In advance of his forthcoming Beasts of Burden: Occupied Territory series, co-written with frequent collaborator (and wife) Sarah Dyer, featuring art by Benjamin Dewey and letters by Nate Piekos, I spoke with Evan Dorkin about the new book, his recent slight shift in focus, thirty years in the comics industry, and the recent re-surfacing of art from his teenage years. Excerpts from this long, digression-filled, and thoroughly enjoyable conversation are presented here. Far too many conversations start by talking about pandemics, disappointing politics, and anxiety about the future. My conversation with Evan was no exception.
How long do you think it'll be before people are able to have a conversation without talking about the pandemic as the central thesis? I feel like every conversation I've had for the past year has been just about this disease.
Well, there's always new bad news. There's always absolute, Kurt Vonnegut-like fiction occurring in response to this. It's just the worst... you know, Philip K. Dick, Kafka, Vonnegut... I don't know if it's Swiftian, because I've never read the stuff, of course, but it's just the worst. It would be funny if you read it. It's just, it's unbelievable to see people saying the things that they say and the lack of self awareness or, worse, the decision to just lie, cheat, and steal. Everything is a fight and it just feels like you cannot get away from it. This should have been beaten. This should have been a priority. Who would ever thought you'd live to see the day where there’d be a plague and people would be like “How can we use this?” And that's our government. This is the first time I've ever heard of an American government that waged war on its people. I mean, they say Nixon did, right? But come on. This is disgusting, and you can't do anything about it. We're watching it in real time, people fighting the vote and fighting about who gets shots and how we get shots. And a maniac said “Let's shoot bleach into our bodies,” and he was still in office the next day. There's no-- there's no truth anymore. There's no reality anymore. When I would read stuff like that as a kid, you know, this weird apocalyptic science fiction or whatever, it seemed like it might be cool. Then it shows up, and it's just stupid.
I don't know. I'm going crazy. I definitely am going out of my mind. It's becoming very, very tough to stay focused. I can't even imagine people who have actually gotten sick or people who have to go into work and deal with the public. I feel fortunate that I'm a lowly cartoonist, because at least I get to stay out of that. I haven't been off [Staten] Island. I think one time I drove into Brooklyn for an event that was outdoors and distanced, which was really nice, but depressing because I couldn't believe how alive I felt for a few hours. Being able to see people I knew, and just be outside. I really don’t know what I would do if I could go somewhere. I’m a bit of a homebody.
Does that make it harder to work? How do you deal with the mental distractions of being pressed down by all of this?
Everything seems like it's floating. Nothing seems important. This is, you know, my own point of view. People are talking about how you can't tell what day it is. Everything just feels wrong and off. It’s mentally unbalancing to see things like the cruelty and the lack of response to the situation in Texas, for example. This goes against everything you were brought up to think about functioning society in America. I mean, no matter how combative Americans can be with loving each other, you're supposed to get the buckets out when there's a fire. Even the fakest of our history books will tell you that people are still supposed to come together when there’s an emergency. It just seems like people who have nothing are the ones who have to do everything in those communities.
I do find it hard to work, but at the same time my therapy is helping me a lot with that, although I haven't really had what you'd call normal freelance work for the last couple of months. The new Beasts of Burden series was written about a year and a half ago, if not longer. It was pre-pandemic, because I certainly don't think I'd do a story about an occult plague. I stopped using the word “plague.” I think it was called a “curse” in the solicitation material. [Beasts of Burden artist] Ben Dewey was working on the fourth issue when the release was frozen, so it felt really weird to be working on lettering revisions for scripts that Sarah and I did for [letterer] Nate Piekos. I couldn’t remember those scripts at all. I ended up rewriting quite a bit of issue four and we had to rewrite some of issue three. A year and a half later, you're a little bit of a different writer.
Earlier, you said you were kind of taking a step back from freelance work, so is the new Beasts of Burden series the last of that work for a bit?
For a couple of months, maybe, but you never really know. I did the new Bill & Ted series [Bill & Ted Are Doomed, with artist Roger Langridge] and I didn’t really expect that to happen. The new Beasts of Burden is called Occupied Territory. Sarah and I co-wrote this one, and Benjamin Dewey’s back on art and Nate Piekos is back on lettering. That’s the Beasts of Burden team right now. This series came about because of a weird, goofy situation. Daniel Chabon is my editor for pretty much everything I do at Dark Horse, and I wanted him to give me his dog. He has a dog named Zell, who’s a Shiba, and I wanted a free dog and Zell’s an awesome dog. So I’d tell him “Please send us Zell. I’ll pay for the shipping.” You know, silly stuff you end your emails with or whatever. For some reason, he didn’t want to do it. It’s hard to mail a dog. But he’d say “Put a Shiba in Beasts of Burden and then you’ll have one.”
