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
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 awaypeople 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"?
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
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
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
goI 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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