If you grew up reading comics in the 1990s, you know the impact that creator Evan Dorkin had on the medium, especially seen in his seminal Slave Labor Graphics work on Milk & Cheese and Dork. Even riffing on fandom, his love of comic books always shone through.
One of his most intriguing and inspired works of the last 15 years is Dark Horse Comics’ Beasts of Burden—written by Dorkin with art by Jill Thompson—which followed a team of dogs and cats that band together to investigate their neighborhood’s paranormal activities. Appearing in their own series and throughout a wide range of Dark Horse books over the following decade and a half, the book was nominated for and won several well-deserved Eisner awards over the years.
This week, Dorkin is unofficially revisiting his Beasts of Burden universe in Blackwood, written by Dorkin with art by Veronica and Andy Fish. Blackwood focuses on students attending an old college that, unbeknownst to them, has a supernatural secret just under the surface. Blackwood captures the spirit of what Dorkin captured in Beasts of Burden, while bringing a new story to the fore that is new-reader friendly.
Evan Dorkin, Veronica Fish, and Andy Fish spoke with me recently about the idea behind Blackwood, revisiting the concepts explored in Beast of Burden, the process and influence guiding the look of the series, and what we can expect to see in the book moving forward.
FreakSugar: For readers joining in, how would you describe the conceit of Blackwood?
Evan Dorkin: Blackwood is about a group of students who are given scholarships to an old mysterious college that’s a front for a secret occult training program. Our four main characters have all survived tragic encounters with the supernatural that have marked them as potential candidates for the program. They’re tossed into the thick of things after some things go very wrong during their school orientation, and find themselves dealing with ghosts, undead faculty members and two-headed mummy chimps.
Andy Fish: Evan described the idea to us over dinner while we were at Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC and the second he said part of his inspiration was Universal Monsters from the 30s and 40s we were in. Blackwood is unique in many regards, it’s a completely fresh take on the kids at a school that is something more than it seems. It could be easily dismissed as a riff on Harry Potter or Scooby Doo, but it’s not at all. Evan is a master of writing characters that seem real and Veronica is unmatched at character design so how could you not have something amazing?
FS: Evan, you’ve said Blackwood unofficially takes place in the Beasts of Burden universe. While you’ve said that BoB was somewhat restrictive, was there any adjustments you had to get used to when starting Blackwood in terms of storytelling in that world?
ED: Not really. A lot of things about Blackwood were pretty much set by the time it came for us to start working on it. Blackwood‘s been in development for several years and while it changed a lot from notes to pitch to page, the surprises have all been in plot more than approach. The pitch we did was very detailed, and when Veronica designed the characters their personalities really locked in for me while I was scripting. The main reason Beasts of Burden can be restrictive is because the animals can’t hold anything, they can’t use technology or open doors that are locked or read. Solving those plot problems as neatly as possible can be really difficult. Obviously, we don’t have that problem with Blackwood.
FS: Blackwood #1’s tone feels like it pulls from so many storytelling traditions and genres: comedy, horror, and 1970s and 1980s films. What are some of your inspirations for the book?
ED: Horror, comedy, and 1970s and 1980s films.
Veronica Fish: Living in New England affords a myriad of inspiration for creepy locations, and Blackwood itself is modeled on a local college Worcester Polytech Institute, which has lots of amazing neo-gothic and old colonial buildings as well as being remote up on a severely steep hill. When it comes to artists, I love gathering inspiration from Marc Hempel’s work (especially Gregory), Lynd Ward’s Frankenstein, Ryoichi Ikegami’s Mai the Psychic Girl, and GeGeGe No Kitaro.
AF: For us, it’s a whole combination of things ranging from 1933’s The Invisible Man up through things like Suspiria which really scared the heck out of me when I was a kid.
FS: Following up on that, the aesthetic of the first issue evokes the same feelings of fascinating creepiness that readers would get from taking in EC’s horror comics. How did you decide what you wanted the look of the book to be?
ED: I wasn’t exactly sure about the look, but I always knew the tone, and when I saw Veronica’s work at Heroes Con some years back I just thought she would be perfect for Blackwood. Having Andy on board adds another horror buff cartoonist to the team and completes it. I’m really happy with the way the series looks.
AF: Evan had initially said he wanted it to be a lot like the work of Japanese Manga artists like Shigeru Mizuki, Junji Ito and Hideshi Hino. When we were in Japan a few years ago, I haunted used Manga shops looking for their work so I knew exactly what he was talking about. Veronica, whose work I am a huge fan of, has not really delved into horror too often, and most people have never seen what she did with her take on Frankenstein, but THAT was a big inspiration for me. She’s been known for comedy with Archie and lady superheroes with things like Spider-Woman, so I knew she was excited to get on something that would let her get dark.
VF: For me it feels like it’s impossible to draw everything I want the reader to know or sense. It’s so hard to fit everything we want to show in four issues, so if it works out that we continue it will evolve for sure.
FS: Veronica and Andy, your experience in comics is wide-ranging and includes a whole host of different genres within the medium. What was it about Blackwood that appealed to you as creators?
AF: I love horror, but I love horror that is more atmosphere and mood than outright just gore or cheap scares— and Evan would mention something obscure like Peter Lorre’s outfit in Mad Love or when Jack Cassidy played the Magician in Columbo and we knew exactly what he was talking about without even looking it up. We definitely felt a kinship between us and Evan and Sara.
Initially the project was Evan and Veronica, and once she started talking more about it I was like, “You have to let me in on this!” We’ve worked together in the past, almost all the time, Veronica has always had something to do with all of my projects and I’ve contributed things here and there on hers but we’ve only REALLY worked together like this on a couple of projects so we really wanted to do this as a team-up.
VF: Evan’s pitch was like being handed a pamphlet to visit the nuttiest horror theme park in the world. We can’t NOT go. Everything he wrote in the initial pitch was incredible – he had each character’s backstory worked out, the faculty, so many amazing story arcs and wacky peripheral details. Visually, it offered a TON of opportunity to dive into a bunch of insane things I had never done before, but I knew Andy was also interested in. We’re so glad everything came together.
FS: Following up on that, does it change or improve the process working with Evan since he’s an artist and writer and understands the process on either side?
AF: It absolutely improves it, because not only can he verbally express what he’s looking for he can draw it. That’s a tremendous help. He’s a great storyteller and it’s an absolute pleasure working with him.
VF: It’s wonderful. We love sending in the progress of the book for Evan and Dark Horse’s approval, and he’ll come back with these amazing cartoons drawn on the scans when he suggests an idea. We just love that.
FS: The atmosphere and detail poured into the first issue is astounding and I found myself re-reading to unpack more that I’d previously taken in. What’s the plotting and research process on a book like this?
ED: I do a lot of research, make a lot of notes, work as much of a plot out beforehand as I can and then usually write more than one draft. A lot happens in my comics, I’ve always been a detail-oriented kind or person. Growing up I was a fan of people like Jack Kirby, George Perez, Herge, Will Elder, Wally Wood and Sergio Aragones, people who made comics that had a lot going on in them. I watched a lot of screwball comedies by people like Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, who liked dialog and banter, ensemble casts, went for a lot of texture and density.
The Lord of the Rings and Dungeon & Dragons and other RPGs got me into world-building. And monster movies… got me into monsters. I like texture and atmosphere, I like large casts of characters who all contribute, I like setting up things that pay off down the line, background jokes, callbacks, and references that give a sense of a larger world outside the panels. And my OCD tendencies work right into all that overcompensating, of course. The great thing is that Veronica and Andy match the scripts with their visual input. They go to great lengths to bring Blackwood to life. Blackwood is a real place, with real characters, living through a very detailed scenario we’ve made for them.
AF: Veronica and I live in New England which is loaded with gothic architecture— we spent the day on campus at a local college which is our visual setting for Blackwood, as is an abandoned elementary school that is located across the street from our house. So, there is a ton of mapping, and photos and location consideration as we try to make this place feel real.
VF: Personally, I really want the school itself to be a distinguishable character, with lots of specific details and heavy atmosphere. The book came together for me in my head the more the campus was developed. It was fun to make a map and do lots of prep that people may never see but is kind of essential.
FS: Is there anything you can tease about what we can expect in the series moving forward?
ED: We have a lot of stories planned for Blackwood. Like with Beasts of Burden, there’s a bigger story out there, which all the arcs will build up to. We’re hoping the first series does well enough that we can continue on. I’m also hoping we can tell the origin stories of our main characters, Wren, Reiko, Stephen and Dennis. They’re all survival horror stories and I’m really itching to do those.
AF: I’d be a fan of this series even if I had nothing to do with it, it’s honestly a great read and there’s not enough of this kind of thing coming out anymore. As much as I think the first issue is great, each issue tops the last and as Evan ups the intensity of the scripts we’re trying our best to do the same on the art.
VF: It gets SO CRAZY! Just stay with it, because there are so many surprises I’m willing to bet my grandpa’s glass eye you won’t guess where it goes.
Blackwood #1 goes on sale Wednesday, May 30th, from Dark Horse Comics.
From the official issue description:
From the multi-Eisner award-winning creator of Beasts of Burden and the artist of Archie and Slam comes this supernatural fantasy about a magical murder in a sorcery school.
When four teenagers with haunted pasts enroll in Blackwood College–a school that trains students in the occult–their desire to enhance their supernatural abilities and bond with others is hampered by an undead dean’s curse, ghosts in their dorm, a mischievous two-headed mummy-chimp, a plague of mutant insects, and the discovery of an ancient evil that forces our heroes to undergo a crash course in the occult for the sake of the world.