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Evan Dorkin Interview


[ Evan Dorkin ]

This interview with comic book writer and artist Evan Dorkin was conducted by Director Sebastien Dumesnil via email during the making of Adventures Into Digital Comics. This interview is a part of the first set of interviews, which means that Evan Dorkin received a part of the shotlist, and was asked to answer the questions as if they were actually shooting the interview together. Evan Dorkin was offered the possibility to interact this way with the members of the cast.

By sending the same questions to all interviewees, Dumesnil wanted to get the most necessary element of narrative filmmaking: conflict. Despite the repetitive aspect of the questions, we hope you will be surprised by the large panel of answers and opinions offered by the interviewees.

Can you tell us about your background?

I was born in Brookyln NY, in 1965. I was always drawn to comics, comic strips in the papers and cartoons, and at a pretty early age knew I wanted to do something in that field. I'm largely self-taught as an artist, which is why I'm about eight years behind the curve in regards to where my art should be. I attended various schools as a kid, getting thrown out of several of them. Spent a lot of time in my room drawing, like many a cartoonist/comic reader/fan. I wrote my own stories for years so I'd have something to draw, and always considered myself an "artist who wrote." Nowadays I consider myself a "writer who draws," because my writing is stronger than my draftsmanship. Luckily, cartooning is a combination of both, so while I'm not too terrific at either discipline they add up to something some folks will pick up and read. As an older teen I gravitated towards animation and attended NYU and received a degree in film/television. I disliked the film students' general attitude (greed/pretentiousness/pomposity etc) so much it made me run back to comics. Somehow I fell into animation despite myself. I'll stop now because asking about my bg is so open I could keep going, I have no idea what you want to know here.

You've been a comic book artist for years. What do you find in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of visual exercise?

Complete control of the work, I have the freedom to do what I want when I want how I want, without budget constraints. It's all just marks on paper, all I need is a pen and some paper and I can make comics, create my own world, my own characters, situations, expressions. I like looking at paintings and illustration and sculpture and other visual media, but I just love comics, I love telling stories and making jokes and observations and expressing myself both visually and narratively with marks on paper that become "real" to a reader or myself.

What was the overall mood in the industry when you began your career? What was its commercial state? How has it evolved?

The comics industry has been basically miserable mood-wise for decades, since the '60's and the dying off of mainstream distribution and retailing. Books sold better in the mid to late '80's when I started getting some work, of course. But we're seeing better work on the whole being done these days, there's more openness to different work. Back then readers and retailers treated indy b&w books like they were contaminated (save for when they thought they would increase in value during the "Turtles" craze.) Nowadays I never hear a reader/fan say they'd never read a b&w book, which you heard everyday in the shop I worked at. The emergence of the graphic novel and bookstore distribution are two nice advances, but so far nothing's turned around sales-wise. It peaks when we go through speculator crazes, then dips lower when direct market shops close in the bust wake. We'll always be a niche market, but I think we'll survive as one, and that's fine by me by and large.

Comic book stores were created during the 70's as a boosting solution for the market. But as years went by, the direct market became the major distribution channel at the expense of the "newsstand" channel. Do you think that the industry is now paying the price for what was considered as the only viable solution back then?

Yes, but it was that or death, so you can't get too worked up over that situation. I wasn't there, but it seems to me it wasn't a boosting situation so much as a plan to save the collapsing market and deal with stores and distributors who were dropping comics. Certainly we're suffering because of this ghettoization, comics disappeared almost overnight and hid in largely dirty, dingy, out of the way shops with floating store hours and cranky owners. What does drive me nuts is how long it's taking most retailers to wake up and evolve from that model, there are still too many Neanderthal shops around. The terrible state of most shops is one of the things I dislike most about comics, they are by and large all we've got, and they are lousy ambassadors for the medium. Most of the direct market hobby shops are run like private fan clubs that seem to want to exclude women, kids and non-afficianados. We can't afford close-minded shops like that when the medium/industry is hurting. But you can't expect much from a retailing community born from shops so backwards and cash-poor that Marvel had to have a program to get them cash registers in the '80's.

1986 has been a turning point for the industry with works like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. It seems that since then, the comic book audience has grown up with the industry and that there is just no new readers. Has the industry at that time completely forgotten its younger target audience?

