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Not All Ducks: The Mary Sue’s Interview with Sex Criminals and Howard the Duck‘s Chip Zdarsky

This fucking guy.

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Floating semen! Robot Margaret Atwood! Drawing women without objectifying them! The Mary Sue got a chance to talk with Sex Criminals artist and Howard the Duck and Kaptara writer Chip Zdarsky at C2E2 last weekend, and it was everything we’d dreamed of and more.

The Mary Sue: You have a lot of projects going on right now, you’ve got Sex Criminals and Howard the Duck and now Kaptara. Are there any thematic elements you think are similar in all of those?

Chip Zdarsky: Well it’s a little tricky because with Sex Criminals, that’s kind of Matt’s narrative, a lot of the characters kind of reflect things that he goes through. Not that he stops time when he has sex, but you know what I mean. But mostly just to speak to Howard and Kaptara, both kind of have the stranger in a strange land feel. That’s kind of why I took Howard, it felt like the kind of thing I could do. I love any kind of story with the outcast, the loner, the weirdo, because that sums up like 90 percent of people working in comics, reading comics, that’s what I was when I was a kid. Except I wasn’t a duck.

TMS: It seems extremely hard as two male creators to write from a woman’s perspective so realistically. I feel like I talk like the female characters in Sex Criminals, and my friends do, and I was wondering if that was something you had to work on or if it was just inherent in your chemistry with Matt.

Zdarsky: When we started working on Sex Criminals the main character was Jon, and it wasn’t working. It just wasn’t clicking until one day we both were like, “let’s make Suzie the main character!’ Two straight white dudes writing about a straight white dude in a sex comedy, is, like, essentially the easiest thing in the world for us to do, so it added a bit of complexity to the process by making the main character Suzie. And it’s totally paid off. Matt would have conversations with his female friends, and he was kind of mining stories that they’d told him in the past, and also like fifty percent of the people I know are women.

TMS: Looking at content out there you’d think its impossible to do, which is why it really struck me.

Zdarsky: Some of the guys, when you see their drawings or their stories, you know that they just don’t interact with women, in a way that’s meaningful at least. They might have their internet pornography or that girl who broke up with them in grade 8 and that’s it, but like, I’ve been surrounded by feminists my whole life and Matt has too I think, and so…there’s never been any kind of question about treatment of women in comics for me. And also on the drawing side I based the main characters on friends of mine, so because she’s based on a real person now, there’s no danger of me sliding into titillation depicting her because she’s a friend, and I have a responsibility to her. Whenever there’s nudity or sex in the story, it’s story-based, it’s not like “alright, we’ve gone four pages without an ass shot. Alright boys.”

I had an instance doing a variant cover for Issue #1, and it’s the Canadian #1, it was a shop I didn’t really know, and they wanted something kind of sexy. I was like “uhhhhh, ok.” So the shot was Suzie from behind holding a gun and I had underwear on her so I got an email back from the retailer that said “hey, everything looks really good. Can we see some of that ass?” I was like oh, god! Also at that point we didn’t have any press, we didn’t have anyone like, there were no expectations. I basically just added a slight bit of butt crack at the top, what you’d get if you bent over to fix your sink. He wrote back “looks great! My boss will kill me if I don’t ask–can I get some side boob?” And I went no, no, this is not that kind of series, I’m not going to depict a character like that. And that was probably the sexiest–“sexiest” drawing I’ve done of the characters, so it’s easy to do because Matt and I are both grown men who have been around long enough that we know how to treat people I think.

Everyone has their own history, that’s the thing. Sometimes when I see a guy who is kind of mired in overt cheesecake stuff without any kind of, like, self-awareness of it, I actually tend to feel bad for the person instead of angry, because there’s clearly something that’s happened there. There’s clearly something in their past, clearly something that they’re dealing with, whether it be anger or sadness, or a bad relationship, there’s always a root of it. I know it’s kind of the default to get upset when someone shows off their lack of understanding of women, but there’s probably something at play there. Its more sad than angry to me anyways, but then I can say that because I’m not a woman.

TMS: Speaking of feminists, you have, like, the Grand Dame of Feminists now, Margaret Atwood, reading Sex Criminals. What is it like to know that’s happening?

Zdarsky: It’s crazy. I’m from Toronto and she’s from Toronto and I had this thing where I once saw her in a coffee shop and she was having a conversation with this guy who developed–I think it’s called the LongPen–Atwood was on this kick a little while ago for this mobile signing robot where she could be at home and she could sign remotely. It was like an Atwood Robot. So I saw her there talking to this guy-

TMS: It was her and not her robot?

