Talking Comics with Tim: Evan Dorkin

When an interview goes well, it has very little to do with me. The value of the interview, not surprisingly, is rooted in the answers. Evan Dorkin is proof of this. At one point in this email interview, the man justifiably ridicules my use of the term "sequential art narrative" in a question--and being Evan Dorkin, it's damn funny when he does it. The interview covers a great deal of ground, given the diversity and richness of his career to date. First up, though, is Dark Horse's Beasts of Burden, his upcoming collaboration with Jill Thompson, which is featured on the cover of this month's PREVIEWS. (Beasts of Burden #1's item code is JUL09 0015 [and goes on sale September 16]). Aweek or so ago my associate Mr. Melrose linked to the original Beasts of Burden short story, Stray, that Dark Horse posted to its site (and that Dorkin also mentions at the start of this interview). My thanks to Dorkin for what I hope you agree is a great interview.

Tim O'Shea: You are working on Beasts of Burden, for Dark Horse, what can you tell folks about the project?

Evan Dorkin: Beasts of Burden is a four-issue series debuting this September from Dark Horse, I’m writing it and Jill Thompson is illustrating it, and it’s about a group of neighborhood dogs and a stray cat that band together to fight the supernatural. It takes place in a town called Burden Hill, which has become increasingly plagued by monsters and the paranormal. The human inhabitants are largely oblivious to what’s happening, so it’s up to these “ordinary” animals to defend the area from these occult incursions. It’s a horror comic with adventure and fantasy elements, and hopefully a sense of humor. Each issue is a self-contained story, with some narrative undercurrents running through them.

The series actually began several years ago, when Jill and I worked together on a short story entitled “Stray”, for the Dark Horse Book of Hauntings anthology and editor Scott Allie. It was a stand-alone story about a haunted doghouse, and I never intended to be the kick-off to a series, but we ended up doing three more stories, for The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft, the Book of The Dead, and the Book of Monsters. The second story won an Eisner, and by the third story we were discussing doing a dedicated series, but it took us a while to get going on that because of schedules and whatnot. Eventually we got everything cleared up and got to work, and I’m happy we did. I’m very proud of what we’re doing, Scott and Dark Horse have been extremely supportive, and I think Jill’s doing some of the best work of her career. I really hope people give it a chance, I think we’re making some good comics.

O'Shea: Your bitingly funny rant regarding your unpleasant experience at last year's NY National con got praised quite roundly in many circles, and then there seemed to be some people that took it personally. In the final analysis, if you had to do it all over again, would you post an evisceration of that scale? From my perspective, I think you said what needed to be said--the folks that took offense to it seemed to be saying: "You should not expect con attendees to be adults."

Dorkin: I don’t think anyone, even the people who had the most negative or defensive responses in regards to what I wrote, was defending clueless behavior or incompetence. Some people got upset about it, especially this one guy named “anonymous” who was posting things all over the net, but a few folks with surnames took me to task regarding the post, as well. There are always people who take criticism like that personally, as if I somehow knew them by name and was singling them out from the crowd, like I had Shinigami eyes or something. It didn’t help that a number of people only read a snippet of the piece on other people’s blogs, I mean, why actually bother to read an entire essay before you attack it, right? Why waste time when you can formulate your opinion and response on sample sentences and the sentiments of the blogger who sampled them. Of course, there were folks who read it, and considered it, and decided I was full of shit, or painfully unfunny, or both. That’s the way it goes. I prefer someone disagree with me than just start accusing me about how I’m jealous and trying to garner attention by ripping on poorly run conventions that consider fire hazards to be a fun part of the programming. Anyway, it was a rant, and it was intended to be over the top, and that usually means hate mail. Would I write that piece again? Sure. The only thing I’d change is a mention of a particular person in the piece, who I like, and who wasn’t to blame for anything in regards to the convention being a mess. I was trying to say something nice about him but I feel it backfired, and roped him into the whole thing. At least that’s my worry. Other than that, I don’t have any regrets. As if there are serious repercussions for having a comic book opinion.

O'Shea: It's a shame the Metal Men project never saw the light of day. But I was struck by something you wrote in your own comments section:"I actually removed myself from several Marvel and DC projects, so I don't count those - I dropped out of co-writing the X-Men 2099 launch (a very hard decision, because at the time, it looked like money) and decided, after doing some work on a series bible, to not follow up on an offer to work on a Black Panther 2099 book. I left a Marvel humor book behind after The Thing series went sour, and never followed up on a Batman graphic novel pitch I had sitting at DC after I wrapped up World's Funnest. I kind of regret that, I still like the idea and it was tentatively approved, we left off discussing artists for it. I needed a lot of time for this, but after WF I just felt I'd end up killing myself for pretty much nothing and let it fizzle out."