No, they just won't cultivate it. Everyone asks "where are the new readers?", everyone agrees we need new readers, and nobody does anything of any substance or scale to grab the attention of new readers. Archie doesn't exist in the direct market really, they're aloof and practically separate and the comic know-it-alls ignore them, as well as the DC all-ages books and most kid-friendly books. Most retailers order what they like, and they don't like kiddie books. The fanboy professionals don't like kiddie books, and they make books for themselves and other 30-somethings who are like them. I've done some kid's work, but mostly for magazines, and those magazines have newsstand distribution and decent sales. Comics cannot afford newsstand distribution (Archie pays for the supermarket rack space, Marvel et al can't do that.) The comics all-ages Sarah and I have done sinks like a stone, whether it's small press or DC. No one gets behind it. The fans and retailers all watch the DC animated shows, hoard the toys and DVDs, and ignore the comics even though the staff of the shows often work on them... makes no sense to me. A book like Sonic the Hedgehog outsells many super-hero titles, but nobody discusses this, because Archie books aren't "cool" to discuss. We are certainly swallowing our tail, we all know it, we all bitch about it, but the industry is so hand to mouth and short term in thinking that it won't work out any real serious attempt to reverse this trend. We sell what we can to who we can as fast as we can, and that's fans selling to fans. It ensures money coming in. I do see kids in my local shop, and lots of new readers have come in through manga and tie-in books, but not all stores cultivate this, and certainly few publishers pay attention to new/younger readers. And of course, we're all terrified at the idea that most kids wouldn't read a comic even if they had the chance, with competition from cable, video games et al. Why read about "Spider-Man" when you can be "Spider-Man?" And "Spider-Man" is basically what we're pushing. The super-hero publishers also love to keep obtuse character continuities that prevent new readers from finding any of this stuff comprehensible, with multiple universes, multiple imprints that split up company characters (DC's Vertigo, Marvel's MAX), "what-if" or "elsewhere" stories, future versions, past versions, etc, all of which convolute continuity further and all of which are aimed squarely at the in-the-know fan.

1993 was the last profitable year for the American industry. The market has been shrinking ever since. What do you think are the causes of the industry's collapse in the 90's?

Everyone knows the speculation boom and burst was the #1 cause. And it was really infuriating, because the industry had a boom and burst after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze just several years before, when retailers and fans bought reams of black and white books hoping they'd all go up in value. In the early '90's publishers, retailers, distributors, fan magazines (esp Wizard) and many mainstream creators bled the market for all it was worth. And no one got off the train before it crashed, even people who were hammered after the Turtles craze, which collapsed shops and distributors. There is a real aspect of hucksterism in comics, convention bartering, price guides, speculating on hot titles, first issues and collectors items. Most of the comics sold in 91-93 were never opened or read, just socked away—people honestly thought they'd set up college funds by buying twenty copies of a comic-even though everyone on line with them at the register was buying twenty copies, and the shop had a case stashed away. It was a poor man's stock market, only some creators and people in publishing seemed to take any money out of it, I never noticed any retailers upgrading their shops or profiting in the long term from all the shenanigans. Basically the wild speculation, the bloated spending from the publishers, the gimmicks used to sell and hype hacked out comics, et al led to the collapse. It was inevitable, it was just good old American greed, snake oil and stupidity. And when the smoke cleared, the speculators bailed and never really returned. After all that, I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened again sometime soon. It runs in cycles (gimmick covers, black and white, pogs, xxx books, bad girls, even pogs) and we're due for it to happen again, and if it does happen, no one will have learned anything from the early '90's, they'll take every advantage until we have another collapse.

For the past few years, we've seen the big companies trying to improve quality: better paper, big names from other industries, etc. Do you think that it had an impact on sales? What could be a key to solve the sales' problem?

I think it might have an impact on selling some books to bookstores, perhaps. Better production makes the material look more like "real books" as you always hear people say. I don't know if it's done anything for sales overall, I have no real idea. It can't hurt, people who wanted the book will be even happier to buy it if it's packaged and designed well, but I don't know how effective this practice is on sales, per se. Some folks might feel it to a price increase, and not buy it. A lot of comics readers are uptight about comics pricing, because they buy so many of them, you always see their rants on line or in magazines. If the prices were lowered they'd just buy more, that's how they operate. Anyway, I also have no clue if "big names" from other media does anything overall, a sales spike on several titles doesn't make for a healthy industry. People who like Kevin Smith films, or Greg Rucka books, or the Babylon 5 guy or Buffy guy's stuff, they have to stumble onto a comic shop or a bookstore that carries their comics to know they make comics. There's no real promotion behind these things, a few people who don't normally read comics might buy some Kevin Smith comics, or lapsed readers who are intrigued by the fact the Buffy guy did a comic, but my gut feeling is that it doesn't make any significant difference, it just allows some people to crow about "famous" people doing comics, as if that somehow legitimizes the medium.

