Chip Zdarsky Talks Kaptara, Howard the Duck, and Jughead

The Kaptara TPB arrives this week. Chip Zdarsky talks about the wild and funny Image series, with some Howard and Jughead for good measure.

Chip Zdarsky is one of the most popular creators working in comics today, having been recognized for his work on the immensely popular Sex Criminals with writer Matt Fraction, as well as very well received runs on Howard the Duck at Marvel, and Jughead for Archie Comics. His latest creator-owned project is Kaptara, an extended He-Man riff that he created with artist Kagan McLeod.

We had a chance to talk with Chip about Kaptara, his craft, and the outstanding artists he’s been paired with throughout his career.  

The first arc is over, the first trade is out…and the reaction seems to be overwhelmingly positive. Is there anything surprising to you in how it’s been received?

Chip Zdarsky: Hmm, surprising? I feel like almost with any project that I do, my assumption is no one’s going to read it. So I’m always pleasantly surprised when people like it. Especially something like this, because it’s kind of a labor of love between myself and Kagan, who’s a good friend of mine and the genesis of this was from back in the day when we shared a studio and we would keep a sketchbook filled with ludicrous characters and scenarios.

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When people came into the studio we’d show it to them, and if they laughed and enjoyed it, we knew that they were our people…So to do it on a wider scale like this, to put it out into the world was a little terrifying. But I’m super happy that this found the people that it needed to find, you know?

Even with the reception that Sex Criminals and Howard the Duck, and Prison Funnies have gotten, you’re still surprised that people…were so excited about it?

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Because it’s also…every project’s different.

So like Sex Criminals, Matt and I didn’t think it would last past three issues. …We had phone calls where we were just like “Yeah, we’re doing this just for ourselves. No one’s gonna buy it, because who would buy a comic about people who have sex and stop time? That’s not really a comic.” So that was an amazing surprise.

And so the idea of Kaptara being kind of my follow up to that, which is just like a weird, He-Man for adults meets Wizard of Oz thing, which is so far removed from a tale of people’s’ sexuality. The concern there is just the fact that the tone is so different that people who try and go from one to the other will just get whiplash and step away from it. But I’ve since come to accept that there are different types of people out there, and everyone likes different things, and hopefully you have some people migrate from one project to another, and if not, you’ll eventually find new people, which seems to be the case with Kaptara.

There does seem to be an emotional honesty that exists in both of them. That…in Kaptara, Keith is not perfect. You know, it’s not…you’re not writing the story to tell the jokes, you’re using the jokes to tell the story…One of the things that I found most impressive is how strongly defined Keith is. He does do heroic things, but he’s snarky and terrified and awestruck and kind of an asshole while he’s doing it.

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Yeah.

It feels like in stories like this, there’s a certain action hero gravity that pulls the main character towards that archetype, that there’s a set of actions that a main character in a story like this should be doing, and a set of reactions that he should have, but he’s not having them in this story. When you’re writing it, do you ever find Keith kind of drifting towards that archetype, or does having the rest of the ensemble allow you to slice off some of those aspects and use them elsewhere?

Yeah, there’s the hero’s journey. Any kind of story like this has to have it, and starting Keith off like…there’s nothing heroic about him in issue one. At all. He’s the one running, he’s the one being protected.

We do a couple of bait and switches in that first issue where we have the kind of Captain Kirk-style lead killed. He feels like he’s gonna be the default hero, and the other twist is going from sci-fi to He-Man style fantasy by the end.

So with Keith, I kind of liken him to Peter Parker just after he gets bit by the spider….He’s not necessarily a decent person until Uncle Ben gets it. Except we’re telling this story over a longer period, so you kind of have Keith starting off seeming a bit more selfish, a bit more of an asshole, a bit more snarky and sarcastic. And a lot of that idea is that he’s had troubles in the past. There are things that have happened back home that have kind of shaped him to be this way and to find himself on a planet that doesn’t care about that stuff, what does that do to your character? It’s kind of that thing where you remember when you would go to a new school or you go off to college?

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I was just gonna say that.

You feel like you can be a new person, and in some cases, it is easier. If you grew up in a small town and you’re an artsy type or gay, and then you move to a big city, there is a big difference. You kind of become the person you wanted to be. So in this case, it’s like being removed entirely from all the societal constructs of Earth and then being put into a place where none of that applies anymore.

