“It was an ugly birth of an ugly book”: Evan Dorkin on the Disgusting Fan Archetypes in The Eltingville Club

Comics Features
&#8220;It was an ugly birth of an ugly book&#8221;: Evan Dorkin on the Disgusting Fan Archetypes in <i>The Eltingville Club</i>

Evan Dorkin knows comic timing. As an artist, his style is immediately recognizable, equally suited to over-the-top slapstick and minutely observed facial obsessions. As a writer, he veer between the bombastic and cartoonish, or delve into a more complex psyche with insight and empathy. In the ‘90s, his comics Milk and Cheese and Dork approached humor from all sides, from riffing on pop-culture tropes to haunting explorations of Dorkin’s own demons. More recently, he’s collaborated with artist Jill Thompson on the multiple Eisner-winning series Beasts of Burden, which revolves around a group of animals barking and screeching up against supernatural threats.



This month brings the final—and second—issue of The Eltingville Club, in which Dorkin brings closure to four of his longstanding characters, a group of science fiction and comics obsessives whose dedication to fandom often heads in disquieting directions. (The characters also starred in an Adult Swim pilot as well as Dork.) This closing issue features a litany of great comic moments, as well as a number of scenes in which Dorkin addresses the ugliness, insecurity and sexism found just below the surface in some sects of fandom. Paste spoke with Dorkin about the evolution of these characters, his take on the changes to the comics industry over the last decade or two, and much more. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Paste: What were your feelings when you first looked at the new issue?
Evan Dorkin: I was working, so I put them aside and kept working. It didn’t really register that I was done with it. I finished up these pages a few months ago. I’ve had this in my head for a long time. Comics is not the most cathartic medium. I guess writing isn’t, either. You finish something up, and then you go downstairs and do the dishes. It’s not like acting, or a huge premiere of a movie, or you sing the last song and get off the stage to applause. It’s pretty dull in that regard.

Paste: The first issue came out about a year ago. Was the second issue mostly written by then, or were there some things that you had to figure out between issues?
Dorkin: It was figured out, on the whole. I would have liked another two pages. I would like to have extended the ending, had a few more quiet moments. I pretty much did what I meant to do. I don’t know if it works as well as issue one. I think issue one might have baked better than issue two. But I’m curious to see what people will say who read it. I know what I tried to do with it. Some of the thematic stuff going on in there was that it doesn’t end with fandom. Some of these types of people end up in the media, in comics, in film, in positions of power, or a small amount of power. And with the small amount of power, there is no responsibility, when it comes to people like this. And it’s one of the reasons that there’s material that still is up the alley of people with these attitudes.

At the same time, I also wanted it to be about people who grow up and remain fans. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for one of the characters. I knew that was something I planned. There are allusions to some stories in there that I wanted to do back in 2000, but then we did the animated pilot and I started to get really sick of the characters. I realized that I didn’t want to do too many more stories with them. I use them as plot material and motivational material for the characters here and there. It was the art, and me just having flop sweat. It took me a very, very long time to get this stupid thing done. My wife said, “It’s not a graphic novel, it’s just a comic.” And she didn’t mean by “just a comic” what some people mean. I took it way too seriously, and I got way too worked up over it. It might one be of the reasons why I’m not crazy about it. Who the hell knows?

The Eltingville Club #2 Interiors by Evan Dorkin

Paste: I remember reading the one where they watch the Twilight Zone marathon, and that was very bleak, along with the humor; this one seems even bleaker, while still being very funny. Was there a sense of trying to top what you’d done before with this issue?
Dorkin: I think the situation is, as I’m satirizing the worst aspects of fandom as I see it, fandom has gotten worse. I’m 50-years-old; I’ve been doing this for decades, and I was a fan before that. I worked in a comic store for six years, off and on. It’s probably social media. You knew there were complete assholes out there—not just idiots, not just geeks, not just harmless doofuses like Revenge of the Nerds, who had social skill problems—but actually mean people, real bastards. Some of whom end up in the industry and make life miserable for other fans later on, who have the ability to break windows in fans’ houses by killing off characters and acting like a jerk and getting paid for it. Comics, especially—this is where you get your employees. They basically come from fandom. There’s not a lot of money, and there’s not a lot of prestige, despite the higher profile of comics in some ways, with movies and the Internet and Comic Con.