In the 90's, publishers began to create alternate covers, and made a lot of-sometimes unnecessary-relaunches. What do you think of those "gimmicks"?

Sometimes specially designed covers can be a nifty addition to a comic or concept. Most of the time they're used to polish a turd. Most relaunches are unnecessary, they're stunts, or attempts to get first issues out, or make a big deal over something cosmetic like changing a character's costume. The constant reboots just further muddy the already muddied super-hero waters, along with twisted and decades long character continuities, and this helps render all these books incoherent to new readers.

To make more money and be able to reach different places such as bookstores, the publishers have created the trade paperback. As an example, many people have read Sandman when it was available on paperback, but not before. Do you feel that the comic book format had its days, and could be replaced by the paperback?

I think this is very possible. I've heard the argument for this, and books are starting to make great inroads, some folks only buy the collections now. But from what I see, many publishers really count on the income from the pamphlets, so they're resistant to this. They'll have to pay a creator for months while he or she is working on the book, and unlike a monthly series, no income will be coming in until the creator is completely finished with the entire book. The trend is definitely continuing towards books and retailers, thankfully, are largely responding in their ordering practices, and many projects now come out as fully-realized books that are not collections of pamphlets. So it'll be interesting to see how this works out, I know many people would like to see this happen (I'm on the fence about it, because I work so slow!)

The early 90's saw the first digital lettering and coloring in American comic books. Do you think that it opened a new world of possibilities as far as storytelling is concerned?

Obviously any new technology is going to allow creators more choices. But as with any tool, it can be used well or be used as a crutch. Most digital lettering I see is garish and static and has no life or personality. Most computer coloring is garish as all hell, some of these comics look like 70's van paintings they're so overdone and worked up with flashy gimmicks. I find a lot of artists are putting less drawing into their pages, knowing the computer colorist will fill it all in and give it substance, and in many cases it leads to threadbare storytelling. And often the coloring takes precedence over the art, which blunts storytelling. I find a lot of the computer wizardry to be distracting, or gravy thrown over bad meat. Of course computer lettering and coloring can enhance a comic, or be used in ways traditional lettering and coloring never could be, and of course this can lead to terrific comics storytelling. But it's only as good as the person using it.

Also around the same time came the internet. Did you guess at that time that the internet could become a distribution system for independent artists?

No. How's that for a short answer, finally.

It seems that fans complain that the big US companies don't produce enough diversity. On the other hand, the big sellers are only super-hero books. What do you think of the fans?

I've spent so much time on this subject that I hope you'll forgive me if I don't get into it here. Suffice it to say that the comics I've done about the more obsessed and narrow-minded fans out there have generated a good bit of hate mail, which should give you an indication of what I think of them.

Re: diversity—A lot of people cry out for diversity in comics, but they don't support it, certainly not when ordering books for most stores. We have diversity, if you look through the Diamond catalogue you'll find genres such as crime, romance, satire, adventure, humor, fantasy, politics, history, autobiography, etc. There's foreign comics, sex comics, comics aimed at women, aimed at the gay community, kid's comics, all kinds of comics. Few people order them, few people buy them. What they might ask for is support of these genres and types of comics. Won't happen, not in comic shops. Even a proven seller like Bone or Eightball which outsells many mainstream super-hero books only sells to a small percentage of comic shops nationally. If people don't see the books in shops, they don't think they're there. And most folks just want the super-heroes, that's where the industry has always been slanted, and that's what the shops were built on, and that's probably the way it'll always be in our little niche medium/business.

Diversity seems to be a key problem for the industry. Do you think that current comic books are oriented mainly toward a male audience in its 20's?

Probably, yeah. But we have a lot of titles that go beyond that, and they get almost no support. They never get a chance to find an audience or build up steam. Comics aren't in front of the general public because they're shut away in specialty shops. Most general interest comics or non-super-hero comics don't even get that slim chance to find an audience. It's interesting to go to small press conventions like APE or SPX or the recent MoCCA show and see the really close ratio of men to women, and see the truly diverse kinds of books they buy and read at these shows.

A success of the American film business has always been not to ignore the foreign market. Do you feel that the comics industry has been successful abroad?

It hasn't been terribly successful anywhere, really. I doubt foreign sales are substantial anywhere. There's people reading American comics in Canada, folks in England, but not many I'm sure. I've gotten letters from New Zealand, Australia, Spain, South America, Finland, etc, so someone's selling US comics in the world, but it's a cult-like readership overseas, by and large. Comics aren't a huge deal in that many countries, foreign or home-grown.

The average price of a comic book in the US is around $3. Do you think, regarding the production and distribution system, that it is too expensive? What are the sales like nowadays in the US?

Sales are pretty depressing based on what they used to sell. I think a book that sells 100,000 these days is a blockbuster, and books were getting cancelled in the early 70's that sold 250,000. Books regularly sold in the millions in the heyday of the 50's. On a less depressing note, for all those sales, the older creators received no credit, little or no recognition from the readers, no royalties, no participation in licensing, no return of their artwork, few opportunities to get TV or illustration work because of their comics, etc. And they were often ripped off and exploited beyond belief. We sell far less, but we get far more out of it in some ways, and our creations are our own if we want them to be. Sales-wise it's a car wreck, but creatively it's a golden age right now. Some people talk about the "golden age" and the good old days of comics, but I don't know if I'd trade places with the old-timers, despite the discrepancy in sales.

As far as the prices go—I realize many fans scream bloody murder over the price of a book, but I feel the hard work of a writer and an artist is certainly worth three bucks, which isn't all that much nowadays. If the creators didn't do their job, then don't buy it. I always felt the fans screaming the loudest for lower prices don't want to save money, they want to buy even more comics. All junkies want their drug of choice made cheaper. Comics aren't that cheap to produce, and they don't make much in return, so prices are what they are. I don't know what the inflation on comics are in relation to other items, maybe they have skyrocketed, but there's not much that can be done or will be done, other than trying to hold prices as long as possible. Maybe if we switch to a book format it'll reduce the bellyaching over prices, maybe people will consider it better value for their money. Comics are a luxury, and they don't sell incredibly well, so to survive the publishers raise prices to meet with rising paper and printing and talent costs. Some people say the high price prohibits people from trying comics, there's probably some truth to that but I also believe that the average person won't try the average comic book out for any price until we get past the social stigma that comics are trash. People want what they want, and people don't want comics. We've given them no reason to, we've given them no real promotion, we don't tell people what they can find in comics and why they might want to buy and read one. But they'll buy millions of Garfield books, and millions of Cathy books, arguably some of the worst comics ever made. But people don't think newspaper comics are trash because of their constant exposure to them. People buy expensive children's books that barely have 20 pages of art and writing, but a 24-page color comic is a rip-off for $3. People spend $6 for a pack of sealed Pokemon or Magic cards they might already have, they buy $5 beers in bars that are gone in minutes, they spend money on stuff they want. They just don't want comics.

Comic book conventions are typical in North America. What feedback do you get from your peers over there? Is there a positive mood within the industry?

I get very little personal feedback about my work from fellow cartoonists at conventions, if that's what you mean. If you mean about the industry, I find people often seem pretty negative at the big mainstream-oriented conventions, and people seen extremely positive at the small press shows like SPX. Maybe it's because mainstream creators live and die by sales and super-heroes and tend to bitch about the industry at shows, and small press folks who normally have lowered expectations are excited by the enthusiasm people show for their work and the medium as a whole at the festivals. Or something like that.

When you go to comic book conventions, do you feel that people come to buy comics... or toys, busts, and whatever merchandising has to offer? What do you think of that merchandising?

I have no problem with that, as long as people don't lose sight of the actual comics themselves. I always feel lousy when I do a con that's mainly tables of toys and stuff, and the comics are almost an afterthought. I do collect toys and crap, for the record.

In the biggest comic conventions we can find paper and digital artists. Some paper artists seem to be ferociously anti-digital. Do you feel that there are now two clans of comic book creators?

I guess so, I don't pay attention to that sort of thing. The people who have time to set up camps and worry about that stuff should be worrying more about their comics. We have enough infighting as it is. It's all comics, a good webcomic or a good paper comic is a good comic. I don't see the big deal, if there is one.

Many forgotten artists who can't find a job in the industry because they are told they are "outdated" make money thanks to commissions on their personal websites. Others create those digital comics but don't really make money out of them. Do you think that the internet could be the solution to the current state of the comic book industry?