We tried to make it so Kaptara, there isn’t any kind of overt sexism, racism, homophobia. None of that stuff really exists on the planet proper. So when that stuff gets removed, what kind of person can you grow to become? So that’s kind of the hero’s journey…Keith will be a bit more active as it goes on. But that’s not really the focus of character growth, it’s just a byproduct of it.

In terms of scope and size and action, this is probably the biggest thing you’ve ever written, right?

Yeah, yeah, for sure. Kagan and I kind of sat down, and we planned out a fairly lengthy story with several big plot points, and we have to hit it as we go along, but we’re also keeping it open enough that we can explore things like Cat Tanks and Glomps and stuff that captures our fancy.

It seems like a lot of this book is just you and Kagan trying to make each other laugh.

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Yeah. [laughs] That’s the heart of it, and that’s…sharing a studio years ago and creating characters in our off moments between projects was so much fun, and this is just kind of the opportunity to do that on a bigger scale and in front of a bigger audience. Which is slightly terrifying because as is the case with a lot of close friendships that are humor based, that humor is very one to one, and impenetrable to others.

So that was the concern going in here, but we wanted to make it as honest a book across the board as we could, and part of that is making a book that makes each of us laugh. And kind of…enjoyable for us to reread, because we’re the ones that are gonna have this book for the rest of our lives as a thing that we’ve done, so we really want to have a deep connection to it, whether it be the action level or the humor level.

Yeah. It seemed like the io9 video where the two of you were just throwing out ideas and drawing background characters, it seems like that is not the first time the creative process has worked like that.

[laughs] No, no, no, right at the beginning when we sat down to map out the first few issues, coming up with characters, it was just Kagan and I sitting there. So it would start off where we would both draw, because we’re both artists, but at some point, the stuff Kagan was doing is just on such another level that I remember just putting my pencil down and dictating to him, just to see what he could do.

The Glomps especially, those characters are…I don’t think I’ve laughed as hard ever as I did when I sat down with Kagan and watched him drawing these weird little turd creatures. [laughs] They’re so fucking funny to look at.

When I’m reading through, I’m like “Oh shit, the Glomps are Gamergaters.” I was on the floor.

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[laughs] That’s the thing, like we…we set out with those characters because we wanted to make Kaptara like I said before, free of all these traditional societal problems, but we also liked the idea of nature abhorring a vacuum, so all of that shittiness ended up in these Glomp characters, who self exorcize themselves out of society and into the forest. So there was no thought of Gamergaters, or MRAs or standard internet trolls. There’s none of that in our heads when we’re doing it.

But it’s so funny because you put out the comic, and all of a sudden people react to it and we’re getting so many different things that people would say “Oh these are THESE characters” or “These are THOSE characters” or  “These clearly represent this type of person.”

But then those people don’t recognize it because nobody thinks of themselves as the villain…Because Kagan and I have never claimed that they’re anyone. There’s no concrete evidence that it’s an MRA type, or a Gamergater. That wasn’t our intention. So they see it and go “oh no, clearly this isn’t about us. these guys are shitty little trolls. That’s not who we are.” Because of course they don’t think of themselves that way. No one ever does.

No, it’s Poe’s Law. Any parody of fundamentalism if it’s done well enough will be virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, and any group that is being parodied won’t be able to see it if it’s done well.

I suppose that’s what’s happened here, but I love it. The fact that everyone can relate to it on some level with someone shitty in their life, because that was the whole point of it. The whole point was just to like, take everything bad, everything that’s bad in society, and roll them up into one terrible thing and then have the shit kicked out of them all the time.

And Kagan realized them so well that, then that’s the whole thing about not plotting something out too concretely. Because Kagan made them so perfect that I want to keep bringing them back. Because they’re just so reviled and gross and they’re so fun to write and draw.

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While we’re on the subject of stuff that resembles other stuff, am I insane when I see Shecky Greene from History of the World in [Prince] Dartor?

[laughs] It’s quite possible. You’ll have to ask Kagan about that. The face definitely has a Shecky Greene kind of vibe. The only thing that I know pretty much for sure that Dartor relates to is his hair is almost exactly Judith Light’s hair from Who’s the Boss.