It’s always been a bleak strip. It’s never been a happy strip. It’s an ugly mirror. Some of it’s based on my life. A lot of it’s based on things I’ve seen, and a lot of it’s exaggeration. It’s satire. It’s scary when I do something that I think is really horrible and then I read about something that’s even worse. Every day, there’s somebody doing something awful in fandom. And a lot of the times, it’s somebody from one of the companies or it’s a creator saying some dumb shit about women or transgender people. This is the audience, and the bizarre opinions that some people have… This attitude that comics or movies or gaming is just for them-it’s so myopic. It’s tunnel vision. The idea that you can’t even put yourself in another person’s place and understand the rampant misogyny of the world. Not just this. And how angry and hateful so many people are. People getting doxxed, people getting death threats.

The whole thing started because of hate mail. And hate mail was the extent of it, pretty much. My former publisher at Slave Labor Graphics, Dan Vado, was writing The Justice League, and he got all of this hate mail for killing a character off. Not only is this a fictional character, and there are people getting more upset about a fictional character than all of the people who died in the world that day and are not coming back. And the characters always come back. These are all copyrighted fictional kids’ characters. There’s no reason to get fucking worked up like that, and sending death threats or fighting with people online. Maybe they’re a little tired of seeing women get used as big-breasted pawns in comics plots and raped willy nilly because that’s a great way to make the male hero cry.

It’s not only shitty writing. My wife’s family is very racially mixed. They adopted several children. Through that, and through stories, I’ve been able to see just how shitty some people are treated because of who they are. A lot of people will say things to you if you’re white, not knowing that they’re saying things about your family, or about people that you care about. I grew up on Staten Island, where I could pass as a non-Jew. You hear a lot of disgusting shit. Comics has had a free pass for a long time, and social media has broken that open. You see a lot of angry people in the corner flailing around and feeling like their world’s going to be taken away from them.

The Eltingville Club #2 Interiors by Evan Dorkin

Paste: In terms of the art, there’s the one scene of chaos at the convention that looks like a medieval depiction of hell…
Dorkin: I’m kind of disappointed in it. I think I screwed that shot up, the big panel at the convention. It doesn’t look crazy enough. The people in it just look like they’re running out, and I wanted bedlam. I was happy to get the sense of chaos, but I wanted more. At the same time, there’s smoke but there’s no fire. I didn’t want to kill people wholesale. People were going to get trampled and hurt; it’s a disaster. That’s probably because of me watching It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World too many times as a kid, and Godzilla movies. A lot of my stories tend to devolve into chaos. I wasn’t thinking of hell, necessarily, but it was supposed to look like a nightmare. Flames around the Pokemon characters, and things like that. Bill, up on the table, causing the riot, he’s kind of like a supervillain during that. He gets off on the power during one panel, doing a Brian Bolland Joker. It needed to go big before it went away.

The Eltingville Club #2 Interiors by Evan Dorkin

Paste: Has writing comics for different artists had any effect on your own art?
Dorkin: No; if it did, I would have gotten the issue done in, like, three months, two months, instead of a year. I’d have cut stuff down and had five panels on a page, six panels on a page. Working on Beasts of Burden, because of Jill [Thompson]’s watercolors…right from the beginning, she asked me to keep the pages to five panels or so per page. I’m getting better at that over the years. My scripts are getting tighter; they’re not like my interviews, where I’m all over the place. But for myself, I didn’t really work out full scripts for these two books. This is just broken down on paper and pulled and pushed. It wasn’t a great experience. It was an ugly birth of an ugly book. I knew it was going to be ugly. Eltingville has always tussled with ugly. There’s really nothing cute in an Eltingville script, and there’s a lot of messy textures and sloppiness at times, on purpose. At the end of The Twilight Zone script is, I think, the best example of that, because I started playing with the surreal elements of The Twilight Zone show, and breaking the strip apart—having the panels crumble and things like that, like in The Twilight Zone opening. I already did that, so I stayed more inside the panels with this one.

Like I said, I have no idea if this thing works. I think it’s worth the price of admission. I think, when the whole book is put together—I’m not going to read it now. I don’t want to go near it. But I’m hoping it feels like a collection of stories that go from Point A to Point Z, that it doesn’t just feel like a bunch of random stories. I knew years ago, when I did the “Zombie Crawl” story, I put in some hints that the group was not getting along for real, not just fighting and beating the crap out of each other, but that they were becoming disappointed with their life, or at least how things were going with the four of them. And they were getting older. Jerry was acting a little less like a jerk-off as he got older, and the others were not.

