Friday, February 26, 2016

Looking Back: The Eltingville Club

When you hear the name Evan Dorkin, what comes to mind? There's his run on Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures and the adaptation of Big & Ted's Bogus Journey for Marvel Comics (collected in black-&-white by Slave Labor Graphics, color by BOOM! Studios).  Pirate Corp$, was his ska-fueled space adventure series that would evolve into Hectic Planet. He co-wrote episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Superman: The Animated Series with his longtime partner, Sarah Dyer. More recently, he has teamed up with artist Jill Thompson to create Beasts of Burden, a critically-acclaimed series of stories involving pets dealing with the supernatural. Of course, he created Milk  Cheese, the "Dairy Products Gone Bad" that have cut a violent and hysterical swath through the comics scene. This past week, Dorkin and Dyer revealed their new series, Calla Cthulhu, for the St─ôla digital comics platform.

Somewhere near the top of that list dwells the Eltingville Club, Dorkin's response to the dark side of fandom. While a lot of things have changed since their debut in 1994, the toxicity prevalent from so-called "fans" has remained constant. The Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club was made up of four boys that took their chosen passions too seriously, even by today's standards. The Club consisted of four teenaged members: Bill (Secretary of Comic Books), Josh (Secretary of Science Fiction), Pete (Secretary of Horror) and Jerry (Secretary of Fantasy/Gaming). There would be no other members, probably because no one else could stand them. This month, Dark Horse Comics released a hardcover collection of all eleven of their stories.

In the hands of another writer, the Eltingville Club might have been a coming-of-age story about a quartet of outcasts who would be find comfort and solace in each other's company. With Dorkin, the Cub became a cautionary tale to fans of all ages and genres. Had those boys went out to find a dead body like the kids from Stand by Me, the journey would have been over in about an hour, probably over an argument about whether Mighty Mouse was stronger than Superman. Or they might have just stayed home and read their comics. Another difference: nobody in the Club ever held a gun. On the other hand, they did cause three fires. The boys were presented as persecuted nerds, but the degradation from others was implied. Their relatives was shown off-panel, with only one appearance in the Club's eleven stories. Truth be told, the Club members were their own worst enemies. On the cover of the collection, the boys are presented as a bizarre four-headed entity, forever squabbling amongst itself. Their stories were 90 degrees removed from Milk & Cheese. When those two had an adventure, violence and humor would follow, and they would always be victorious. With the Eltingville Club, violence and humor would also follow, but they would always lose. Sure, Josh and Bill drove a home shopping host over the edge in "As Seen On TV," but that was a hollow victory at best.

This sounds depressing, but it was also very funny. Maybe it was because readers knew fans that went over the line. Maybe it was because readers were the fans that went over the line. Once, I caught hell for revealing the death of Ryan Choi in Titans: Villains For Hire #1 without labeling it as a spoiler. Club members frequently griped about stuff they knew would suck . . . much like I "hate-watched" all ten seasons of Smallville. The stories mostly followed the same formula: the Club would meet up with good intentions, but something would go wrong, and they would turn on each other. Nasty words would be exchanged along with the pop culture references, as well as fisticuffs. And the chokings. Seldom was there a story where somebody wasn't being strangled. The boys would inflict collateral damage in their fights . . . like a Toys R Us that got set ablaze after Pete tried to light up an action figure display. Or shelves of bread that Josh ripped open to search for a card to complete a set (something Dorkin copped to doing as a kid in the afterword). Or dozens of injuries at a "zombie walk" when Pete tripped a participant that insisted on going fast. In The Eltingville Club #1 ("This Fan . . . This Monster!"), the boys wound up destroying the local comic shop, and effectively terminated their friendship. In their final adventure ("Lo, There Shall Be An Epilogue!"), the Club reunited years later while attending Comic-Con International in San Diego. They caught up with one another, showing the progress they made in their respective lives, while incorporating their passions. But one thing led to another, and they wound up ruining Comic-Con. Actually, that's not entirely true.

They destroyed Comic-Con.

One thing led to another, a fistfight ensued, and things got worse when Bill tried to cover it up by inciting a riot. Truly, the Eltingville Club (and those like them) was the reason fans couldn't have nice things.