[laughs]

Kagan would do these drawings…Kagan and I worked at a newspaper together as well, and at our shared cubicle, he’d leave these dumb drawings he’d do. And I think he’d drawn Judith Light at least a dozen times, and posted her up in our cubicle. He’s so good at drawing these really shitty things from the 80s, like Judith Light pinups and Alf.

So are you gonna sneak Alf in there somewhere too now?

[Editor’s note: we promised not to spoil anything, so this part is censored for your own good.]

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So what do you find most challenging about writing this?

You know, when you’re working on something like Howard the Duck or Jughead, the characters are already so fleshed out. Especially with Jughead, those characters are archetypes unto themselves. Somebody says they need a Jughead-style character, you know exactly what they need. If you had to write a scene with Jughead dialogue and Archie dialogue and Veronica dialogue, you know how to write it. Almost everyone would. And then with that also comes the great advantage of when you do something with one of those comic characters, it resonates more deeply.

If I killed off Aunt May in the next issue of Howard, that would be a big thing. That would be like, people would be upset, it would be a touching tale. And you know, you’d get press for it. It’d be a huge thing.

But with something like Kaptara, doing it all from scratch, it’s so challenging to create characters, create voices for the characters out of whole cloth, and then trying to make it resonate with people. So there’s a lot more, I find there’s a lot more rewriting with Kaptara than there is for Howard and Jughead, because you really, really, really need it to resonate more directly with people because you don’t have the advantage of the continuity of character and history with the character.

Right, the shorthand.

That being said, you can also do whatever you want, which is amazing. We could end this all next issue, kill off every character and start with brand new characters. That’s within our realm of possibility with Kaptara, whereas Marvel Comics will not let me kill off Spider-Man, for some reason.

Selfish bastards. But the X-Men…

Oh, the X-Men, no problem.

Speaking of Howard and Jughead, everything you’re doing is funny, but they’re all very different [types of comedy]: Howard‘s making fun of Marvel, Sex Criminals is good natured filth, Jughead is comparatively subtle and straightforward and tame, and Kaptara seems like a lot of free association and a lot of riffing on pop culture a little bit.

Is it tough to shift gears in the humor? Do you find yourself writing stuff into [say], Howard that you pull back and say “You know, I should probably hold that for Kaptara?”

No, it’s actually super easy, because it allows your brain to take breaks…Sex Criminals kind of consumes most of my life because it takes me seven weeks to do an issue. That’s working ten hour days, six days a week. Because I’m penciling, inking, coloring, lettering, designing, adding jokes here and there. It’s a lot of work for a monthly comic. “Monthly” in quotes.

So when that was the only thing I was doing, I was just thinking about it all the time. Like all the time. To the point where when it would be time for Matt to write a new script and we’d get on the phone, I knew the world better than Matt did in a lot of ways because I spend every second of every day with it. Even though Matt’s the one who ultimately decides the course of it and the course of the characters. I’d kind of become a de facto editor because I spent all my time with the characters.

So branching out and writing these comics has kind of saved my mind because now I can bounce back and forth, and it’s kind of purging in a way. When I finish a Howard script, I’m like “Okay. I can’t think about Howard any more, but there’s a Jughead script due. So great!” I can go to that.

It’s a lot lighter, it’s more fun, and with Kaptara it’s kind of the same thing. Bouncing back to that, it’s like “Oh yeah, now I can just kind of go nuts with Kaptara” after spending time within the Jughead world where things kind of have to stay the same. And it’s great, making the decisions that kind of attempt to write these books has saved my sanity in a lot of ways.

Because you were an artist first, do you find yourself micromanaging the art process a little bit?

No, no, it’s kind of the opposite. The first time I wrote a script for someone else was for Joe [Quinones] on Howard issue 1. And I do remember getting the layouts back, I was kind of taken aback because they weren’t my layouts. Because I totally had a picture in my head as I was writing how it would go and what this angle would be. So it took me a little bit. I had to step back and go “Oh wait, no. I’m not the artist on the book.” And at that point I just trusted Joe.

And it’s the same with Kagan and with Erica [Henderson, his partner on Jughead]. They’re all so talented.

