Chip Zdarsky is one half of the creative team behind Image Comics’ insanely clever, hilarious, and heartfelt adult romantic comedy, Sex Criminals, which recently nabbed Eisner Award nominations for Best Continuing Series and Best New Series.
In this exclusive interview with Zdarsky, the pencil (and so much more) to Matt Fraction’s pen, talks to us about the comic’s initial success, working with Fraction, getting banned by IOS, dealing with that slight in the pages of the book, Applebees, the evolution of Sex Criminals, “Cumworld” easter eggs, his pornographic butt, and more.
Den of Geek: The collaboration between you and Matt Fraction…
Chip Zdarsky: Uck, that guy…
How does that work: are you contributing a lot to the story, is everything in the script, are you guys riffing off of each other and building this thing as it goes along?
Um, each issue tends to be a little bit different just based on time. There was a bit more back and forth on issue one. For the most part, we have a phone call before Matt starts writing and we kind of talk through things and I’ll suggest stuff and he’ll suggests stuff but he gives the script to me fully formed. And usually at that stage, I’ll kind of go through [and] if there’s anything that jumps out that might be a problem or if don’t understand, or if I have a suggestion, I’ll email him at that point and kinda let him know that I’m going to be tweaking things because I don’t like to surprise him when I finally give him the penciled pages and I’ve eliminated 3 main characters or something. So yeah, at that point, when I’m drawing it, I’m clearly adding background jokes and things like that, but yeah, any kind of big thing, I’ll always run by him.
That was my next question. The posters in “Cumworld”, even the product descriptions, the DVD cases, all that stuff — is that you, is that stuff that’s in the script or is it a mixture?
That’s like 90% me. Matt will kind of set the scene like, “Oh, they walk into this sex store…” and he’ll list three or four titles or items and I’ll just keep going from there. He’s pretty good with that. He just kind of lets me do what I want in terms of background stuff. So after I draw it up and we’re kind of in the editing stage, then we’ll have a bit more back and forth. Like if I see spots where there could be more jokes or things that need clarification, we kind of deal with an editor on that, and with letters pages he’ll give me the first round of letters and I’ll go through [it] when I’m doing the layout and design. I’ll have to cut some letters because Matt will write responses to almost everything that we get sent but then we have to cut like 80% of it because of space, so I become a bit of a de-facto editor at that point. Yeah, I write my responses and I’ll usually have a go at writing the sex tips and then I’ll pass it to Matt and he’ll add more sex tips.
There’s a lot of back and forth on it and we never really seem to step on each other’s toes, which is good. He’s happy with what I’m doing and I’m super happy with what he’s doing, so yeah, it’s worked out well. I’m not used to working with someone, so I was kind of scared at first, but it’s been quite gentle… quite nice.
How did you two come together to work on this?
We’ve known each other for, I’m gonna say about 10 years online on a variety of comic book message boards and every iteration of social media, and I think we both had the idea of working together a while ago, but we didn’t come out and say it. I’m trying to remember how it happened. I think one day, I emailed him an idea for something and he said, “Oh, well how about this?” and then pitched Sex Criminals to me, and I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s much better than what I was thinking. You’re clearly a writer.” I wish our kind of hook up story was a bit more exciting…
It’s still a meet-cute.
(Laughs) Just a couple of middle aged white guys emailing each other.
How has Sex Criminals changed from the original pitch?
Um, he first pitched it in a sentence, which is basically, “people fuck, then they stop time when they orgasm and then they rob banks.” And we went from there and both kind of contributed to the overall idea, but from the beginning, it was basically just going to be a straight up sex comedy. Even the solicitation for issue one is different than what we ended up kind of doing, because it was all sex jokes. Like, it was all innuendo and wink wink, we’re gonna be raunchy and weird and that’s that. But then when Matt submitted the script to issue one after we talked through characters, it ended up being super touching and I’m like, “Oh man, I’m clearly not the artist for this” (Laughs). I was so worried because it was such a beautiful story and here I am, thinking that I’m just going to be drawing dick jokes, which is more my specialty.
