“In bed” meaning I was sitting on my bed, and “with” in that he was tuning in via Skype, but I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Chip Zdarsky who co-writes Image Comics’s “Sex Criminals” with Matt Fraction, which won an Eisner Award for Comics for Best New Series. He’s also teaming with Joe Quinones for Marvel’s redux of Howard the Duck, to come out this March.
I’ve been enjoying the heck out of Sex Criminals, which is a “Mature Readers Only, DUH!” (18+) comic about a young couple, Jon and Suzie, who find that when they have sex and then…you know…can stop time. Suzie’s library is hard up on funding and so they decide, having discovered they share the same super power, they’ll rob banks. The characters are beautifully flawed, real (outside of the science fiction parts of the story), hilarious and relatable and I’ve been dying to chat with him about his process.
Tracy: Some folks have no idea that Howard the Duck was a Marvel character prior to the film in the 80’s. With his cameo at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, was the deal already in the works for you to pen his reincarnation into Marvel’s Universe or did the offer come after? How did that go down?
Zdarsky: It came after the movie. Basically an editor [at Marvel] Wil Moss, he’s the guy I’ve been working with there with the covers, I did a little two-page thing for them, he just sent me an email one day maybe a month after the movie came out and it just said, “Hey, got any ideas for Howard the Duck?” And luckily I have a whole folder full of ideas for Howard the Duck so that made it very easy. Yeah, it wasn’t like some big Marvel game plan. Wil just kinda did that on his own just kind of hoping that the upper editors at Marvel would feel the same way and want a Howard series, to kind of capitalize on that two-second appearance in a movie. Yeah, so it was just that easy.
T: I try to keep my off-kilter internet persona separate from my real life. Is that why you chose to create under the name Chip Zdarsky? [Chip Zdarsky is a pseudonym. Steve Murray is his real name and what he published under writing an advice column and comics for the National Post]
Z: It came about because originally it was a work conflict between two newspapers, The Globe & Mail and National Post. I told one of the editors that I would do anything that would be deemed offensive or conflict-based under a different name. And around the same time a student newspaper that I had recently worked for, they asked me to do a comic strip for them. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it under my real name because I was going to do something dark and weird. So I came up with a pseudonym, this was obviously pre-Twitter and Facebook and all that jazz. But when the internet kind of took off a bit more, I only existed online as Chip Zdarsky just to promote the book. When my work for the newspaper got more recognition and acclaim, in paper and online, the newspaper kind of insisted I go under my real name for that stuff. So that kind of became the dual-identity online thing. It used to be a secret and now it’s kind of not at all.
Coming up with Chip Zdarsky, I kind of created him like a character who was a sad sack, lived at home and painted figurines in his mom’s basement and was just super sad and depressing. I would tour as that character and wear fake glasses, a cowboy hat and get wasted at all these shows.
T: What made you choose that name? I read that it was a friend’s ex’s name. Were they okay with you using it?
Z: I had a friend who was dating a girl whose last name was Zdarsky and I really liked that last name, I thought it was a fun name. And he broke up with her; I was really mad at him for breaking up with her because she was really cool too. So I kind of in memoriam I took her name as my own.
T: Was she okay with that?
Z: Well, she didn’t know at first. Once I actually started publishing comics I reached out to her, found her, and said, “I’ve been doing this under your name. Sorry about that.” so I had a thing with her that every time I published a new comic I would bring it to her. I’d give her a free comic. And then we started having an affair and that was weird…it was like Zdarsky and Zdarsky action…that didn’t last super long, she moved away.
So that’s the origin of the last name, the first name was kind of based on the fact that Charles Schultz, the guy who did Peanuts, his nickname was “Sparky” which I thought was so funny. The idea that an old man had a nickname that belongs to a child. So I kinda took Chip as a kind of reference to that, because Chip seems like a child’s nickname and some grown men actually have it. And also it’s actually a short form of Charles so it all played off.
T: There’s hints online of a TV or film announcement with regards to the comic you co-write with Matt Fraction. Are you gonna let me cast it? I have really great ideas!
Z: Oh boy that sounds exciting! Who do you have for it?
T: I have Aubrey Plaza for Suzie, Zachary Quinto for Jon, Tilda Swinton as Kegelface…
Z: I’m pretty sure Zach Quinto is, like, 40. Isn’t he 40?
T: Yeah, but he looks so young he could get away with it.
Z: Yeah, I guess he could…
T: Or would you use the real life inspirations for the characters? I understand that there’s a friend of yours that you use as the inspiration for Jon..
Z: Yeah, they’re self-admittedly terrible actors
T: I thought it was sort of a personalization of Matt and Kelly Sue DeConnick [DeConnick is multi-talented, also writes some amazing comics and is married to Matt Fraction] because they look a lot alike…
Z: Yeah, it’s funny because when we started doing the sketches we were casting friends in the role. I cast my friend Tiffy as Suzie and the first sketch of her I actually dyed her hair red. And Matt said, “Nah, that looks too much like Kelly Sue” so I changed it back to black. And then for the Jon character Matt wanted a Jon Hamm-looking handsome [guy] and I picked my friend Alex because he’s the handsomest man in Toronto.
T: How did it all begin with you? Becoming a comic artist, I mean?