Paste: What is your work breakdown like these days? Is it mostly in comics, or is work outside of comics a major factor as well?
Dorkin: My wife and I have been trying to put some projects together. I took one job when I was working on Eltingville, because I didn’t want to screw it up and make it as late as it was. It ended up being a financial disaster, because we got paid for the work done, not for the time. Basically, I broke a wall down, and now I have to build it back up. We spent some time a couple of months ago starting to look for work. If things work out the way that they will, I’ll be doing a lot of writing work in the next, hopefully, year, on a couple of projects. One that I’ll be writing with Sarah, one that I’d be writing by myself. We’re working with artists to develop these things right now. They’ve both been pitched. We’ll see what happens.

The Eltingville Club #2 Interiors by Evan Dorkin

Paste: Recently on Twitter, you were discussing the fact that there were alternatives to the direct market now that didn’t exist a certain amount of years ago—selling comics at general bookstores and Amazon. When did this first become apparent to you?
Dorkin: I have no idea when bookstores took over. That was pre-Amazon, obviously. We were moving copies through Borders, and Borders collapsed and tore a bloody chunk out of the market, especially the manga market. The way that I knew that it was happening was that I did not go about changing the way that I made comics until it was too late. I didn’t realize that everything was moving towards the book format. Alternative comics were dead. The only person who still puts out a comic format is Adrian Tomine—he puts out a new issue of Optic Nerve as a comic. Seth puts out a book of Palookaville. Love & Rockets now has a spine, it’s once a year. Acme Novelty Library turned into a giant project every issue that kept coming out.

The anthologies died, and that’s where I did all my work, mainly. I was in Dark Horse Presents and Deadline USA, a lot of punk zines. I took all that stuff and would bring it together as an issue of Milk and Cheese or Dork or even Hectic Planet. I didn’t realize it was gone. I was doing some TV stuff, and we were working on the Eltingville pilot, and I was doing a book for DC, the World’s Funnest book. I’m a short story person, by and large. When there’s no more places for short stories, you have to do things that could be collected into a book that’s at least 96 pages, and I didn’t have that. My career really floundered for a while because I was jumping around doing different work-for-hire jobs and a few strips here and there. None of my Dork material’s in print right now. It’s all uncollected. It’s taken a lot of time for me to have any kind of library again.

I had a lot of trade paperbacks of my work out in the late ‘90s. At this point, now all I’ve got is the first volume of Beasts of Burden and the Milk and Cheese collection, as far as my own stuff goes. Some of my stuff has been collected at other companies, at Bongo or DC or Dark Horse, but that’s all work for hire. Not a lot of my stuff is out there. Eltingville will be out in February. I don’t know when I can collect Dork. I don’t know if I’ll ever collect Hectic Planet. My kids’ stuff, I don’t know if I’ll ever collect that. Some of the stuff’s on Comixology, and some of it’s on the Dark Horse digital website. That stuff isn’t really affecting my life. There’s not a lot of money coming in for me digitally. It’s clearly working for a lot of people. And the web is working for a lot of web comics artists who did not grow up trying to draw, professionally, Rom or Nova or any of the stuff I grew up drawing.

The Eltingville Club #2 Interiors by Evan Dorkin

Eltingville was made into a half-hour TV show, and it failed. But the fact that the network thought that this thing could be a potential show—that’s their faith in the comics and the industry that was put into it. My wife and I have been hired on a whole bunch of shows that you’d assume folks in the direct market are fans of, like Superman and Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Batman Beyond. But it’s not enough to get you traction in the industry if you haven’t actually worked on Superman and Batman at DC Comics. It’s just weird. It’s like if Charles Schultz did a Spider-Man story, people would say, “Finally! He broke in.” If Frank Frazetta did a Spider-Man story, they’d say, “He finally got the dream job.”

It’s changing a lot. That’s what a lot of the fighting is going into. I saw somebody tweet about how nine books on The New York Times bestseller list were done by women cartoonists and creators. And a bunch of guys came out and tried to start a minor shitstorm, saying that the person was a misandrist, and the person was anti-male, and if they really wanted equality they’d want 50 percent men and 50 percent women, and that The New York Times list is bullshit anyway. And I thought, yeah, it’s bullshit, but everybody puts it on their books if they make it. And comics publishers kept getting bent out of shape because manga kept getting on the list, and they pressured The Times to make two lists. So you know what? It’s not bullshit, because somebody cares about it. What are you fighting about? She’s saying that there are women cartoonists doing really, really well, after many years of wanting to see this happen. And people have to sling shit on you, as though you just left a stinkbomb on their door. They take it defensively and personally, and lash back with moron logic-Eltingville uber alles. It’s not going to stop. It’s getting less tolerated. People are getting sick of it, because it’s a knife in the tire. It drags everybody down.