The initial response to the book, which ones stand out, which ones surprise you — good and bad?
The fact that there was any response was shocking. I was kind of worried because I felt like it was a bit of a bait and switch. You know, with a title like Sex Criminals and a solicitation that played up the comedy part of it, I was worried in both ways. I was worried that people that we wanted to have read it wouldn’t pick it up based on the promotion of it and the title. And then the people that would pick it up, thinking that they’re going to get this, you know, kind of gross sex comedy would be like, “What’s this love shit?” and not read it.
We both expected it to last maybe four issues, so the fact that there is any kind of reaction to it was shocking. Because I remember that the day it came out, Matt was here in Toronto with me because we were doing a book launch and a signing and we were both kind of nervous about it. And I remember that we were being driven to a comic shop and it was the first time, that day, where I kind of pulled out my phone and started scrolling through Twitter and people were talking about it and I was just like… stunned. I remember saying, “Oh my God”, every time I refreshed my phone someone else was talking about the book and people were liking it. And then Matt got an email saying that it was sold out, and I was like, “What, this is crazy” and it was crazy. It was an hour into our day and people were already talking about it and it sold out. It’s been overwhelming since it came out. Like, since that day, every day I am overwhelmed by it. It’s weird.
When the book came out, you said that you were a little concerned that people would think that it was a bait and switch, then you start encountering the IOS ban, does that put a shock into you, does that scare you that it’s going to be worse, that people are going to now totally think that Sex Criminals is just a book about sex with no heart to it at all?
When it happened, we’d already been kind of riding high on the initial success of it, but the digital part was important to us because we knew that there were going to be comic shops that just weren’t going to order it and we knew that there would be people in areas of the states that wouldn’t have readily available access to the comic, so digital made sense for us.
We don’t want to take anything away from comic stores, but if a comic store can’t support it without feeling like they are going to get in trouble, then we want people to be able to access the books. So at that point, I was super worried. First, because it was a revenue stream and there is definitely money coming in from digital, and second, [I was worried] that people weren’t going to be able to get it. Some people wouldn’t even know that you can get it other ways, because you open up the Comixology app and they’re just looking for the new issue and it’s not there. And there is no note or anything saying, “Hey, I know you’re looking for issue two, you can get it on the web and download it to your tablet”. It’s just not there.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but from a business standpoint, even though it takes away a revenue stream because it’s not there when people look for it, if people buy Sex Criminals on the Comixology site and not on the IOS app, you guys technically make a little bit more money, right?
I think so. Because the way Comixology works is… I haven’t seen numbers or money through Comixology yet, just because I think it’s every six months that they send that out. Like, it’s a weird setup. Which is fine, you know, I can wait it out. I can just wait it out.
Well my question really is — to get to the heart of it — in that you guys can see more money from a situation like this, does it embolden you almost to kind of push because obviously you got a lot of good attention off of it too. I know there were a lot of people writing think pieces, I know I wrote one about how it was ridiculous, the censorship that was going on and how it was counter productive because you guys are getting so much more attention for the book getting banned than probably if it hadn’t happened. But does it empower you to say “Screw it, we’re going to tell our story and if it gets banned then it gets banned?”
We never thought about self-censorship in terms of like, to get it onto a particular platform…the whole thing was definitely a mixed blessing. Like, I think the way the numbers work with Comixology is, a lot of people buy it through the site, a lot lot more buy it through their iPad. I think the Apple platform is far and away the number one way that people access those books, so digitally, even though we made more money through the website per book, I think the numbers of books are going to be much, much less. But yeah, I mean, like you said, it’s a total PR bonanza in the sense that people are writing about it and we were able to talk about it and get on some podcasts and talk to some news outlets and kind of get the word out. Because, kind of lucky enough for us, the book’s not titillating, it’s not pornography, so we had an artistic leg to stand on.
