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A Short Interview With Evan Dorkin
posted October 7, 2006
 

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The first time I met Evan Dorkin, he yelled at me. It was at one of the old Chicago comics shows, and I asked to take his picture for my then-job at The Comics Journal. He started yelling, "Nice cartoon in your magazine!" and variations thereof -- we had just run something by Rich Tommaso on the "Viva La Comix!" editorial page that took a shot at Dorkin -- and every time I made my way around the room in a way that caught his eye, the raised voice commentary would return. Then, at the end of the day, he called me over and we stood at the edge of the booth and he explained why he was upset by the cartoon. We've been friendly professional semi-acquaintances every since.

I was lucky enough to interview Dorkin for The Comics Journal #214, which was one of the more significant pieces I've ever done, both how it turned out and what I learned while doing it. In the preparation for the initial, marathon session I went from a casual Evan Dorkin reader to a devoted one. I like his body of work: a great deal of it is funny, a lot of it is heartfelt in addition to being humorous, and despite what Evan will tell you the visual component was fine to begin with and has consistently improved.

Evan Dorkin returns to one-cartoonist/one-funnybook comic book making with Dork! #11, an all-gag issue. It should be in Direct Market comic book shops this Wednesday, and I can't wait. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Do you have a personal constellation of favorite gag cartoonists?

EVAN DORKIN: I don't have a history of growing up with gag books in my collection or anything. I don't know if that's obvious. I think I always liked gag cartooning, I just didn't know it. I don't think I ever divided the comics and the newspaper cartooning I liked as a kid. I'm of the age where you could still get lots of cartoon books at your barber or at your doctor's office. I vaguely remember those doctor cartoon collections. I would sit there and eat them up, read them over and over and over when I'd go back to the place, because they wouldn't change them out.

Where would I have seen a lot of gag cartoons? I just keep thinking about Dennis the Menace -- that's the only panel I can remember from newspaper comics, but there must have been others.

I think in the last few years I've thrown myself into looking at old New Yorker books and Punch and trying to find books at thrift shops or used bookstores -- old stuff like Clare Briggs and all that. I don't think I've taken anything from the really old stuff, HT Webster and all those guys, but I really like the idea of one panel that hopefully works and gets a reaction. I've always read political cartoons and things like that. But I can't say that it was something I paid a lot of attention to early on. The last few years yeah, definitely.

That doesn't answer your question.

SPURGEON: Sure it does.

DORKIN: I'm trying to work this out myself, to be honest.

I think what happened is that a few years ago I sold a couple of gags to Nickelodeon Magazine. I'd been doing these kind of throwaway gags in Dork! in lieu of having a really dead, boring indicia page. The inside front cover would have a couple of gags thrown in with the publishing information and update and plugs and things like that. I started to enjoy them and write more of them. So yeah, I started doing the Nickelodeon Magazine stuff. It's for kids, but it makes your brain start coming up with one-panel gags. I was pitching a lot to MAD the last year or two, maybe three -- I don't know how long it's been because I've done such sporadic work for them. I didn't sell anything to them.

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In 2003, I decided I was going to do an all-gag issue of Dork!, and I guess without even meaning to start a collection I've been picking up a lot more old gag books while I was working on it. It wasn't conscious, like I should look at a lot of gags, because to be honest I don't like looking at something I'm doing similar work to. I think a lot of people are like that. You don't want to copy anybody, or you don't want to step on anybody's gag, even though I don't know that that can always be helped. In fact, while I was working on Dork! I had a page of related, themed jokes sitting around in my Dork file for over a year -- actually, it was more like three years -- and Steve Weissman had something very similar run in Nickelodeon, although not in the same context, and I was going to drop the whole page. He did a gag in Nickelodeon that had some caveman stuff in it, and a mastodon, and one of my punchlines was practically the same as his, if not the same. I'm thinking, "Oh, Christ! I can't do this now." Sarah [Dyer, Dorkin's wife and frequent creative partner] was like, "Nobody invented a mastodon running after a guy."

