Draw comic books about bank robbers who stop time when they have sex? Check. Develop a viral, Facebook friendship with Applebee’s? Check. Rappel down City Hall wearing a Spider-Man costume? Check. Is there anything Chip Zdarsky can’t do?
No, there’s not.
Zdarsky rose to fame in the comics industry last year as the artist behind Sex Criminals, a comic book series chronicling the exploits of bank robbers who stop time with their…uh…parts. Last year also saw Zdarsky become an internet sensation after Buzzfeed published an article detailing his hilarious, Facebook friendship with a local Applebee’s. When he wasn’t garnering international attention for these shenanigans, Zdarsky blended into Canadian society under the name Steve Murray (and by “blended in,” we mean “stirred up even more hilarity as the beloved graphic columnist for a national newspaper”).
Paste caught up with Zdarsky to chat about comics, Applebee’s and getting his editor-in-chief to taste test potentially poisonous cookies.
Paste: What prompted you to begin talking with your hometown Applebee’s on Facebook?
Zdarsky: They’re a great restaurant chain with great deals, so how could I not? [laughs] I don’t know if you have parents on Facebook. I find that with my friends there’s a pretty clear split between people who hate that their parents are on Facebook and people who love that their parents are on Facebook. I fall into the “love” category; I love to see what they get up to. And one day I noticed that they both liked a photo of a hamburger on our hometown Applebee’s Facebook page. I clicked through and I think Applebee’s asked, “Do you like hamburgers?” My dad wrote, “I LOVE ‘EM!” So I had to respond. I was like “not a fan.” And a bunch of my friends jumped in and it became kind of what you’d expect with a bunch of jokers having fun. But Applebee’s just rolled with it.
So I became a bit obsessed. I’d go back to their page, and they’d post questions and photos, and no one would respond. It had about 200 likes at the time. And whenever they would respond to somebody, they were always so earnest. They were clearly following a playbook. It seemed to me like it was a 50-year-old person who ran the restaurant who was told to use social media and was given a set of guidelines, which were: stay positive, get the conversation back to Applebee’s and pose questions. But when nobody responds, it becomes this whole new thing of someone interacting with no one.
So I just started posting, but, because their responses were always so upbeat and by the book, it became a goal of mine to do it politely but try to get them to break out of that. Most of the humor came from when I’d get them to suggest Halloween costumes for me or I’d recount my battles with alcoholism and they’d respond. I could picture someone flipping through a book saying, “What am I supposed to do here? I’ve gotta respond to them.” With most brands, they wouldn’t respond to that guy. But [Applebee’s] probably didn’t feel that they had a choice, because I was the only guy. So it became kind of sweet, kind of sad. It was a weird one.
Paste: At what point did you start screen capturing the interactions and posting them on your tumblr
Zdarsky: It was only like a week. People seemed to like it there and one of the posts got, I think, 90,000 notes on it. It started to make its way around. At that point, people started to seek out the Applebee’s Barrie Facebook page and would try to play along, but not in a helpful way—calling me by name, writing “I wonder what Chip would say about this?” That ruined it right there. I knew I was going to have to wrap it up soon. Then the Buzzfeed thing happened, which was perfect timing to end it.
Paste: How did the Buzzfeed article about your relationship with Applebee’s come about?
Zdarsky: I posted what was going to be my final [Applebee’s screenshot] on my tumblr introducing my Uncle Melvin into the mix, and someone from Buzzfeed contacted me through Twitter. Within 10 minutes of me talking to the person through email they already had the article up. Buzzfeed works quick!
Paste: Is your digital relationship with Applebee’s over now?
Zdarsky: Yeah, I posted the final thing basically telling Applebee’s that they’re fantastic and they responded. It wrapped it up the narrative of it. And it’s been tempting, because everybody’s asking for me on the [Facebook] page: “Where’d Chip go?” and “Can I get dinner with Chip?” And Applebee’s Barrie is responding to these people: “Oh no, maybe he’s napping. We don’t know.” They’re just being nice. “What would you order from us if you did come?” They’re totally back on form, trying to get people interested in this small-town Applebee’s. It’s tempting for me, but I also recognize there’s no real point right now. I don’t need an ego boost from interacting with somebody from Buzzfeed on the Applebee’s Facebook page. I’m just letting it die out. I think [Applebee’s] is happy. I was mostly worried about poor Applebee’s Barrie once they became flooded. But I have this sense they’re overjoyed to have that many people visiting their page even if they’re not going to be eating at that restaurant.
