Chip Zdarsky is an accomplished comic book writer/artist best known for co-creating the acclaimed Image Series Sex Criminals. He did a short, hilarious run on Archie Comic’s reboot of Jughead, and has written Howard the Duck, and Star-Lord: Grounded for Marvel. His next project is the highly anticipated Spectacular Spider-Man, as while as continuing Sex Criminals, and his second image series, the He-Man inspired Kaptara.
Chip agreed to meet me at the Vancouver Comics Arts Festival (VanCaf), where we had a conversation about his career.
When tackling a beloved character like Howard or Spider-Man, how do you balance being faithful to that character, while still putting your stamp on it as a writer?
It’s tricky. Howard was the hardest one, because that character has a single voice behind it, Steve Gerber. Bill Mantlo followed, and a few other people have tackled Howard over the years, but Howard is Steve Gerber. There was a whole thing kind of surrounding the ownership of Howard, and his treatment at the company when he was there, so with that I had to make it feel like the character, but not be exactly Gerber’s character. Because I think that would do a disservice, if I just tried to emulate what was done by the guy who had feuds with Marvel, and got kicked off his own creation.
So that was kind of a weird balancing act. I think with every character you have to tackle it differently. In that case I just treated it like “I’m writing Howard the Duck!” which I think is the ideal way to treat something like that.
With Spider-Man I’m doing a little bit of that as well, because so many people have tackled that character. With everything that’s happened with the character over the past 60-70 years, some people have very specific ideas about Spider-Man, usually based on the time when they were reading it. If I tried to create a Spider-Man comic for literally everyone, it’ll fail. So I had to get a bit specific with it, and kind of tap into what I feel are the best qualities of Spider-Man as a character, and the best situations for that character to thrive in. So there’s a lot of thought put into stuff like that.
With Sex Criminals being adapted into a television series, and you saying you kind of want to keep your distance from that, do you see yourself ever writing for another medium, like television or film?
It’s funny, when the TV series was announced, that’s what I told reporters and people in my life, that I wanted nothing to do with it. But now, the closer it gets to becoming a reality, I see that it’s an opportunity. I should do it.
I think I felt that way at the time because I was still new to writing comics. That was my new career, and I wanted to focus on that. Now I’m like, if I spend six weeks in L.A. writing a [TV] season with Matt [Fraction, co-creator of Sex Criminals], that would be fun.That would be an adventure. The trick is going to be doing that while doing the comic. I’d have to be basically drawing the comic in the evening and doing the TV stuff during the day.I’ve got enough friends doing TV and film stuff that I see all the negatives about it, so I don’t want to be fully in that world because it doesn’t sound fun on any level.
Comics is great because the production of comics is so quick. You have an idea, you put it down on paper, or on screen, and out it goes into the world. There are very few middle men.
You don’t get 50 rounds of notes.
Exactly, exactly. Something like a TV show or a movie is all-consuming. It’s insane, there are too many people involved, and I don’t know how well I’ll deal with stuff like that. We’ll see.
I think their getting close to… something, for the TV series. Maybe I won’t even be invited. I don’t know. Sad. Cry.[Note: Chip was saying the word cry, not actually crying.]
You made Jughead asexual, at least explicitly, and in an interview you said that if he gets into boys or girls at a later date that would be fine. But a lot of people were angry when Jughead kissed Betty on the Riverdale TV show. Were you surprised at the reaction to Jughead’s asexuality, and do you feel like you’ve added something important to this character’s canon even in your 8 issue run?[Laughs at the mention of Riverdale]
Yeah, [Jughead’s asexuality] was kind of in my head from the start, and then when I was writing the book I thought “I should just say it”.
Archie [Comics] was great with it. I told them I was just dropping it in as a bit of dialogue, and I didn’t want to make it a big thing. I didn’t want Archie getting PR with a “very special issue” of Jughead. Because [asexuality] is not an aberration, it’s not abnormal, it’s a normal thing, and I’ve had so many readers come up to me and thank me because there’s like no asexual representation in comics, or very little.
I liked that period, where there was just this small thing in the book, that readers responded to, and it didn’t become a big PR thing for Archie.
Then Riverdale came along, and I knew right away, as soon as they announced that show, that there was no way they were gonna let that character be asexual. It’s a CW show [Laughs]. They want to keep their options open in terms of teens having sex.
There’s also this strange thing where I left the book a year and a half ago, and I keep getting tagged in things on Tumblr since Riverdale has brought Archie back into the consciousness of people. Now there are people who don’t necessarily read the comics but found out Jughead was asexual, and they keep asking me “aren’t you upset as the guy who’s writing Jughead right now?”. But I’m not writing Jughead, and I don’t own Jughead.
And it’s disappointing, but things change with company characters. Maybe the next iteration of Jughead on TV will be asexual, or maybe not, or maybe he’ll be gay because some people consider him to be gay-coded as well. But it’s hard. It’s hard getting wrapped up in the life of a company owned character because companies will always let you down at some point, even if they have a great track record.Riverdale is currently feeding a very large fan base who want Jughead and Betty to be a couple, and that’s the CW’s prerogative, and that’s Archie’s prerogative. So when I say that I’m okay with writers following me and having him like boys or girls, I’m really just okay with the fact that I don’t own the character. I want him to be asexual, but I also know that if I hold onto the idea of my version of Jughead being the one that continues on, that’s going to hurt me down the line, and hurt others. You have to kind of let it go.
