Smash Pages Q&A: Evan Dorkin

The writer and co-creator of ‘Beasts of Burden’ discusses his long career in comics, his collaborations, ‘Blackwood’ and much more.

Evan Dorkin seems to have many careers. For many comics readers, he’s the writer and artist behind Dork, Milk and Cheese and The Elitingville Club. He wrote and drew Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book series for Marvel back in 1991-92, which has since been reprinted. He’s contributed to MAD Magazine and other outlets. In television, he’s worked extensively with his wife, the noted creator Sarah Dyer, on shows like Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Superman: The Animated Series and others.

He is also the writer and co-creator of the award winning comic series Beasts of Burden. Dorkin’s approach to horror and suspense and his skill at writing animal protagonists — combined with the painted artwork of initially Jill Thompson and later Benjamin Dewey — have made the books a favorite among readers and critics. Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch was just released by Dark Horse, which collects a lot of the one-shots and other stories featuring the supernatural-battling pets, including a crossover with Hellboy co-written by Mike Mignola.

How did you come to comics?

On my knees, begging. After I grew up reading too many comics as a kid and becoming obsessed and wanting to draw them “for real.” It’s the same story most people in comics have, the difference being what you were first exposed to, where that led you and how it ruined your life. Peanuts, Tintin, Marvel superhero comics and MAD were tentpoles of my childhood, but I’d read any comic I could get my hands on. When I was done with my weekly Marvel haul, I would read my sister’s Archie and Harvey comics. All that cheap newsprint ink got into my veins and hooked me for life.

I’m curious, how do you describe Beasts of Burden?

Dogs and cats fighting the supernatural in a small suburban town. Then I have to add, “Yes, I’m aware of how it sounds” because someone’s rolling their eyes or giggling. It happens almost every time.  

Now that you’ve written a number of issues, short comics and longer stories, I’m curious which you prefer writing, the shorter or longer?

I have no real preference. Short pieces can be tough because it’s hard to get a satisfying story into eight pages. Longer stories involve more decisions and more chances for things to go wrong. I worry about being able to sustain a piece over several issues. I don’t want to pad a story out or nose things along just to fill pages. All writing is difficult for me, really. Longer stories pay more and fill up a book faster, so I do like that about them.

You of course made the first series and the earlier stories with Jill Thompson, and more recently you’ve been working with Benjamin Dewey. Readers can see their work side by side and see differences between their work, but for you as the writer, what do they do that’s different? How do you work or write differently for them?

I don’t write much differently for Ben than I do for Jill. I write a bit differently for Ben now that we’ve worked on six issues together. My first scripts were pretty stiff, I wasn’t sure what to expect and was very nervous about working with anyone other than Jill. They both draw wonderful animals, they both work environments and backgrounds into their pages, and they both know the genre angles, so the ghosts and creatures are well-designed and effective. Their characters act and show emotion. I love both their styles and what they bring to the pages. If they didn’t make you believe the world was real, then the dopiness of the concept would sink the whole thing. They make it real and believable.

Beasts of Burden has always come out here and there, in large part because of Jill Thompson’s schedule. Are we going to see more and more frequent Beasts of Burden comics with you and Dewey?

I hope so. Ben’s currently working on a new Wise Dogs series that I wrote with Sarah Dyer. There’s a lot more stories to tell, and I hope Ben will want to continue to work with us.

I first got to know you and your work reading Dork and Milk and Cheese and Eltingville, which Dark Horse published in new collections recently. I’ll be honest, when I first heard you were writing a horror comic, I was thrown. I know you’ve written many things, but what do you see connecting these different projects you’ve written over the years?

I hear that from people who know me from my humor books, and I get it. I have a fond memory of Darwyn Cooke passing by our table at Heroes Con one year, and he tapped the pile of Beasts of Burden books and said, “I didn’t know you had it in you.” That was really cool, especially since it meant Darwyn wasn’t yelling at me. But I’ve always worked in different genres. When I became a full-time comic book goof in 1991 I was working on Milk and Cheese for SLG, Bill and Ted for Marvel and Predator for Dark Horse. I’m not sure of the connections my projects might share, besides the humor. Vomit gags, I guess. Vomit makes for handy punctuation. I blame Al Jaffee for that. Anyway, I’m dodging the real answer here because that’s for my therapist to deal with.