Z: It’s one of those things…this year I’d won an award for “most promising new talent” and I’ve been drawing comics for about 13 years. So it’s that kind of thing where you’re just drawing things forever and someone says “Oh hey! You’re a comic artist!” “Oh, yeah, I guess I am”
T: Were you an art student or was it just a hobby?
Z: Yeah, I’ve drawn all my life and I went to school for illustration. Once I got out of school I basically took any art job I could get, whether it was animation backgrounds, charts and graphics, information graphics, paintings. Then on the side I would always gravitate towards doing comics, I would do self-publishings or publish stuff online. Matt and I just kinda knew each other from the early days of that, where he was trying to get into comics and I was just kinda goofing off online. We became friends and he always liked my stuff, I always liked his stuff and it just kinda came to the point where we were like “hey, we might as well do something.” Matt was ramping down in comics, he had a few Marvel books but he kind of had the big burst of Marvel work and he was trailing off. This seemed like a fun thing to do between the two of us. Then Ta Da! Careers for both of us. Hooray!
T: I have a few friends that are doing what they love for a living and it’s something I admire greatly. How does that feel for you?
Z: Um, it’s kind of the thing, like, as long as it’s always a golden ring off in the distance. Like, “if only I could become a screen writer or an actor or a comic artist” and then you get it and there’s a whole…that doesn’t actually solve your problems. It actually creates a few more. There’s good things that come from it. Even when you do what you love there’s still going to be difficulties and bad days. I think a lot of people attain this level and crash really hard afterwards because of that. Like it’s going to solve all their problems at home. But it feels great, I spent so many years at comic conventions where there would be one or two people there to see me and now there’s hundreds. And that’s fantastic.
The downside is it’s a much higher level of responsibility than I’m used to. There’s a responsibility to those people, all of them travel to see you and no matter how tired you are or bad day you’re having you have to make sure they know that they’re loved and wanted by you. But you don’t want to slip into depression or crabbiness even for a second. That could happen once during a convention but that one person doesn’t recognize that that’s just a temporary thing. They’ll have a bad interaction with you and they’ll go home and feel bad. I’ve had that happen as a fan of comics. I’ve met creators and been horribly disappointed and you carry that with you. If you meet anyone that you admire and they didn’t respond well to you then you’ll carry that with you and that’s a bad thing.
So yeah, it’s great. I quit my job and I’m doing comics full time, but it’s still an insane amount of work. And I find I have to be “on” more. There’s not a lot of down time or relaxing.
T: That’s very thoughtful of you as an artist to be so concerned how your fans perceive of you.
Z: Well, it’s because I’m a fan. I think Matt feels the same way. It’s not too hard. I’m genuinely happy. The fans are fun, everyone’s into it. People are respectful, playful.
T: What’s the thing between you and Jim Davis [of Garfield fame]?
Z: You mean my lover? Oh! I’ve said too much…I don’t know. I grew up liking Garfield as a kid. I don’t know how it came about, but I always kind of used Garfield as a punchline whenever I could. And especially in the newspaper I would slip in Garfield references all the time. And then someone sent me, anonymously, an adult-size Garfield suit to the newspaper one day and I said, “I guess this is my life now.” I wore it to the launch party here in Toronto.
I wanted Jim Davis to do a Garfield cover of Sex Criminals for us. That was kind of my dream, I thought it would be really funny and awesome. So I kind of worked on trying to get in touch with him for months. Finally the corporation rejected the idea and Jim sent me a drawing as a way of apology and when I got it, I think we posted it in the back of issue 6, it was Garfield dressed as me. It’s my most prized possession and I collapsed on the floor laughing as soon as I got it and I will love Jim Davis forever as a result. Which goes to show, be nice to your fans and they’ll love you forever.
T: You’ve just recently published with Matt Fraction the book “Just the Tips” which is a compendium of sex advice published in concert with your comic and often including advice from the “Letter Daddies” column that appears in the back of each issue (which I personally enjoy reading as much as the comic itself). Do you have any designs on writing a novel? Your last “Extremely Bad Advice” column for the National Post read like a Vonnegut for our generation. I can’t help but feel you have some more things to share. I know those are some pretty big shoes to fill.
Z: But damnit I will fill those shoes! Yeah, I’ve got book ideas. I’ve got a Garfield-related novel; I have a book agent that doesn’t really understand what I’m trying to sell. Really it’s just a matter of time because I don’t have any time. It’s a novel about the creation of Garfield. I think I’m taking my obsession a little too far. I’d love to write it but I’d have to find another 6 months of the year to do so and as long as Sex Criminals is going, I’m maxed out for time. That’s the downside of succeeding at something like this, book ideas, comic ideas, other projects fall to the wayside.
T: Can we cuddle? I have to be the big spoon though…
Z: I insist. I insist you be big spoon.
T: Thanks for taking the time out to answer some questions for me and the readers here.
Z: My pleasure!
Sex Criminals and Just the Tips is published through Image Comics and can be found for sale at Earthworld Comics, and Zombie Planet in Albany as well as Aqualonia Comics in Troy.
Look out in March 2015 when Howard the Duck #1 is to be released by Marvel. Don’t forget to check out other works by Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick.