By Arpad Okay. Evan Dorkin has been around the comics industry long enough to know when it’s best to chill out. Online, people are torrenting comics illegally, there are people out there who really want Donald Trump to be our next President, and then there are the folks who put just way too much stock in their own finite music scene. There was a time when those people would be fine targets for Dorkin. But he’s decided to place his considerable talents elsewhere. “Anger can get boring,” he tells DoomRocket contributing writer Arpad Okay. “And intensity can become stressful and tiring.”
The Eisner Award winner’s zen-like calm has merited such wonderful works as Beasts of Burden, Dorkin’s Dark Horse Comics title with co-creator and artist Jill Thompson, and his upcoming digital release of Calla Cthulhu (co-created with Erin Humiston and Sara Dyer), exclusively from online platform, Stēla.
In anticipation of Calla Cthulhu, Mr. Dorkin sat down with us to discuss relative obscurity, collaborating with frequent co-conspirator (and wife) Sarah Dyer, and why it’s so important to just relax already.
Arpad Okay: I think of you as being known for your intensity. From ‘Milk and Cheese’ to ‘Eltingville’, when you make comics, you have a tendency to make them angry. It’s fascinating to me that ‘Beasts of Burden’ (a horror comic with intensity to spare) is, at its heart, very hopeful and sweet. Why? What is it about a story that has a natural tendency towards gore and shouting that made you choose to flip the script and write something nice?
Evan Dorkin: I still like doing the angry stuff, but I’ve always liked doing material that goes in other directions. Bill and Ted was a non-cynical, non-angry comic. I’ve done all-ages comics for Nickelodeon and Disney Adventures, Sarah and I wrote for Yo Gabba Gabba!, which is a very happy, friendly show. People tend to forget that I have any kind of range, because a lot of my comics are chaotic, even when they’re not angry. But they see them as negative just the same. I certainly understand why people call my work angry, a lot of my humor work is on attack mode. Milk and Cheese is heavy on search-and-destroy. Although Milk and Cheese isn’t as angry as people think it is.
Eltingville, however, is definitely an angry strip, though. My work tends to be mostly about fear and anxiety, I think. Even in Beasts of Burden. I just channel it differently in Beasts, and it’s about different subjects that I’m not trying to take a sledgehammer to — parenthood, death, responsibility. It’s not making fun of music scenes or gun nuts or fan movements or bad movies or stupidity. I’m decades older than when I first worked on Milk and Cheese and Eltingville. I’m married, I have a daughter. I have different responsibilities. Different fears. I’m probably angrier than I’ve ever been, because of the current political atmosphere, which is toxic and disgusting. If I had spare time to do a Milk and Cheese strip about Trump supporters, I’d be on it. Anger can get boring, though, and intensity can become stressful and tiring. You have to change up your pitches or you’ll get bored. If you get bored, your readers will most likely get bored.
AOK: Your artwork is often as intense as the things you write about. It is dense, richly detailed, heavily worked to each corner of the page. Words and lines and textures everywhere. How’s writing for Jill Thompson? Beasts has a lot of soft focus moments. Are your scripts scaled back in the amount of detail, too? How do you think how you tell a story changes when you are telling it with someone else?
ED: My artwork tends to be overworked because of my OCD and a tendency to not trust my ability, to not trust white space, to overcompensate for what I think of as weak drawing. It’s often self-defeating and unnecessary, it definitely cuts me off at the knees as far as the financial end of things goes. You aren’t paid by the line, or the time put in on pages, so I usually spend too much time on a project for it to be sustainable. It’s a problem, balancing intent, desire and pragmatism. It’s something I’m still struggling with.
So, yeah, my own comics tend to have a lot of work on them, and a lot of panels, with a lot of detail and information. I can’t expect that from artists I write for, I can’t — and don’t wish to — force them into doing things the way I would, visually. When I work on scripts for other people, I work towards their style, usually one that’s nothing like my own cartooning. With Jill that means trying to write no more than five panels per page — at her request — because her watercolors need space. If I go over five panels it’s usually with simpler panels, head shots, dialog, but mostly I try to stick to five or less. And since we have always told a complete story in one, it means really breaking things down as much as possible, balancing space and information. I find it very difficult, to be honest. It takes me a long time to revise and cut. It’s why we’ve gone over our page count a few times.
