for being isolated and anxious, but it's a feeling and a state of being I think we've all been through.

Dorkin: There're definitely real-life elements in "Calla": not being in step with your family, of rejecting expectations, making a choice in life despite it making life tougher. Basically, Calla has decided to not go into the family business, and that throws her up against serious opposition. Her "uncle" is a major problem in her new life, but he's not the only one. Her connection to the Mythos makes her a potential target from all sides of the equation. She's in the middle of a lot, and she's not fully equipped emotionally or physically for dealing with it. This isn't exactly new territory for a character. It follows Peter Parker and Buffy and a lot of YA protagonists in essence, but the approach and the execution is where things really happen in a story.

Does "Calla" spin out of any specific aspect of the Lovecraftian lore?

Dorkin: Our approach is a lot more adventure-oriented than you find in those early stories, and what we're marrying it to is different than what most Mythos-inspired projects go for. "Calla" is an adventure about modern-day people fighting the forces and the influence of Mythos creatures, inspired by weird fiction as well as pulps like The Spider and Doc Savage, Hong Kong martial arts movies, role-playing games and manga. And there's a sense of humor to it. It's a pop culture/pulp culture mix and something people can come to cold if they don't know their Azathoth from their Nyarlathotep. If you're a Mythos fan you'll find a lot of familiar elements and a lot of Easter eggs and whatnot, because we're having fun with this. Our characters have a lot more agency than Lovecraft would ever allow, and characters like The King in Yellow will have more of an agenda to help drive the storyline. On the other hand, some Mythos elements will remain mysterious, not directly affecting events. And people will go insane, and turn into fish monsters, and ghouls will lurk in graveyards and all that good, crazy stuff. We're having a lot of fun with this and when you're having fun that usually translates into good, fun comics. And that's what we're trying to do with "Calla."

Who's working with you on "Calla Cthulhu"? How is the collaboration going?

Dyer: Once we had "Calla" worked out a bit, we brought our co-creator and artist Erin Humiston on to bring her to life. Erin comes from animation, but he also does comics -- he and his wife have an ongoing comic called "Band" that's really great. He's come up with some amazing designs, as you'll see! For the rest of our team we have: Bill Mudron on colors, who is doing a totally bang-up job; Nate Piekos of Blambot handling lettering and dealing beautifully with the format; and we've just added Mario A. González as inker starting with chapter two.

RELATED: Dorkin & Thompson's "Beasts of Burden" Returns with "What the Cat Dragged In!"

How frequently will the story update?

Dyer: The first series will be split into two installments, with a break in between. Each installment will run as a weekly series. (I think all of the comics on Stēla will run weekly when they are coming out.)

There's been a real push for diversity and strong women characters in comics over the past couple years, but strong women characters has been the focus of Sarah's work going all the way back to "Action Girl Comics" in the mid-'90s. Is it gratifying to see that, twenty years later, creators and readers are coming around to what you have been pushing since you started in this industry?

Dyer: Absolutely. It could still be better, but even so it's strikingly different. In some ways I'm even more aware of it these days as I shepherd a tween girl through pop culture -- but it's been remarkable to me how very many books and comics there are now with really positive representation. Back when I was doing "Action Girl" it would have been really tough to put together a reading list with a lot of diverse and/or female characters; and while there could still be better representation it's just been great to see how much there is now.

Dorkin: It should go beyond saying that different people would like to see different things in their pop culture entertainment, have a better and more realistic range of choices, and see characters that reflect themselves and their world, as well as stories that don't alienate them or insult them for being who they are, intentionally or unintentionally. There's room for everything and everyone in this, or any medium. It's beyond amazing that we're still having these discussions. I want everyone in who wants to be in.

Dyer: One thing that has been great about this project is working with a company that is really promoting diversity -- both in their editorial staff and their creative roster. It's great to feel a part of something so inclusive.

Is there a specific division of labor when you two collaborate -- whether it's strengths in scripting or as artists?

Dyer: It's not super-specific, like we don't assign each other different tasks. But our strengths definitely complement each other. In the development stage of any project we're probably just brainstorming equally, but once we're scripting we tend to focus on our particular strengths. It's a good balance, I think.

Dorkin: We're both stronger in certain areas. I'm really good with violence and stupidity and writing way more much stuff than can fit on a page or screen. Also, I'm good at vomit gags. We don't have any in "Calla." Yet.