Actually, what she said was a lot more eloquent than that, but what she meant, and always reminds me when I brood about these things, is that you can do a similar joke if you're putting a spin on it. I get worked up over this with plots and characters as well as jokes. Anyway, it was a very similar joke. I went with it anyway, so I hope nobody thinks I ripped him off intentionally. I just really wanted to retain this page and thought it stood on its own. Maybe I was wrong. Now I feel stupid.

Are you asking who I like?

SPURGEON: Basically. Is there a group of figures that loom large for you?

DORKIN: Charles Addams... which makes me think of Gahan Wilson. A lot of the old New Yorker guys who I actually find funny. I can't get worked up over new New Yorker guys. I try to. I don't want to be on that bandwagon of "it hasn't been funny" even though I said so in Dork! I just don't laugh. "That was erudite."

Peter Arno... now I'm blanking. I packed up a lot of my books recently. Whitney Darrow, Jr. Partch -- Virgil Partch, definitely. I got all the pin-up stuff that Fantagraphics has been putting out, but that's usually not too funny. It can be clever, but it's mostly there for the eye candy. Jack Cole was the best of that bunch. I liked his stuff. I like [Mark] Newgarden -- I guess he does gag panels, but they're all split open. I really adored him when he was in the New York Press. I loved the We All Die Alone book, I can't believe that it seemed to kind of go without a lot of attention.

SPURGEON: That's a great book.

DORKIN: I like Sam Henderson when he does gags. I like Ivan Brunetti when he does gags. Ummm... I like Barkis. [laughter] I finally got a hold of that.

I like Clare Briggs and HT Webster and a lot of those old guys. There really are a lot of guys. I like [Eldon] Dedini. I like a ton of guys, but I don't think about them when I'm working.

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SPURGEON: In a lot of Charles Addams' cartoons there's a central visual concept and then you pick up on the incremental details that give you the full context. Do you look at the cartoons you like in that way, or do you just have a like/dislike reaction?

DORKIN: I try to break things down. I'm no Scott McCloud, or Art Spiegelman -- and I won't make jokes about either of them. I hate that in interviews I sort of put out this idea that I don't think about anything and I'm this idiot that's sort of crapping out cartoons. And sometimes I am. But yeah, you think about what you're doing, hopefully, while you're working on your stuff. I think I overthink my stuff. I probably overthink nonsense. I have a problem micromanaging details. To be quite honest, I don't think I would have done this issue if I really thought about it. I think this is a real mistake to do this as a comic.

I'm really, really... I just feel weird about this book. The three-dollar word is escaping me... I'm very ambivalent about this book. I think it was a big mistake career-wise. Not that I have this big career plan or anything, and that's one of the problems I have, but I do think it was a big mistake in a lot of ways. I think the reason I did a book that has 216 purported gags in it is because I didn't have a lot of confidence in them, which is why I've always done the Fun Pages the way I've done them, and the Table of Contents gag pages. I figure if you throw a buffet at people, they'll overlook the burnt parts and the undercooked parts. [laughs] I've been trying the last couple of years to develop my line and my composition skills and try to become a better writer, but the lack of confidence doesn't allow me to let a gag panel stand alone.

I should have made this a book. I have 216 gags here, I should have just made this a gag book instead of a comic. Not so much for the money, but it would be a nice thing. To have put months into this thing then to put it out as a comic is kind of self-defeating in some ways. I already went through this when I did the Milk & Cheese mini-comic like 10 years ago and didn't release it through Diamond but did it as a convention-only. I really felt it would be exploitative of the fans, even though I ended up doing a lot of work on it.

If I was in the industry to make money, I wouldn't be doing any of this stuff. So it's not, "Oh, I need the money from an $8 book." It's just that I think it would have supported an $8 book. I could have done it small. I could have done it like an old Peanuts book or an old gag book. A paperback, like a pocket paperback. Instead of this mind-numbing, eye-blearing... there's 526 panels I think in this issue. That's counting the last page, which is just a pin-up because I was out of time.

Another reason I did this book is because I could work on it piecemeal without losing my way. I'd have a grid or a layout and I would pull gags from my file and either throw them out or use them. Or rewrite them. I always knew that while working on other stuff I could come in and do a joke panel. I wouldn't have to do a sequence, I wouldn't be laying out stuff, worrying about dialogue and continuity, it would just be gag, gag, gag. I thought it would be easy; I thought it would be fun. It turned out to be none of those things. It turned out to be an absolute nightmare. As far as working on a comic book can be a nightmare: I wasn't in a mine [laughter] with my buddies with the rafters coming down.