I have learned a lot about paring scripts down because of Beasts, about getting to the point more quickly and worrying less (although these long answers might not convince anyone of that). I still can get too verbose and over-explain or over-direct, but I’m comfortable enough to write directions like “Closer on the dogs” or “Reverse on The Orphan, reacting” and move on, knowing that’s all that’s necessary. I used to think I had to “prove” I was writing seriously by overdoing it, but what’s important is how the story and pages read, if they work or not, not the amount of text in the script . Again, the OCD gets in the way sometimes. But I write shorter scripts nowadays, much shorter than the phone books I used to turn in.
AOK: Speaking of that, the most recent ‘Beasts of Burden’ book (“What the Cat Dragged In”) was written by both you and Sarah Dyer, one of many projects you two write together. How did ‘Beasts of Burden’ become a joint venture? How is working with Sarah different from other collaborators — it is, isn’t it?
ED: I was having trouble getting the script done, I was too close to it, it was based on some childhood issues, bad parenting, responsibility, and the like. I was getting stuck on it, micro-managing scenes and worrying over decisions, so I asked Sarah for some advice and perspective on it. Sarah ended up working some plot and logic stuff out with me and then we polished all the dialog and tightened everything up together. It was more than enough to warrant a co-writing credit on the book. There’s help and then there’s collaboration, and this script became a collaboration. We just did a another revision on the dialog before sending the script to Jason Arthur to letter , the script was written over two years ago and looking over Jill’s artwork, I could see that a lot of stuff could be cut or collapsed.
Sarah and I work together all the time, we co-wrote the third Beasts of Burden story together, the werewolf story, for The Dark Horse Book of Monsters. We co-wrote all our TV and animation work. Beyond that, Sarah colors and does all the Photoshop stuff on all my comics and illustration work that call for it. Right now we’re co-writing a creator-owned series for the Stela comics app called Calla Cthulhu.
Obviously working with someone you live with is different from working with friends or strangers. You don’t worry about other collaborators divorcing you because you’re an overly-anxious pain in the ass to deal with, for one thing. Our collaborating has gotten smoother, just as my writing process has gotten easier. There’s always bumps, as with any collaboration.
AOK: I read that your new series with Sarah, ‘Calla Cthulhu’, came about from having the right books around the house while working on some other ideas that weren’t really working. How do you know when to pull out an old idea to develop or to drop everything and come up with something new? Do you have a dream project that the time has just never been right for?
ED: The spark for Calla came from a conversation between Sarah and our daughter, Emily, about the Cthulhu stories and the lack of girls in it and horror fiction in general — at least in the books my daughter has read. She was wondering why so many girls in stories were love interests and not heroes, or had to have romances getting in the way of having adventures. She knows there are female heroes out there — she’s a fan of Xena and other characters — but none in the Cthulhu stories. There aren’t many female characters at all in Lovecraft’s work, let alone heroic. Anyway, Emily had seen the fictional genealogy Lovecraft wrote that included himself and Clark Ashton Smith as descendants of Cthulhu and Azathoth, and Sarah thought it would be funny if there was a modern female descendant in the Cthulhu family tree. Sarah spun that into a character and a concept, which we worked into a pitch and Stela accepted. We’re having a lot of fun with it, and so is Emily, and hopefully readers will enjoy it as much as she does.
I don’t know if I have a dream project in the way people usually use the phrase, I mean, if I became independently wealthy by some miracle I don’t know what the first thing I’d do is, work-wise. I do have several projects I’d like to work on sooner than others, some of them are things Sarah and I have developed that we want to write together, some are things I would like to write and draw myself, some I’d like to work with other artists on. I have a lot of ideas sitting around, some of them decades old. One of them I had pitched to Stela and it was approved but I was ambivalent about it, it’s dense and the files on it are choked with notes and I didn’t know if I really wanted us to go with it. Sarah coming up with Calla seemed more of a fresh start, something we could develop from the ground up, without the albatross of old notes and ideas I’d feel married to.
