Crafting The ‘Pragmatic Magic’ Of Blackwood With Evan Dorkin

by Hannah Means Shannon

Coming up at the end of May 2018 from Dark Horse, the new supernatural college-set comic series written by Evan Dorkin and illustrated by Veronica and Andy Fish, Blackwood, will take us into the strange experiences of students at an academy with a secret occult arts program.

Dorkin is known as both a writer and artist, creating his own comic stories in titles such as Dork and Milk & Cheese, as well as The Eltingville Club, and collaborating on beloved series like Beasts of Burden with Jill Thompson. In Dorkin’s work, comedy often sits alongside social observation, casting we humans in the light of our strange motivations and drives, rendered particularly absurd in the context of the absurd.

Evan Dorkin joins us here today to talk about Blackwood and more.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What interests you most about the world of Blackwood that made you want to pursue this story and spend time at this unusual college? Does the series make you ask questions that you, personally, want to pursue?

Evan Dorkin: Well, the main interest is really just to tell more of these kinds of stories. Blackwood unofficially takes place in the same world as Beasts of Burden, so it lets me write stories with characters that have hands and can use computers and phones. I love working on Beasts of Burden but when your characters are dogs and cats that can’t open a door or carry things in their pockets, it means you hit a lot of narrative walls, you have a lot of problem solving to do, which can get pretty frustrating.

Blackwood lets me tell stories about people; it’s obviously going to make a difference in how we approach things and how I write the characters. As far as pursuing anything beyond just telling stories, I tend to write about aimless or lost characters that come together to form a sort of substitute family. Sometimes for good – like in Beasts of Burden – or for bad, like The Eltingville Club. Very few of my characters have happy home lives, this dynamic comes up a lot in my stories because of my issues with my own family. I don’t always go there on purpose, sometimes it just happens. It’s a definite part of Blackwood, though. Growing up weird, growing up lost, or not growing up, as the case may be. Only with ghosts and stuff.

HMS: So, college is this crazy mess of weird experiences anyway: is the occult aspect just something that takes things to the next level for the characters, or is there a bigger drama they face?

ED: There’s a few things going on at Blackwood. Obviously there’s the usual stressful and awkward school stuff. Our characters are unprepared for a normal college experience, let alone an occult school where failing can mean dying. The occult program at Blackwood is a secret track that only some of the students know about, so they have to deal with being ostracized to some degree, even at a pretty nerdy alternative type of school. On top of that, there’s a reason Blackwood exists that goes beyond academics. This is part of the bigger picture, a bigger threat our characters will have to deal with in the future.

HMS: Introducing something like magic or the occult into a story in the comics medium, which already has great potential for allowing just about “anything” to happen, seems to open up even wider possibilities for wacky developments. Is that part of what appeals to you about this kind of tale?

ED: It’s a comic book about an occult school, so pretty much everything’s on the table. It’s not Harry Potter magic or Lord of the Rings magic; I guess Blackwood deals more in pragmatic, maybe even mundane magic, at least at first. Professional problem-solving magic. But the main point of doing genre material is to try to come up with fun, interesting characters, give them interesting stuff to do and to deal with,  and make it interesting for the audience. And your collaborators. If everyone’s having fun working on the book, that usually comes across in the book. We’ve been having fun with Blackwood, trying to make good comics worth the ticket price with enough going on that it doesn’t feel like a retread of everything on Netflix or on the comics racks.

HMS: Can you talk a little bit about working with Veronica Fish on this series? What do her aesthetics bring to the creation of this story world, in your opinion?

ED: My wife and I met Veronica and Andy Fish at Heroes Con several years ago. We were going around artist’s alley, looking at people’s work, at the time we needed artists for Calla Cthulhu and for Blackwood. I came across their tables and was looking at Veronica’s portfolio and thought her artwork would be perfect for Blackwood. She had a variety of pages from several projects, which not only showed her versatility, but examples of actual comics storytelling. Her pages were filled with mood and character, they showed acting chops on the page, and that she wasn’t afraid of drawing specific backgrounds and locations.