Paste: When was the last time you actually dined at that Applebee’s?
Zdarsky: My parents are snowbirds, so they live in Barrie during the summer months. So sometime last summer. It is their favorite restaurant. My parents don’t really understand what my fascination is and they’re completely confused now.
It’s funny, one of my favorite interactions that my parents had on Facebook was one day when I noticed my mom started an event, which was called “Dinner,” and there was one person invited—my dad. And it was for “Apple.” I realized it was a mistake, she clearly meant to type out Applebee’s and it must have autocorrected to “Apple” and she hit enter. I was laughing at that. Then I noticed my dad had started an event as well, which was “Dinner,” inviting my mom to Applebee’s. That’s pretty sweet.
Paste: That’s really cute.
Zdarsky: It’s super cute. They have no concept of how to use Facebook properly, but that’s why I love it.
Paste: On the fourth printing of Sex Criminals #1, you’re listed on the cover as “The Guy Who Talks to Applebee’s on Facebook.” What was the creative process behind that cover design?
Zdarsky: We got to the second printing, which was a shock, and I didn’t really have the time to draw a new cover, so I just played with the colors, tried a couple things, added quotes. And then the third printing happened, and I played with the colors again. By the time the fourth printing came around, we needed to do something different.
I’ve always been fascinated with the cheesy Sear’s portrait studio photos. Back in the early 2000s, I was in a studio in Toronto and we did our Christmas photos that way. Cameron Stewart was in my studio, and Kagan McLeod—he does a book called Infinite Kung Fu—and illustrator Ben Shannon. We walked into a Walmart and did this beautiful series that completely confused everyone at Walmart.
Anyways, I’ve been fascinated by that kind of cheesy photo style. I remember when I was a kid, I bought a copy of a Spider-Man comic that had a photo cover. It was this weird thing of Peter Parker opening his shirt to reveal the Spider-Man logo and this guy taking a picture behind him, I guess the whole issue was about somebody taking a picture of him changing, which is kind of creepy now that you think about it. I love the idea of the photo cover; it was this real special thing. And I can’t recall the last time there was a photo cover with just a bunch of creators on it. So [Matt Fraction and I] talked about it, and I basically told Matt, “Get a photo of yourself in this position at home, and send it to me, and I’ll try to match it up here and put it together.” And he did; he took like an iPhone photo, so I had to match it with an iPhone photo and do a quick Photoshop job. It took two or three hours I guess. The next day Image showed it to people, and I was pretty surprised at the reaction. I knew people would find it funny, but I spent the day being flooded with messages from people saying they wanted it and asking why wasn’t it available yet. We were pushing Image to print up as many as they thought they could sell. I have a feeling it’s probably going to sell out.*
Paste: We’ve seen a lot of articles saying you and Matt “won the internet” with that cover. What’s your reaction to that?
Zdarsky: [laughs] That doesn’t mean that much, I mean, winning the internet lasts about an hour. It’s the old Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame, but it’s online so it’s actually forgotten even sooner. Then people will just be waiting for the next thing, which is a little daunting. We’re talking about how to follow up this cover. We can either try to one-up ourselves or go the other way and make it super boring, like the most boring cover ever.
Paste: How did you and Matt come up with the idea for Sex Criminals?
Zdarsky: Matt and I, we’ve known each other for about 10 years. Just kind of online, different forums, emails back and forth. We’ve always talked about doing something together, and a couple years ago it just escalated. I initially emailed him because I had an idea to do a fantasy series, because both Matt and myself have no interest in fantasy. We were kind of making fun of Ed Brubaker, because he’s a huge Lord of the Rings fan and we’d constantly be poking fun at him. I thought it would be really funny if we tried to do a fantasy book with no knowledge of fantasy, just to see what would happen. I remember Matt responded and was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, but what if we did a book about people who have sex and stop time and rob banks?” And I thought, “Well, this is much better. This is why he’s the writer.”