I came up with an idea for a one-shot story featuring a new character, but Sarah and I ended up working the story around to the point where it became a bigger and needed more issues than just a one-shot. That's basically how we ended up with Occupied Territory. It had been sitting in the wings for a while until we had time to get to it, and then the pandemic pushed it further back. We finished the first three issues about a year ago, so it’s been a weird experience to come back to it. This is the first series that isn’t going to have watercolor finished art. Ben’s doing it digitally. Last time, he did five issues in a row for us. He did Wise Dogs and Eldritch Men, and then he did an issue to cap off Neighborhood Watch. It was a lot of work. I don’t know how anybody does a watercolor comic anyway. I want to keep Ben happy and I want to keep him on board because I love his work. His digital work is very painterly and it keeps that sort of lush, storybook feel. It can sort of look like a kid’s book if you look at it quickly. It's not cartoony like the way I work. It’s not all flat color. But it also doesn’t look like a Molly Hatchet album cover painted on the side of a van.
This series is an extended flashback that takes place in 1947 in occupied Japan. It starts at an Army base but we leave the humans behind pretty quickly. The Wise Dogs stories tend to have more humans in them because the Wise Dogs are sort of a superhero team that works with people. This all sounds very silly, but it’s hard. I really find it hard talking about Beasts of Burden because I'm constantly thinking about people who haven’t heard of it reading this stuff. This sounds so ridiculous, you know, cats and dogs fighting the supernatural. Sometimes it’s nice to write an established character because you don't have to tell everybody what's going on or explain it. “Here's Spider-Man! You know Spider-Man.” You have that introduction that you don’t have to put in the book. I sound like an idiot talking about dogs fighting frog monsters. But if I can get people to read the book, I think it’s really good. I hate pushing my own work. I like talking about other people’s stuff. I think it's really good. I mean, I know that sounds silly, but I really think Beasts of Burden is a really good comic. I still have that weird thing where I'm afraid to talk about it to people who aren't into genre comics, but you can pick this up and just read it as an adventure story. You don't have to know the other comics. That's one thing we fell into a pattern of doing starting from the first story.
Is it a difficult task to maintain that accessibility when you’re writing about a world that you’ve been building for almost two decades?
Well, there are allusions to other things, and there are hints of these other characters and stories existing. You know, I reacted badly after Jill [Thompson, co-creator of Beasts of Burden] left the book, and I still feel bad about taking that situation public. Jill and I are in touch now. We talk. I blew a gasket about the schedule of the book publicly, twice. At one point, I shot the book down. I was walking away from it. Things are okay now. Jill is doing a variant cover for us. I would like Jill to come back, but I understand if she might not want to. Maybe that experience is just not something she'd want to deal with again. But we co-own the series and we’re in touch when anything affects the series. I always wanted to start telling stories about the Wise Dogs characters. When Ben came on as the artist of the series, I wanted to write things that would add to what we were doing but would still remain self-contained stories.
Even though you’re not working on other freelance projects right now, you still seem to be really busy. You’re posting a lot of work online.
I've been purposefully winding down my freelance work for a couple of months. I’ve been basically concentrating on -- for lack of a better way of putting it -- my “brand” through my Patreon, art sales, and commissions. I've got some collections coming up this year, and we’ve got the Beasts of Burden series coming out. I consider myself very lucky that I don't really have to listen to anybody. At some point, if I stop making enough money, I'm going to have to listen to the bank, and to the city when they bring back debtors' prisons and work yards. But I don't have to listen to anybody to a large degree. That's an incredible feeling. When I was first starting to do comics full time in the '90s, everybody was kind of mellow. My deal with SLG [Slave Labor Graphics] was a handshake. I never had contracts with Dan [Vado, SLG’s publisher] on most of my work. It was pretty loose.