I don't know what I took from this except to think in that mode. In and out. These aren't just gag panels, I'm also doing the fun strips, which are a title panel and three gag panels, which I've been doing regularly as parodies of how bad the comics are in the papers. It became a feature in the comic. There's a five-panel gag and maybe a six-panel gag. I was originally supposed to have a lot of fake ads, and things like that, but I didn't have the time to do it properly, and I was glad anyway because Tales Designed To Thrizzle came out and it had some ad stuff in there that was better than anything I could have come up with. So I'm glad I didn't do that. Then I saw Johnny Ryan did an all-gag thing. I'm like, "Everybody's going to say I ripped this off."

SPURGEON: It's interesting you describe books that way vis-a-vis your comics, because it seems to me you're one of the few cartoonists fully invested in his periodical. You reprint them, they're a primary showcase for you, and you never get the sense they're just an initial step on the way to book publication.

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DORKIN: I see what you're saying, but I think that maybe Dork! was a wrong vehicle for this. Besides my normal ambivalence about anything I put out, and my normal nervousness about anything I'm doing, I felt that I basically undercut myself for the amount of time I put into it and the amount of money I might have been able to make. But it's not only that. I realized I was undercutting my confidence and playing up to the fear that I couldn't put out an actual gag book, that I would be seen as stretching my material to exploit the readers. I would be doing what I would usually do in Dork!, except it would cost more. Also there's the lack of confidence that it would work, that a gag would deserve to have a page to itself. I also don't know if it would make for a good issue.

My hope is there's one good gag on each page. That would mean I have 25 good gags. Twenty-five good gags is better than most people have in a comic. What I'm really hoping is that there's two or three decent ones on each page and there are a couple that are cute or look nice. Then a couple of groaners. You're always going to have something -- I'm shameless sometimes. There's a few I have in there I'm not proud of. You know, sometimes you get a laugh out of the ones you're not proud of, because they're shameless. Something about each strip in there gave me enough confidence to put it down. Although a lot of them I fought over in my head, and a few I chucked and pasted new ones over. It was interesting in that I didn't know what I would come up with, because I didn't have 216 gags written. A lot of things changed, and I came up with some characters and concepts I was very happy with or that I had fun with.

Here's the other thing about it. Working on it as a book, I would have been able to work on these larger. When I do a page of 12 gags, they're only a couple of inches by a couple of inches.

SPURGEON: Are you saying you drew to size?

DORKIN: No, everything here is drawn on the last of my misbegotten Marvel and DC paper. But whenever I do a Fun Strip, there's 29 panels on a page. They're one and a half inches by two inches. And there's a lot of detail in them. I'm not saying that's good or bad. It's the truth. There's a lot of detail to them. They really wrecked my arm and shoulder this time out, to the point where when I told Sarah I was doing another Fun Strip for somebody because I owed them a strip, she was like, "I thought you were quitting those."

SPURGEON: You ever thought about assembling your pages later and working at a larger size on each panel?

DORKIN: For something like this I should have. I don't trust the computer, even though Sarah's a whiz at that stuff. I'm an idiot, and I know I'm not the only idiot out there. I know there are people out there still filling in blacks even though they can go in the computer and click click click. I have to do it, even if I'm late on a job. I have to see what it looks like with the blacks laid in. At the very end of the job, on the Fun Strips, the titles, I had Sarah copy a couple and paste them down in the computer. But I tried to add something to them, because I kept getting very nervous it'd look like a cheat, which is insane.

With the Milk and Cheese logos on the strip, or if I have a recurring strip in the Fun Strips, I always re-draw the title. Even if it's the same exact thing and I don't add anything. It's just anal-compulsive, and this weird idea that I got as a kid when I didn't know about pastedowns or anything. Even though I know about these things now, and I can use them, and sometimes will, when it comes to my own stupid comics I can't just let go of stuff. We just did a book cover for Harper-Collins, and a lot of the lettering I did was manipulated and fixed by Sarah, but I can't do that on my own books.

