Nobody Cared About Those Jerky Humour Books: Evan Dorkin Looks Back On His ‘Bill & Ted’ Series [Interview]
Bill & Ted fans recently got some most non-heinous news with Boom Studios' announcement of a hardcover collection of the 1991 Bill & Ted's Excellent Comic Book series. Written and drawn by indie comics idol Evan Dorkin (Milk & Cheese, World's Funnest Comics, Beasts of Burden), the series was one of the best
licensed comics of the time, blending the manic energy of the films with Dorkin's legendary wit and crammed-to-the gills panels.
Hopefully this cult classic will find a wider audience this December, with the full-color collection of all of Dorkin's issues plus his adaptation of the Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey movie. We sat down with Dorkin to discuss the news, the genesis of the series and his early career.
ComicsAlliance: So, my first question is, did you ever think you’d be discussing a 12-issue comic you did 26 years ago? It’s a little like asking Spielberg to recall in detail that one episode of Columbo he directed, right?
Evan Dorkin: Well, not really, because Spielberg is a world-famous filmmaker and Columbo is a classic television series. That's interesting stuff. I'm a small-time cartoonist, and Bill & Ted was a comic with a small cult audience. That isn't too interesting to most people. So, no, I don't think anyone back in the day would have thought my Bill & Ted run would be reprinted, let alone collected twice. I sure didn't expect it.
CA: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you got the gig when then-Marvel editor Fabian Nicieza was doing an open call for pitches for a slate of licensed books, right? What about your work caught his eye, do you think? And what was it about Bill & Ted that got you interested enough to work on it?
ED: Actually, Fabian asked me about doing the series, I didn't pitch for it. I had met Fabian at the San Diego con in 1988 when he was in marketing at Marvel, and I was a part-time comic creator working as a manager of Jim Hanley's comic shop in Staten Island. Jim brought some of the staff to San Diego and one night we went to dinner with some Marvel people and I got drunk and acted like a goofball.
A year or two later, Fabian had become an editor at Marvel on a batch of kid's licensed books like Heathcliff, Ren and Stimpy and Kid and Play. He remembered me as the drunk goofball with the "comic that had bands in it no one had ever heard of," which is how he described my small press comic, Pirate Corp$!. And he called me up about the job. I guess what caught his eye was the humor and music references in my work, and my being an idiot. Which qualified me nicely for Bill & Ted.
My main interest in doing the Bill & Ted comic was to get a steady paycheck. I had never seen the first movie, I didn't know anything about the characters other than that they said "dude" a lot. But I thought the book was something I could do a decent job on, at least for four or five issues. I ended up enjoying working on the series, so I did the entire run, except for one fill-in issue when the deadlines got to be too much for me.
CA: One of the more interesting things about your Bill & Ted comics is how it took the status quo from Bogus Journey and started from there, with an even more expanded cast and even crazier adventures. What sort of things fed into the book?
ED: Youthful energy, poverty, pop culture, beer, music, Jack Kirby, caffeine, idiocy. All sorts of dumb stuff to keep me interested in the book.
Like I said, I wasn't a fan, so I threw in a lot of characters and situations and jokes in order to have fun and keep things moving. I wasn't interested in having two dumb guys traveling in time and saying "dude" and mispronouncing the names of historical figures over and over.
At the same time, I was super-aware of the fans of the movies, and I didn't want to alienate them or talk down to them or ignore the continuity. I wanted this to be a solid comic worth the cover price for fans and non-fans alike. The characters were dopey, but they were likable. I just went with that dopey vibe and tried to be as inventive and funny as much as possible. I figured if I was having fun, the readers would have fun. So I had fun. It seemed to work out pretty well.
CA: Previous to Bill & Ted, you’d done small-press stuff like Pirate Corp$ and the first Milk & Cheese comics, and dipped your toes into licensed comics with the Predator: Big Game miniseries. How do you think that informed your approach to the book?
ED: Well, Milk & Cheese and, to a lesser degree, Pirate Corp$, were humor books, so I guess Fabian saw something in them that made him think I could do a decent job on Bill & Ted. I guess he thought I was funny. He hated the way I drew noses back then, though, I do remember that. I did, too, to be honest. I didn't draw very well back then, everything was a real struggle.
CA: Did Marvel ever push back with notes or were you sort of given free reign?
ED: Marvel was great about everything, I knew the limits of the job, that we were aiming it at younger readers, and I had no desire to play fast and loose with that to be cute or condescending. We had jokes aimed at older readers, but we weren't trying to get away with anything, I didn't see any point in that. Fabian gave me free reign, for which I've always been grateful; he barely touched the scripts save for something he thought was borderline questionable.
Nelson Entertainment, the company that owned Bill & Ted at the time, had some obnoxious notes here and there, but nothing much, just ignorant crap. They were afraid I was writing in gang references when I used some hip-hop stuff, I wasn't allowed to use the word "Jewish" for a non-religious joke playing off the word "sabbatical". That sort of fearful, weird stuff. It wasn't a big deal. It was a really great experience, no bumps at all.