Since we started working together, she’s also shown she’s a terrific character designer. She also adds details to her designs and pages that spark script ideas and bits of business. While we were working on Blackwood #1, Andy came on board to work on layouts, lettering, aiding and assisting. He’s also a horror fan like me, so that goes into the mix as well. Veronica and Andy work together a lot, but never really credited their work as such. I know what that’s like from working with my wife, Sarah Dyer. So, Team Blackwood is officially me, Veronica and Andy, and credited as such. And everyone has had input and influence on the series. A lot of things changed from our original intentions, all for the better. I think we’re a really good team.

HMS: When you’re both writing and drawing a comic, do you have a particular sense of what you’re looking to accomplish on a given page, so that you know when you’re “done” and you’ve reached that goal? What do you think makes a page “work”? 

ED: I never know when I’m done with a page. I work my pages to death. I know what I think works when I see other people do it – composition, clarity, drawing chops, acting chops, mood, setting. When I draw a page, it feels like I’m still new at this. At some point I finish and move on, wishing I could rework everything. It’s one reason why I’m not as prolific as I used to be, I over-think things and get frustrated with my artwork pretty easily. It’s also why I like writing for other artists, they usually have a better grip on getting things done and it’s a kick to see the pages come in from artists like Veronica and Andy, breathing life into the story and characters. I sweat my scripts, too, I end up doing several drafts, but it’s easier to figure out when you’re done with a story.

[Variant cover by Becky Cloonan]

HMS: When you’re acting as the writer on a project, do you find yourself thinking differently than you might as artist, like looking further ahead in terms of plot development or taking a bigger view of how the story is going to work as a whole? Do you have any tips for writers trying to make sure multiple issues of a story work well together?

ED: When I’m working on something I’m going to draw, like Milk & Cheese or The Eltingville Club, I usually scribble very loose roughs with brief notes and that’s pretty much what I work off of. On something like Blackwood or Beasts of Burden, I make a lot of notes. When I write the script, I try to work very tightly and nail everything down. I’ll only sketch something out if there’s something I’m having trouble describing in words. As far as looking ahead goes, I’ve got notes on hand for both Blackwood and Beasts that would keep each going for years as monthlies.

I’ve known how the main story for Beasts ends for about a decade now. On Blackwood, we have a number of arcs blocked out, some in good detail, including several “origin” stories for our students. I don’t really have any set tips for outlining an arc or a series; I’m a horribly disorganized person. I basically just take a ton of notes and obsess about things so I “know” what’s going to happen. In theory, at least. My writing troubles  are usually not about ideas or problem solving. They’re all about patience and organization. I’d say: spend time on your outline to save time on your script. I should take my own advice.

HMS: There’s a new hardcover coming up for Dork, which is a humor anthology comic now collected. What appeal do you think the short story format has when it comes to crafting funny comics? What do you think the anthology can bring readers that no other format can?

ED: For me, an anthology is perfect because it allows you to break things up, and so pick the best format for your premise. If a bit works best as a one-panel gag, you can draw a one-panel gag. If a gag needs some set-up, you can draw a three or four-panel gag like a newspaper strip. If the premise has some meat on it, and it’s more like a sketch, you can extend it to a half page, to a single page gag or work it out over however many pages you think the idea deserves. An anthology is like an episode of SNL or SCTV or Monty Python, you can use a grab-bag of approaches. Humor generally works best in a short or shortened format. Everyone knows about timing’s importance in comedy; that also goes for how long you keep a bit going or, in a comic, how much space you give it.

There’s a reason people say that a joke’s gone on too long, and not that a drama’s gone on too long (except maybe Peter Jackson movies, har har). Anthologies are good for moving things along, they let you take some more chances because if you’re not sure a single panel or short gag is working, it won’t be around long enough to matter much. In the end, no matter what format you use, no matter what you try to do, or how hard you work, a good chunk of the people out there are not going to think you’re funny. That’s why I like working in comics and animation, I don’t have to see people not laughing when I tell a joke. Page fright is easier to handle than stage fright.

Our thanks to Evan Dorkin for such a candid and detailed interview.

Blackwood #1 is pre-orderable now from your comic shops and will arrive on May 30th, 2018. 

The new hardcover edition of Dork will arrive in shops on July 18th, 2018.