Well, I know pornography when I see it and the last page of issue five…
(Laughs) Well, yeah…
Really toes the line a little bit.
(Laughs) I mean, people are going to get off. I can’t stop that from happening.
I just want to know, the birth/death dates up there with Matt in the clouds, did that happen because he saw the picture or is it unrelated?
(Laughs) Oh, that’s just another one of those back and forths. He said we’ve gotta put that picture in, and I’m like, can we have you in the cloud looking down at me?
How did he know about the picture, was that your Christmas Card?
(Laughs) I went on my one vacation this year — my girlfriend’s a travel editor for a newspaper and she arranged a crazy getaway to a place where we had a 30 foot infinity pool on our deck, like just nuts. And I said you gotta take a picture, and she took that picture and I posted it online, so Matt knew. He knew. He knows an opportunity when he sees it to put it in the book.
(Laughs) He knows what sells.
So with regard to the fact that, like you said, you guys made the rounds, you got good press, are you guys comfortable if people consider Sex Criminals to be a role model for them? In terms of taking on the IOS thing and actually embracing being censored instead of covering themselves up with a brown paper bag…
Yeah, I mean it’s tricky to speak from kind of a position of, I hesitate to say privilege, but we’re doing okay. So for me to say, “Yeah, you know, fuck Apple, you don’t need Apple, you do it on your own everyone will see it and it’ll be fine” would be disingenuous. If you’re a struggling artist and you create work that maybe is pornography and erotic, and Apple doesn’t carry it and you don’t get the kind of press that we do, you might not survive.
Well having Matt’s name attached to it helps you be able to weather that storm, obviously.
Well yeah, exactly, so our story ended up well in the sense that the sales were fine, it actually drove people to the print copy, which is good, but our experience isn’t going to be the experience of other people. I think the danger lies in the fact that people will always have that in the back of their mind, of seeing our story, like this could happen to them and they may self-censor, you know? To the detriment of their story, or of what they’re trying to achieve…
To the detriment of the medium, also.
Yeah, exactly. I truly don’t understand the rule, especially considering, you know, what Apple allows.
It’s so… there’s no consistency.
No, I mean they allow stuff far more gratuitous through iTunes and iBooks, I think you can actually get our books through iBooks, because it’s theirs, because they’re policing it it’s okay.
I think it was the Saga thing that happened before you guys, where one book was banned but another book — which had similarly graphic content — was allowed to sail on through. I don’t remember the exact issue numbers but there’s like an orgy in one book that passed right on through, no issue. It’s just weird what raises the flag and what doesn’t.
And they won’t tell you, either. You’ll get the message, “doesn’t meet the standards”, or whatever, but no one is going to say, “You showed 19 breasts and we only allow 10”. There’s never going to be anything like that from them. It basically shows up on a person’s screen and if they decide it’s that it’s okay, it’s okay.
Talking about the way that you guys dealt with the ban in the book, one of my favorite things is the “Fat Bottom Girls” fourth wall break in issue three, how does that come together? That mixture of Matt addressing the issue head on and the tongue and cheek stuff about Queen, how does that come together?
Born out of necessity because he wrote it with the song, “Fat Bottom Girls.”
Oh, so you actually wanted to use the song and then ran into an issue?
Yeah, Matt’s lawyer was dealing with record companies trying to get the rights and basically up until we uploaded to the printer — like the lyrics are there on the page and I’ve just got another layer on top of it where we got Matt to write all the stuff and I was just waiting with my finger hovering to throw that layer in the trash for when we uploaded it.
It’s a blessing, because it’s so much better than what the song would have been.
I know, that’s the thing. So, when we came to the trade, we went through it all again. This time we used my lawyer and she got as far as Brian May’s assistant or PR person, someone saying, “It’s on his desk, it’s there for him to read.” And that’s where it ended. (laughs) So again, we were sitting there ready to upload the files for the trade and Matt wrote a whole new thing — because it didn’t make sense in the old version because we talked about how we might fix it for the trade — which is sitting there on a layer, my finger is hovering, waiting for the final decision and the decision just never came.