Right now, things kind of feel like that again. As much as social media is a very sharp, double edged sword, I’m lucky to be in a position where I have one-on-one communication with my supporters. I don’t know. There are some people who seem to be embarrassed by it, but it’s just another way of doing what you do. I don't think it's a miracle solution to everything. I suppose if you're one of the mainstream Marvel or DC people, and people love the way that you draw those characters, you're going to be able to do commissions probably for the rest of your life. I'm not in that position, I have a limited skill set for drawing these things, and not everybody likes to see superheroes in my style. But for the time being, right now it's saving my life. It’s a job. I consider my Patreon the job. It brings in money and I’m not there to try to jerk people around or anything.
Comics is in a place where ageing white guys are definitely starting to struggle a little bit. There's a lot of amazingly talented younger people coming in. And thankfully, they're not all just middle class white guys. I've been warning younger cartoonists about this my whole life; if you don't stay relevant, if you suck, you die. If the industry decides that I suck, at least I've got a new place to go. I can go to the audience I’ve cultivated over 30 years. Cultivated in a haphazard way, because I've never been good at career planning. I've never been good at “goals.” I always just had an idea for a story, and that's the next comic I would work on. My work has always been in a weird little area of the industry where I have one foot in mainstream comics and one foot in the small presses. But if I had an idea for a Predator series, and I needed to make money, I could do that too. But it didn't last because the industry has exploded with younger talent and access and fewer gatekeepers. These are all positives. But I didn't have a business model for myself. Just enough work to get by was always coming in. Now I've got to scramble. So I'm getting better at adopting new technologies, getting better at adopting new ways of doing things.
I'm not good at pushing my own work. It's very hard for me to look at my own cartooning and say “Yeah, this is great.” I mean, I've come to the conclusion that I'm a good cartoonist. This is a real leap for me; thinking positively about myself and my work, liking myself better and liking my work better. It happened through therapy, and through changing the way I think about things. That’s also part of the process. But when I look at a book that somebody else drew, it's much easier for me to stomach than my work. Seeing someone else's artwork looks professional to me in a way that my work does. My work’s just the drawing that I made on my table. But I'm asking my fans to say “yes” to me. There's no one way to do this. Most ways that depend on other people saying yes to you are going to fail you at some point. Your favorite editor is going to leave, your favorite company is going to shut down. That freelancer is going to turn out to be a horrible human being.
It's weird to be working on my Patreon for a couple hundred people, but it allows me to do more creative stuff. I'm not the kind of person who's a good enough inker to sit there and go “Look at me lay down this beautiful line” or “Look at me draw this amazing anatomy.” I like to talk about my emotional issues, because that seems to strike a chord with a lot of my followers and readers and I since I did Dork #7. I’m aware of that. Most of us have issues and more and more people are comfortable talking about these things.
I think that issue was revelatory for a lot of people because it came from a somewhat unexpected place. Up to that point your work had been mostly this fun, crazy, chaotic experience and then you laid out an honest exploration of some pretty heavy experiences.
It was definitely a game-changer for me for a number of reasons. It felt like it was the first time some people took my work seriously, which shouldn't mean as much as it did, but I'm human, you know? I didn't work to get taken seriously. Just like I didn’t work to make money, which ended up biting me in the ass. A lot of us get into these bad situations, because we're not business people. We're artists, writers, creators... our heads are in a different space. Anyway, I thought Dork #7 was really funny. I thought there was a lot of sugar in that message. I didn’t expect it to have such a deep, striking and emotional response. I kind of knew what I was doing. I thought I was more in control of the effect of going for, and how to tell that story. That material was all over the place. Some of it was created without a script, some things were created with a partial script. I mean, in the middle I just wrote it out. I was just improvising on a lot of those pages. Mentally, I was getting worse. Because it is not fun to talk about that stuff, and I wasn't over those issues.
I hope I never have to do another Dork #7. But I'm afraid I'm gonna have to at some point. Well, I'm not afraid. I’ve publicly spoken about my attempted suicide a year and a half ago, and I was ready for the response to that, but not for the depth of that response. I'm still answering emails and dealing with that. I really didn't want to seem too presumptuous or self-involved talking about something like that. But from my experience, talking about things like that -- especially if you're not doing it in a way that seems crass -- brings out a lot of relief from people who are going through the same thing or have gone through the same thing, or need to talk about it and don't have someone to talk to. I'm not a counselor or anything like that, but I do write back to everybody who writes to me unless I screw up and lose their email. I've always done that. I used to write letters to everyone, and now I email everyone as best as I can.
