Meet the VanCAF guest behind Sex Criminals

Chip Zdarsky art from Sex Criminals.

Interview – Chip Zdarsky

– by Shawn Conner

Chip Zdarsky is actually the comic-boy pseudonym of Toronto-based writer/artist Steve Murray. Under the Zdarsky name, Murray’s work includes Image Comics’ Sex Criminals, Archie Comics’ Jughead and, for Marvel, Star-Lord (yep, the dude from Guardians of the Galaxy), the recent re-launch of Howard the Duck and, starting this June, a reboot of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man.

Zdarsky began publishing his own comics in 2000 before moving to Dark Horse. His (Murray’s) non-comics credits include the Globe and Mail, New York magazine, Canadian Business, and the National Post. From 2008 to 2014, he penned and illustrated a weekly advice column for that paper called Extremely Bad Advice.

This weekend, Zdarsky is a featured guest at the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival (May 20-21) at the Roundhouse Community Centre. You should definitely say “hi” and bug him to put your favourite Spider-Man villain (the Rhino! Electro! Paste-Pot Pete!) into an upcoming issue. 

Shawn Conner: Were you an Archie Comics fan growing up?

Chip Zdarsky: Oh yeah, they were my first comics. Doing road trips with my family, we would buy tons of Archie Digests at the grocery store. As a kid, they felt like novels, like I was reading real books like my parents. All the Archie characters are imprinted on me at this point.  

SC: Those digest-size books were marketing genius, and then to have them at the supermarket checkout…

CZ: It’s amazing. I know they still exist there, probably not quite as popular. It totally worked on me and a lot of other people my age.

SC: A Sex Criminals Digest would be fun

CZ: That would be awesome. The instinct is always to go larger, like the hardcovers. The bigger companies do Artist’s Editions, and zoom in on the art. That would be amazing if, once we finished Sex Criminals, we just did all these little digests.

SC: How did that book come about – did you and Matt (Matt Fraction, writer and co-creator of Sex Criminals) want to do something adult-oriented?

CZ: We were both at interesting points in our careers. Matt had gone through the whole Marvel experience and I think he was maybe feeling a little burnt out. He wanted to do something with Image, and Image wanted to do something with him. Meanwhile, I was working at the National Post as a columnist and illustrator. I was feeling the repetition of that job as well.

One day I emailed Matt out of the blue, we’d known each other about 15 years, just online, suggesting that we should do something fun together. He wrote back with the basic pitch of Sex Criminals – what if we did a comic where a couple, when they have sex, stop time and rob banks? It seemed like such a ludicrous idea that I was on-board immediately. Within a day we fleshed out the characters and situations. It was clear from the outset that it was a thing we were going to have fun with, and would be entirely for us and cancelled after three issues. It was pleasant surprise when that last part didn’t happen.

Detail from a page from Sex Criminals. Art by Chip Zdarsky.

SC: It’s a very ungeeky geeky comic, if you know what I mean. 

CZ: It changed as we worked on it. I don’t think we realized at the beginning that it was going to end up being a sex-positive, emotional story with all sorts of weird intricacies to it. It turned out better than what we pitched it as. 

SC: It seems like it’s a comic with a lot of back-and-forth between creators and readers. 

CZ: When the letters started coming in and we’d meet people at conventions who would tell us what the book meant to them, it kind of changed the way we interacted with the material. There came a sense of responsibility around the characters and the world. We always set out to do it right and do the research and think about it before we put pen to paper. But the reaction definitely cemented that idea. In the individual issues we have the letters page, and they’re my favourite part of every issue.  

SC: When it comes to a character like Spider-Man, how do you do something new with this guy?

CZ: It’s a tricky thing for sure. Dan Slott has been writing the character for maybe ten years in The Amazing Spider-Man. He’s the guy driving the universe, putting him in these situations, updating things, testing the character against new backdrops. My mandate was to bring him back to New York, have more fun adventures. That’s basically what I’m setting out to do. 

As far as doing something new with the character, just through the process of writing him with my voice, I’m hoping that will make it feel new and fresh. You want to have a character that feels like the character, but you also don’t want to feel like it’s author-less. My instinct with writing Spider-Man is still as kind of a lovable loser type.

SC: Have you gone through different phases of comic-book reading and fandom?

CZ: Oh yeah, definitely phases. As a child, Marvel and DC ruled my world. By the time I was in high school I got into the Vertigo books. When I got into college, I ran out of money, and I stopped collecting completely. Post-college, I started to get back into it again. My bookshelf ended up with more Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics books, stuff along those lines. I would dip into the superheroes and see what was happening.

Then, I had a period where I referred to my comic-collecting as “fantasy football.” I wasn’t reading a lot of the books, but I knew everything that was happening, who the major creators were, the players. It was like playing fantasy football without watching the games. Now I’m back into it for research and fun. 

SC: With Spider-Man, there must be characters and probably villains you’re aching to take a whack at. 

CZ: I’ve been working at Marvel for a couple of years now. Right off the bat I was doing Howard the Duck, and I used that book as an opportunity to start working with my checklist. My instinct is always, I’m going to get fired with issue one, so I should do what I want to do right away. The first issue of Howard the Duck had She-Hulk and Spider-Man show up. They didn’t need to be in those stories, I just wanted to check off, Hey, I got to write some Spider-Man dialogue, I got to have She-Hulk interact with Howard. A lot of the Howard run was me putting in characters I always wanted to write, just so I could do it while I had the opportunity. So I’m already kind of scratching those itches.

After a post-credits scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, Howard the Duck was brought back for a new run in a series written by Zdarsky.

Spider-Man’s a completely different thing. The one character that i’m writing right now that I haven’t been able to do before is J. Jonah Jameson, which is awesome. Partly because I have a newspaper background, but also because he’s one of the greatest comic characters ever created. Being able to write dialogue for him is insanely fun.  

The gruff but lovable (?) J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle and avowed Spider-Man critic.

Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man hits the racks at your friendly neighbourhood comic shop (and online stores etc) June 21. For more info on this year’s Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, visit vancaf.com.

Read the second part of my interview with Chip at shawnconner.com.

One response to “Meet the VanCAF guest behind Sex Criminals

  1. Pingback: Interview with comics writer/artist Chip Zdarsky about Howard the Duck.

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