Reading this I wonder, have you decided that it takes too much work to work for a mainstream company like Marvel or DC?

Dorkin: It’s not the work that’s the problem. It’s the bullshit. Work is part and parcel of any project you do, that’s why they call it work. If I agree to take on a job, I do the work I’ve been hired to do, I don’t treat it differently from my own projects in that regard. My name goes on it, I’m getting paid, I want to do right by myself and my publisher and I also want the readers to get their money’s worth. That’s very important to me. The problems I have with those sorts of projects is the crap that gets in the way of creating the comics, the corporate nonsense, the office politics, the professional fan stuff, the stifling effects of line-wide continuity, the fact that you don’t own what you create -- all those sorts of things that have nothing to do with your telling a story or drawing a page. It doesn’t always happen, I’ve had plenty of enjoyable and fulfilling experiences working at DC and Marvel, but the ones that aren’t fun, that are obstacle-filled, the “banging your head against the wall” projects, can be soul-deadening. I try to avoid those. Sometimes you don’t know you’re going to get involved in an assignment that drives you nuts, or leeches the life out of you, but sometimes you can tell you’re in for a bad time. That’s largely why I left those particular projects, those were personal choices to not pursue a project because I simply didn’t think they’d be the right choice, or the right choice for me at the time.

O'Shea: Can you talk about some of the projects that you stepped away from?

Dorkin: I didn’t take the 2099 jobs because ultimately, I didn’t like the idea of creating an entire “world” that someone else would own. I’d done fairly extensive work on the Panther series in particular, before I decided to drop out. Also, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be tied down to a monthly series at the time, I also was never quite certain it was a project I was right for, or one that was right for me. It was a hard choice to not go after such steady work, that might have helped secure my name with the retailers and readers, but I was doing okay at the time, and decided to bow out.

I didn’t follow up on the Batman graphic novel because I was burnt out after World’s Funnest and unsure about doing another extended project that might go nowhere. I decided to hold off on it, got involved in the Eltingville pilot and some other things, and let it fade. No one was clamoring for it, but I still think it’s a valid project and sometimes wish I had tackled it. I dropped out of doing the Marvel humor one-shot, which was going to be called “How To Draw Marvel Comics The Evan Dorkin Way”, because I had lost my editor/back-up and I had had a really rocky time with editorial on the Thing series and didn’t feel like having my sense of humor questioned for a few months. That doesn’t mean I think my work is beyond editing, it’s not a case of ego. I just decided to avoid what I felt would be an unhappy experience. So I let that go. Again, no loss, I don’t think anyone at Marvel even noticed, even though the book had been officially approved.

Eventually I realized, after the Metal Men was scrapped, that I didn’t need to work for DC or Marvel to have a career in comics. I really never have, and I suppose I never will. But being an older comics fan and professional – and former comic shop clerk and manager -- it’s been hard to come to that somewhat obvious conclusion, even after doing my own work for years and getting tv work and assignments from outside of the industry. Marvel and DC had always loomed large in my head, they were always the 500 lb gorillas, and my earliest goals involved working for them on their superhero franchises. That never actually happened, the direct market opened up and many things changed, and when I did do jobs for the Big Two, they were oddball things, left of center, out of continuity, etc. It used to bother me that I was an odd man out at the Big Two, but I got over that. Later than I would have liked, but you live and learn. I don’t even know anyone at Marvel editorial anymore, and I hardly know anyone up at DC. So, my relationship with the two publishers has dried up, I guess by mutual choice. I don’t pursue the work and they don’t call. I got an offer for a Marvel art job on a back-up strip a few years ago but I couldn’t fit it into my schedule. And that’s been it. I don’t have a fantastic track record selling books for those folks, and I’m not a hot commodity in the Direct Market. I’m a cult figure, not a religion. For all I know I’ll never have my name in one of their books again. Then again, sometime down the line, there might be a project someone thinks I can do something for, or the regimes will change and an old fan of mine could end up in a position to hire me. You never know. In the meantime, I keep busy, and hopefully that will continue.

O'Shea: Is it more labor-intensive to pitch an animation project compared to a comics pitch?

Dorkin: I’d have to say yes, in my limited experience. I haven’t worked on that many formal pitches, either for comics or for animation. I think we’ve done only one actual formal pitch bible for animation, but whenever we put together that sort of package for animation the pages add up, and on that pitch I was also doing character drawings. I can’t remember doing any pitches for a comic series that went beyond a few typed pages, and I don’t think I’ve ever done art for a straight comic book pitch, only for some magazine comics. I’m usually just pitching a story, not a series.

O'Shea: When you collaborate with Sarah Dyer, how do you two divvy up the storytelling development process on a typical project?

Dorkin: It varies, but in general, when we write the script, we’re each taking passes on the material, shaping it and moving it along. For instance, I’ll do a first, stupid pass that’s an overlong mess with too much business and way too much dialogue. Then Sarah will do a pass that cleans it all up and makes sense of it and gets the structure down and adds business. If it’s a tough script we do another pass, or however many more we need to get it in shape. Then we sit down together and go over it and polish it up until it’s ready to go, at that point it’s all dialogue work. It isn’t that cut and dried, we talk a lot during the process, and we might do an early read-through to solve some problems together, it depends on the script. Sometimes the process depends on who generated the story or sparked the project, that person will often carry the ball first. Sarah came up with the idea for the “Big” episode of Yo Gabba Gabba!, for example, and if I recall correctly she started on that script. We tend to do more sit-downs on the tv stuff, I’d say. And Sarah co-wrote an episode of YGG! without me, I was too busy, so she wrote a draft to send to Christian and I only acted as a sounding board. While I was working she’d pop up with a question or have me read something through. We just get the work done.

O'Shea: I loved yours and Dean Haspiel's Thing miniseries of many years ago, given that both you and Dean are strong storytellers. When you do a collaboration like this, do you end up learning things in the process?

Dorkin: I learned that two high-strung neurotics probably shouldn’t work together. At least not without better medication and a longer deadline. Beyond that, it’s when I began to really understand that I needed to loosen up in my scripting when I’m working with another artist, cut things down a lot more in terms of description and direction. This is something I’m still trying to come to terms with as I work with Jill on Beasts of Burden. It’s hard, because I draw my own comics, and I “see” everything a certain way and write the script to reflect that. And I’m an anxious type, I worry I’m not getting things across. I’m also detail-centric in my work. But I think it’s for the best to let go of a lot of that. I don’t want to put the artist in a straitjacket, or make them think they’re an art drone. I wish I stripped the Thing script down more, but there was a lot of issues going on at the time, it was a difficult series to get done for a number of reasons, and I tightened up a lot. I doubt I’ll ever be the kind of writer who can script an entire book with panel descriptions like, “He goes in the store. It’s run-down.” -- let alone, “they fight for a page, you figure it out, make it cool.” -- but I’m not laying it on as thick as I used to. We all learn, and we improve. Hopefully. Anyway, I’m glad you liked the book. We did work hard on it.

O'Shea: Back in November, you mentioned the possibility of a Milk & Cheese #8, correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't issue 7 released in 1997. Why such a long break from the characters and why return now? (Not that I'm complaining, it'd be great to see new Milk & Cheese)

Dorkin: Yeah, #7 was published in ’97, and the Special Edition mini-comic was put out later that year or the following year. Since then there have been a handful of other strips in some pretty obscure places, even for comics. Most of the publications that ran the strips dried up, and people stopped asking me for them. I deliberately took a break from the characters after the mini-comic, I had been taking longer breaks in-between issues to give myself and the readers a rest from what are, admittedly, two limited characters. I just never expected it to be a twelve year hiatus between issues. And counting. Besides the break, I was busy working on other projects, I was focusing on the Dork series, and working on Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and then Eltingville and World’s Funnest and one thing lead to another and Milk and Cheese largely stayed in mothballs. I do miss the little bastards, and would like to work on some more strips as soon as possible. I’d really like to get an eight issue out with SLG before our respective ends. I have about ten pages collected from various sources, so far, for the next issue, I have several strips sitting around, partially drawn, and a bunch more plotted. But I just don’t have the time to work on them, or any of my own stuff at the moment. It’s just the way things are right now. I can’t complain. I had a good run. And I’m not dead yet.

O'Shea: How did end up providing illustrations for Larry Doyle's I Love You, Beth Cooper? Going forward would you like to do more illustration work like that?

Dorkin: I got the job because Larry Doyle suggested my name to his editor. This was after another cartoonist or two turned them down, because they were successful people who didn’t need the work. I did, so I am grateful Larry settled for my services. I knew Larry slightly when I was friends with Kyle Baker, he called me about a magazine project a ways back, but I turned it down because it involved a lot of caricature, and I’m a weak caricaturist, I’m very weak on doing likenesses. Anyway, I did the cover, and then they asked me to provide chapter illustrations, which I did. And the book came out and did well and was optioned and made into a film, and I got another job out of it because Larry wanted to include some comics in the movie tie-in release. So I ended up drawing 16 pages of comics for the tie-in release, which came out in June. So, the Beth Cooper project has been very good for us.

As for doing more illustration work, sure, I would love to. I’ve done two books, and some comics and illustrations for various magazines, but again, I am a lunkhead when it comes to pursuing work, especially in the illustration field. No representation, no portfolio, no clue, no energy, no time. If it happens, it happens. I don’t have a following amongst art directors, so it doesn’t happen that often.

O'Shea: How has being a parent changed your sense of humor, if at all?

Dorkin: As far as I know, it hasn’t changed my sense of humor at all. It’s still that of an eight-year old. With problems.

O'Shea: What is more creatively satisfying for you, your work for television or your sequential art narrative work?

Dorkin: What the hell is “sequential art narrative work”? Have you been reading Scott McCloud while high on Nyquil? If you’re referring to making comic books, I find that more creatively satisfying than television or just about anything else. If making money wasn’t necessary, if I was a trust-fund child or someone dropped a fortune on me, making comics would be pretty much all I’d want to do. I aim low in my aspirations, I guess. I have small dreams. Don’t get me wrong, the television work is great; especially when it’s a project you honestly love and care about. It’s also nice to actually do something people will see. I enjoy doing illustrations and gag panels. But comics are where my heart is, despite everything about the business I despise. I enjoy the control, the synthesis of disciplines, writing scenarios, dialogue, acting through the characters, expressing ideas through humor without anyone to edit or censor my ideas, designing sets, characters, costumes, worlds. It’s heady stuff if you stop to think about it. Which I try not to do, because then I might start throwing around crazy phrases like “sequential art narrative work”.

O'Shea: If your TV work picked up enough would you step away from comics work, or do you always want to have that narrative form as a creative outlet to pursue?

Dorkin: I’d like to think I’d never stop doing comics in some way, shape or form, but I’ve already ratcheted down my comics output considerably in the past 10 years. It’s a tough way to support a household if you’re not an artistic icon or a superhero regular. I’m either not talented enough or not a good enough businessperson to make a go of comics as a full-time enterprise, probably both. I’m also not fast enough, I don’t bat the stuff out like I used to for various reasons. And to be honest, I like bouncing around, I get bored easily, I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket, and I’m nervous about entering into long-term comic projects for fear they’ll come to nothing. So, I do a little of this and a little of that, often depending on who offers us work, with comics always on the back burner. Career-wise, I’ve always been someone with one foot nailed to the floor, making one or two steps progress in a dozen directions but getting nowhere on any one particular path. We could discuss that at length, but then I’d have to pay you the going therapy rates.

O'Shea: Any chance you'll be doing any webcomics in the near to long term?

Dorkin: I guess so. I think most if not all cartoonists will end up on the web in some way, shape or form before too long. I like paper, and print, I love books, but I’ve got no problems with the web. Other than the fact that my eyes hurt and I get a headache if I read anything off of a monitor for too long. And a lot of webcomics are formatted like hell. And suck. But most print comics suck, and look like hell, or are difficult to read, that has nothing to do with the delivery mechanism. That comes down to the people making the comics. Myself, I’m terrible with computers. I can barely scan something and post it on my blog without starting a fire or cutting my hand open. Sarah does all of the computer work for us, I just mumble something about “fix the bad drawing, please” and she makes it all better. I keep hoping to do some new gag strips and upload them on my blog, but I haven’t had time. I’ve done a few comics for the web so far -- a Milk and Cheese strip for the MySpace Dark Horse Presents site, a 2000 Maniacs prologue comic for the TCM Underground site, and a comic for the Electronic Arts Sims/Urbz game site a few years back. I like doing them. It’s just comics. And one nice thing is you can upload a color strip as easily as a black and white strip. That’s a bonus.

O'Shea: What's on the creative horizon for you?

Dorkin: I’ve got some work coming out from Bongo in the coming year, a Futurama/Simpsons pin-up, a Bart Simpson strip I wrote, and a 15-page story I’m writing and drawing for the Simpson’s Treehouse of Terror. I’m also still doing occasional jobs for Nick Magazine [this interview took place before the unfortunate demise of Nick Magazine] and Mad, working at a snail’s pace on Milk and Cheese #8 for SLG, and I just signed a contract to work on a secret one-shot comic project for Dark Horse. Sarah and I are working on season three of Yo Gabba Gabba!, it looks like we’ll be writing or co-writing at least two episodes. They still haven’t aired the episodes we wrote for season two, so hopefully those shows will air sometime soon. Other than that, I’m finishing up the last issue of the Beasts of Burden series and am hoping it does well enough that we can do another. I hope folks will give it a try in September, and I appreciate your giving me a venue to promote our book. Or should I say, our “sequential art narrative”. Kidding, kidding, don’t send me hate mail. I get enough from my mother when I make fun of comic book conventions.

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