Holding up a mirror to a nerd audience can be a disturbing experience for all concerned. Whether you’re part of the mass mob of fandom, or simply a single reader who likes the Punisher just a bit too much, nobody likes to see their own worst excesses beamed back at them at high volume, and arguably no culture has excesses like nerd culture. It can be aggravating and mortifying and extremely uncomfortable, having spawned all sorts of idiocy and harm, and the very least we can do is laugh at the trolls and relish in poking holes in the arguments of shitheads -- something that comic creator Evan Dorkin has proven fruitful and entertaining since the days when ska bands and DIY zines were still a recognized cool things.
Dorkin has been writing and drawing comics since the early 80s, and they’re often mean and nasty and quite wonderful for being so. He has unleashed Milk and Cheese upon the world and repeatedly staked geek culture through the heart with rolled up copies of his Eltingville adventures. He started out doing seedy space epics in his Pirate Copr$ and Hectic Planet comics, wrote a Worlds Funnest comic for DC that had some majestic artwork, and has found adoring audiences for Bill & Ted and Beasts of Burden comics.
Like almost everybody else in modern society, he has also been a pop culture sponge for the decades, and it comes spilling out in nearly every one of his comics. While those comics can be revealing to say the least, they are also absolutely hilarious, especially when – if you’re a part of his target audience -- Dorkin is likely making fun of you.
Even though several of his comics projects have been purely about getting the gag rate as high as possible, there has always been a harder edge of self-reflection; opening up about his biggest fears and worries with truly affecting honesty.
But even if you don't get his humor, Dorkin’s work will hit you with enough jokes that surely some of them have got to stick. Everyone can find something funny in Dork #11, which has the greatest joke-to-page rate in modern comic books. There’s nothing but dumb jokes and puns and gags in this issue, even more so than his usual cavalcade of comedy.
Milk and Cheese have been going on the rampage for decades, and it’s almost always had the same violent joke – sometimes you’ll get something like the dynamic duo discovering what sex is, and it becomes something else entirely – but it’s never been tedious, because there is something properly dark or fearless or nasty or clever enough in this relentless march of jokes to hit the mark. Similarly, as reprehensible as his Eltingville characters get, it’s always, always funny when they inevitably are force-fed their just desserts.
Unfortunately, while often speaking more to the human condition than any kind of big, serious drama ever can, humor comics rarely get any respect. And sometimes they don’t sell for shit either.
Dorkin himself has spent large portions of his career apologizing to the publishers for putting money into his work – the hardback collected editions of his Dork, Milk & Cheese and Eltingville Comics are beautiful packages, and almost nobody bought them. You could only hope it’s because the people who would buy those comics have got all the original series comics in the first place, but that probably doesn’t work either, because nobody fucking bought them then either.
Which is madness, because Dorkin’s comics aren’t just searching for chuckles, there is some genuine heartbreak between the gags.
He hasn’t been afraid of putting his life into his work. Like a lot of his peers in alternative comics, his introspective autobiographical work is full of self-loathing that we can mostly identify with - the same insecurities, the same anxieties, the same obsessions with the same bullshit.
Four issues and several years before he made a full frontal attack on the funny bone with Dork #11, Dorkin produced ‘What Does It Look Like I’m Doing’ in #7 - stripped of almost all of the irony and playfulness that filled out his other work, Dorkin digs into some of his deepest fears without flinching, no matter how personal or silly they might be. He’s not afraid of going off on weird tangents, but it really feels like therapy on the page, and you finish the comic only hoping that it helped, and that maybe the artist feels a bit better about getting it off his chest.
It ain’t always easy speaking as part of a generation who were raised by the dumbest of pop culture and never really got over it.
With characters that are both distinctive and striking and a knack for page design that is often nothing short of spectacular, Dorkin’s art alone is something to take the time to soak in. Any time Dorkin has been asked about his artwork, he’s always gone into great detail about how much it sucks; how he doesn’t know what he’s doing and it’s totally amateurish and he can never capture the scene in his head.
As the sole creator of the majority of his comics, Dorkin is more than welcome to this opinion. He’s totally wrong, of course; his art has been open and inviting and over the top for many, many years, acting as the perfect conduit for his (very loud) voice.
Admittedly, his earliest comics to make it into print are busy and clumsy in a way that’s both charming and proof of Dorkin’s ability to learn while on the job. Even while finding his feet, however, Dorkin shows a gift for design work – particularly with aliens, robots, and capturing some real young man blues, shrouded in space battles and ska shows.
His art has clear ancestors and influences, and while Dorkin himself may only see it as derivative, he makes it his own. There is some Kirby, dashes of manga and a little slice of Carmine Infantino, Ditko dexterity and a thousand riffs on the classic Mad artists – it all goes into the blender and comes out recognizably Dorkin.
There are lots of big heads on top of coiled, squat bodies – especially in self-portraits – a classic and cute trick that reaches its zenith point in Dorkin’s seminal strip, Milk and Cheese, whose eponymous main characters are nothing but head, fists and hate. All of his influences merge into something that gives his art a real punch, which really works when the dairy products gone bad are kicking some poor sap’s teeth in – the bloody molars are coming right at you.
