Written by Carlos Ruiz Thursday, 14 February 2008 07:17
The creator of indie comic faves Milk and Cheese and a mainstay on animation programs ranging from Superman to Shin-Chan to Space Ghost: Coast To Coast, Dorkin talks his new projects, the differences between the worlds of comics and animation, and some of the writers and artists who influence his work.
Milk and Cheese.
The name makes them sound so innocent, right? But in the hands of Evan Dorkin, Milk and Cheese are anything but—they are transformed into a carton of hate and a wedge of spite whose vicious and violent anarchic tendencies are dispensed with biting social commentary! Two dairy products hell-bent on destruction and violence, all served up with a great deal of comic relief. Therein lies the beauty of Evan Dorkin's work, he has the unique ability to take both the ordinary and the absurd, and make it sublime and absolutely hilarious.
The multiple Eisner and Harvey Award winning writer and artist first broke big at Marvel, when, fresh off the success of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Dorkin was selected to write the comic book adaptation to the not so great (or "non-non-heinous," as Bill & Ted might say) sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. His take on the dynamic duo led to their own Excellent Comic Book, and the Evan Dorkin ball started rolling.
From there he went on to create Milk and Cheese, Hectic Planet and Dork, which he published through Slave Labor Graphics, a.k.a. SLG Publishing. In between his Slave Labor work, Dorkin worked on numerous miniseries for Dark Horse comics, including two Predator series and a Mask mini.
By then, Evan Dorkin and his (future) wife Sarah Dyer had become one stop, multi-media moguls, writing for Cartoon Network's Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and the Superman animated series, among others, and later producing a pilot for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block called Welcome to Eltingville, based on Dork's Eltingville Club characters.
Staying true to his comic roots, Dorkin continued to put out Dork and wrote World's Funnest and contributed to Bizarro World for DC Comics. His latest work with Dyer, Biff-Bam-Pow! #1, was recently released through SLG Publishing.
Thankfully for the readers of PLAYBACK:stl, Evan Dorkin took the time out of his hectic schedule to answer a few questions about his art, his life, his new book with his wife and the everlasting legacy of Milk and Cheese.
Happy New Year to you and to your family! Since it is the beginning of a brand new year, what projects are on the horizon for you in 2008?
I've been contributing semi-regularly to MAD and Nickelodeon Magazine as of late. I've also been writing for the Bart Simpson comic from Bongo, I'm working on a script for them right now and I expect I'll be doing a few things for them in the coming year, if all goes well. That's really all I have on deck right now that seems solid. I'm mostly pitching material and seeing what happens. My own projects are all stuck in the mud at the moment. A project I have at Dark Horse Comics has been languishing in the contract stage and I hope that gets going soon. We've been offered some TV work but you can never count on that actually happening. Really, at this point I'm unable to figure out how the hell next week is going to go, let alone 2008. I might be rolling drunks under the Williamsburg Bridge for all I know.
In addition to your comics work, you've worked on Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Superman, and had a cartoon on Adult Swim, Welcome to Eltingville, created from your own characters. As someone who has their feet planted firmly in both the animation and comics worlds, what are the best and worst aspects of each medium?