The other thing is that they’re better artists than I am in so many ways. So if anything, I don’t micromanage, I just let them do the things that they’re really good at. Like there’s no way I would ever tell Erica how to lay out a page. There are no instructions for layouts because she delivers stunning, elegant layouts that flow perfectly. She finds ways to solve problems that I wouldn’t be able to come up with. I would never describe a setting or a character fully to Kagan because he’s just so creative that whatever he comes up with is gonna be ten times better than what I’m going to try and describe to him. Yeah, so it makes it a lot easier.

With Joe, he’s just kind of overall such a great artist. I just find that my scripts become looser and looser the more I work with him, because I trust him completely.

There is an art to timing comedy in comic books.

Yeah.

And all three of them are outstanding at it.

Yeah. And that was my concern when I was pitching Howard, was well who do I get as the artist? I wanted to make sure that I had some say in it, and the editor was fantastic. He gave me a list and we whittled it down, and we figured out who would work best for the book and ending up with Joe is the luckiest thing in the world, and I swore to myself when I took this job that I would never write a book for Marvel in which I didn’t approve of the artist.

And it’s not even necessarily whether…they were suited for the book or whether I felt like they were suited for the stuff I was writing. Because that’s the worst thing. I don’t know if you remember as a kid and you were reading a run of a comic, and all of a sudden the art changes to this shitty artist, and it’s just the worst feeling. You’re collecting and you just like “Aw, I love this writer so much and this character, and they’ve done this. How much longer can I buy this for?”

That happened inside of a comic I was reading this week. Not just when I was a kid.

Really?

Yeah, but you know, it’s [scheduling]. And…I can picture you working with and your script working with a lot of different artists, but like Kenneth Rocafort and what he’s doing on Ultimates is amazing, but I can’t imagine him working with you, though. That style is not…that’s not comedy, that’s giant space action.

Yeah, yeah. I was super lucky because we did the backups in Howard for the first few issues, and the artists we got for those were amazing. I would murder everyone I hold dear to work with Jason Latour again. He did the one backup story that was…everything he brought to it was so funny and so dead on that I could just look at those drawings and laugh for days. He’s amazing at comedy. And then Rob Guillory and Katie Cook, they’re just known for that. They’re known for it. And to be able to work with them, even in such a limited capacity was amazing.

I’ve been incredibly lucky and I know that a lot of it is because I have the power to say no because this is like a secondary dream of mine…Like the main thing is Sex Criminals, and that’s what brought me into this world, and it’s the thing that I’m going to be known for forever [laughs] hopefully. So everything else has been like “Okay yeah, I’ll do that because it’s fun.” And it wouldn’t be fun if I end up working with someone I didn’t like, so I don’t have to do that.

Right. And you could always go back to politics.

[laughs] Oh I totally would. Oh, I miss the newspaper days so much.

Really?

I really do, I really do. We had a federal election here just a couple of months ago, and that was like, painful, sitting down working on comics every day while that was happening? All I wanted to do was get on a campaign bus or do some outlandish stunt or…Yeah, there are days when it’s hard.

And my girlfriend still works at that newspaper, so I still go to all the parties and I pop into the office, and yeah. It’s a different thing.

You’re not slipping anybody column ideas?

Once in awhile I will email the editor-in-chief with like, a dumb idea I have. Just to get it out of my brain and hopefully into the hands of someone else. But yeah, it’s so hard. It’s funny, by the end of working at the newspaper, I found it to be a little repetitive. I was doing the same things every day.

So going to comics was a good break, but comics is the ultimate in repetitive. I have drawn Suzy talking to Jon a thousand times, you know? Comic art is so repetitive, and I’m like…now I long for the days when writing a similar column to one that I wrote before was repetitive.

Well if shit didn’t keep happening the same way over and over again, you wouldn’t have to repeat yourself.

CZ: It’s true. There’s only so many things you can do with politics.JD: Yup….[So] has anybody reached out about Kaptara action figures maybe?

Yup….[So] has anybody reached out about Kaptara action figures maybe?

A local guy wanted to make his own knockoff looking figures, but no, beyond that there’s no…no one’s banging down the door for Kaptara action figures. Which is unfortunate. At the least I want a plush Cat Tank.

Todd McFarlane’s right there.

That is true. He is right there.

Like literally right next to you.

