Secret Identity recently caught up with John to talk about Dork Tower, his foray into superhero comics, and his continuing work on the Munchkin card game.
SI: With Dork Tower having been around for over fifteen years, it’s become somewhat of a comic institution. Why do you think the comic has resonated with so many people for so many years?
John: I’ve always been a gamer – I still am one. So I’ve always managed to come up with cartoons about my actual experiences: things that just strike me as being funny. I try to make sure there’s very little artifice behind the humor. I just try and do work that I’m happy with – something that resonates with me. I’m not sure I could do anything different. I’m simply fortunate that it resonates with others, as well.
I took a break from publishing four years ago - In a way, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle, waking up again. I’m still trying to understand the changes and their ramifications as I gear up to publish new comic books and trades again. The old way of doing things has definitely changed. It’s a transitional period: we’re in a scary time, but also an exciting one, bursting with possibilities.
The gaming industry itself has also changed dramatically in the past decade-plus, providing plenty of material to draw from in your strips. What were a few of your favorite developments to poke fun at in Dork Tower?
Possibly my favorite strip in a while was the 1,000th Dork Tower published on the web, which played off of one of the first I ever did, 15 years ago. The “Hey, Marcie! Come see the Satanist!” strip.
The fact that gaming – geekdom in general, really – is far more mainstream has been the biggest change. I was stunned at the response to some strips I did a couple of moths ago about the game “Ticket to Ride.” Such a huge response to something so relatively specialized like that would have been unthinkable, years ago.
I think it’s been an organic thing: Steve Jackson and I seem to be on the same wavelength – or possibly it just feels that way, after ten years. For someone I find utterly brilliant, Steve can have extraordinarily wonderful, silly moments: MANY of them. That’s the overlap of our Venn diagram. I grew up listening to the Goon Show and watching Monty Python – I'm still a fan of both of those, and I still find the utter ridiculousness of Munchkin hilarious.
You recently got to provide your take on Conan with the latest expansion of Munchkin. Aside from the legendary barbarian himself, were there any aspects of the Conan universe you were particularly excited about drawing for the game?
Simply being able to dive into this brilliant universe Robert E. Howard created was thrill enough. So many legendary artists have had their takes on Hyboria. In much the same way that Steve stayed true to the spirit of the books (while still retaining the Munchkin silliness) for the cards themselves, I based my cartoons on the art that had gone before. I realize that sounds incredibly pretentious, when you’re talking about three-fingered cartoon characters. But I did want the drawings to at least have some sense of what had come before. You can never draw too many frog-gods or snake-gods, you know. . .
I’ve always been a bit of a comic book geek. I was reading Batman and Superman books when I was seven or so, along with the Harvey Humor Comics I was buying. The humor comics were obviously a big influence on Dork Tower, but I’d wanted to try my hand at something other than pure gaming humor for a while. The idea for a book about the psychologist to the superheroes hit me one night, during a bout of insomnia. I got to thinking about what a nut-job Superman must be, what with the Invulnerability, near-Immortality, and massive, massive Survivor’s Guilt. . .and then I wondered what his counseling sessions must be like.
Right from the get go, it’s clear that the heroes in Dr. Blink are inspired by some of the more iconic mainstream superheroes. Who were some of your favorite superheroes growing up?
That’s changed over the years. Mostly, it was the X-Men, Green Lantern, and Captain America. None of whom have had their non-actionable doppelgangers appear in Dr. Blink. I should do something about that. . .
Was there any one favorite of yours that you couldn’t wait to break down psychologically in the pages of Dr. Blink?
That had to be Arachno-Lad, our Spider-Man archetype. We used a VERY small font when trying to fit in all of his hang-ups.
Do you feel like your work on Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink brought some new fans over to your Dork Tower comic that might not otherwise have checked it out?
Possibly. But these days, with everything happening online – especially in social media – it’s far easier for readers to get a grip on all the different things a creator might be in to. I’ll tweet about Dork Tower (@muskrat_john), then retweet a Dr. Blink line (@DrBlinkShrink), then maybe discuss something going on with the ‘tween book I’m working on. . .
With the digital collections available through Drive Thru Comics, people are still discovering your work for the first time. Do you still get a lot of “first time reader” letters today?
It’s mostly “first-time reader” tweets, these days, but it’s all very lovely, and it's nice to feel that the humor has held up over time.
What can readers look forward to from you in the near future, and where should they go to keep up with all of your projects?
I've got five big projects on my plate, at the moment. The most immediate two are finishing up the next big Munchkin release (it hasn’t been announced yet, but it is COOL), and getting the tenth Dork Tower trade paperback (“The Tao of Igor”) to press. There will be a little surprise with that last one – a kind of apology to readers having to wait so long for it. In the meantime, Munchkin Apocalypse should be in stores in a month or two, and Munchkin Conan is in stores now.
A party game I invented called ROFL! is being released by Cryptozoic Entertainment, and it’s tremendously exciting to be working with them. I love ROFL! It’s a project that’s very close to my heart, and Cryptozoic is doing just a terrific job with it. Then there’s always something new from Out of the Box Publishing: I'm still a co-owner there, and we have a terrific little party card game coming out called Rhyme Time.
After that, things seem to be progressing with an animated Dr. Blink series, and the Dork Tower puppet show: I'm working on those with my friend Joseph Scrimshaw. A ‘tween book I’ve been working on with Wired GeekDad publisher Ken Denmead is with the agents, at the moment. They seem to be pretty excited with it, so my fingers are crossed.
Hum. That’s an awful lot of “upcoming projects. This is probably where I shrug, smile, and say “It’s a really fun life.” Because it is!
Secret Identity would like to thank John Kovalic for taking time to chat with us.
This week, Dork Tower is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary with a huge sale over at Drive Thru Comics. Both Dork Tower and Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink (as well as other Dork Storm Press products) can be had for as little as $1.00 an issue! The sale is over at the end of the week, so don't wait.
Follow John on Twitter @muskrat_john and keep up with the latest on Dork Tower at www.dorktower.com. You can also get your Munchkin fix at www.worldofmunchkin.com.