For cartoonist Evan Dorkin, it’s been hard to keep a straight face in comics --- or even the same face. He’s been all over the place, from independent books to solo stints with Marvel & DC’s heroes, as well as doing work in animation on shows like Yo Gabba Gabba! and Space Ghost.
Dorkin, who first rose to comics fame in 1991 with his sarcastic comedy fight comic that is Milk & Cheese, has done a bevy of creator-owned independent work as well as taking his humor to the company-owned characters of Marvel & DC. Based on the early success of Milk & Cheese, he did a comics serial based on the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures for Marvel, and founded his own anthology comic with Dork. He made a name for himself with his own brand of deprecating humor, but also began showing different sides of himself with work on two Predator comics for Dark Horse, a Thing miniseries for Marvel, as well as work in animation on Space Ghost: Coast To Coast. Of late, he’s been regularly appearing in Bongo’s Simpsons comics as well as some of the indie-themed anthologies Marvel and DC has put out over the years, but perhaps his biggest book of late has been the most different – the supernatural pet epic Beasts of Burden.
With this month’s release of the collected edition called Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites, Dorkin and his artistic collaborator Jill Thompson are both showing a side of themselves long-time fans may not be aware of. The idea of these pet paranormal investigators, one cat and a gang of dogs, patrolling the streets of a New England-esque town called Burden Hill is something unique. Ghostbusters meets Goonies? Maybe. But whatever it is, it’s grabbed a new audience of both pet lovers and those who love spooky things, and like any overactive dog, it doesn’t let go.
Back in February we talked with Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson about the series as it was wrapping up, and now that the collected edition will be on shelves now, we turn to each of these creators to talk about the series future and their own future – with a hint of the past. First up is the series’ writer Evan Dorkin, who is writing a new Beasts of Burden one-shot crossing over with DH stablemate Hellboy, as well as some new comedy stories of his own and others.
Newsarama: The collected edition of Beasts of Burden is in stores now, and a new one-shot --Hellboy/Beasts of Burden -- is on its way. We’ve talked at length about Beasts of Burden back in February, so let’s look to the future and this crossover with Hellboy. How did the idea for this project come about?
Evan Dorkin: Mike Mignola and Scott Allie were talking about some Hellboy matters and during the course of the conversation Mike mentioned the idea of a crossover with our characters. Scott e-mailed me about it and I thought it was a prank. It wasn't. And Mike's only charging Jill and I a small flat fee to rent Hellboy. We looked into getting Batman, but the price was outrageous.
Nrama: Hellboy crossed over with Batman already, so you’re only one degree away. Have you had any real conversations with Mike Mignola about writing the Hellboy character, or is it more you and the editors?
Dorkin: We've spoken briefly during a conference call and have exchanged several e-mails, and we spoke a little at Heroes Con. Mike told us to consider it a Beasts of Burden story with Hellboy as the guest star, he's approved the plot and has made some suggestions that we're using. Jill and Scott made some suggestions as well; so far I've used input from all three of them in the opening and closing scenes. As for Hellboy himself, as with previous crossovers, Mike has final say and will be tweaking the dialogue. Or re-writing it wholly if I screw it all up. Apparently Hellboy isn't supposed to use Cockney rhyming slang. Who knew? I was sure he did that a few times in the John Byrne issues… (laughs)
Nrama: Call me a comics fanboy, but I have to ask: how will this crossover fit into the Beasts of Burden continuity?
Dorkin: It directly follows up on events portrayed in issue #4, in many ways you can consider this one-shot our fifth issue. It's in continuity, although basically it's “guest star shows up and helps out”. But regular readers will hopefully find a few things of interest in there beyond that.
Nrama: This might sound like an odd question, but as comics fans we’ve come to expect it – chances of any other crossovers with Beasts of Burden?
Dorkin: I don't see it. True, I didn't see this one, but I think this is it. Unless we can get DC’s Arsenal in there and perhaps address his cat problem. And horse problem, ha ha. Comics are hilarious.
Nrama: [laughs] I’d love to see you take on that whole thing.
What was your first meeting, or introduction, with your Beasts of Burden collaborator Jill Thompson and her work?
Dorkin: I first met Jill in the late 90s a ways back when my friend Robbie Busch and I got lost driving home from a Detroit convention. We took a wrong exit because of a horrible storm. Robbie knew Jill and Jay, her then-boyfriend, and called them up and they invited us over to crash for the night. I didn't really see her work until later, I was aware of the Wonder Woman stuff she was doing, and I knew who she was, but she really wasn't working on anything I was following until Scary Godmother, her own project.
Nrama: Do you feel more comfortable writing for others, or drawing based on other people’s stories?
Dorkin: I don't feel comfortable doing anything for anybody, not even for myself. I'm not being flippant, unfortunately. I really ache the work. I fight the page to get it done. I'm not proud of that, I don't think it makes me interesting as a writer, it's a real problem, and something I'd like to get past. I find coming up with ideas and writing notes fairly easy and often gratifying, but I find the process of turning my ideas into scripts and pages difficult. Ask my editors.
Nrama: I read an interview from you where you said that early on you considered yourself as “an artist who wrote”, who wrote just to have stories to draw. Can you tell us about your mindset then, and how it evolved to now where you consider yourself a “writer who draws”?
Dorkin: Basically, I wrote out of need, and discovered over time that coming up with the stories and gags was the more interesting and gratifying aspect of what I do. Drawing neat stuff felt secondary to telling neat stories. I also think I'm a better writer than I am an artist, for what its worth.
Nrama: From my vantage point, your work on Beasts of Burden really forced people to change the way they thought of your style. In the past you’ve done some untraditional work like some issues of Alien, Predator and that Agent X stint, but what do you about working in the style and genre people expect of you versus exploring different things?
Dorkin: I don't give it any real thought. I'm interested in a variety of genres, I've done work in a variety of genres and styles, I've done work for adults, work for children, work for adults who think like children, it's all the same to me. I just try to do what seems proper for each particular project and do the best job I can putting the material across. I don't try to anticipate what the fans will say, that way lies madness. I know that most people who follow my work expect humor work out of me, or they only pick up my humor books, but I've done other things as well.
And I never worked on an Aliens comic, by the way. You lose two fanboy points there.
Nrama: I’m running low – I’ll make up for it somehow. Until I figure that out, let’s switch up a little bit.
What else do you have on your plate? Possibly more Simpsons or Mad work, or some animation?
Dorkin: I've got some Simpsons strips and scripts coming out, a three-pager in the new issue, #54, that ships this week. And I'm working on some more material for Bongo, including a 15-page story for this year's Treehouse of Horror. I've drawn over a hundred characters from the show in that one, I'm really cramming stuff into the pages and I hope it goes over well. And Sarah and I are still doing illustrations for Mad, hopefully I'll have time to try and pitch a strip or something to them, my writing usually gets rejected but I slipped in a piece or two over the years. Other than that, there's a one-shot script I wrote that's waiting to be drawn, and when that gets scheduled I assume there will be an announcement on that. I'm looking forward to seeing that come together, it should be really neat. There's some odds and ends, as well, the Liberty Comics strip I mentioned, but we have no animation or TV gigs on the horizon.
Nrama: In our interview back in February, you mentioned how you were working on new issues of Dork and Milk & Cheese. What can you tell us about those?
Dorkin: Don't hold your breath. Don't hold anybody else's breath, either, unless you hate them. As things stand, I don't have any time to work on them, as for practical reasons I have to concentrate on paying work these days. So for now my own books are on a shelf gathering dust and fading from the collective memory, save for the odd strip here and there. I'm supposed to be doing a Milk & Cheese strip for Liberty Comics, if I can make the deadline. Fingers crossed.
Nrama: In the past years, you’ve done some really interesting work for Marvel & DC – including a very under-rated two issues of Agent X with an appearance by Fight Man. What are your thoughts on doing runs on titles, or those little shorts like you’ve done in Bizarro World?
Dorkin: I enjoy doing them, and appreciate it when the opportunities are offered. I wish there were more projects like Bizarro floating around, that was a lot of fun to work on. Ditto the Red Skull and Zemo strip I did for Captain America Red, White and Blue. I would have liked to have done a Strange Tales strip. My thoughts on the work? I like most of what I did, really loved what Juan Bobillo did with the Agent X issues, wish more people read those books, don't expect to be getting too many offers like that again anytime soon.
Nrama: Only time will tell… For people who bought the Wednesday Comics hardcover from DC, they’ll discover a 1pp strip you did with Stephen DeStefano about Plastic Man – intended as a back-up strip in case one of the 12 titles slipped up. What’s it like being involved with a project like that—and would you like to do a full run if they do a sequel?
Dorkin: It was a nice experience, I always like working with Stephen – who asked me to write the strip – and things went smoothly. But I can't say I felt truly involved in the project, I mean, all I did was write one page. I was like the water boy for the team, part of the event but not really part of the event. Still, one page is more than most folks got, so I'm happy it ran in the collection and I got a free copy and all. I'd love to do a full run of the strip if there was a second Wednesday Comics project, but I'm not counting on it, even though Mark Chiarello has said he'd like to see the strip in there. And pinky-sweared at the Baltimore Con. But everyone and their mother wants in on the follow-up if it happens, and Stephen and I are not nearly as popular as everyone and their mother. I'm also not a big go-to guy at DC Comics, I know that's stunning news, but it's true. So, don't hold your breath on that one, either.
Nrama: Noted. You’ve done a great amount of animation work for Cartoon Network, including two pilots. Where do you see an animation as part of your life? I read you originally went to college for animation but after graduating got into comics instead because it allows more control.
Dorkin: I wouldn't say that I've done a great amount of animation, I mean, I never think of myself as an animation professional, we've just done some work in animation. And I only did one pilot for the Adult Swim, the second one was shelved before production because I screwed it up. That being said, I honestly have no idea if Sarah and I will ever do anything else in TV or animation. We don't have an agent or manager, and we don't pursue the work, we occasionally get a phone call or an e-mail and occasionally end up with a gig, it's always a surprise when that happens. I do hope there will be another season of Yo Gabba Gabba! and we'll get to do some more work on that, but currently we have nothing going on in that area and I'm not counting on it. It's an occasional opportunity that at one point almost became a career.
Regarding my schooling, I did go to film school at NYU to study animation, but film school soured me on film people and I rediscovered my love of making comics. I don't consider my time there a total waste, however, because I also took some screenwriting courses and other classes which I have used in my career. And sometimes you have to learn what you don't want to do in life. I want to deal with as little bullshit as possible in life, so film is out for me, I guess. And stamp collecting.
Nrama: From what I’ve read, you spent most all of your life in the New York area – born in Brooklyn back in 1965, and currently living in Staten Island. What’s it like for you as a fan first and now professional living so close to where the majority of American comics are put together?
Dorkin: Being near the publishers was obviously more important in the 80's and 90's than it is now, or has been for some time. Back then I was able to bring Bill and Ted's pages to the Marvel offices after staying up all night and finish penciling them on the ferry. I'd crash in the offices and go hunting for Steve Ditko. Now you just e-mail the files. I prefer it this way, by and large, but I did enjoy the lunches at Marvel in the 90's with Fabian Nicieza and various folks, talking directly to Tom DeFalco and Mark Gruenwald and sitting in the bullpen listening to people talk. Those were fun times. And of course, you could pitch on the fly and bullshit around and end up with a gig back then, that's how Fight-Man came about. Times change, things change. I used to think I'd never leave NYC but these days I would like nothing more than to get out of here for a number of reasons. You can be a comics-making hermit anywhere.
Nrama: How early did you start drawing? What kinds of things did you draw?
Dorkin: I don't know when I started drawing, as the joke goes, I was pretty young then. I feel like I was always drawing, copying things from newspaper strips, especially Peanuts characters. I drew a lot of the crap most young boys draw, monsters, spaceships, aliens, dinosaurs, armies fighting. I guess I still draw a lot of that crap. That's comics, so many of us are still young at heart. And immature as hell.
Nrama: What’s the first comic you ever read, and why do you think you picked that out?
The first comics I remember reading outside of the newspapers was Tintin, which was serialized in Children's Digest, a kid's magazine I had a subscription to. The first comics I picked out for myself were Marvel Comics, I can't recall the first Marvel Comic I ever read, it may have been borrowed from a friend, but I do remember the first comics I bought myself, four quarter books off a grocery store spinner rack. Amazing Spider-Man with a Romita Mysterio cover, a Fantastic Four with a Buckler/Sinnot cover, a World's Greatest Comics Fantastic Four reprint which had the FF versus Spider-Man, Thor and I think Daredevil, and...I can never recall what the fourth book was. Four books, one buck, read them all over and over.
Nrama: What’s the last comic you read, and what do you think about it?
Dorkin: Mysterius the Unfathomable by Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler. I liked it quite a bit, solid, well-crafted, smart, fun stuff.
Nrama: Digging back into the archives, I found out your first published work was a pin-up in the letters page of Rom: Spaceknight #37 back in 1982. Can you tell us about that, and where you were at creatively around that time period?
Dorkin: I was sending fan letters to various Marvel comics and at one point sent a “get well card” drawing to a villain who had his arms broken by The Hulk in an issue of Rom: Spaceknight. I wasn't expecting it to get into print, it was an awful drawing. But Al Milgrom, or his assistant editor, or a trained seal they had in the Bullpen ran it. A friend of mine called me up to tell me he saw it in the letters page and I ran out to get a copy. I had to go to a few places, Rom's newsstand penetration wasn't too hot, I guess. After that auspicious debut I started sending art in with the express hope that they'd use it, but they never did.
