When did DORK TOWER begin?

The first published strip ran in the January, 1997 issue of Shadis Magazine.

Does the name DORK TOWER come from the Electronic Board Game “Dark Tower” or the Stephen King story “Dark Tower”?

No. It comes from the old Judges Guild Dungeons and Dragons adventures, “Dark Tower” and the subsequent, highly humorous “The Legendary Duck Tower,” both by Paul Jaquays. I’ve never played the electronic board game, and never read the Stephen King story.

How did DORK TOWER start?

I’d been drawing the daily comic strip WILD LIFE professionally since 1988 (WILD LIFE actually began in my High School newspaper in 1978 – and Carson was a gamer even then). DORK TOWER started out as a germ of an idea in 1996, in a GenCon conversation with then-Shadis editor D.J. Trindle. But the original thought was to have the crew from WILD LIFE in the positions now occupied by Igor, Matt and Ken. After a couple of tries,it struck me that Carson was really the only fanboy in the WILD LIFE gang, so I had to come up with some new characters around him.

Just what is Carson supposed to be, anyway?

Carson the Muskrat is (shock! horror!) a muskrat. He’s appeared in my daily comic strip, WILD LIFE, since it first started, in 1978, in high school.

Why a Muskrat?

You may as well ask “Why a Duck?” Honestly, I’m not sure. I drew this character I liked when I was in high school, and, well after having drawn him, named him “Carson” after Johnny Carson, and called him a Muskrat, even though I had never seen one in my life. Hey, I was 16. Kids do the weirdest things…

So why’s he in DORK TOWER?

Just for the heck of it. Originally, I was going to use ALL the characters of Wild Life in Dork Tower, but decided to go with humans, instead. For some reason, Carson just stayed in.

What’s a Muskrat?

To quote ENCARTA: “Muskrat, semiaquatic rodent found in North America. Its body, about 30 cm (about 12 in) long, is covered with brown to blackish outer hairs and a dense underfur. The tail, almost as long as the body and nearly hairless, is scaly and flattened laterally; it is used as a rudder in swimming. The hind feet are partially webbed. Musk (hence the animal’s name) is secreted by glands near the genitals. A muskrat’s house is a pile of vegetation set in a slow-moving river or a fresh- or saltwater marsh, lake, or pond, or the animal may construct a burrow in a river bank. Its diet is mostly water plants, but it also eats freshwater mussels, other invertebrates, and even fish. One female can bear several litters, of 1 to 11 young, in one year, especially in warmer regions; the gestation period is about one month. Muskrat fur is commercially important; the animal was introduced into Europe for this purpose but has also become a pest there. The muskrat belongs to the family Muridae, order Rodentia. It is classified as Ondatra zibethicus.” Learn more muskrat trivia.

Who are the characters based on?

Matt and Carson are basically two sides of me. Igor (who has rapidly taken over the strip) is based on Scott Olman, of Pegasus Games. Bill and Leslie are essentially the exact same Bill and Leslie from Pegasus Games, as well. And yes, Pegasurus Games IS Madison’s own friendly local gaming store, Pegasus Games. The rest of the characters are close approximations of others in the Madison gaming scene. I have great hopes that none of them will sue me. Gilly the Perky Goth isn’t really based on anyone, but the name comes from Jilli Venters, a Perky Goth I met at DragonCon in 1998.

How do you pronounce “Gilly”?

“Jilly,” with a soft “G,” and not a hard “G” (as in a fish’s gill…).

How do you pronounce “Igor”?

“EEE-gor,” not “EYE-gor.”

Will Gilly and Matt ever get together?

Not only do I refuse to answer that question, I even turn down requests from folks who want to buy drawings of them kissing. I know how the story arc of Matt and Gilly will end, and I know when it will end. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Isn’t it hard coming up with ideas?

Actually, no. Well, maybe. Yes. Sometimes. Often. Ask me again when another deadline hits.

What’s up with you, Apples to Apples and and Out of The Box Games?

I am a co-founder and co-owner of Out of the Box Games. Apples to Apples (as of the time of this writing) has sold something like three million copies. We also do a ton of other nifty games. These can be seen at the Out of the Box websire.

Is Out of the Box accepting art submissions?

Not really. My nominal title at Out of the Box is Art Director. But it’s an easy position to hold, as I do all the pre-production art and illustrations for the company.

What’s up between DORK TOWER and Knights of the Dinner Table?