What about your affair of the mind with the Applebees Facebook. The coverage that came out of the media FIRESTORM…
Did that take away the innocence of that?
Yeah, I mean, as soon as BuzzFeed contacted me, I knew it was over. Like, it was just done. As soon as I said, “Alright, yeah, you’re gonna do a thing with me, yeah that’s fine”, I just knew that I will never interact with Applebees again after that thing. And it was nuts. It was insane, I’ve never had that kind of frenzy around me, like even all the stuff with Sex Criminals, yeah, the Applebees thing kind of took over my life.
I will say this about the Applebees thing, the timing could not have been better because we had sent the photo cover for issue one of Sex Criminals to the printer and it prominently featured Applebees in the front in the tag line and then the Buzzfeed stuff happened.
In issue five, page nine, there’s a scene in the coffee shop and Jon and Suzie are in a booth and the shadows kind of make it seem like they are a part of the booth. It’s a great image. What makes you angle that in that way to play with those shadows? Just to pick out one random image from the book that kind of hit me.
Yeah, I was really fucking up drawing their legs. So I covered it all in shadow. (Laughs)
There’s an adage, it’s like, the greatest art comes from improvisation or something… I don’t know, something.
I’m gonna put something so smart in the transcript of this, it’s gonna look fucking amazing.
(Laughs) Let me open up a copy and take a look.
Yeah, I liked the idea of kinda grounding the page. I think a panel like that works best at the bottom, like if that was the third panel there, it wouldn’t have worked as well. I’m kind of making it up as I go along because I don’t have a ton of comic experience but I kind of have the basics of storytelling kind of figured out from reading them for so long. Like, I like the idea that this heavy image kind of grounds the page so that the other wide panel is more an establishing shot, because I read a book about film once and they said you need an establishing shot. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Well, it works.
You posted the cover for number six on Tumblr, you have these pills that are about to fall on Suzie and Jon, it’s safe to assume that that is symbolism to express her fears about his psychological troubles, yes? That they may squash their relationship? Is that what you’re saying with that cover or am I reading too much into it?
That is exactly it. In issue six we definitely get into, a bit more, kind of John’s psychology and yeah what, kind of, medication means to him, yeah. The pill looms large, metaphorically [and I] like it to show that figuratively on the cover.
You have a little bit of a break coming on now, you’re not coming back till June, what brought that on, is it a chance to catch up and get ahead of the releases?
When we first started working on it, I basically suggested a bi-monthly schedule and Matt wanted a monthly schedule and we kind of split the difference in the sense that it takes me seven weeks to do an issue. From the moment the script is handed to me to the moment we upload to the printer. That’s because of my full time job and the fact that I’m doing the coloring and the lettering and all that jazz. So, when we started, we had enough lead time that I could kind of stockpile a bit, you know, by the time issue one came out, issue two was already done. That kind of thing, but I knew it was going to catch up at some point to us because seven weeks does not a monthly comic make.
So, there was time between issue four and issue five because of that and I was like, we definitely need a little bit of a break between arcs in order to kind of stockpile again. So that’s kind of the plan. You know, they won’t be coming out monthly, but hopefully the first couple will come out monthly and then, you know, I’ve got this plan drawn up where we’ll be able to get out like, 7 more issues this year or something if I can stick to it.
Let me ask, are you hoping to transition to comics full time or are you comfortable living the double life?
I’ve carved out such a perfect niche with the newspaper job, like I’ve basically got it to the point where they kind of let me do whatever I want. I do an advice column for them and the odd illustration and video and funny stuff and I love it. I don’t see me ever abandoning that fully. Like, maybe having to step back a little bit, but yeah, I could definitely get more comics out if I didn’t have a full time job, as Im sure most people would. But, yeah, I’ve been doing it for ten years, it would be hard to leave.
Chip Zdarsky, thank you very much.
Sex Criminals Volume 1 is available where both paper comic books and digital comic books are sold…usually.