CA: Looking back, what was the biggest thing you took away from the experience?
ED: You can have fun with any job, even a work-for-hire gig, a licensed gig, even if you're not a big fan of the characters or concept. You can work a concept and find something that clicks, something you can build on and make your own, without ditching the core concept and disregarding the core fans. That was a big surprise, a pleasant surprise, and something I carried on to other jobs.
I expected Bill & Ted to be a slog, but I ended up having so much fun that I was sad to see the book get canceled. If you throw something of yourself, your interests and your personality into something, you can help make it your own, something above average that resonates a little more than the stuff most people tend to toss out there.
CA: Along with Bill & Ted, you also managed to craft one of the best single issues of a Marvel superhero comic in the Fight Man one shot. ("Because one shot is all he needs!") Did you ever feel like you were getting away with something by getting Marvel to put that out?
ED: Oh, sure. because nobody cared about those books, in the sense that they didn't expect anything and it didn't matter. They weren't core books with important core characters that had to be watched carefully, they were jerky humor books.
Don't get me wrong, Fabian and people like Tom DeFalco and Mark Gruenwald were interested and supportive of what I was doing, but nobody thought it was going to go anywhere. Bill & Ted was a licensing deal, someone thought they should try some known-quantity kids' characters.
Fight-Man was a gift. The character started out as a joke at lunch one day, and a year or so later they let me run off and do the one-shot for the hell of it. Comics were more fun and loose that way back then. Nobody had illusions that he would become Deadpool or Lobo or Ambush Bug or anything like that. It was a lark, charity, back when you could still toss weird unsupported stuff out and not lose your shirt. I think they just wanted to read it, as well, which, if you think about it, is a nice way to publish comics.
I remember Tom DeFalco apologizing to me that they couldn't do another Fight-Man one-shot, because it only sold something over thirty-thousand copies. Nowadays that would be a success. I'll never sell thirty-thousand copies of anything on my own. Fight-Man was another really cool experience, and it was nice that I got to bring him back for two issues of Agent X back in the aughts. I always wanted to place a character in the Marvel Universe, and some of the Fight-Man villains slipped in for a few panels here and there. I unlocked a small geek achievement with Fight-Man. Very small, but, still, he got into the Marvel Handbook once or twice. My thirteen-year old self would have been ecstatic.
CA: Fast-forward to 2015, and there’s a pretty big contingency of licensed comics by people who made their name on smaller press work. In fact, Boom, which is putting out the collection, owes a lot of its recent success to that trend. Is there a part of you that feels responsible for that?
ED: Not at all. I did a decent licensed comic, that's all. I think Dark Horse pushed the potential of licensed books in the '90s, and that helped changed people's thinking about how to create and market them, but I also think rabid modern fandom would probably have gotten us to this point, anyway.
CA: You’ve written and drawn --- and written and drawn --- for comics, and you’ve written for TV. Which do you prefer?
ED: Comics. In comics you're god. In general, what I write or draw stays on the page and is put before the reader's eyes as I meant it to be. In TV you generally work for a pantheon of gods, sometimes they're cool and calm, sometimes they're fighting and eating one another and you get caught up in the chaos. The money's usually better in TV, and people actually see your work, but it never feels like it's yours, exactly, even on largely self-directed stuff as the Eltingville pilot.
Comics is best, if cheapest and saddest. I love the way comics can be used to tell a story or a gag, the linework, the lettering, the process, the signature styles of creators, and how it comes together in a way prose or film can't or doesn't. It's my medium. Comics is where I live.
CA: What’s on the horizon for you next? Eltingville is dead. Judging by you recent tweets, Beasts of Burden is stalled out for the foreseeable future? More Milk & Cheese? Something else?
ED: Eltingville's dead but the post-mortem collection comes out in February from Dark Horse. Milk and Cheese will probably show up again, I have some unfinished strips I scribble on from time to time. Beasts of Burden is in a coma, Jill [Thompson] hasn't turned in a new page since early 2014, there are three scripts still to be drawn in total, and I consider the project dead until and unless a miracle happens.
Beyond that, I did a one-page strip for the just-released Liberty Annual from Image benefiting the CBLDF. There's a big Peanuts tribute book coming out from Boom, and I wrote a 12-page Lovecraft Mythos mash-up comic for it, which was drawn by Derek Charm. I wrote a 12-page Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy story for the Spongebob comic. My wife, Sarah Dyer and I are working on a Ben 10 script for the show revival, we did an outline and are waiting for that to be approved.
We also are writing a creator-owned series for a new digital platform, and I'm developing another creator-owned series with an artist that we hope to place with a traditional print publisher we're talking to. The Bill & Ted collection is due out in December; apparently DC is reprinting World's Funnest in March, and there's a Deadpool Omnibus that will reprint all the Agent X/Fight-Man stuff scheduled from Marvel. I'm officially old enough to have my past coming back to haunt me. Soon I will die.
CA: Final question: have you still not seen the first Bill & Ted movie?
ED: I still have not seen it. I know, dude, I'm totally heinous.