I’m only now starting to be proactive about developing projects. Back in the day I was doing a lot of work for anthologies, which is where Milk and Cheese, The Eltingville Club and Beasts of Burden came from. None of those ideas were created to be ongoing series, they were all one-shots that kept going. Flukes. There aren’t any anthologies anymore, people want books, and series, which I’m not really known for. So, I have to work on that. I’m developing a series with artist Veronica Fish which I’m hoping we’ll get approved and going with a publisher soon. We both have work on our plates but we’re getting close to a final revision on that. I think it will be a lot of fun. Beyond that, I would just like to do my own stuff, if my drawing hand allows me, as much of it as possible before I keel over. More issues of Dork, a few more Milk and Cheese strips, some short horror stories with other artists, some memoir stuff about my childhood. I mostly want to finish Beasts of Burden. If we get to finish Beasts of Burden I’ll be really, really glad. I love those characters something fierce and have a lot of ideas for them. I guess after all that babbling, Beasts of Burden might actually be my dream project. I like that world and those characters a hell of a lot.
AOK: I think your ability to work at any level of production is incredible. Some of what you do is you and you alone, every single step of the process. And some things you work on as a writer or collaborator, totally devoted fans can have no idea who the creators are, what your contribution was. How have you found yourself in such a broad range of participation? Are you comfortable being unknown? Do you like to control as much of the creative process as possible?
ED: You have to deal with being unknown if you work in comics, especially if you’re not working much on Marvel or DC properties. Comics themselves are a niche, the characters are more important than the creators as far as Hollywood and fandom goes. And creators like me are basically in their own niche within that niche, hopefully with enough fans to get by, and enough fans in the business to get paying work. In comics people know you, more or less, although you’re selling a few thousand comics or whatever. In animation, no one knows who we are, even though we’ve worked on some well-known shows watched by a few million folks. It’s pretty weird.
As far as control goes, I think most cartoonists prefer to be left alone to do their work as they see fit. On work-for-hire projects I know I don’t have the ultimate say on anything, but I tend to get hired on things where I work without much direction or interference. The editor or publisher tends to hire me because they feel I can do the job in a certain way, and as long as I don’t fly off the handle and have Bart Simpson dealing meth or anything stupid, you’re left alone. They cast the cartoonist, in a way, like an actor, the person’s style and personality is being put to work on their characters.
I like to control as much of a project as possible, which is why I do my own work as often as I can. But I know how to deal with circumstances when I’m on a job where my name means nothing, or very little, and other people are involved and have their own views and approaches, and I don’t make the ultimate decisions. You adjust. Usually, you’re trading control for a decent paycheck. But you can try to work on things where your input is more respected and welcomed, where your work is largely preserved as you’ve written or designed it, which is how things went on Space Ghost, Welcome to Eltingville and Yo Gabba Gabba!, for examples. It’s one reason we never got a manager or agent, we preferred to work on projects we could enjoy, rather than just dig up animation work to keep things moving along, career-wise.
Finally, I can’t do anything with computers or photoshop, so I can’t do everything on a project. That’s why I’ve drawn a lot of my comic covers and indicia pages and even ads all by hand. I’m a technical moron.
AOK: So you’ve seen the full gamut of comics at this point. From loose issues passed between friends like Dork to comics like your new venture with Stēla made expressly for phones. What do you think? Do you have a preference between physical but hard-to-get vs. digital-only and available everywhere? 10-20 years later and you are amidst a sea of reprints of your old work. ‘Eltingville’, ‘Bill & Ted’, ‘World’s Finest’. What do you see happening to something like ‘Calla Cthulhu’ in the future? Any personal plans for 2030?
ED: I’ve made my peace with reading on a digital device, but I’ll always prefer print and physical books as a reader and collector. As a creator, I want people to read my work in whatever form they’re comfortable with, in book form, on a device, borrowed from a library, whatever. It’s all good. I wish people didn’t pirate so much work out there so blatantly, but on the other hand, it would be worse if there was no interest in my work from those folks. And sometimes people will pick up Beasts or something after encountering it as an illegal PDF or a long Tumblr post from a fan. I can live with that, that’s life.
As far as Calla goes, we’ll have 13 chapters and then, I hope, we’ll do the next long arc. Or a short arc. It’s a project Sarah and I want to continue writing and developing and perhaps completing someday. There’s a lot of material there.
My personal plans for 2030 are to learn how to answer interview questions more directly. And learn to relax. I assume I’ll still be making comics, and I hope to be making good ones. Those are pretty sad future plans.
‘Beasts of Burden’ is available from Dark Horse Comics. ‘Calla Cthulhu’ hits the digital-only platform today. Download Stēla here!