Beyond the action-packed figure work, destructive scenery and pitch-perfect faces, the Milk and Cheese comics are so well laid out, accomplishing an amazing amount of incident in a couple of pages without ever getting boring. Crammed full of gags, busy, and eager to please, Milk and Cheese also manages to be confident enough to cut in the odd silent beat before the raucous violence.
The already-perfect pacing is stripped down even further in the four-panel Fun Strips, which he has put out regularly over the years. They make a point – often including Dorkin’s signature punchy joke or personal confessional – and get the fuck out, and do it dozens of times in a few pages. Sometimes they are done with such an economy that the third narrative panel is left for one last ironic twist or a sad trombone note.
As the years have passed, Dorkin’s art has solidified even further and his line is even thicker and more confident. He still puts every bit of gross stubble on a fat neck onto the page, but everything is denser on the page in a way that wouldn’t look out of place in 1950s Mad comics, while also bringing moments of great stillness.
While it might take a lot of blood, sweat and fears, his flowing artwork makes his comics infinitely re-readable, you can find more and more to appreciate every time you return to it. The frenetic action seen in Milk & Cheese and odd one-offs like Biff Bam Pow and Kid Blastoff still pack a real punch, and still retain real energy, decades after they were first pencilled.
It’s just really nice to look at, and it’s suited for both the laughs and the self-loathing. It sells the madness; it sells the sadness. So yes, there’s a lot of self-loathing in Dorkin’s comics, but don’t worry; he probably thinks you’re a dumb piece of shit sometimes too...so it all balances out.
All those laughs and all that great art is also infused with some real vitriol towards the true dumbasses of the world – the bullies, the fools and the greedy. Dorkin has been neck deep in the world of geek for his entire life, and when he sees those kind of toxic ideas permeate it, he’s not just going to let it go.
It’s entirely possible that his comics don’t sell because he’s speaking a lot of uncomfortable truths that his target audience don’t want to acknowledge.
They don’t like to see themselves in any of the selfish and nasty Eltingville Club, pathetic losers who always take things way too far. And while we might feel like going a bit Milk and Cheese on the world, the dairy products gone bad still frequently target the exact sort of person who likes black and white alternative comics that are ironically violent. It’s obviously coming from a place of love – Dorkin truly does love dumb pop culture, and it is baffling to see reoccurring accusations that he is a fake nerd, because you don’t do this kind of thing for most of your life if it doesn’t come from a place of love, or the fact you don’t know what you’re talking about will be painfully obvious. You can’t fake this level of passion and pedantry.
There are occasional notes of how good the geek life can be – of how fun it all is. When the Northwestern Comix Collective are tearing into the selections at the local convenience store because they don’t have any Underwater comics, there is still a little kid there who just really, really likes Spider-Man; and you even get to see the Eltingville geeks in flashbacks when they’re forming their club, all enthusiasm and happiness and just glad to have friends who like the same shit they do.
But the Eltingville gang turned sour and were still hung up on their own bullshit years after their zombie walks and Twilight Zone marathons. And Dorkin’s work always sounded just a bit more honest speaking through his loudest and angriest characters.
And that’s because he had something to say and he has never been afraid to call out nerds for their own bullshit, even if it loses him readers and colleagues. In his long career, he’s made an artform out of biting the hand that feeds them and while he remains loyal to trusted collaborators and publishers like Dan Vado for years, he’s also happily burned plenty of bridges.
But it’s also really important to note he was actually right after all. The references to specific movies and comics in some of the early Eltingville comics – ‘Batman Forever! Spider-Man! New Staaar Waaars’! – are the only thing that have really dated about them, because that mob of toxic fandom has only got bigger and louder.
No wonder it all got too much for the artist.
Dorkin says he is retired from comics now.
He's said that before, but he's also well into his 50s and has undoubtedly screwed his body by spending so much of his adult life hunched over the drawing table, so the guy is entitled to take a fuckin' break from that for as long as he fuckin' wants. He’s more than earned the right to go off and make podcasts about dumb horror films with a pal.
There is still some writing, and he has found new audiences with the sharp cuddles of the Beasts of Burden and Blackwood books. He’s been talking about the real money in graphic novels like that for years, and how they’re a much better idea than the increasingly wobbly direct market. Nobody listened to that either, and now they’re falling over themselves to produce similar YA graphic novels.
Dorkin is certainly not the young jerk he once was, spending cold winters living in the back of a comic book store, he’s got a life and a family and bills to pay. You can still get injections of that familiar Dorkin invective on his social media, but it really isn’t the same without the funny pictures.
That’s not the only reason to miss the pure cartooning of Dorkin. It’s just lovely to look at, incredibly funny, sometimes moving and that always helps with the jagged edges of his opinions.
The nerds he was bitching about 35 years ago have only gotten worse, and if there is any time in history that they needed to look in the mirror, this is it. If they’ll only look.