I haven't had a solid footing in animation since the Welcome to Eltingville pilot crashed and burned in 2002. I botched another pilot at the Adult Swim semi-recently and we've picked up a few odd jobs since then on Shin-Chan and Yo Gabba Gabba, not exactly what I'd call a firm footing. I'd call that shaky and sporadic. My accountant calls it dogshit. I won't tell you what my mother thinks of it, I can't even type compound curse words like that without blood spurting from my nose. As far as comics go, well, you can Google my credits for the past five years and see how great that's been going. But let's pretend this is 1997 and I actually have a burgeoning dual career and I'm full of pat answers:
I enjoy working in animation because of the opportunity to have my work seen by an actual audience of some size, as opposed to my various comics, where the readership is relatively small and more often quite pitiful. I do enjoy some aspects of the collaborative process in animation, sometimes it can be rewarding. Oftentimes, it's a complete and total pain in the ass. In that way, comics and animation can be similar, because both employ people, and people are more often than not complete and total pains in the ass. We've been lucky in many regards because the folks at the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim and the Yo Gabba Gabba producers were really great to work with and trusted us to do what we do without political bullshit, ego clashes, or a lot of pointless interference. Space Ghost, Eltingville and YGG were terrific experiences. It's also nice to work with professionals who more or less know what they're doing, although that's not always the case in animation, it just seems that comics are so much more ass-backwards that animation seems sometimes seems heavenly. There's a semblance of marketing and promotion for the project, it looks professional, there's a bit of a budget, people generally do what they say they'll do...things like that can be a real eye-opener after working in comics for a time. Plus, you don't have to work to sell your project to direct market comic shop retailers, which is depressing and generally fruitless. It's also nice to get paid decently for your work, something that doesn't always happen in the world of comics, and rarely happens in the world of small press comics. I know, play that world's smallest violin for myself and the small press cartoonist waifs of America. Play Vivaldi, if you don't mind. Thanks.
There's your longwinded answer.
Which medium do you most enjoy working in and why?
I prefer comics. The complete control over the work is very important and attractive. Whatever you say goes on the page, goes on the page. You're the storyteller, the joke teller, the scenarist, the director, the voice of the various characters, the art director, designer, background designer, etc. You're a small god, creating your world in however many days it takes you.
Basically, I love telling stories on paper, it's an attractive and seductive medium for me, making marks on paper that register as words and pictures and become narratives or jokes that can make people laugh, or piss them off, or upset them, if you're good enough to elicit a response at all. It's very powerful. Words and pictures. It's amazing it's taken this long for folks to wake up to that. I'm talking about the medium here, not my work in it. My stuff is half-assed horseshit that cheapens the work of countless talents struggling to bring comics into the clean pink hands of New Yorker subscribers everywhere.
Animation is great, but it can be a hassle, and it can distill what you're trying to do even in the best of circumstances and even when working with the best of people. The collaborative process can be tough, and the amount of work needed to get anything done sometimes seems overwhelming. I wanted to be an animator early on, I attended NYU for film and studied animation there and at SVA as a kid when they had an after-school and summer animation program. I got kicked out, but that's another thing entirely. I appreciate and admire good animation, the work and thought and artistry that goes into it, and how effective and wonderful it can be. I just naturally gravitate to comics, myself.
Your latest book Biff-Bam-Pow!, a co-production with Sarah Dyer and in stores now, seems to be more of an all-ages book than a typical issue of Dork or Milk and Cheese. You seem to easily bounce between all-ages content and more adult-themed content without ever sacrificing the comedy. How difficult is it for you to juggle the two very distinct worlds?
I don't really find it difficult at all. I find writing itself to be arduous, but as far as keeping a particular audience in mind goes, the project usually calls the approach, and I can easily fall into line with that approach while I'm working. Keep the heroin jokes out of the Superman cartoon; avoid amputations in Yo Gabba Gabba segments, that sort of thing. Sometimes you feel hobbled because you have an idea or a line you really want to use, and it just isn't appropriate. But if you have half a brain, and I do, you can work around the limitations, and quite often, you find that working "cleaner" can force you to work smarter. Although for the most part, when left to my own devices, I write a lot of foulmouthed, ugly garbage. I blame my parents.
When creating characters do you consciously set out to create an "all ages" character and story, or do you simply create a character and let the story dictate the tone which then sets the age level?
Characters generally come to you, and as I said, the situation, or the project, or in this case, the character, calls the shots. I knew from the first drawing that Milk and Cheese weren't kid's characters. Sometimes, though, you're hired for an assignment, and you know you've got to come up with something kid-friendly, and you are working with a mandate or a set of parameters. Kid Blastoff, who we brought back for Biff! Bam! Pow!, was originally done for Disney Adventures, so of course we knew going in not to work up something like Milk and Cheese or the Murder Family or Vroom Socko. It's not rocket science. You don't come up with South Park for Disney Adventures. Common sense. And there are ways to punch things up for a slightly older audience without going over the top, I have a style that can be very aggressive, and I can bring that energy and pace and dialogue into play to allow a somewhat tame strip to seem more aggressive than it really is. For years people thought Milk and Cheese was a strip stuffed with foul language, and it wasn't. It just came off that way. They really don't curse that often, they just do a lot of horrible things and say a lot of crazy things. The overall effect leads some readers to recall a harsher tone than what was in the comic. Sometimes. Sometimes they do say bad things. I blame society.
I guess I should have just said "sometimes" and let it go at that. I don't know what the hell I'm even talking about.
Is it harder writing for kids than it is writing for adults? Why or why not?
I find it can be harder because you have to run the straight and narrow, hopefully without turning in material that's lame or corny or boring. Things need to be clearer, less difficult or complex. But as I said, writing is something I find very difficult in general. Ideas come easily, organizing them and expressing them in a manner that I am pleased with is an ordeal.
Milk and Cheese were drawn on napkins after a night of drinking, correct?
Yes. I was waiting for food after a ska show at CBGB's and I was very drunk. That's the secret origin of Milk and Cheese. Well, not so secret, seeing as how you knew about it.
Are you ever surprised by how much longevity a carton of hate and a wedge of spite still have after being out of the spotlight for close to ten years?
I've always been surprised at how the characters took off; certainly I'm surprised anyone other than myself still cares about them at this point. The last regular issue of Milk and Cheese came out in 1997, and that's a long time, especially in comics, where there's a lot of audience turnover and readers giving up comics completely. I know my overall readership has tumbled quite a bit as my productivity has lessened over the past decade, I've lost a lot of folks who used to pick up my books, and not having a new issue of Milk and Cheese in a decade has definitely contributed to that fall-off. Which is okay, the strip is very one-note, and I never wanted to burn people out on it, or myself, so I put the strip away for a while. But there are still some folks out there who still care about the characters, which really knocks me out. We've put out some new merchandise recently, partly to help keep Milk and Cheese visible to some degree while the book is on hiatus, and while the sales haven't exactly been stupendous, the reaction from fans who remember the characters has been gratifying. I can't complain. They were just napkin doodles; they weren't supposed to be a cottage industry or career boost. I owe a lot of what I've been able to do in my life to those two little bastards. So, long live my two little bastards.
What does it say about our society when we giddily cheer on and encourage drunken, anarchist dairy products in their exploits as they terrorize the populace and destroy everything that comes into their path?
Society is stupid.
Will we ever have the pleasure of seeing more Milk and Cheese?
Hopefully there will be an eighth issue out in my lifetime. I've got about a third of it done, compiled from strips done in the past few years, and I'm slowly working on a new three or four pager right now. I just haven't been able to schedule a solid block of time to get the rest finished. I've wanted to complete a new issue for a while now, but things have been pretty hectic these last few years, especially since our daughter was born. I'm really hoping I can get it done sometime this year, but I've been saying that for a while now.
In World's Funnest, you took Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite on a hilarious tour de force through DC Comics history, alternate earths, various timelines, and out of continuity stories such as Kingdom Come and The Dark Knight Returns, with a variety heavy hitters including Frank Miller, Alex Ross, Jamie Hernandez and Dave Gibbons providing the artwork. What was your favorite era to drop the two characters into and why?
Probably the Fourth World Apokolips section, because I was doing that in homage to Jack Kirby, who created that universe and those characters. And Kirby's the King, as anyone who knows superhero comics knows. Or should know. And I knew David Mazzucchelli was drawing the sequence, which meant a lot to me, as David had not done any mainstream superhero work for a long time, and he was doing me a huge favor by agreeing to be a part of the project. My other favorites were the Silver Age era, which was the heart and spine of the book, and which Dave Gibbons knocked out of the park. And the Fawcett Captain Marvel family sequence which Jaime Hernandez drew. The Dark Knight section was a lot of fun to write, as well. Most of it was fun, actually.