SPURGEON: A lot of writers still write longhand in tablets, and no one thinks anything of it.

DORKIN: Yeah, but when you know you're doing something you shouldn't be, because you don't have the time, or it's affecting your health and other work... True that by that token nobody would do comics. Whatever the payoffs are for certain things and certain people, generally if you're doing these comics you're not going to really see anything for it. What happens if you're lucky is that it gets collected and blows up or it gets you work on a TV show, or you get a book cover from Harper-Collins. And if you get enough of those, you have a career. That's pretty much what's happened to me.

Another thing is that I felt really weird about Dork! taking four years between issues. At the time I really started working on it, it was only about two years. I thought this was going to be a lot easier to do. I also thought I was going to do less pages with 29 panels on them and the like. I ended up being so pressured to finish, that I just kept going with what I knew and gridding these pages out and filling them up. [laughs] It's like I was tiling a comic book.

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I just don't know if it's funny. That's really all this one has to be. I think I overdrew it and I think I overthought it, and I just don't know... you just don't know. I couldn't try this one out in Toronto and then take it to Boston and then open it in New York. I did what anybody has to do who does a humor book. I'm not sure anybody gives a shit if I do anything at this point, four years later. I read on the Internet one or two people said it was an anticipated book, and I'm like [laughs] I don't see it that way. It's anticipated by me and by some of my readers. These days, with all the graphic novels and hardcovers being published, putting out a comic book feels like driving a Mini-Coop on the road with all those trucks from the movie Brazil. "Why are you doing this?"

I'm afraid to see what my sales on Dork! #11 are. I just don't even want to know. I didn't ask. It's partly my fault; I haven't put out an issue in a while. But that didn't use to have an effect. Sales always went up each year. I know that we already have weird sales because retailers know that Dan [Vado, President and Publisher of Slave Labor] keeps the books in print. So they order weird. They know they can get them.

SPURGEON: The writing of gag panels -- where do you start? A lot of gag panel writing I would think is catching a moment.

DORKIN: It's catching lightning.

SPURGEON: When you're writing a narrative you can do things like have your characters interact and find out what comes next that way. But with gag panels, what do you do? Is it a humorous notion that comes to you that you then work on and refine?

DORKIN: God, that's difficult. I find most time the gag comes to you the same way you come up with a name for a character. It's something that you're not necessarily walking yourself towards. It's like a firefly. A light goes off in your head and you just go, "Two monkeys in a cage and there are people out there. Punchline." Done. Done in one.

I don't like to sketch -- because I don't like to draw. [laughter] As cynical as that sounds. I just don't sketch. I'm sure there are people that will read that and go, "That's obvious." But I'm not an artist's artist. I'm not a draftsman. I don't enjoy drawing unless it's for developing something or drawing on the page. I like making comics, I like developing the work of comics. I hate just sitting around drawing. I stopped enjoying it a long time ago. I don't know if part of that is because I have a really bad shoulder and hand. I guess that is part of it. I find it physically painful to draw. But that being said, when it comes to gags, I have these folders sitting on my left at all times because I know I might get an idea, so I just scribble it and toss it in the file. I throw some out later, and I come back to some.

All right. "Martin Amis and Andy." I wrote that on a file folder. Not sure what I can do with that. It's not very visual. I think that's the kind of joke where you have to get an extra joke in. You have to dump something else onto it. That's a dumb pun, but I wouldn't do it just for the pun. There's a group of Drew Friedman gags where he put a serial killer with an entertainer, and it would just be funny by the juxtaposition. "Martin Amis and Andy" -- ha ha. But if I can come up with a good bit of business, like from the Amos 'n' Andy show but with Martin Amis' character in it, it might make for a good three panels. Or it might make for one panel. So far I think it's not so good, so it sits here in the file. You know what I mean?

Some characters -- "Hank Jenkins, Chronic Masturbator" -- it just kind of writes itself. Recurring characters like "Phil the Disco Skinhead" you have a hook and it comes down to how many times you can spin the wheel and have it come up on "joke" instead of "no joke."

That makes no sense.

SPURGEON: No, I think it does. Charles Schulz I think used to say that there were the days when the gag wasn't so hot so he would draw funnier.