The internet won't restore radio drama or whip up mass interest in poetry and it probably won't provide a real "solution" to what ails comics. Who knows, maybe one day in the future it will be the main distribution system for comics which will all be done on the web, but right now it still seems to be mainly used as a tool to sell traditional comics, merchandise and artwork. I'm sure webcomics will evolve and some of them will break out and get huge, but either the web stuff isn't impacting on the paper stuff yet, or the paper comics market is ignorant of some on-line movement that's waiting to bust out. I don't really look at webcomics, I get a headache reading them on a screen and personally prefer paper, so maybe I'm the last person to ask about this.

Some digital comics use animation; others sound, etc. For you, what is a digital comic? What would be the aesthetic definition?

I guess I'm pretty literal-minded about it, because when I see movement and hear sound in a webcomic presentation, I see it as animation, even if it utilizes word balloons and other comic elements. I guess you could argue that just adding music or sound effects-or maybe even speech-doesn't necessarily invalidate it from being considered a comic, but I do think if it moves, it's more akin to animation than comics. Not that that makes one less valid than the other.

Do you think that digital comics offer much more diversity than the paper market?

I would assume that whatever you could present on paper, you could present on a monitor, and vice versa. If you mean diversity of subject matter, I don't see the difference. I know I'm a near-luddite when it comes to computers, but unless I'm missing the point of the question, I don't see the difference.

Only big publishers would have the financial asset to afford the legal support needed in the piracy issue. How do you think that the big companies will make their way into the digital world? Do you think that independents will have to wait for those companies to make money in a safe way?

I think the major publishers aren't even thinking of going online to sell product anytime soon because they're afraid of angering retailer, who always riot whenever there's talk of DC or Marvel or whoever competing directly with them.

Do you think that readers are into comics for collecting and need to touch a comic book to enjoy it, or would a computer screen be enough for them? What about you?

I prefer books, myself. I really don't like reading off the monitor, it gives me a headache after a while, and I don't like dealing with loading times, ads, pop-ups etc. I'm old-fashioned I guess, I like the tactile experience of holding and reading a book, I like owning books and being able to just pick it up and flip through it if I want to see something or look at something for reference. I like the print medium and I like books and book design. I expect people who are more into computers or younger readers who are growing up with them would have less problems with webcomics than someone like me.

There are many issues that could prevent digital comics from growing, such as piracy. Also, and even novelists ran into that wall, it seems to be hard to get paid, even with systems such as PayPal. Subscription, advertisement, micro-payments: what do you think is the best option to be paid on the web for digital creations?

I have no idea. You might as well ask me about string theory or nanotechnology. How about "magic?" People should be paid magically because it's instantaneous and everyone likes magic.

There are different ways to compose a comic book story on the internet. Some artists like to consider the screen as a page, others still use a typical comic book format. Finally, we can use the screen as a panel/link leading to another panel and so on. What do you think of those ideas?

I think it's all valid, whatever people want to use to make effective comics is all right with me.

On the other hand, other artists use the internet as an unlimited space to compose a story, the screen being considered as a window to an unlimited reality. What do you think of that idea?

I think it's a perfectly valid idea. I see no reason why anyone should or shouldn't approach a comic or any artwork or project from any angle they choose.

One can find digital comics on the web, but also short films produced especially for the internet. Do you watch such films sometimes? What do you think of them?

I've seen a few online films and cartoons. I never gave them any thought in regards to being web films, they were just films to me, just another way to watch a film.

We talked earlier about the unlimited space and animated digital comics. Do you think that we could apply some of those compositional ideas to live moving pictures, instead of just drawn panels?

I'm sure we could, with computers it seems anything can be done compositionally with filmed or static images. I don't have great answers for these technologically oriented questions, if you hadn't noticed.

Bad artistic, and moreover marketing, decisions have been the main reasons of the industry's downfall. The digital technology seems like a good solution to create art without any form of concession. Do you think that the internet is an open door for new creative voices?

Of course. It's a medium that anyone can access and be part of and work with. On the other hand, like punk rock and comics, it's a medium that lots of hacks and no-talents can dive into and muck up.

Now that comic books have become a niche market (whether they are on paper or digital), pretty much like painting, do you think that we're going to see a peak of creativity and quality as a reaction to the current situation?

We've been seeing a growth in creativity over the past decade and a half or so, if not longer. One hopes it will only continue to move in that direction as more and more artists become influenced and excited by the new work being done in the field.


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