Where was I creatively at that point? The toilet. My work was uninformed, immature, amateurish fan garbage, aping George Perez and John Byrne and the 70's Marvel bullpen. Horrible.
Nrama: Didn’t you work at a comic shop for a time? Your personal work, especially Eltingville Club sounds too funny – and too true – to be made up.
Dorkin: I worked in two shops, The Fantastic Store, which I was fired from, and then Jim Hanley's Universe, both on Staten Island. A lot of Eltingville is based on my experiences as a fan, as a retailer and as a professional. And collecting anecdotes, paying attention when I'm around fans in shops or at con tables, looking at message boards for inspiration or desperation. Very little of the material is based on personal experience; it's basically a life in comics and fandom boiled down into a very strong poison.
Nrama: You transitioned from that life as a comics fan on the outside looking in to being a comic professional in the heady days of the late 80s and 90s. What do you think about entering the field during that time period, and how it’s changed now?
Dorkin: You can be a cartoonist simply by being a cartoonist these days, bypassing the publishing structure and the direct market and going directly to the readers out there on the internet. You don't need to go to Marvel or DC or anybody. I'm not saying things are easy or easier for cartoonist now, they're not, paying opportunities have dwindled as print collapses, but other opportunities have opened up – web, licensing, options, merchandise. By and large it's not something I know a hell of a lot about, I don't know how most folks get where they are anymore, I'm a dinosaur, I'm dying out along with the stapled comic, making comics the old-fashioned way. The revolution that's happening via the web is something I'm aware of but not conversant with.
Nrama: Are you doing the kind of comics work you thought you’d be doing when you started out?
Dorkin: Absolutely not. When I was younger all I was hoping to do was become a journeyman fill-in penciler for Marvel comics. My dreams were very small. Actually, they still are, now, but they don't involve Marvel comics. My goal as a teenager was to to pencil a Marvel superhero comic before I was thirty. This was before the small press, black and white, before the direct market vomited up all these Ninja Turtles-wannabes, I had no idea how the business would change and how my attitude towards comics would change from reading books like Love & Rockets and being exposed to different kinds of comics. I wasn't even considering writing comics, I just hoped to draw them. I also never thought, back then, that I'd build up whatever career I have based on my own characters and concepts, and find myself doing creator-owned comics, or work for Mad Magazine. I did think I'd be better off, financially, though. Oh, well. Wrong there, too.
Nrama: I recently read you had a very enjoyable experience giving the commencement speech for the graduating class at the Center for Cartoon Studies. I’ve read that CCS is a real heady experience, with being a college and all. What was it like for you to be in this position?
Dorkin: Let's just say I was nervous as hell – the notion of my being put in the position as an “expert” or a “noted professional” or someone who has something to say really freaks me out, because when I get home all I do is screw up. And I'm the least successful cartoonist they've invited to speak so far, after Jeff Smith, Patrick McDonell and Alison Bechdel I felt like the boobie prize for the 2010 class. But everything worked out alright in the end. The students seemed to enjoy the speech, and I enjoyed meeting them and hanging out with some of them the evening before the commencement. A number of parents said nice things to me and I had some swell conversations. James Sturm didn't throttle me. I did no harm. I call it a win. I loved being at the school, and I met some great people there, and I hope to go back again if possible. I sure wish there were schools like that when I was younger.
Nrama: I also read you’re a thesis advisor for someone at CCS. What was that like?
Dorkin: Very gratifying. I worked with a student named Jason Weeks, who does an online strip called Billy the Dunce, and I think it was a very positive learning experience for both of us, I was able to go over his work in detail and field questions and share whatever experience I have as a cartoonist, and in so doing I was forced to come to terms with some of my thoughts and feelings about making comics, and how I approach the page and my process. Basically, I don't follow any of my own supposedly decent advice. Jason did, when it was merited, and according to him I was a good advisor. I just wrote him yesterday, we've stayed in touch. Well, he hasn’t written me back yet. Maybe he hates me now.
Nrama: What do you think Milk & Cheese would say about comics today?
Dorkin: Same as they've always said. They're a waste of beer money. Burn 'em for fuel.
Nrama: Final question --- Which of your characters do you think closest embodies your thinking and rationale right now? Are you Milk & Cheese, or something else now?
Dorkin: Pugs from Beasts of Burden, perhaps. Overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, unable to express myself as I'd like, pissing people off when that really wasn't my initial intention. My thinking is scattered and there is no rationale for anything I'm doing at the moment. Drop me a line in six months and maybe I'll match up to a more stable dog from a low-selling comic book.
Think the Beasts of Burden fit in well with the Hellboy Universe?