DORKIN: Sometimes a bad gag will lead to a good gag. There's so many ways... I think about it, but I don't write down what I think about it, so I forget it.

SPURGEON: How much does refinement play a role on the final product?

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DORKIN: A lot. I think a lot. I can work on a gag for years. I pitched to New Yorker magazine. I knew I would never have a chance in hell with my sensibility and my possible lack of humor for that audience especially. But I did it as a challenge to send my work in to somebody, because I almost never do that. I got my little rejection, and I loved it. I know that sounds stupid. It was this affirmation that I did something. I'm in MAD because they called me; I'm in Nickelodeon because they called me. I'm not playing hard to get, I'm playing impossible to go get. I'm 41, and I've still never had a portfolio. I have trouble working on pitches. I never get anywhere with a pitch, usually. Everything I pitched MAD tanked except for two things right off the bat; nothing's hit since. I've done pretty okay at Nickelodeon. I will work with the audience in mind, of course. There's certainly not going to be any bukkake jokes being sent to Nickelodeon. That's for myself. [laughter] It's also hard to tell if anybody will laugh at anything that's not toilet humor or violence.

There's very little violence in this issue compared to my younger days. Everything seemed to end with somebody slapping somebody, or hitting them. I almost did a gag about it for #11, but there were too many self-referential gags in there already. That's another process, that if you're doing 216 gags. How do I want to balance these things out? Do I want to have a couple of raunchy gags in a row? Do I want a couple of clean ones? There's some thought to that as well. Some times you want to have some dialogue-based gags, or visual, or some that are silent. That's hard for me to do; my comics tend to talk a lot.

SPURGEON: Is that part of the writing process? Does the material drive you a certain way?

DORKIN: It goes back and forth. One thing with Dork! is that I don't have to worry as much about the audience. Jennifer De Guzman said, not in an insulting way, that it was "foul." [laughter] It has more nudity than any other issue. Enough, when added to the rough talk, that I put a mature readers tag on this issue. First time ever. I loved not having it on my core books but this one just made me feel it would be a real disservice to retailers.

I think what happens is when I'm working on a page of seven gags or 12 gags, I'm not working it out as acts. Which sometimes I'll do with a page. I like to end my narrative pages on a beat and start them on a beat. That's nothing new, but I always think it's weird when people don't do it, not because they're planning it, but that they just let the panels fall where they may. They don't compose a page.

Anyway, on the page I realize what I've got, and what I don't want next to one another. Sometimes it's visual. I've got talking heads on this one, I want to see some feet on the next one. I've got a lot of dialogue on this one, the next one should be sparse. Since I already have a lot of this stuff in note form, what I'll do is I'll lay the page out and in the title boxes I'll put the titles of what strips I'm thinking of laying down. And put a question mark, which means that I'm not sure if I want to use it there or even put it on the page.

In the end, if I really wanted to, I can swap them out on the computer. I had Sarah swap like four or six gags out after I finished up. I ended up hating a couple of other strips so much I took them out and put new panels over them. I thought they were too lame. I don't mind letting lame in once in a while if there's something funny about. It's all subjective. You'll do a book and the favorite gag of most people seems to be the one you never thought much of.

SPURGEON: They say that in newspaper strips that every comic you end up doing will be somebody's favorite, even if it's one you did to get them out the door, or one you actively dislike.

DORKIN: I found that visually, the ones I was doing the last week when I had four pages left and I was up against it, those are the ones that I'm happiest with. They look full without being cluttered. I jumped around pages some, too.

I have no idea. It's a joke book, as my grandfather calls comics. I love when he says that.

SPURGEON: How self-conscious do you let the work become? Does any of the humor come from the fact you're making a joke? Are there any moments where you want people to enjoy the kitsch element of what you're doing? Is the caveman joke you talked about earlier funny because people recognize cavemen as stock players in gag panel drawing?