You've both worked in traditional comics for over two decades now -- did it take much effort to adjust to Stēla's storytelling format? Or did it just make sense and fit together naturally?

Dyer: There was definitely a serious adjustment period! From larger issues like breaking the story down into shorter serial-length chapters like a manga to small ones you wouldn't think of until you're looking at them. For example: losing physical page turns -- in paper they are a real-time beat as you have to move the page; with the vertical scroll we had to add those beats into the art because the flow is continuous. It took us a while to make the mental shift, but once it clicked we felt really good about it. I always believed that it was an amazing format but I admit there were moments where I was really not sure it was going to work for us.

Dorkin: I'm still not used to the format. I'm a paper and page and panel guy. If I was drawing for this format I know I'd be having a much harder time of it. We're often reworking things in our scripts to fix pacing problems. I miss the page turn. Sarah keeps having to explain things to me because I'm so stuck in a print mindset right now. And like I said, I write too much -- more than can fit on a page, let alone a panel or a screen, so that has to be taken into account so things are readable. At the end of the day, though, it's all comics -- words and pictures in a sequence. The main thing is to grab the reader and keep them interested and learn to work with the format to do that as best as you can.

You've worked in other fields like animation, and not only do you come back to comics time and again, but you're still looking at new forms. What keeps you not only working in comics, but still branching out into new ways to use comics to tell stories?

Dyer: The big appeal of comics is control and ownership (well, and our family loves comics) -- if you have a story to tell, you want to make sure the end result is really telling your story correctly. (Obviously prose can offer that too, but we both tell stories visually.) And I think exploring new forms is exciting -- not only does it offer creative opportunities and force you to stretch the way you think, but it offers the ability to reach a different audience. I feel like working with Stēla has been really good for us creatively on a lot of levels, and I think we've learned lessons we'll take forward into other work.

Dorkin: We've never left comics, even while we were deep in projects like "Welcome to Eltingville" or "Yo Gabba Gabba." Comics is my medium; it's in my blood, for good or bad. I'm stupid and stubborn that way. As far as branching out goes, like I said, I'm a print person, a dinosaur, maybe, but I have to move with the times or get trampled -- at least to some degree. People are looking at screens more than pages. I can live and work with a digital format, comics is comics. But I'm happy to still have printed collections and artifact editions in my library. Nothing on a screen gives me quite the same feeling as an old comic or a monster-sized Sunday Press "Walt and Skeezix" collection.

What else do you each have in the works?

Dyer: Errrr, not much we can talk about! For me, it's going to mainly be "Calla" for the next six months, and developing something else that, well, I can't talk about.

Dorkin: Actually, Sarah co-wrote the upcoming "Beasts of Burden" one-shot "What The Cat Dragged In," which will be out May 4th from Dark Horse. Jill Thompson's watercolor pages for this story are as amazing as always on the series. If all goes well Jill and I will have a two-part "Beasts" story finished and scheduled in the near-future, which will round out our second book collection. Sarah and I also wrote a script for the upcoming "Ben 10" reboot. We're not sure what the production schedule is on that, though. I assume it will air later this year.

Dyer: You're right! I've been so busy I forgot!

Dorkin: I'll have work in two FCBD releases in May. I wrote a 12-page Mermaid Man story for the "Spongebob" comic from Plankton/Bongo, which was drawn by the great Ramona Fradon. I'll also have a page of gag strips in the "Attack on Titan" FCBD sampler that Kodansha USA is putting out. Sarah did the colors on that. We're doing five pages of gag strips for the full-length "Attack on Titan" anthology, called "Attack on Attack on Titan."

In March DC is reprinting the "World's Funnest" one-shot I wrote in 2000, with art by Dave Gibbons, David Mazzucchelli, Jaime Hernandez, Stuart Immonen, Alex Ross, Frank Miller, Mike Allred, Bruce Timm and a lot of other folks. It's the anchor of a larger Bat-Mite/Batman-themed collection. I'm really happy to have this back in print after all this time. There's also a Deadpool Omnibus coming out from Marvel which will include the Agent X and Fight-Man material I did.

And then there's the stuff I can't talk about yet, some of which we're doing together. A few things scattered over the next few months and into next year, including something I'm pitching with a really cool artist that we hope will land. We're trying to stay busy, and we're hoping "Calla" will be a part of our workload for some time to come. We have a lot planned out for her if all goes well.

The Stēla app is available now on iOS.

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