I got to meet him finally at Image Expo last year, which is pretty trippy. It’s Todd McFarlane. And I just remember like, I’m talking to him and I realize he’s got like…he had like a Spawn necklace on and a Spawn ring on, and he’s like…just to be at that level where everything you wear could actually be legitimately your character, it’s kind of freaky.

Yup. And have it not be ridiculous. Or have it not be that ridiculous.

No no, it’s like, “Well hey, it’s Spawn. I made it. I wear it. I live it.”…I’d love Kaptara figures. I feel it’s probably a bit too limited a market for that, but God, that’d be amazing.

So what can you tell us about…we’ve got the first trade is out [now], and we’re going to start in issue six in what, February?

It’ll probably be a little bit later. I want to get a bunch in the bank before we solicit it again. Because it was starting to slow down. We got the first three out pretty quickly, then the fourth took a bit longer, and the fifth took a couple of months. So I like the idea of them coming out back to back regularly, so probably in the spring we’ll get the next five. They’re also going to be just laborious for Kagan because a lot of it is just, giant battles featuring all those new characters we introduced.

And the Demotivational Orb, right?

He’s called the Vicious Circle…[laughs]. That was so fun. I kinda felt bad because I know the spread took Kagan a couple of weeks but it was his idea. He wanted to do a big spread. He wanted it to be three pages. He wanted to split the last page and have another page full of characters. Which is just crazy. It took him so long, and I barely contributed to it. I think I came with like, maybe ten of them. And I ended up writing bios for them, for the trade collection.

Oh, that’s amazing.

There’s like, over 80 new characters, and they could all conceivably be He-Man action figures. Like, no matter how ludicrous you go with that style of character, they’re still within the range of a standard He-Man character like Fistor or Beast Man.

There’s very little you could come up with that would be more ridiculous than the shit that they put out on a regular basis.

No, it’s crazy. We were away at a show doing a signing and Kagan found a…I guess they put out like these He-Man books detailing the history of He-Man at the company. And you pick it up and you’re going through it, and the spread of all these characters is just insane. Especially the deep catalogue ones.

But there was also, I guess there was an ad for a contest where you come up with a description for your own He-Man character, and Bruce Timm, the guy who reinvented Batman for the animated series, I guess worked for Masters of the Universe at the time, and he had to design these characters based on kids’ shitty descriptions.

And I remember one of them was named Netta, and it was just a woman who was a net, who could like, jump over top of characters and trap them. So he basically just drew a net and put a wig on it and some lipstick [laughs]. It’s just so basic and so shitty. It’s pretty shitty. It made me laugh so much. So much. And that’s why we have in issue 5, we have Melvon stretch out and be a giant net over top of everyone. It’s entirely based on Bruce Timm’s greatest creation, Netta.

[laughs] To hell with you, Batman. Any chance of a Cyklowl spin off?

Oh I’d love to. It’s probably my favorite joke from the first volume, and Kagan did such an amazing job designing that character that I always want him to show up in every scene, just hidden behind everything. Kagan hides me in every issue.

Really?

Yeah, because it’s based on the old, what was it, She-Ra, that they would hide that one weird sprite character in every episode and at the end of the episode you had to figure out where they were? So Kagan has me hidden in every issue, and I’m usually like, naked and terrified.

I will be going back and looking at that as soon as the interview’s done.

There you go. That’s a fun game.

Yeah! Let’s find naked Chip…Anything else about the next arc that you want to share?

There’s going to be more romance. That’s the one thing the first volume was lacking. I kind of pitched it as a romantic sci-fi adventure, and then I realized in volume one that oh wait, if you’re scared shitless and running for your life, there’s not a lot of chance and time for romance. So volume two, as things go along, I want to explore Keith and get him into more romantic situations.

Because that’s one of the things that kind of sparked Kaptara and Keith as a main character was a friend of mine really lamenting the fact that whenever there’s a gay romance in pop culture, it was never something that kind of built between two characters. It was always a surprise or a plot twist. “Oh it turns out this character’s gay.” Which is like, it’s so shitty and cliche and like, negates actual gay relationships. I wanted to have something slowly build and I realized that volume one that maybe I’m taking it a bit too slow and I need to ramp it up in volume two. So there will be giant battles and more kissing.

Looking forward to it!

Kaptara Volume 1: Fear Not, Tiny Alien arrives this week.