Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #346: Dork by Evan Dorkin

There are days when I think that Evan Dorkin exists so I can be regularly reminded that I'm not the most cynical, negative person in the world. But most days I manage not to be that solipsistic.

Dorkin is probably the most cynical, negative person in comics -- I could remove the "probably" if I limited that to creators. (Otherwise he'd be fighting with Gary Groth for the throne, and who wants that?)

He's best-known for creating Milk and Cheese, the reductio ad absurdum of '90s hyper-violent comics heroes, but he's done a lot of other work over the years, starting with his early Pirate Corp$! ska-fuled adventure stories in the '80s and running through a lot of projects in comics and animation.

One of the spines of that long career has been his occasional (yearly, optimistically) solo comics series Dork, from the company that was once named Slave Labor. (And which I will keep calling that, since I am old.) Dork is a big new collection of the stories from the comic of the same name, leaving out stories already collected in Milk & Cheese or The Eltingville Club and matching the format of those books. It's large, almost album-sized, and has sturdy paper-over-boards covers and nice glossy paper.

So now Dorkin fans can have a trilogy of bile on their shelves, collecting pretty much all of his central work, which is nice for us. We can wish that he did more work over the years, was less obviously conflicted about working in comics at all, and that he made several more boatloads of money along the way, but those would be as futile as all of our wishes.

Dork starts off with a new two-page introduction (in comics format, of course), and then seems to reprint the eleven issues of comic Dork more-or-less chronologically, starting with the first "Murder Family" story from 1991 and running through about two hundred pages of black and white comics and then twenty-seven pages of color comics before hitting a final supplemental section of covers from the comics and previous collections, plus similar stuff. At some point, material from the 2012 one-shot House of Fun -- which was not Dork #12 for some reason I didn't know, then or now --is included as well, though there's no way to know where unless you have those comics and pull them out to compare. It's a lot of good comics, organized well to read, but there's no explanation of where else any of this stuff originally appeared.

This is probably the complete Miscellaneous Dorkin to date, as far as I can tell. It's definitely almost three hundred pages of comics full of bile and spleen, featuring all of the appearances of the devil puppet and those late '90s stories that made us all worry whether Dorkin was OK or not. (He seems to have been about as OK as he could be, which can be good or bad, and is maybe somewhat more OK these days.)

The work is is very mixed: there's a lot of very short gag strips, mostly organized into pages of "fun" with seven four-panel pseudo-strips, each with one (generally dumb) joke. Longer pieces include several "Murder Family" stories, his early "Fisher-Price Theatre" pieces, his work from the early-'90s book Generation Ecch (the Gen X version of today's self-hating millennial websites), and a bunch of semi- or fully autobiographical stories, culminating in those '90s pieces about what looks really close to a nervous breakdown.

Dorkin's comedy is usually aggressive, about sex and violence and anger and fear and hatred, no matter what the length. Nothing is nice, and if Dorkin has ever been happy in his life, it doesn't come out in this work. It's also deliberately dumb humor a lot of the time: obvious jokes told in boundary-pushing ways. It is really funny a lot of the time, and regularly creepily true -- his more ambitious longer stories are really powerful.

Since this collects work from twenty or more years, the reader can trace the evolution of his art: he started pretty "punky," possibly self-taught, with lots of little lines and and a mania for details. His line has strengthened and simplified over the years -- he got very precise starting in the late '90s, and has kept that look since. I've said in the past that the early look was great for Milk and Cheese, but this book shows the real strength of his mature style: he definitely got better as he got more disciplined and worked on laying down that one right line.

All of the coloring here is provided by Sarah Dyer, who is also married to Dorkin. It is traditional here to use the word "long-suffering," or to make a comment about Dorkin's struggles with depression, but none of us really know anything about other people's relationships, and doubly so when we're experiencing someone else's life through art. So I'll just say she does good work, and it's more obvious with Dorkin's later work, where the cleaner lines give more space for the color to work well.

Dork is primarily for readers who are already fans of Dorkin, since it's so miscellaneous. Most people would be better off starting with The Eltingville Club (if you have a love-hate relationship with comics) or Milk & Cheese (if you have a love-hate relationship with the entire world). But, if you like confessional cartooning and sick humor -- maybe you're a fan of Ivan Brunetti or R. Crumb, and haven't encountered Dorkin yet -- this could be a good place to dive in.

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