Are you a comic fan who also enjoys the cringe-worthy comedy of Lena Dunham’s Girls and Louis C.K.’s Louie? Then you’ll love Eltingville Club. It’s the story of four teenage boys who band together over a love of comics, but true to its creator Evan Dorkin’s other works like Milk & Cheese, he doesn’t pull any punches in showing the eccentricities of comic fandom. After years of appearing in various anthologies as an animated pilot on Adult Swim, Dorkin is returning to the comic fanboy club just in time for one final send-off.
In April, Dark Horse will publish the first of two Eltingville Club issues which will show the final days of the comic fanboy quartet, as well as a flash-forward ten years into their future when the foursome reunite one last time on the floor of Comic-Con International: San Diego. But don’t expect waxy homages and halcyon days, as Evan Dorkin – the comic shop staffer turned indie comics veteran – isn’t letting up on showing the seedy, all-too-true side of comic fandom. In this two-part series, Dorkin is giving his four protagonists their final send-off in a way he’s never been able to do with any other of his comic creations.
Newsarama: Evan, what brings you back to the boys of the Eltingville Club here and now in 2014?
Evan Dorkin: I've been trying to finish up the Eltingville series for a long time, but just couldn't get it going full-steam. In 2000 or so Sarah and I started working on the Adult Swim pilot and that was more than enough Eltingville to deal with for a while. The comics industry was changing and it got a lot harder to fund small press humor material, anthologies were dead and SLG -- who I was publishing most of work through -- didn't pay a page rate up front so Eltingville ended up on the back burner. I started publishing primarily through Dark Horse a few years ago and after we collected Milk & Cheese we got around to Eltingville. Eltingville first appeared in a Dark Horse anthology called Instant Piano in 1993 and will end at Dark Horse, so, full circle and closure and all that.
Nrama: What are the guys up to in this one-shot?
Dorkin: Basically, the Eltingville Club finally breaks up for good after twenty years of disbanding and getting back together. There's a lot of tension between Bill, the club's founder, and the other members, and then Bill gets a job at the local comic shop and it goes to his head and things fall apart and get kind of brutal. Besides the final break-up it's also a satire about horrible comic shops and their owners. I worked in comic retail for close to six years, I was a manager at the original Jim Hanley's Universe on Staten Island, which was and is a quality shop. The retailer in Eltingville, Joe Gargagliano, is an over-the-top Frankenstein monster made up of all the worst comic shop people I've dealt with as a fan, retailer and professional, along with some comic shop horror story elements from other people. There's a lot of crazy shit going on in Joe's store that people won't believe is based on real life. I had to leave some things out because they were too ridiculous or didn't work for the story, like the comic shop that was a cocaine front -- and probably the most profitable comic shop in the history of the direct market.
Nrama: At its best, Eltingville Club seems to work with that self-deprecating humor that hits comics fans like you and I a little too close to home. How much of you do you think is in Bill, Josh, Pete and Jerry?
Dorkin: The four Eltingville members are based partially on real people, guys I was friends with growing up on Staten Island, we played D&D and went to see horror movies every weekend and read comics and didn't go to the prom. Josh is a composite of two people, Pete is based on a friend of mine to a degree and also stands in for a certain kind of Staten Island resident, Jerry is a mix of several people. Bill is closest to me, which is sad, because he's a sociopath, but all the characters come out of me to a degree, obviously I'm the geek wellspring for them even if I don't act like them. The humor is supposed to hit close to home, Eltingville's a joke but it's supposed to be an uncomfortable one, it's not about cuddly, cute, awkward fans, it's always been about the unsocial, self-absorbed, arrogant little tyrants that make fandom a less fun place, the idiots who make death threats to creators and rape threats against women writing about sexism in the video game industry, who flip out about the casting of an actor playing a fictional character, who argue the most ridiculous points of trivia as if they honestly matter in the scheme of things, who put fantasy above reality and don't know how to behave like credible human beings and go bonkers if they're called on that behavior. Most fan aren't like that, but in all aspects of life the trolls are the loudest and the proudest and they really junk the joint up.
Nrama: Self-deprecating humor is pretty hard – did you ever over-think the jokes in Eltingville Club or pull back when you thought you might be going too far?
Dorkin: Self-deprecating humor comes pretty easily to me, and I'd assume that's the case for most people who are down on themselves for whatever reason. Writing a bio for a book where you're supposed to talk about yourself in semi-glowing terms -- that's hard for me to do.
In regards to going too far with a joke -- usually the jokes that make you a little uncomfortable are the ones that have some heft to them. If it burns a little and you're a little afraid of it that probably means you have something that works or actually says something honest. Or it sucks and makes no sense to anyone but you. You take your chances and see what happens. People who play it safe all the time tend to make boring, forgettable comics.
Nrama: There will be two Eltingville Club issues for this finale. What can you tell us about the second one?
Dorkin: The second issue takes place ten years after the first, and has the Eltingville Club reuniting at Comic-Con International: San Diego. Things happen and it ends and I finally get some sleep.
Nrama: Once you finish these final two Eltingville Club stories it’ll be the end of an era – I don’t remember you ever doing a finale for one of your other serials, definitively at least; they might disappear for a while but there’s always a chance they could come back. Why was coming back and delivering a finality to this strip so important to you?
Dorkin: Because I needed to finally finish the story and collect it and maybe make a few bucks and get some sleep. Finishing something would be nice for a change, especially since Beasts of Burden will have to be completed by my daughter and some robots the way things are going.
Nrama: In 2002 you worked with Cartoon Network on a pilot for the series, titled Welcome To Eltingville. That’s one of those pilots that I was gobsmacked didn’t get greenlit, but how did that whole experience affect your thoughts on the comic itself?
