Evan Dorkin on CHUDS, the Industry and Beasts of Burden

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As I picked up the phone to call Harvey, Eisner, and Ignatz-award winning creator Evan Dorkin about his upcoming comic from Dark Horse, Beasts of Burden, a strange thing occurred. My dogs—a small, long-haired rat terrier named Suzzee Q and a mutt not much larger than his female counterpart named Buddy Guy—began growling and barking, standing on their hind legs at my front door, and generally acting agitated. Meanwhile, my cat, Yossarian, an arrogant, unfriendly devil of a feline, hopped on my lap and gave me a look that said, "I know something you don’t."

I was, understandably, unnerved. I walked out onto my front stoop and could smell the rain, resplendent in the air, glorified in its creeping closer and closer to my house. Around the neighborhood dogs were barking madly, shaking the chain-link fencing that trapped them all in their separate yards. For some reason, the normally docile canines were angry or scared . . . or both. I could only imagine what the neighborhood cats were doing. It couldn’t have been the oncoming storm. We get them a lot in Omaha, NE. I thought it must have been something more . . . ominous.

Then again, I had been reading the first four appearances of Dorkin and collaborator Jill Thompson’s "Beasts of Burden" in The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings, The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft, The Dark Horse Book of Monsters and The Dark Horse Book of the Dead (the first two of which are available to read for free online right now here) .So you could say I was in the right mood . . . if you were the type of person to say such things.

Evan Dorkin is not that type of person. And wisely, when I called him, I chose not to recount the mysterious happenings in my neighborhood on an oddly cool August night. He would have laughed at me, not with me (and been angry since it was apparently oppressively hot in New York). And frankly, I would have deserved it. So I stuck, or rather, I tried to stick to a discussion about Beasts of Burden, his new comic that takes the animals from his short pieces in The Dark Horse Book of . . . series and gives them what they deserve: more stories.

According to Dorkin, the comic about, "dogs and cats fighting the supernatural on the East Coast" was an organic creation. The story of the story is simple. Scott Allie of Dark Horse wanted Dorkin to do some work for their first Book of . . . comic (Hauntings). Dorkin wrote one about a haunted dog house, asked Jill Thompson to draw it (she kindly agreed), and "it went over nicely." Allie then asked for another one for The Book of Witchcraft, and the rest, as they say, is history. There was never any story "forcing." It all grew naturally, which gives it a feel unlike most popular comics these days. No long-winded, late night meetings of the minds of the eighteen editors responsible for creating this work was needed. There were no death-defying searches through the archives to make sure continuity could be continuous. According to Dorkin, these stories were written the old-fashioned way. That is to say, they were just written.

With talking animals as main characters taking on monsters and other things that go bump in the night, while all the humans are busy being either ignorant or evil, these stories don’t fit well with much of anything on the shelves at your local comic book shop. That alone is enough appeal for this reader. However if that isn’t enough for you, with Thompson’s art on top of Dorkin’s words, the package is a sweet one. In fact, according to Dorkin, "The art alone is worth it, even if you don’t like the story," (at one point he went on to say that people who couldn’t read English would still get a lot out of Jill’s (Thompson) "pretty pictures." But I have a feeling you will like the story because Dorkin is a storyteller and says this book is one for people who like dogs and cats, but more importantly, "it is for people who like to read." Since each issue of the new series will be a one-shot with an over-arching story that subtly links them all together, any issue is also a good issue to begin reading—an almost unheard of convenience in today’s market (despite what some ads might tell you).


But I’ve been dropping hints, haven’t I? Hints about something that a poor writer would leave unrevealed. I told you I tried to stay on topic, then I told you Dorkin is a storyteller. I’ve got to be getting at something. Haven’t I?

I am.

From a conversation on the merits of the C.H.U.D films (I called them classics, he most decidedly did not) to the merits of Dinty Moore beef stew (let’s not even get into that) and a fictionalized career in Eastern Bloc death metal, Dorkin kept my ear for an hour and a half of what I intended to be a thirty minute interview. Am I complaining? No. It was a riveting conversation with a man whose work I have been reading since I was a teenager. At first he seemed almost angry. I was taken aback. He was cracking jokes and I felt as though I was the butt of them. But as our conversation continued, as he opened up more and more, I saw that he was not only a great writer and artist, but a true fan of the form and his anger wasn’t directed at me, in fact, it was something of a mask. Was he bitter? Perhaps a bit, though he would disagree. But there are few in the industry or in fandom that don’t have a right to be bitter these days. Comics are as expensive as they have ever been. In many superhero comics, story has been replaced with sparkling lights, the end of the world and zombies. Comic book stores can look like "dirty old man clubs" where children are scared to tread. The form that many of us grew up loving, that many of us can remember falling in love with, can sometimes feel like it is being usurped by a contingent of slavering fanboys writing fan fiction and turning everything into a Goddamned crappy movie.



On the other hand, Dorkin sees a lot of good in the industry right now. For instance, the artist on Beasts of Burden, Jill Thompson. Also, there are reprints galore, of classic comics that look better than they ever have. And though Dorkin believes comics are still the invisible medium, (the only one that people everywhere still refer to as a "useta" as in, "I useta read comics, but don’t anymore") I could sense the eagerness in his voice as he spoke of the opportunities for good reading out there in the comics world right now from both new and old sources. Furthermore and despite his description of many comic book stores as unpleasant places, he is "fairly happy with the state of comic shops as they at least present themselves these days. NYC, and elsewhere, has a number of sharp-looking stores that welcome families and kids. There are still a lot of swamps out there, but I don't have to shop at any of them, and neither do a lot of other folks, which is great. We've always had a small number of solid shops since the DM opened, but we're finally getting an influx, albeit slowly, of really great-looking full-service stores. Stores that look like bookstores and galleries. Stores that look like stores, not rumpus rooms covered in collectibles. Although those can be fun, too."


In short, during our interview, while talking about everything from corny '80s genre movies to the current state of affairs in comics, Dorkin expressed his unapologetic love of the form. His love, like his talent, is complex. As our conversation closed, I realized the initial awkward, almost angry Dorkin had been on the defense, testing me for any signs of ill will, stupidity, or ignorance. I believe it is a test I passed because he revealed himself more and more with each word. Whether it was a joke about how much money he didn’t have, a remark about how glad he was his four-year-old daughter could find good comics to read, or an impassioned plea to comic book creators to start making superhero comics fun again, Dorkin did not hold back.

But perhaps the most revealing statement he made was about Beasts of Burden. He said he was "a nervous wreck wanting it to do well." These are the words of an artist. Behind the bravado, the jokes, and the attitude Dorkin is an artist who has crafted an amazing story that exemplifies what the art form can do and I feel lucky to have been able to speak with him. Beasts of Burden hits stores September 16th 2009. Don’t miss it.

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