It started off like that, and then weird phone conversations late into the night where you’re just kind of giggling like teenagers, telling each other about your sexual experiences and using those in aid of the book, in aid of Matt’s story. I’d do character sketches, flesh out what kind of effects we would use. The first issue took about six months of a lot of back and forth and figuring things out.
Paste: How did you present this concept of “people are going to have sex and stop time and rob banks” to Image?
Zdarsky: They were like, “Get out of my office! I’m calling security!” [laughs] No, the great thing about signing up to do this with Matt was the fact that Image really wanted to work with him. So I think they gave him a carte blanche to present them with whatever he was thinking. They trusted him enough, based on his track record, to believe he would deliver something they could sell. I was the unknown quantity. I don’t know if anyone at Image knew who I was or what I would bring to it. I think they’re happy with what I’ve been doing? They got me to do their holiday card this year, which was exciting.
Paste: You said you’ve known Matt for 10 years. How did you guys become friends?
Zdarsky: I think it was the Warren Ellis forum. Most people that are writing and illustrating in comics today strangely met there as fans or wannabe writers or artists. When I started interacting with Matt, I think he wasn’t really doing comics at the time, and I was doing comic strips on the side. Our sense of humor just clicked. Out of that whole group, I interacted the best with him and his wife, Kelly Sue [DeConnick], and Warren. We became pals that way. I met Kelly Sue briefly at a San Diego convention years ago, and I met Matt when he came to town maybe three years ago—three or four years ago.
Paste: Moving on to your work outside of comics, how did your “Extremely Bad Advice” column for the National Post come about?
Zdarsky: I’ve been working for the National Post, one of the national papers here in Canada, for about 13 years now. When I got out of school, I worked part time there as a graphics guy. My job was to draw stock charts, maps, things like that, which was actually a pretty good introduction to commercial art. I knew at some point I wanted to do more, so I started pitching them humorous ideas and illustrations, and over a few years I built up this reputation at the paper that I could do anything for the sections—do art and write it, and do design. So they started giving me a lot of freedom. I kept thinking I needed a regular gig, and I was discussing it with my friend one day, thinking maybe I could be an advice columnist. And I think he said, “Yeah, you’d just give bad advice.” It was the perfect catchall to ensure that I wouldn’t get sued by people who followed my advice. If I just had “extremely bad advice” disclaimers in the title, I could do whatever I wanted at that point.
I think I’m coming up to my 300th column—it’s been going for a long time. It’s not crazy popular, but the people who do read it are pretty vocal. At one point I asked the readers to send me baked goods, and every time I’d come into work there’d be a cake or a bunch of cookies. My girlfriend wasn’t too happy about that; she has this idea that people want to poison advice columnists at newspapers. I would always make sure I fed them to our editor-in-chief first, just to be safe.
Paste: Are the questions you respond to in the column real?
Zdarsky: All of the questions are real. Every single one. The only one that was quasi-real was the first one, because we didn’t have any readers at that point. So I got one of my editors to give me a question.
Paste: What has been your favorite column to write so far?
Zdarsky: I’m always surprised with what the paper lets me get away with. So the ones where I really push it and I don’t get fired are always my favorites. I turned one in, I don’t even remember what the setup was…something about joining a gym…but I turned it into an erotic story by like the second step. I went full-on harlequin with tons of euphemisms. It made me laugh. The Post is a pretty great place to work.
The Post let me run for mayor a couple years ago, as a fake mayoral [candidate]. This was the election that got Rob Ford, our loving mayor, into office.
Last year they got me to rappel down City Hall dressed as Spider-Man.
A lot of people wonder, now that I’m doing the comic book, if that means I’ll quit the paper. But it’s so fun and they give me so much freedom that I can’t imagine giving it up. When I actually did meet Matt, he described me as Canada’s Jimmy Olsen. [laughs] No one had ever said that to me before, and I stopped and thought, “Yeah, I am this dork that runs around and gets into dumb situations.” So I’ll be working at the paper as long as my body will let me.
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