I love hanging with the KoDT folks at conventions, and even briefly took over their booth at a Con (Brian needed a bathroom break (grin)). Many are the times Jolly Blackburn and I have discussed why some people assume there’s a rivalry between us. In fact, Jolly was the first editor I worked for over at Shadis, was very nearly the first editor to see DORK TOWER and is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Heck, if it wasn’t for Jolly, there might never have been a DORK TOWER comic book at all — he’s helped DORK TOWER tremendously at many points along the way! Both of our strips strive for different things and tackle gaming from different perspectives. I am constantly in awe of how funny KoDT is, even after all these years, and have nothing less than the utmost respect and admiration for Jolly and his marvelous creations. (sniff) I love you, man!

Will there ever be a DORK TOWER and Knights of the Dinner Table crossover?

Unfortunately, I doubt it. I’d love to do one, though.

What was SHOP KEEP?

The name DORK TOWER ran in Dragon Magazine as for its first year. The strips centered around Pegasaurus Games and Bill Blyden, its ever-suffering manager. I always found the name somewhat awkward and the division between SHOP KEEP and the regular run of DORK TOWER somewhat artificial. Though the name changed to DORK TOWER in the summer of 2000, the Dragon strips still focus around Bill and Pegasaurus Games.

So what WAS your first gaming cartoon?

I’d done some WILD LIFE strips with Carson the muskrat as a gamer in high school, in 1979. THE ADVENTURES OF DIRK STARWORTHY ran in a British ‘zine called ALIEN STAR in 1981, while I was in college in London. One of these days, when I’m really feeling ambitious, I’ll post them on the web.

Why do your cartoons say “Shetland Productions” on them?

“Shetland Productions” comes from my love of Shetland Ponies as a kid. It’s what I’ve always used as a company name, even when I was in school. Though Dork Storm Press is now incorporated as an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation), I still use “Shetland Productions” as a name. So Shetland Productions is kind of a subdivision of Dork Storm Press LLC, for anything I do on my own I actually visited the Shetland Isles once, about 12 years ago. I only saw one darn pony. Lots of sheep, though.

Are you English or American?

Yes. I’m a dual-national. I was born in Manchester, England, but I’ve lived in the US for the last 20 years. Right now, I live in Madison, Wisconsin, which I love. I try to get back to London and my family four or more times a year, however.

Will you come to our convention?

Possibly, but be warned that I’ve been cutting back on conventions drastically, after nearly burning out a few years ago. I only do one or two cons a year now. Everybody’s happiest when I’m at home, getting work done and meeting deadlines. E-mail the Lovely and Talented Judith (available at judith [at] kovalic [dot] com) who tells me which conventions I can go to…I mean, who keeps my calendar.

As an aspiring art student I was hoping you could share a few of the styles/books/or anything at all that helped you to arrive at your current style of cartooning. Also, would you happen to know where to find any how-to draw cartoon books or tutorials you’ve contributed to?

Finding your own style is perhaps the most challenging aspect of becoming a cartoonist. For the most part, it just happens after years of trying and working at it, with all the changes that happen along the way amalgamated into something new. Most of these changes you don’t even notice, until, one day, you have your own style.

Mostly, when I was in school, I just read other cartoonists whose work I liked. Mostly, they had clean, uncluttered styles, and that’s what I tried to emulate. Charles Schulz and Johnny Hart were perhaps my favorite cartoonists back then, and Schulz is still a major influence on my work (I haven’t been able to stand reading B.C. for over a decade now, but in the late 70′s, I thought it was brilliant). I picked up bits and pieces from others (the Carol Lay mouths, which I ratchet up to 11, for example), and eventually ended up at the style I have now.

If you’re interested in cartooning, my only advice is to keep a sketchbook and draw and sketch as often as you can, trying new things whenever they strike your fancy.

I’ve never used any how-to books, and I never took any classes on cartooning, but I’d recommend general art classes, which is what you seem to be doing. Not for learning how to draw, but for learning how to look at things. It seems strange, but it was a great help. Many people draw what they think they see, and not what they actually see. Cartooning (to me) seems to be the art of trying to say a lot with a few lines. Often what you cut out is as important as what you leave in. So seeing the essence of something is important.

If there’s one book on being a cartoonist I could recommend without reservation, it’s Scott McCloud’s “Making Comics,” perhaps the finest compilation on the subject.

Other than that, all I can do is repeat the words Charles Schulz was kind enough to write me, years ago, well before I knew exactly how critically important they were: “work as hard as you can, and always be yourself.”

What other comic strips or webcomics do you read now?

I only read Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy on a regular basis (now that FoxTrot is no longer daily).Lots of Tom the Dancing Bug. There are many web comics I admire, especially gaming comics, but I don’t read them because many deal with the same subject matter I do, and I’d hate to accidentally use a joke of theirs somewhere down the line, forgetting that I saw it there first, and thinking it was mine. It’s safer for everyone that way, though I do miss out by not seeing some great work.

If you have a question about DORK TOWER, or about John, email John (available at john [at] kovalic [dot] com)