DORKIN: The cavemen joke, it had to be a caveman. He's a closeted, gay neanderthal. But I don't think I'm subverting gags at all.

imageThere are a couple of panels where the people know they're in a gag. I've always had that SCTV quality to some of my comics, where characters are flubbing lines, or blowing things, or pointing out why the strip doesn't make sense. Some people don't like that; some people do. I'm always on the fence about anything I do. I'm in a fight with the audience where I try not to think about them, and then sometimes I do think about them. I have an entertainer quality to my work, but also I'm trying to do what I'm trying to do. I realized I was working in a format... I was aware I was doing gags, so I would critique my ability to do caricatures. I have a gag in there about that. David Levine makes a guest appearance. [Spurgeon laughs] When you read the gag, the actual gag may be in the coda of "Yeah, like he reads my work."

I'm acknowledging this deficiency in my work. That's interesting, I hope. The joke is that David Levine is drawn badly, so he's critiquing my caricature while I don't recognize him. I have no idea who this man is that's yelling at me because he's drawn so badly I don't recognize them. I thought that was interesting. Then I point out there's no way in hell he's reading my work.

I think we talked about this in the Journal interview, but I really try and load stuff up. It's not only the result of my lack of confidence, it's the influence of Monty Python and MAD or SCTV, where one joke didn't seem to be enough. You either had the Chicken Fat of Bill Elder, or Python throwing two odd things together, lowbrow or highbrow often, or SCTV where they would pile the stuff on: a parody of Chekhov but also a parody of Star Trek but also a parody of television, with characters from their fake television station. It spirals out of control. You get humor from so many elements. SCTV is still one of my favorite things ever.

SPURGEON: I'm afraid of looking at those again.

DORKIN: They hold up. John Candy shooting kids in the back because he's Yellowbelly... [laughter]

I feel like I bring to my comics a real love/hate with the entertainment industry, but it's the industry of the late '30s to the early '80s. I love old radio, and comedy teams, and comedy troupes. I was a junkie for anything having to do with comedy. I didn't know as a kid that I was analyzing it, but I paid attention to the jokes and the timing. I think that's something that I've brought to my comics. I grew up watching a lot of shtick. And I think shtick for good or bad has been an albatross around my neck. In many ways I've been presenting my comics the way SCTV used to present their show. My references have to be so dated by now. I feel hopelessly out of sync with modern media. This is not an act of snobbishness, ignoring modern pop culture -- I have a Creature From The Black Lagoon action figure in front of me. I'm a geek. Maybe that's why I don't do too many comics anymore, because I don't know how to make fun of anything people are watching.

SPURGEON: Have you looked at the issue yet?

DORKIN: I looked at the proofs; Slave sends them to me so I can make sure a page isn't upside down.

SPURGEON: There's a really strong point of view that comes out of a lot of classic, great joke books. Like Addams, or Partch or Arno...

DORKIN: Don't say "great" around me!

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SPURGEON: [laughs] Do you see a point of view emerging out of your work?

DORKIN: Sure, there's something in those pages. There has to be, it comes from me, from my head to my hand to the page. I don't like people much. Individuals can be fine, I'm friends with a number of individual people. Groups pretty much never are worth a damn. I don't like hypocrites, the stupid, the ignorant, the self-denying, the arrogant, the self-delusional -- you know, people. I don't like myself much, either. I'm a person. I wish the world was a better place, but I'm cynical and bitter and I know I'm helpless to do much of anything about anything, so I make angry, cynical, bitter little comic books and hope someone gets a kick or a thought or an idea out of them.

I was trying so hard to finish the book. Nobody likes to talk about it, but sometimes you're just winging it. "I've gotta draw palm trees tonight for this desert island gag."

I don't want to shortchange the reader. I don't mind insulting their intelligence. [Spurgeon laughs] It's true! And I don't mind fighting with my audience. But I never want anyone to come away thinking that three bucks, which is such a measly amount of money, was a rip-off for one of my comics. If that makes sense. I don't think it's an ethic, necessarily. I think it's a weakness. Partly I think it's being respectful and not being grabby. And partly it's fear.

I just hope people laugh at the damn thing.

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Dork! #11, Evan Dorkin, Slave Labor Group, 24 pages, $2.95, Shipping October 11.
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Evan Dorkin's Web Site
Evan Dorkin's Publisher
Evan Dorkin's Blog
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images from Dork! #11 provided by Sarah Dyer. thanks, Sarah