Be it earnest, or merely a love of camp, nearly every alternative comics artist harbors some level of fondness for the superhero genre. Often times the artists choose to act on these whims, be it through satire, an attempt at transcendence, or even the occasional straight-forward embrace of a well-tread franchise.
David Yurkovich has never felt the need to closet his fondness for superheroes from his early work to Less Than Heroes, probably his best-known book, the artist has offered the world his own take on the style. Newly collected by Top Shelf, the artist’s early Death by Chocolate books offer a glimpse into these trends. Having finished the book shortly before my chat with Yurkovich, the subject was still on my mind. Yurkovich, for his part, was more than happy to humor me.
This is a constant source of fascination for me—people who work in the alternative scene are often enamored with the superhero genre, which certainly seems to be the case with you. Do you read a lot of superhero books?
Not so much. I’ve been reading comics for several decades, but I just don’t have the time to keep up with market, anymore. I read stuff here and there, but I tend to read reviews of comics more often, to find out what’s happening out there, and what people think about it. I really try not to read comics in general. First of all, I don’t read newly-published superhero comics, because I don’t want to be influenced by anybody’s image or work, but I do read a lot of superhero comics from the 60s and 70s still. That’s still my favorite generation of comics. I think they’re fun and innocent. They didn’t take themselves that seriously. Once you add that audience sophistication that came in around the time of Watchmen and Dark Night Returns, you really can’t pull back and start doing some of the stories that you saw in the 60s and 70s. You can’t pull back the reins, once you’ve exposed the audience to something great like that. You can’t say, “okay, here’s Watchmen, now here’s a more goofy story.”
So you long for the days when Spider-man used to do fruit pie ads?
Oh yeah. But the thing is, I’d never try to write those kinds of stories, because that age is over. I’m not really influenced by those, from a writer’s perspective. I just enjoy them as a fan. I could never look at something like that and go, “yeah, I want to write that.” I don’t want to re-write the Human Fly series. That time is gone. Towards the 90s, I was heavily influenced by a couple of artists, and I kind of lost my identity. I think it shows in some of the later work.
I just stopped looking at their work, stopped studying it, and went off in another direction. I tried to get back to finding my voice. Comics Buyers Guide was constantly referring to me as ‘the other Ted McKeever,’ or, ‘very reminiscent of Ted McKeever.’ I don’t want to be reminiscent of anybody. I just want to have my own voice. For a time there, I was reading everything Ted McKeever did, and loved the man’s work a lot, but just started to pull in too much of him into my own work. I had to back away from that.
Would you be interested in tackling an established franchise? Or would it be too easy to lose your voice in there, with someone like Spider-man or Batman, who everyone already has an established perception of?
If I was going to do anything established, it would probably be a team book, because I think the individual character books, like you said, everyone has already established them and reestablished them. There have just been so many stories told about those characters, it’s just not something that would interest me as much as doing a team book with a bunch of new characters, or even some established characters that are lesser known. Maybe second-tier characters. The more exposed a character has been, the less I’d be interested in doing it, because so much has already been said about the character.
Are there any specific minor team characters that jump out at you as somebody who might be interesting to explore?
Not specifically. If I had to do a dream book—and I think this already happened, a year or two ago—it would be to make a period book, like Invaders, but I think Marvel relaunched that, anyway. A series set in World War II, would really fascinate me. I would have a lot of fun with that. But then again, if you’re talking just Marvel/SC characters, I’d probably just go through the archives and try to find something that was maybe developed and dropped, and then never appeared again, or just maybe invent some new ones.
Do you feel yourself getting attached to your own characters?
I’m attached to them, in so far as I feel like I understand who they are, but I don’t really have a great attachment to them at this point, probably. In Superheroes of Philadelphia, I killed off one of my main characters, because I felt like he served his purpose, and the team would go on without him. I always hate the way in mainstream comics they kill of the characters and they come back. I’m sure that Captain America will be back. I have no doubt. I don’t care if you kill a character off, but keep him dead, and if you’re not going to keep him dead, set your stories in flashbacks that happened when that character was still alive, if you really want to use him.
It’s that same probably as before: every couple of years or months, a completely new staff of people adopt the character, and they’ve got a completely different outlook.
Exactly. I don’t know as much DC history as I do Marvel history, but if you look at Marvel’s origins from 1960s, on, I’d say that, from the 60s to the early 80s, there was not much in the way of major character revamping going on. The exception is when Jim Starlin revamped Captain Marvel, which was a good thing, because that was a boring character, until that point. But generally speaking, it was status quo—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you’re right, every couple of years, new people come in, and want to rewrite history.
The Agent Swete character in Death By Chocolate is someone who you came back to, multiple times. Some of the in the book didn’t necessarily require his involvement, like the story with the talking dog. Do you just feel comfortable using the character as a vehicle with which to tell the story?
Well, that Geoffrey the talking dog story just kind of grew out of the chocolate car story. I didn’t originally want to do a time travel piece with a talking dog. The main reason I drew that story was because I needed to learn how to draw a car, and doing a story with a car would force me to draw them. Of course, I didn’t choose a contemporary car, which wasn’t very smart. I chose a Ford from, like, 1936, but still the principle in my mind was embracing the weak point, which was that I don’t draw cars very well.
And then I remembered that I don’t draw dogs very well, so I put a dog in then, and then I though of how to put the dog into the story, and then it turned into that piece with the chocolate car being a conduit for time travel. I always envisioned Swete and Anderson being in the story, but beyond that, the story just evolved of itself. The whole time management people—that was right out of Doom Patrol. It was just something that I could see Grant Morrison doing. I was totally inspired by his writing.
So, when you start a story, you really have no idea where it’s going.
Yeah, pretty much. Preeetty much. I don’t do this anymore, but I used to have a notebook with all of these photocopied grids on them, ready to sit down and start drawing. It was basically just opening up the page, looking at the grid, and then starting work on it.
Do you see yourself using the Agent Swete character again?
At the time that I finished the Geoffrey story, I started thinking about what the next Death by Chocolate story would be. I had just done some loose plotting to get some ideas—I would like to return to the character, but at this point, I have a huge backlog of story that’s written, and just waiting to be drawn. I wouldn’t abandon that stuff and start drawing a new Agent Swete story, though honestly, if the book did well, and there’s some interest in it, I would return to it, because I like working with those characters. It would be interesting on a personal note for me to see what I would do with them a decade later, writing-wise—what ideas I could bring into those characters, and what I could develop with them.