Sunday, January 12, 2014

An Interview with Chip Zdarsky

Chip Zdarsky is the artist behind Sex Criminals (Time Magazine’s #1 Comic of 2013!). Zdarsky has  produced a self-illustrated satirical column Extremely Bad Advice under the name Steve Murray for the National Post. His comic strip Prison Funnies ran in the Independent Weekly and Too Much Coffee Man Magazine. You can find his some of his work at you can follow him at and on twitter @zdarsky

With only four issues, Sex Criminals has become one of the biggest critical success in the Image catalog, receiving praise from peers like Ed Brubaker and Robert Kirkman.  A lot of people are really excited about the project so far. What has been the feedback that resonates the most with you?
Positive feedback from pros is great. I mean, I would have been satisfied with a non-positive quote from Kirkman, y’know? “Fraction’s writing is spot on and Zdarsky’s art does the job, I guess” would’ve still made me ecstatic. He knows who I am??
The feedback that means the most is the feedback from Fraction. In so many ways he’s my audience and I just want to do justice to his scripts. But beyond Matt, I’m thrilled with the positive reaction from women. It was such a gamble opening our story with a tale of female sexuality. I’m extremely conscious of being a middle-aged white guy (kicks back in leather recliner, lights cigar with $20 bill), and was worried about what we were attempting, but it seems to have worked out pretty well so far.

You studied illustration at Sheridan College and had a very successful career as an illustrator prior to Sex Criminals. How have your professional goals been met and changed since you were in school?
I never really felt like I had time for goals. I took any and all art jobs out of school and just made things that made me laugh on the side. Each job and comic project just kind of led to more stuff. Boring, I know. I’m jealous of people with a five-year plan.

There have been a lot of great comic books out there that are also works of serious journalism, like Burford Brendan’s anthology Syncopated and the work of Joe Sacco. As someone who has worked within the comic and newspaper worlds what are your thoughts on comic book journalism?
It’s fantastic. Any opportunity to make history or current events more tangible is welcome. There’s been such a boom in creative non-fiction across the board, with media companies looking for more ways, especially visual, to tell stories. I want comics about everything. Why not?

How would you compare the smaller, more dedicated comic book audience to your National Post and Independent Weekly audience?
Well, with a newspaper you’re a cog in a machine. There may be a million people flipping through the newspaper, but it’s hard to disseminate who stops on my work or just flips past to sports scores or sudoku. Some people will seek out my stuff and some people will be angry that I’m given space in the paper. With comics, especially serialized ones, people are buying because they want to see what the creators are doing. It feels like a huge responsibility, people handing over their money for our product. I have a horribly heightened sense of needing to make an issue as good as possible.
Today’s newspaper, seen by so many, is tomorrow’s bird cage lining. People hold onto comics. It feels like they need to stand the test of time as a result.

It seems like having a book launch in a Toronto sex club in a Garfield suit is in keeping with your sense of humor and your journalistic sense of adventure.  It was also clearly marketing genius.  Has any one in the comic book industry talked to you about that daring public outreach and why do you think there isn’t more of that in the industry?
 I … tend to enjoy going overboard, which helps when it comes to promotion. Matt, of course, one-upped the setting with his on-stage nipple piercing. He’s the best comics partner.
We were pretty lucky in the sense that a sex club launch actually ties into the comic’s content, y’know? Having a launch of your superhero book in a sex club may not make as much sense, y’know? It also helps greatly that I’m in Toronto, home of The Beguiling, an unbelievably supportive partner to have when promoting creator-driven comics. Comic book launches are usually lower key because they’re harder than book launches because you’re still working on the comic’s issue two, three, etc. then the launch comes. The whole time I was running around promoting issue one I just kept thinking about time lost on issue three.

Working within a medium where horrific, clown faced sadists have become a cliché, how does it feel to have your work singled out along with that of Fiona Staples, as being too shocking for the Apple purchasers?
First of all, don’t you dare lump me in with that degenerate pervert, Staples.
I wouldn’t say I’m proud necessarily, but I’m happy that it’s shone a light onto Apple’s unusual practice of review. It boggles the mind a bit to look at some of the horrifically violent work out there and know that our frank story of sexuality is considered more unsuitable for consumers of Apple products.
I was reflecting on an interview you gave for Dork Shelf.  It is well documented that some comic artists use images borrowed from porn to pose their costumed heroines.  Is it subversive to do a comic about sex where "the sex isn't necessarily titillating?"
I suppose so, yeah. But it’s also a little liberating. I never have to worry if something is “sexy enough,” because we’re not trying to titillate, we’re trying to tell a story. We’re trying to convey emotions in panels, not arouse the reader. Wow. I never thought I’d say I’m not trying to arouse readers, but there you go.

