Moderator Christopher Irving braced himself for a storm of strong personalities talking about their experiences pushing the boundaries of humor in comics, further complicated by the face that there were a gaggle of young teens in attendance to remind creators to try to put a lid on the almost unavoidable profanity that was bound to emerge. Frank Cho (LIBERTY MEADOWS, SAVAGE WOLVERINE), Evan Dorkin (MILK ‘N’ CHEESE, BEASTS OF BURDEN), Tim Rickard (BREWSTER ROCKIT), and Peter Bagge (HATE!) took up their positions to shock and amuse, but what emerged was plenty of dialogue on their all too serious struggles with the status quo. Bagge kicked things off by explaining that he was sharing a table with Dorkin this year and hearing his endless kvetching about the state of the comics industry was making him want to kill himself. Dorkin seized and edited Irving’s introduction notes before allowing things to proceed and Cho, who had been ill, bravely took his seat, only to be handed a note from a young lady working at the con explaining that “Frank Cho went home early”. This was pretty much the kind of craziness that the audience was expecting from such an esteemed line-up.
They all commented on the fact (a feature of discussion at the con) that a Republican convention was happening in the Charlotte, NC convention hall at the same time and was giving them some terror and fodder for their jokes. Dorkin, for one, had “never seen such rude behavior from well dressed people”. Irving bit the bullet and asked the panellists to tell tales of censorship in their work, and Cho had a host of anecdotes starting from his earliest days in college papers. Working in syndicated strips more recently, he often had work returned with post-it notes reading “reduce breast” and “reduce buttocks” in a pattern he described as “constant censorship”. Working for Image and Marvel, he was “back to square one” with censoring, particularly with SAVAGE WOLVERINE, but despite that he said that “Marvel has been good to me”. Rickard, who works more locally to Heroes Con has faced a lot of “limiting” in syndicated strips, including papers refusing to use his strips despite relatively harmless images. One example he provided was a panel where a dog is “scootching across the carpet” the way dogs do, and another was a strip depicting TSA “full body searches” and for both he was asked to make changes that would cause the work not to “make sense” any longer. The general tenor of syndicated work, Rickard said, is that one complaint equals 100 and one compliment equals one compliment, also known as the “grandmother test”. No one’s grandmother should be offended by a comic, apparently.
The panellists hadn’t had much more luck with retail comic shops, either, having to go into “dark corners” to find humor comics to begin with, and Dorkin cited that only 10% of shops had ever carried his works. Dorkin’s most surprising experience with backlash came from doing a “back page strip” in a Jewish themed magazine of Jews baking with the blood of Christian children (an all too real medieval anti-semitic belief in Europe) that he didn’t realize would be published online before it saw print. Once on the web, “Nazi hate groups” started putting up the comic, despite the fact that the comic was about “ridiculous beliefs taken to a ridiculous extreme”. Dorkin received death threats and hate mail for the strip, with fans calling the house and declaring a boycott on his work. For Dorkin, whose motto is “Don’t back away from a strip”, this was nevertheless the “only time I’ve ever been scared”. The problem, he said, is that some people don’t read humor comics closely enough to benefit from what they are actually saying about life, and that leads to extreme responses.
Bagge has had problems with message boards on the internet where readers have simply misunderstood a comic and “took things the wrong way” resulting in a trend of name-calling. “Everyone’s favorite hobby now is to call everyone a racist”, he said, particularly online. “Of course, you know, Pete IS a racist”, Dorkin informed the audience, which started off the inter-panel sniping that characterized the event. “Some people get upset over anything”, Dorkin added. “Professionally offended”, Bagge concluded. Cho recalled a terrible moment as a student when he received a letter from Charles Schultz’s lawyer after depicting a version of Charlie Brown being killed by the kite-eating-tree, and assumed he was in big trouble. His editor told him to disregard it, which he did, and nothing ever came of the threat. Cho has also had plenty of protest from religious groups over time. Once after presenting the baby Jesus refusing to take a bath by walking on water, he had people calling his house telling him he was going to “burn in hell” for it.
When asked if they can laugh about their disturbing experiences given enough time to gain perspective, Bagge said that now that he’s finally “making wages” through comics, “the years of poverty are suddenly funny”. And now that it’s funny, he’s prepared to use that material in his comics, though it’s still “irksome” to him. Dorkin, too, has put some of his worst experiences in his life into comics, for instance his “depression, anxiety problems, not getting works done, stuff with parents”, but he changes them to make them funnier since at heart they are “serious issues”. He’s had so many other cartoonists write to him to admit that they’ve had similar problems that he could carry out an effective blackmail campaign, he warned.
It came out in the panel that Cho and Dorkin had a professional connection, since Dorkin almost gave Cho his first job in comics. In 1995 or 96, Cho said he met Dorking at Small Press Expo and they began talking about doing a series together (one that never happened, actually), but it led to a tryout with Dark Horse. The tryout went badly for Cho because he was in finals week at college and his work wasn’t up to snuff, so he was never hired. Nevertheless, this false start led him to think of Dorkin as an early pro influence. “I went onto fame and fortune as a slob, you’re wearing a suit”, Dorkin commented, also insisting enigmatically that he was wearing stolen clothes. Cho did look dapper despite the fact that he was under the weather.
Bagge asked the audience if anyone was an aspiring cartoonist, and one brave young man responded in the affirmative. “If you’re goal is to be a starving artist, it’s an easy road ahead”, Bagge assured him. Dorkin cut in to speak more seriously, reminding the artist that things are fairly simply nowadays. “Make it, scan it, put it up”, he explained, but the question is can it make money? “There are no gatekeepers. Just put it up. Don’t ask”, he advised. Both Bagge and Dorkin responded to a fan question about facing legal action, and their conundrums concerned working with big companies. Bagge told a perplexing story about a DC comics lawyer threatening to sue another division of Warner for using their character in a cartoon. Dorkin, when working on a pilot for Cartoon Network of his comic creation Eltingville, was told that he wasn’t allowed to use DC character merchandise in depicting a comic shop setting, despite the fact, that it would essentially be free advertising for them. There’s more extreme comedy on TV, and even in cartoons, they all agreed, than is commonly allowed in comics without censorship or lawsuits, a strange phenomenon that hampers their work.
When they were asked what projects they had coming up, Cho hinted at some unannounced Marvel projects, as well as a HOW TO DRAW SEXY WOMEN Kickstarter art book, and also three creator owned projects underway “at various stages”. Creator-owned may indeed be the way to go when it comes to censorship, given the stories the panellists shared. Dorkin has some things coming up that he also can’t talk about yet concerning comics, but a new BEASTS OF BURDEN series is also on the way, as well as a HOUSE OF FUN comic at Dark Horse and some animation work. He’s working on “other people’s stuff” too, he said, stuff that’s “famous”, but he couldn’t comment further. Bagge’s biographical book on Margaret Sanger is coming out shortly, a pioneer of birth control who led a “wild, crazy life” herself. He promises it will be quite a “page turner”. Rickard concluded the panel with signature dark humor and world-weary observations. “I have been promoted to night-manager at Burger King”, he said, and he will also be continuing his satirical syndicated strip BREWSTER ROCKIT, and will also producing a syndicated e-book very soon.
Cho, Dorkin, Bagge, and Rickard’s examples proved that there are plenty of un-funny moments for any comics artist working with humor and satire, but it’s some of the bravest work in comics consequently, and for these guys it’s certainly a matter of never “backing away from a strip” they believe in.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.