I’ve seen too many people go through Marvel, or DC or whatever, and they have “their” character, you know? They got really into their run on The Flash or Batman or whatever, and then they leave the book and the character changes, and it hurts. It’s gonna hurt if you allow yourself such a strong emotional connection to a company character.
It’s a really hard balancing act.
In your Howard run, you called back to the original Secret Wars event from the 70’s as an important plot point. Do you enjoy playing around with the continuity of comics that you read as a kid, and can we expect that in Spectacular Spider-Man? Will it tie into some classic storylines?
Yes and no. I’m trying to do less of that. Howard was very much me excited to write a Marvel book, and tap into things I grew up reading. It was a very selfish book in a lot of ways [Laughs]. But I’m glad people liked it. I’m sure some younger people didn’t get all the references. I think it kind of stands on its own as “Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck: Very Much About Chip’s Childhood”.
With the Spider-Man book, the considerations are a bit larger. You want to bring back some old readers, but you also want to keep it friendly for new readers. I am bringing in classic villains. I’m not really tapping into old, old storylines. Actually, now that I think about it, it does tie into the first 10 issues of Spider-Man pretty heavily, like from the 60s. Which isn’t my childhood, so I don’t feel like I’m being driven by nostalgia. [Laughs]. Yeah, now that I think about it, there are a lot of callbacks to weird stuff. At the same time though, there’s more explanation happening in the book, to make sure people are caught up.
It’s a challenge, because the mandate for the book, from Marvel, is that they have a new Spider-Man movie coming out. And currently in the comics, Peter Parker is a tech billionaire. So there’s a dissonance between the versions on screen and in print, and they want to make sure that people can see the movie, then go to the comic store, and pick up something that feels closer to what the movie is.Do you get to see the movie early, or get plot details, or anything?
No. [Laughs]. I mean I kind of heard early on that Shocker and Tinkerer would be showing up, but I think, even then, the rumors were already out there about that. In a lot of cases, Marvel [Comics Division] finds out after the fact. I got the Howard job because an editor at Marvel went to see [Guardians of the Galaxy], saw Howard at the end, and called me up like, “I think we can get a comic made now”.
That’s how separate the comic and movie divisions are?
Yeah. I mean, there’s overlap for sure. When I was doing Star-Lord with Kris [Anka] and Matt [Wilson], Kris redesigned the costume, and that needed to be passed up through Marvel film people. He couldn’t just change the costume without getting some notes like “that doesn’t really work with what we’re doing” or whatever. So yeah, it doesn’t feel like their super linked. I’m hoping, fingers crossed, that I get invited to the premiere of Spider-Man. I know there’s always a New York premiere, and the Marvel staff go, and I’m like “Hey! I’m writing the book, maybe you wanna bring ol’Chip along?”.
I don’t know, we’ll see what happens.
I wanted to congratulate you on your Eisner award for Sex Criminals. What do you think Will Eisner, the grandfather of the graphic novel, would make of his name being associated with a filthy rag like Sex Criminals?[Laughs]
Oh my god, yeah, the night we won. I was nervous. I was nervous to lose, and I was nervous to win, you know, that kind of thing. And when Matt and I got to the stage, the speech I gave… I must have used the word “dildo” thirteen or fourteen times. I don’t know if Will Eisner’s relatives were in the audience, but I was like, “I’m never getting invited back to this”.
I physically lost that Eisner [award]. When I did Zdarsk-con three or four years ago, the first one, I think I left it behind in the rental van.
Note: Zdars-con was Chip’s attempt to launch a convention dedicated to only himself outside of Toronto’s Fan Expo. Here is rare footage of the event:
It must have rolled out or something. I had it bolted to a table, that I was pulling around on a trolley, and it kept falling off. It must have fallen off in the van. I never followed up on it, because I like the idea of somebody renting a van, and finding a dented globe that says “SEX CRIMINALS” and then Will Eisner’s name, with no other context.
What does the Eisner’s award show actually look like? I have no idea.
It’s an interesting mix because it’s an award show, and there’s a dinner involved, and it has kind of a ballroom feel. Half the people dress up, and half the people wear cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirts. It’s strange. Some people go up to accept an award and they look like they just came off the convention floor, and then women will go up in ball gowns, and guys will go up in tuxedos. I kind of like that, I feel like it symbolizes the comics industry. Some people go up and are like “this is special!” and some people are like “ayyy I’m in comics, lookit me!”. It’s a strange night.
It’s super weird posing for photos with like…heroes. Like Sergio Aragonés was there, and the Hernandez brothers were there, it was nuts. It’s like the low-level Academy Awards where you’re hanging out with the Brad Pitt… of comics, or like “Denzel Washington…but he draws!”.
For Mad Magazine?[Laughs]
You can learn more about Chip and his work on his website.