How you write is very sincere. These might be horror stories, but they’re not cynical, and I’m curious how much of that is just you and your worldview?

Cynicism can influence what I write, but it doesn’t affect how I write. In Beasts of Burden, sincerity is pretty much baked into the characters. Our dogs are heroes. Less so the cats. Most of the cats don’t give a shit what happens.

You also wrote a different kind of supernatural story last year, Blackwood, which I really enjoyed. Do you want to say a little about it for people who may have missed it? Is there a chance we’ll see a sequel?

Blackwood is a horror-comedy series, by me, co-creator Veronica Fish, with art by Veronica and her husband Andy Fish. Blackwood is an old college that recruits young people who had tragic encounters with the supernatural for a secret occult program. Blackwood has a lot of the creepy stuff; it’s also pretty much a comedy. We try to sidestep a lot of the things people might expect from a “magic school.” Some reviews mentioned Harry Potter, Buffy and Scooby Doo, but our reference points are more like Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator and Real Genius. We’d like to keep it going. Like Beasts, there’s a bigger picture there.

You’ve mostly been writing for many years. Do you have an interest in drawing more comics?

I still draw comics, just not very often. I did several pages of gag strips for the Heavy Metal humor spinoff, Soft Wood. Sarah and I worked for MAD for the last decade or so. I drew a story for the Comics Comics anthology. I’m doing some covers right now; I gave up on boycotting variant covers because it was me against being broke and being broke was winning. I’m still working on material, a young reader’s comic, a memoir, I keep a notebook for gag strips and humor stuff. But the reality is that the industry isn’t geared for my cartooning, and I’m not geared for webcomics or a Kickstarter project in my current situation. We’re considering a Patreon, I’d be able to do my Fun strips for there, maybe some one-pagers, some autobio stuff. Basically, Dork, in installments. If we did well enough, maybe I’d have time to do a Milk and Cheese page once in a while, a Hectic Planet page. Here’s to hoping.

In the back of the new book there are some roughs you drew while writing. Do you often draw out pages while writing and need that to help think?

I’ll sketch things out for myself if I get stuck on a script, I usually end up working a few pages out this way before going back to typing it out. I think visually, I tend to see script ideas in terms of layouts and images, and sometimes I just hit a wall while trying to describe something at the keyboard. I don’t send these sketches to the artist, they’re just part of my process.

After seeing the roughs – and Jill made this comment – I do want a short Beasts of Burden comic that you draw. Like either a kid’s version of events or a chibi version of the book.

Dark Horse has my email, if anyone’s loopy enough to do that. I’d consider it. It could be a cartoon dream one of the dogs is having, and the opening and closing pages can be done in the usual, lush painterly style. I’m thinking out loud here because it’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m getting punchy. Next question.

You mentioned that you’ve written a new Beasts of Burden series with Sarah Dyer and you two have worked together a lot over the years on different projects. As someone who’s made a lot of work that’s all you, what do you enjoy about collaboration?

Sarah and I balance one another out in a lot of nice ways on a script. We tend to make better scripts together, tighter, with stronger logic, structure and attention to the larger picture. Also, when she’s on board a script will often head into places I wouldn’t have taken it, especially when we’re knocking ideas around trying to figure things out or problem-solve. We’ve collaborated on a number of creator-owned and work for hire comics, and we’ve done scripts for shows like Batman Beyond, Space Ghost Coast to Coast  and Yo Gabba Gabba. Sarah’s also the colorist on my artwork, and we’ve collaborated on illustration and design work for a bunch of things. Most recently we wrote the cut scenes and revised dialog for the Contra: Rogue Corps video game which comes out this month from Konami.

I will admit that my very favorite in the book – and a moment that made me laugh out loud was – “Aaaggh! It’s the devil! An’ he’s got a gun!” I have to ask, did you come up with that or did Mignola?

It’s always a good feeling to hear someone laughed at loud at something. That’s my line. It’s from a joke I told about when the comic book Hulk was running around carrying a gun for some reason. I thought it was ridiculous. The Hulk carrying a gun is like God carrying a gun, “Oh no, here comes God – and he’s got a gun!”. So, I reworked the line for Pugs. Poor Pugs. Hellboy is never coming back, and he’ll never see him again. The unexamined cruelty of comic book crossovers.

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