Dorkin: The pilot didn't have any bearing on the comic in that regard. I always intended to end the comic, that's one reason I was willing to sell the characters to the Cartoon Network if the series happened. I retained publishing rights, but unlike something like Milk & Cheese, I was okay with giving up the core rights to Eltingville. I still am, ha ha ha.
Nrama: Did the experience of working on the Welcome to Eltingville pilot change how you looked at the story in any regard? Maybe perhaps honing something, rethinking something, or something else?
Dorkin: No, the only rethinking I did was in regards to the pilot itself. I'd never worked on an animated project of my own and it was a learning experience -- if I had the chance to do it over again I'd have delegated more design work to others -- I took on too much work, as if it was a big comic I was responsible for -- and I wouldn't have adapted the "Bring Me The Head of Boba Fett" comic for the pilot. I think going with a different story would have allowed viewers -- and maybe even the Adult Swim executives -- to understand there would have been more to the series than four characters yelling trivia at one another. A lot of folks liked the pilot, I'm always grateful when someone brings it up as something they wish went to series, but I know some people thought it was a lot of pop culture references and nothing more.
Nrama: The initial idea for Eltingville Club came from your own time working at a comic store – Jim Hanley’s Universe in Eltingville, to be exact. But now you’re decades removed from that inspiration, so how have your thoughts as a working comics writer and artist impacted your views of the retailing and fandom aspect of this strip?
Dorkin: The idea for Eltingville Club actually came out of a phone conversation I had with my then-publisher, Dan Vado. Dan was writing for DC Comics at the time and was getting a lot of crazy fan hate mail and death threats and bullshit because he killed off a character in a Justice League story. Some of the mail was incredibly vicious and all of it was incredibly stupid, I mean, we're talking about people losing their shit over fake, not-real, make-believe fictional characters, corporate intellectual property, concepts that never actually go away or "die" because if they really disappeared for good the company loses the rights, and they'll never let that happen. This is what some people write death threats and hate rants about, about nothing that really means anything in the long run because the characters always come back -- and then these ding-dongs go crazy that they changed their costume or skin color or something else that doesn't or shouldn't matter. Anyway, that's where Eltingville came from. Hatred of bad fandom, filled in with my own experiences as a fan, retailer and comic book making loser. And Twiki jokes.
Nrama: And how about now, here in 2014, finishing this up?
Dorkin: Now, 2013 and 2014, finishing this up -- Retailing and fandom and the overall culture has changed for the better in a lot of ways -- not in all ways, and not across the board -- but the scene isn't as isolated and completely backwards like it was when I worked in a shop in the 80's. Comics has gained a lot of experience in the past few decades but it hasn't exactly leveled up. That being said, there's a lot of positives out there, but Eltingville isn't about being positive or maturing or evolving. It's about the worst aspects of fandom, the worst fans who go to the worst comic shop run by the worst retailer. And it isn't cute or cuddly. If you want to read a nice comic about mature, rational fans or funny, silly fans then you should probably avoid the Eltingville Club like that mumbling old guy in the rain slicker and no shirt standing by the adult comics section sweating all over a hentai manga.
Nrama: Has the success of Beasts of Burden changed how you view The Eltingville Club?
Dorkin: No. The success of Beasts of Burden is relative, for one thing, and one project really doesn't have anything to do with the other.
Nrama: Re-reading the older Eltingville stuff after Beasts of Burden reminds me of how dense your comic pages are in your own drawn comics versus the open-ness of Beasts of Burden. Why do you think that is?
Dorkin: One reason my comics are so cluttered is because as a kid I was attracted to dense, detail-oriented comic art. Jack Kirby's superhero comics, Tintin, Mad Magazine, the Harvey Kurtzman-era comics reprinted in the Mad Super-Specials, which had all that amazing work by Will Elder and Wally Wood. I was a big fan of George Perez, his comics always had more going on than most and with superheroes, more is usually really, really good. I also gravitated towards movies and TV shows that were loaded with material, silent slapstick comedies, Monty Python, SCTV, Tex Avery cartoons, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World. Anything that allowed for multiple readings or viewings, I seemed to like, and that transferred into my comics.
The other reason my comics are dense is because of my OCD. I have trouble cutting back and letting go, my compulsions get the better of me, and on top of that I tend to overcompensate for my deficiencies as a writer and artist by overdoing things. I always try to give the readers their money's worth and I also try to wring everything out of a concept that I can, sometimes, maybe often, to the detriment of the work. I fight this tendency but it usually gets the better of me in my own pages. And in interviews.
The reason Beasts of Burden isn't as dense is because Jill Thompson's working in watercolors and we can't go overboard on panels or on word count. The paintings need room, every panel is a complete little watercolor painting, you can't go in and nail endless detail down the same way that you can in pen and ink with a Hunt 102. Jill puts details in, sometimes a wealth of detail, but she has to have room, so we try to keep pages to a five panel maximum as much as possible. This was something she told me when we did the very first story, to keep it to five panels per page, and I try to stick to that. Jill will expand or contract the layouts as she sees fit, sometimes we'll end up with a nine-panel page, but that's pretty rare. We tell a complete story in every Beasts project, whether it's 24 pages or 8, so, it's a slow process for me to hammer everything into shape so Jill can work with. It would be easier to let the material roll over into more issues, expand a story into two issues, but we release so few comics as it is that doesn't seem possible. So, this is how it is.
Working on Beasts of Burden or the DC Nation shorts helps me cut things down and lose extra business, but while working on Eltingville it all came back. After I'm done with these two issues I'm going to try to work on changing my approach to comics. Super-dense pages cut my page count and productivity and cripple my schedule as well as my income. I like detail but I have to learn to pick the pen up and let the page go. I'm just not good at letting go.