John Kovalic says two connecting pages in his new comic collection — “The Tao of Igor: The Collected Dork Tower Volume X” — may be “my favorite of anything I’ve ever drawn.”
To fully grasp the import of that statement, one must realize that Kovalic has been drawing — not constantly, though nearly so — for close to 40 years, when he debuted a comic strip called “Wild Life” in a college student newspaper.
“I think I was the first student in UW–Madison history to have a daily comic strip in The Daily Cardinal,” Kovalic says.
That was the mid-1980s. He was off and running, eventually moving “Wild Life” to the Wisconsin State Journal — the Cardinal paid better, which tells you all you need to know about the newspaper business — and, before too long, branching out into illustrating games and publishing comic books.
“The Tao of Igor,” just published, is Kovalic’s 10th Dork Tower collection, but his first in more than a decade. The comic books have sold more than a half million copies worldwide in multiple languages. The characters are gamers, geeky but goodhearted. And it is gaming — or, more precisely, illustrating wildly successful games, including Apples to Apples and Munchkin — that, coupled with the comic books, turned 60-year-old Kovalic into a creative juggernaut better known in some European countries than he is in Madison, where he has lived since college.
Maybe that’s karma — Kovalic was born in England and spent his teen years there, although his parents were U.S. citizens.
“For a while I was sporting a really sexy British accent,” Kovalic says.
His father had done business in Madison and the family spent some summers here, which led Kovalic to enroll at UW–Madison.
He was studying economics, but found himself hanging out at The Daily Cardinal, drawn by “an energetic group of smart and talented people.” Soon he was writing music reviews and doing the comic strip.
Out of school, Kovalic freelanced for the Madison dailies, then signed on fulltime at the State Journal. His duties included editorial cartoons, and one — from the mid-'90s — ridiculed the notion that a conspiracy had framed O. J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife.
That cartoon was somehow seen by a successful game developer in Texas named Steve Jackson, who was working on a conspiracy-themed game called Illuminati. Jackson reached out to Madison. Would Kovalic like to be involved in the new game? He would. (The two subsequently worked together on Munchkin, for which Kovalic, at last count, had drawn 8,000 cards. It has been translated into 20 languages.)
When Illuminati debuted, one of its fans was a Madison man named Mark Osterhaus, who, with a few others, was on the verge of starting a game company. He wanted Kovalic not only as an illustrator but an investor. Kovalic, who had been a gamer since he was a kid, gulped, borrowed money from his parents, and bought in. They called the company Out of the Box.
The company took their first game — a chess variation called Bosworth — to a gaming convention in Columbus, Ohio, in 1998. They were there to sell, not buy, but when a man approached them with a word association party game he was calling Apples to Oranges, the Madison crew ended up playing it later in the hotel bar.
They simplified it — eliminating any bells and whistles, sticking with the card playing component — and bought the rights. They changed the name to Apples to Apples. The rest is gaming history.
“We sold four million copies before selling it to Mattel,” Kovalic says.
If you’re beginning to wonder what lucky star Kovalic was born under, let me pile on: The guy can also really write.
When I was editing Madison Magazine, I asked him to do a story on how his marriage proposal ended up being covered by the National Enquirer.
Kovalic’s piece appeared in the August 1996 issue of Madison Magazine. It was hilarious, detailing how he had proposed to his then-girlfriend, Judith Heise, in his daily State Journal “Wild Life” comic strip. The morning it appeared, the town went crazy. Judith first heard about it on the radio. The State Journal ran a follow up story.
And Kovalic got a call from a British-voiced reporter saying he was with “Sun News Features” and wanted all the details, which Kovalic provided, figuring his family in London might see it.
Instead, it appeared in the National Enquirer, which, apart from having Judith saying yes (which she did), pretty much made the whole thing up.
Kovalic was quoted: “We hugged, and soon tears of happiness were streaming down our cheeks.”
In Madison Magazine, Kovalic noted, “I never said this.” There was more.
Still, the happy couple survived the Enquirer, and once they had a child, Kovalic took his foot off the work accelerator, devoting himself to being a good dad. The family now resides in Waunakee, where, with actor Mike Moh as his teacher, Kovalic became a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
He's also involved in charity endeavors, including the annual Bike the Barns ride in which Kovalic wears a Munchkin “Duck of Doom” character hat to the delight of his worldwide readers, who have donated generously.
As for future work, Kovalic is planning a comprehensive collection of his Dork Tower web strips — the website gets 1.5 million views a year — most of which have never been in print.
It's pages 190-91 in the new “The Tao of Igor” that Kovalic says may contain his all-time favorite drawing. Colorful and intricate, the piece shows a crowded gamer convention hall and took a long time to get right.
“Months,” Kovalic says.
He calls them his Sistine Pages. Yet they’re irreverent enough that one of the conventioneers bears a striking resemblance to a bald and bearded former longtime State Journal columnist.
“I put [George] Hesselberg in there,” Kovalic says, laughing.
You can take the boy out of the newspaper but not the newspaper out of the boy.
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