Sometimes you need to see representation of who you are emotionally, or mentally, when you're hurting. I had a really dark time, and I was hurting. But it was freeing to be able to talk about it. I’m not providing medicine, but when you talk about these things publicly, you will hear from people. And I wasn’t doing it for sympathy. I was just doing it because it was something that I felt I needed to talk about. It's hard to talk about your emotional problems, and it's hard to talk about the bad things in your life. I don't do as much comedy work as I used to, but a lot of comedians use their fears and their flaws and their frailties for their work. Growing up Jewish and in the Jewish community, there's a lot of comedic self-deprecation.
Are there plans to publish any of the material that you’re posting to these online platforms?
I'm for all intents and purposes working on Dork number 12 right now. It's just that it's going to take a while to collect enough material to say “This is what I feel comfortable presenting as Dork number 12.” I'm working on the cover, and I've been posting bits and pieces online. I also have material that ran in a newer Heavy Metal issue that maybe not that many people have seen. I’ve also been doing one-page and two-page comics for myself. There’s probably going to be a new Milk & Cheese eventually, too. I couldn’t bring myself to make a Dork 12 for a while. Dork 11 killed me. It was my fault. Nobody forced me to make a comic with 500 gags in a regular 24-page issue. I just said “I'm gonna do 200 gags” or something like that. “I'm gonna get as many gags as I can on these pages.”
I'm not a self-publisher. I never had been. I can’t deal with vendors. I can’t deal with printers. I think I'd be better off partnering up with someone. I would love to, for example, put out a Hectic Planet collection. I’ve talked tentatively to some people about that. I think Dark Horse has invested a lot of money into my work to build up my library and I don’t want to take advantage of that relationship. Even if they did say yes to a Hectic Planet book, I don’t think it would help either of us. I don't think going through the normal channels is a good idea for that.
There are a few ways that I can do it. I'm trying to figure these things out. I always had control over everything I did at Slave Labor Graphics. Everybody did. I have never had problems with Dark Horse on how I did my own work. So, I’m kind of spoiled. I enjoyed doing Bill & Ted, but it wasn’t my comic. Those weren’t my characters. But no, I don't know how Dork 12 is going to be published. A lot of my focus now is clearing the decks of some work and old commitments. That, and getting on a better schedule for my commissions. People have been incredibly supportive of that. I've never had this many commissions in my life to do, and I'm enjoying them for the first time in a long time.
I wanted to ask about a drawing of yours from when you were a teenager that recently showed up for sale online. What’s the story behind that?
I had to write to the person selling it because I didn’t know what the hell that was all about. Seeing that drawing online was a very weird moment. I didn’t recognize it at all. I don’t remember drawing it. I don’t really have art from my childhood or my teenage years. It’s all been pretty much destroyed. It was like seeing a picture of myself that I didn't remember, like at camp or in school. I also don't have any pictures of myself. I didn't like taking pictures. There's a pattern here... seeing that was like getting a bucket of water thrown in my face. It was an instant memory of my life at the time to see that I was so interested in fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons. I was just drawing things obviously inspired by what I was reading and what I was into at the time, the TSR role-playing art and the Lord of the Rings animated movie or whatever.
So I wrote the person who had the listing. It turns out that it was a piece that I had given to a teacher, which I don’t remember doing. Especially not to the teacher in question. This was a teacher that I got in a lot of trouble for cursing out in school. Maybe I gave it to him before that incident. I don’t know why he kept it this long. Personally, it's kind of embarrassing to look at. It's not a good drawing, but the amount of effort is kind of indicative of where my life would go. The amount of effort that went into this amateur fantasy drawing... this poor person's bootleg Yes album cover... you know, Roger Dean’s art doesn’t look like that. But there were all these black and white Lord of the Rings-inspired illustrations coming out at that time, these illustrations that look like they came out of the D&D Monster Manual, and this is obviously inspired by that stuff.
I wasn't embarrassed by it. I hated the drawing, but I wasn't embarrassed enough to not post it online. It was just fascinating. I like seeing people's art from when they were 20 or younger, really, except the problem was my art when I was 20 looks like somebody who's 12. I never learned my fundamentals. Nowadays, you see people who are 12, somebody from Thailand or Japan or Akron, and they're doing art that looks so amazing and professional. They have such control over their technique, whether it's digital or hand-drawn. It makes me want to vomit all over myself. That kind of love of drawing is something that has been really hard for me to recapture. It's something that I've only just started to get a feeling for again. It’s a good feeling.