It seems like you have a lot of empathy for Suzie and Jon compared to your more satirical work.  Does that make Sex Criminals easier or harder to work on?
It’s harder to nail subtle emotions, but it’s easier than my satirical stuff because I’m sharing the burden with Matt.
In an interview with Matthew Meylikhov of Multiversity Comics you said of Sex Criminals that: “I want to pack it full of weird background details so you can read and re-read the books and find something new each time. Comics are expensive! People should be producing work that asks to be re-read.”  Who do you think of as being especially good at producing work of that caliber?
I’m kind of playing off of the classic MAD and Cracked artists with the background jokes. I think part of it is that I don’t feel I’m strong enough of an artist to get by on my drawings alone, that I need to add jokes to make up for my work.
The artists I’ve been following lately don’t need to rely on gimmicks to be re-readable though. Lately I’ve been pretty into these folk’ works:
1) Chris Samnee on Daredevil, who makes every line count. Also! I really, really take note of Javier Rodriguez’s colour work on that book. Bold and fun without relying on a retro-pop palette.
2) David Aja on Hawkeye is re-readable for similar reasons as Samnee. But because I’m working on a tight grid for Sex Criminals I really take notice of his layouts. Also, Matt Hollingsworth’s colour work is perfect. When you conjure an image of the book in your mind, his colours are right there in the forefront.
3) Emma Rios on Pretty Deadly is what I’ll never be. Seemingly effortless, gestural forms and layouts. I take my time looking at her work.
4) Stuart Immonen on All-New X-Men is consistently the best superhero artist out there. To have an illustrator who can create such rich, technical environments AND be the best in the business at conveying subtle emotions is just mind-boggling.

I  have bemoaned the loss of the letter pages in mainstream comic.  People who are waiting for the trade are missing the fact that Sex Criminals has an amazing letter page where both you and Fraction respond to the mail.  Are you trying to make the letter page cool again, and is it working?I think it’s mostly that Matt and I both really like interacting with our audience, and, unlike with online interactions, we can totally have the last word on a letters page. HA HA SUCKERS. The other thing is that people are, y’know, paying money for these books and we want them to be jam-packed and re-readable.
Also, it’s just fun for people to see their words and names in print.
When a new issue comes out I’m equally as excited to see people’s reaction to the letters page as I am the comic itself.

Your design work on the covers has been amazing. Who are your influences, and who do you think is doing good design work for comic book covers
Oh! Thanks! I… hmm, let me think… I love David Aja on HAWKEYE of course. And Sean Phillips’s covers have always been fantastic. The template he uses for FATALE’S trade dress is so striking and classy you can spot the cover easily on the stands. Fiona Staples’s SAGA covers are beautiful and I love the logo so much. I never understood the idea of soliciting a cover image without the book’s logo. The trade dress should be integral and complement the artwork, right?
(this may be a really stupid question)  Is there anything that is easier for Chip Zdarsky to draw/express than Steve Murray?
Well, the division is mostly because the stuff I do as Steve Murray is geared towards newspapers, so it’s typically more family friendly (and also produced faster). So, I guess I feel less limitations when I’m doing a “Chip” project.

Since this is an interview for Staple! and you live in the home town of TCAF, I have to ask, what makes a good con? What has been your best and worst experience at a con?
I find San Diego hard. It’s too long and impersonal and crazy. The attentive organizers and curated exhibitors of TCAF help a lot. You don’t have to worry about being stuck next to an energy drink booth or a disgruntled wrestler from the 80s. Also, it’s free to the public! How great is that? The idea of paying $50 to go into some horrible convention centre so you can shop is just weird to me. Imagine paying to get into a mall.
It’s been a looong time since I’ve done any shows. So I signed up to do Emerald City Con because everyone tells me it’s great and I’m doing STAPLE! because Austin is fantastic and Chris "Uncle Staple" Nicholas is fantastic so I can only assume STAPLE! is fantastic.

Will you be bring anything in addition to issues of Sex Criminals to the Staple! expo (Prison Funnies, prints, T-shirts, etx)?
Yeah, I’ll probably drag along some old Prison Funnies and Monster Cops! But I’m also hoping to have an exclusssssive STAPLE! print available as well. It’ll be so hot. Too hot? No. The appropriate amount of hot.