Which era was the toughest to recreate?
I spent the most time on The Fourth World because I was fanboy nervous about getting the Kirbyisms right, or at least close. Some folks who have seen the pages on the web have been fooled for a few moments by both the art and the writing, momentarily thinking it was an obscure Kirby bit, which is gratifying to hear. A lot of the eras were tough to do because of space limitations, I wish I could have opened up Earth X, for instance, and destroyed the remaining Multiverses in a double spread rather than a single splash. Earth Prime was possibly the biggest pain in the ass because we needed photographs for the backgrounds and DC was a cheap pain in the ass on that and after it finally got settled we needed a photo of Julie Schwartz and he agreed to do it, but since it was Julie Schwartz he had to be an Earth-Prime pain in the ass about it.
Actually, the Vertigo universe sequence was axed by DC editorial, so I guess that was actually the toughest to recreate, because they wouldn't allow it.
You have written for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and continue to put out your own material through Slave Labor Graphics. It seems like there is a pattern of working for a mainstream publisher and or corporation like the Cartoon Network and then kicking back to an independent book of your own. Do you make an effort to balance the mainstream work with the indie work?
That's pretty much how it's always worked, although when I was younger, less responsible, and more energetic I could get more small press books out. It used to be that the commercial work supported our small press work. Nowadays the commercial work supports the household. I'm hoping things can balance out better in the future so I can get more of my own material out there, but a lot has changed in my life and in the direct comics market in the last few years, and both have affected my ability to work on my own projects. I'm pretty much off the rolodexes at DC and Marvel, so these days it's whatever we scrounge up with Dark Horse or Bongo, odds and ends in the small press, whatever magazine and TV work we're offered. I just muddle through and see what happens, pitch and pray, see who calls, wait for death.
Continue on to page 2 to read Dorkin's thoughts on the revealing "break down issue" of Dork, his influences as a writer and artist, and some of his current favorite musicians and comic creators.
In your seminal comic Dork #7, often referred to as the "break down issue", you reveal an awful lot about your own neuroses, the pain of being an artist, the strains and demands it takes on you, the toll it takes on the people you love and the affect is has on your work. It is, at the same time, both heartbreakingly beautiful and utterly tragic. It is naked and raw and leaves you emotionally exposed. To say the least, it transcends genre and style to stand as a shining example of comics as "Art." Do you think that as an artist you have to have that pain in order to make art?
I think you probably need to feel pain in order to write effectively about pain, but some creators have exceptional observational skills, so perhaps you can pull it off without being a loon yourself. I really can't say. I can only speak for myself, and my own experiences, and what's in my own head that I've used as a springboard for material. That beings said, there's plenty of art out there that has nothing or little to do with pain, emotional or physical. Not that I'm someone who can speak with authority about art with a capital "A". I don't create "Art"; if I ever did, or I ever do, it's a happy accident. I'm happy to hear you speak so highly about what I did in Dork #7, but it's not how I see it, and I don't think I can agree with everything you said about it. I'm primarily an entertainer and storyteller and complainer. To me, Dork #7 is just a joke book with occasional delusions of relevance. It wasn't an average issue of the comic, but it wasn't The Rules of the Game or anything.
Do you ever worry about revealing too much or do you feel that by revealing all, it helps you to shed these behaviors and insecurities that all artists feel?
Neither, really. I mainly worry that the comic will be terrible, or boring. You don't want to overload the material with your own bullshit; at least not in the way I present the bullshit. I tried to alleviate or puncture the self-absorption and self-indulgence with humor and some sense of narrative so it wasn't just a whiny navel-gazing experience for the reader. Dork #7 was cathartic in some ways, but I never fooled myself into thinking it would be curative. I just felt I had an interesting take on what I was experiencing, prompted by an earlier strip I was riffing off of, and I told it in the best way I knew how. Some folks liked it, some found it funny, some thought it was crap. That's show biz.
Who or what influenced you the most and made you want to make comics for a living?
Earliest on, I'd have to say Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Also Harvey Kurtzman and his collaborators on the 50's MAD comics, which were reprinted in the 70's MAD Super Specials. I was especially drawn to Bill Elder's work on those comics, although I didn't know who any of the creators were at the time. Don Martin was a big influence when I was young. Charles Schulz. As I got older, I became enamored of the work of Jaime Hernandez and Gilbert Hernandez in Love and Rockets. I'm sure there were others during my formative years. Which ended about seven years ago.
As far as writing goes, whose style and work influence you as a writer?
I'm still influenced by a lot of my pop culture intake as a kid, for the most part. I've never sat down and analyzed my writing influences; in comics, they're not often as readily identifiable as someone's art influences, I'd say. Stan Lee and the 70's Marvel writing staff who aped his work. I particularly liked Steve Gerber's work, which was not like Stan Lee's work at all. Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Charles Shulz, Kurt Vonnegut, Tolkien, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, at least I assume they influenced me as those were folks I read heavily. I'm probably most influenced by a lot of the television comedy I watched growing up, Monty Python, SCTV, early Saturday Night Live, Ernie Kovacs, The Goodies, a lot of British comedy shows aired on PBS and local NYC syndicated channels, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Abbot and Costello, a batch of stand-up comedians, sketch writers and performers, people like George Carlin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Bob and Ray, and on and on. Old showbiz, old movies, old cartoons, monster movies, professional wrestling interviews, punk rock fanzines and alternative comics of the 80's. It's all in their somewhere. Even some actual literature. Maybe.
I still can't put my finger on how my writing brain functions and who or what truly influences it. It just seems like everything I see or read or listen to works on me in some manner. I wish I had a great, impressive answer to this. If I was a more important figure in comics I'm sure somebody would have written an essay telling me who my influences were. Until someone does that I have to fumble around trying to nail it all down when someone asks me. It's embarrassing.
Whose style and work influence you as an artist?
Jack Kirby, Bill Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, Don Martin, Jaime Hernandez, John and Sal Buscema, the 70's Marvel bullpen, a lot of newspaper strip artists I grew up on, and a number of animation directors and artists whose cartoons I grew up on. For all I know, I was influenced by the Archie and Harvey cartoonists, when we were kids I read all my sisters comics after I was done with my superhero books. These days I've fallen under the influence of a lot of long-dead newspaper cartoonists whose work I'm reading and collecting, as well as some of the European clear line artists like Herge and Yves Chaland and Joost Swarte, and manga artists like Tezuka and Shigeru Mizuki and Junji Ito. I don't hold a birthday candle to any of the cartoonists I've mentioned, and my work doesn't reflect much of their direct influence—save for perhaps Elder, and that's only superficially—but that's my list and I'm sticking to it.
I'm also influenced by a lot of graphic art and design, poster art, 50's animation background and character design, punk fanzines, album sleeve and flyer art, old fonts and typefaces and vintage commercial design. I don't study, unfortunately, I just absorb a little bit from everything, a sort of casual osmosis, which is why my style is a bit underdeveloped and why I can't rattle off the names of standout designers besides someone like Saul Bass. And again, you can't really see these influences in my work beyond the typefaces I've used and adapted for some title designs and whatnot. I'm not much of a designer, although I have a lot of interest in graphic design; but it's not something I ever learned anything about and I feel out of my league in that regard. I just cobble things together and hope for the best, no real reason behind them other than what I think works. I have no idea if any of the fine artists I like have influenced my work. I sort of doubt it. As far as I know it's all MAD and Marvel and Merry Melodies.
Conversely, when I look at some of Jim Mahfood's Stupid Comics, I can't help but see a little Dorkin influence in his work. Also, I can see your influence in Angry Youth Comics by Johnny Ryan. What young artists do you see your work in?
I don't see my stuff in Johnny Ryan's work. We both do humor comics you can't show off in church, but that's about all we have in common, I'd say. He'd probably spit blood if he heard anyone say my work influenced his. I really have no idea what kind of influence my work may have had on anyone in the business, if it's had any at all. It's not something I think about. I've been influenced by cartoonists, I don't influence cartoonists.
If you don't see your work in any of the young guys and gals, which new cartoonists and/or comics creators are you into?
I'm fairly ignorant of most of the new crop of cartoonists. I just don't have the time or resources to stay on top of such things anymore. There are just so many books and web comics out there, I don't know who could keep up with it all. I stay in touch with the field as best as I can by reading The Comics Reporter and Journalista every day and a few other websites if time allows. But I have to admit I don't pick up many books by the younger set. Almost all the comics I'm buying these days tend to be by dead cartoonists, because of all the amazing archival reprint series being published these days. Right now there are beautiful reprints available of work by Osamu Tezuka, Elsie Segar, George Herriman, Jack Kirby, Charles Schulz, Frank King, Winsor McCay, Milton Caniff, Hank Ketcham, Tove Jannson, and others who I'm pretty crazy about. And more reprint projects being announced every few weeks. I can't keep up with all of that, not to mention various one-shots and art books by old and dead masters, so how do I find the time and money to keep up with the untried youngsters? I don't, unfortunately. It was easier in the 90's, when there were fewer cartoonists and fewer comics being published, and no internet. And younger cartoonists would mail their comics and mini-comics out to half of the cartoonists out there, including us. These days I'm all excited about the complete Black Jack and Little Orphan Annie and Scorchy Smith, I don't have time for the whippersnappers. I think the last thing I bought by someone who wasn't on Medicaid or in the ground was Ganges by Kevin Huizenga, which I liked. Is he "new", though? I like the Perry Bible Fellowship strip, I can't type the creator's last name, though. [Nicholas Gurewitch] You'd have to throw some names at me, everyone I try to think of as a new cartoonist has actually been around for a few years, if not longer, like a Brian Ralph or Jim Rugg or...um...uhhh...someone else. Maybe I'll catch up to the current crop when I'm in the Old Cartoonists Home and they can transmit comics directly into your brain via Tachyon beam for ten cents a pop.
I hate this question. I feel really fucking old now.
Looking at your work, there is a strong punk/ska influence in many of your strips. Since Playback is primarily a music magazine, who are your favorite bands and/or musical artists?
The Pixies, The Clash, Madness, Blondie, X, Talking Heads, Stereolab, The Electric 6, My Bloodie Valentine, Portishead, The Chemical Brothers, Louis Prima, The Specials, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Rocket From The Crypt, Devo, The Aquabats, The Replacements, Fishbone, John Barry, Henry mancini, Bernard Herrman, The Buzzcocks, The Dead Kennedys, Billy Childish, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Puffy (AmiYumi), tons more. I listen to all sorts of stuff, I like standards and big band and swing, soundtracks, novelty records, old country and western, classical, hillbilly music, doo-wop, pop, power-pop, j-pop, new wave, no wave, post-punk, alternative, plenty besides ska and punk. I mostly listen to WFMU.org, they play everything and anything, it's a listener supported freeform station I swear by and it's turned me on to hundreds of artists from the past century or so I wouldn't have heard otherwise.
You have created a litany of characters and comics strips from Milk and Cheese to the Eltingville Comic-Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club to Little People's Theatre, the Devil Puppet etc. Who is your favorite character that you created?
I guess I have to go with Milk and Cheese, because they make the least sense and have been the most enjoyable to work with. In some ways I owe a large chunk of my career to their creation. And they're the easiest to draw of all my characters.
What is your favorite comic strip that you've done?
I wish I had an answer for that, but I don't. | Carlos Ruiz
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