Looking back on the stories, I would say that Jerry was the only Club member that could be considered "normal." I don't think Dorkin was making a statement about fantasy gamers being the best kind of fans. No, he probably thought there was a 1-in-4 chance that anybody that hardcore wouldn't be a complete dick. Jerry's faults laid mainly in his constant impressions of Twiki from Buck Rogers and trying to play peacemaker during Club fights. On the other side of the spectrum was Bill, the group's unofficial leader. Bill was at the forefront of most of the stories, which always turned to crap in the end. In "This Fan," he got hired by the surly comic shop owner (who never respected the Club and who was not respected, if the amount of shoplifting was any indication), and the power went to his head, leading to a fight with his friends. "Epilogue" was a story that brought forth the misogyny that was just below the surface of the stories. Bill gave a tirade so vile, a stunned Pete responded with, "Wow. I mean, I'm someone who thinks women ain't much more than receptacles an' even I'm offended by that shit." If that doesn't clinch Bill's status as an asshole, try this: he would win arguments by rolling loaded percentile dice. Clearly, he would never learn his lesson.

But at least Bill wasn't as pathetic as Josh, the token fat boy of the Club. He served as the punching bag for the others. In "Bread and Suck-Asses," he cries about his lot in life, leading to Bill telling him, "God doesn't hate you, Josh! WE hate you! God hates your parents!" Even in his solo story (the two-page "Captain's Log"), he proved to be the saddest of sacks. He applied for fast-food jobs to get first crack at their giveaway toys. He hid merchandise in Toys R Us in a stash to keep away from other customers. He spent his night downloading geek-friendly x-rated pictures. And for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Josh ate Macaroni and Cheese because he needed the proofs of purchase to obtain DC Comics balancing toys. Unlike the rest of the Club, it never occurred to him to throw out the pasta instead of eating it. The story ends with the gruesome sight of a naked Josh on the toilet, private parts covered by his notebook, suffering painful diarrhea filled with the symbols of DC characters. Thankfully, we only saw Josh describing that.

While Dorkin is not a fan of his own cartooning style, it did serve him well in Club stories. The boys would typically descend into madness, and the art reflected that wonderfully. In the aftermath of "Epilogue," I would not be surprised if Dorkin took time off from drawing. The finale had plenty of crowd scenes, portraying the chaos of Comic-Con. Readers could make out individual cosplayers (including lots of obligatory Deadpools), especially in the carnage brought about by the Club. In addition, Dorkin has won three Eisner Awards for Best Short Story. All three tales had the passage of time prevalent in them, which served Dorkin's style well.

"Bring Me The Head Of Boba Fett!" (1995) Bill and Josh try to claim a treasured twelve-inch Boba Fett. Their method for settling the matter: a "Trivia-Off," a back-and-forth duel fueled by geek minutia.

"The Marathon Men" (1997) The Club stays at Josh's house to view an epic Twilight Zone marathon on the Sci Fi Channel. What starts out as a fun jaunt highlighted by frenzied anticipation of the Return Of The Jedi rerelease and their first hour-long episode turns into a struggle to stay awake and sane. And then Josh tries to make things better by handing out his mother's medication.

"The Intervention" (2001) After a disagreement with the other Club members, Bill is kidnapped by two ex-geeks hired by his mother to "cure" him of his fannish ways. Bill engages in a battle of wills with his captors, and you have to wonder how such drastic actions aren't more commonplace.

While The Eltingville Club is dead and buried, the collection serves as an indicator on how little fandom has progressed, even as it has been absorbed into mainstream culture. The collection comes with thoughts from Dorkin, his seven-page "The Northwest Comix Collective" one-shot (focusing on late-Nineties alternative comics snobs trying to slack their way towards making their own magazine), and sketches from Welcome To Eltingville, the television pilot that aired on Adult Swim. While it was not picked up, the episode is worth watching even after fifteen years. While the pilot took out the constant swearing prevalent with the Club, it managed to adapt the first two stories rather well. I'll end this post with Welcome To Eltingville. Keep an eye out for Milk & Cheese and Myron the Living Voodoo Doll. Don't worry . . . you won't be seeing Lidsville or The Hair Bear Bunch.

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