Zdarsky: It was her and the guy who developed the robot, talking about the robot, so I was sitting there like “oh my God I’ve got to say something but what do I do,” so as she finished up I was like “oh, uh hey I overheard you guys talking about the LongPen and I’m actually interested in the process because I do all my drawing digitally!” Then we talked about the process of transferring from pen to computer screen, and she asked me what I do, and we kept talking, but I would not acknowledge that I knew she was Margaret Atwood because I didn’t want to be creepy, but then it just got to the point where I seemed really rude because I’m not asking her what she does for a living, who she is. So I’m sitting there and she’s standing and there’s this weird pause where I stare at her and just say “well! Bye!” It was the most awkward thing, like of course I know it’s Margaret Atwood.

TMS: Another question I had in terms of stuff that you and Matt wound up developing together–I think Sex Criminals has one of the best portrayals of an individual’s experience in therapy or experience with working on their mental health, and I think you guys walked a really good line of showing one person’s struggle without saying “this is universally how it is, or how it should be.”

Zdarsky: It can be mistaken for that. And there’s no way of avoiding it, once you tell someone’s story (in fiction anyway), you can’t start adding disclaimers like “oh, for other people please see these resources!” A lot of that was kind of Matt’s personal thing. Like we both have experiences with therapy and depression so a lot of that came out–and I can’t really speak to Matt’s experiences with it, but between Issues 5 and 6 there was a big break, and a lot of it I think was kind of pressure of the book and also maybe just depression on his part, and it came out in Issue 6 and I was terrified when he gave me Issue 6, when he sent me the script for it I was like, this is not, as they say, the promise of the premise. This isn’t sex bank robbing time.

TMS: Yeah, I was really surprised.

Zdarsky: Everyone was. I spent a long time drawing that issue because I felt it was more delicate subject matter. Because my own personal experience with depression was like, maybe four years ago I kind of hit bottom of the barrel in my mental state, lot of big life decisions kind of looming, and I was so depressed and couldn’t get out of bed. Psychiatrists are covered in Canada and so I got my doctor to recommend a psychiatrist and we had to do a phone consultation first, and I remember I was like out on my front porch and crying because it was so hard to do, and I’m talking to this person I’ve never met and I’m describing how I’m feeling and they said “ok, im going to prescribe you this medication and then in six weeks you can come in and we can talk.”

And I was like I don’t know you, we’ve talked for ten minutes, I’m not going to take medication for six weeks and then come see you. That was my only instance of dealing with medication. I later just found a therapist, and it was easier to just go in and actually talk. And it worked for me. It doesn’t work for everyone, again, there’s that disclaimer. I think Matt probably has that kind of initial thing as well. So I empathized with Jon, and Matt telling the story, but I also recognized it’s not going to be everyone’s story, and we were prepared for a backlash. And we didnt really get it. We got it from a couple of people, a couple of people thought we were kind of speaking for everyone with depression or spreading a false stigma, but it’s not a false stigma, it’s a reality for a lot of people, and one person’s journey isn’t another person’s journey and its hard to get that across sometimes.

TMS: I feel like with Howard and some of your other projects, you don’t have to be as concerned with “oh, is this going to be emblematic of all ducks’ experiences.”

Zdarsky: Not all ducks!

TMS: Have you ever had that feeling since, of “I have to be really delicate with this issue,” or “oh, this is going to strike a chord in people?”

Zdarsky: Kaptara for sure, because again, I’m not Indian and I’m not gay. But I’ve kind of built in like a safety for me there by setting it on another world, so I don’t have to deal necessarily with the societal constructs and the issues that a gay Indian man would have in our current world because I’ve set it on another world. So I have to be conscious of what being gay and Indian means to someone’s state of mind and character, and again it’s not universal, I’m kind of taking bits and pieces of friends of mine and my own experiences, cobbling them together into the character. So I’m concerned about that, but I’m also relatively confident that I can do it because of the setting. Mostly I just wanted to see someone who wasn’t white and straight in the book. So yeah, there’s that. Howard, the only thing I’m really beholden to and worry about is continuity. Marvel stuff. That’s a whole different beast.

TMS: I know there’s probably not much you can say about it, but do you have any idea what we can expect from the Sex Criminals TV show?

Zdarsky: I know as much about it as anyone! Yeah, Matt and Kelly Sue worked out this big Universal deal for the company, and a big part of that was Sex Criminals, and I was totally on board with that. It sounded like a good deal, the fact that Matt would get to write it is amazing, and yeah, my only understanding of it from talking to Matt is that wherever it ends up through Universal it’ll have the same level of sexuality, nudity, floating semen. It’ll still be Sex Criminals, I don’t think anything’s going to be dialed back. Basically it’s just a waiting game.

TMS: In an ideal world if you could choose any celebrity or actor to be the face of Sexual Gary, is there someone that personifies him for you?

Zdarsky: Oh, man. I’d like it to be. Maybe me or Matt. Maybe alternating, just us in wigs. Someone’s wearing a T-shirt, or maybe there’s a poster in the background, it’s either me in the wig or Matt in the wig. It’s always changing, like some sort of ancient shape-shifter of old.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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