In 1837, Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen published “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a story about a monarch who struts around naked in his birthday suit, believing himself to wear clothes so refined that only the elite and special can recognize them. Then a young boy exclaims that the emperor is, in fact, exposing his pasty European ass to his entire kingdom.
This brings us to Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck, a comic book character who similarly calls out superheroes on their most ridiculous quirks. Except the superheroes are clothed (probably). And there aren’t any Emperors, or young boys exposed to full-frontal nudity. But there is a voice of reason poking fun at the pomp and hypocrisy of some of popular fiction’s most beloved icons. Or as Zdarsky writes, “He’s a duck who talks! And displays a remarkable amount of common sense in a world gone mad!”
Zdarsky, who also illustrates Sex Criminals and converses on Facebook with suburban restaurant chains, has emerged as a rare bridge between the world of indie comics humor and more mainstream publishing, whose forays into funny books have been few and rarely successful. With Howard the Duck, whose first issue launches today, Zdarsky resurrects the alien waterfowl first unleashed on the Marvel Universe in 1973 by satirist Steve Gerber to roast sequential art vigilantes and pop culture institutions alike.
Zdarsky, who’s actually the fake name/persona of Canadian cartoonist Steve Murray (think Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton, except way more polite), was kind enough to chat about Howard the Duck, list out his favorite comedy comics and describe his new Image series, Kaptara, a gay homage to ‘80s action figures. So there’s that.
Writer: Grant Morrison,
Artists: Phillip Bond, D’Israeli
This was the comic I handed out to friends in high school to get them into comics. It’s a violent, sex-filled, single-issue romp by Grant Morrison with amazing art by Phillip Bond and D’Israeli. Looking back it must have influenced Sex Criminals subconsciously: sexually charged couple going on a crime spree, the main character breaking the fourth wall, jokes. Except the art here is better.
Writer & Artist: Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton is a national treasure. This collection of her strips showcases her lively cartooning skills, teaches you something about history if you’re a dummy (me) and, most importantly, makes you laugh your old balls right off.
Writer & Artist: Michael Kuppermn
Nobody does absurdist humour better than Michael Kupperman. Sex blimps, fistfights over what constitutes art, Jesus’ half-brother Pagus, these books have it all! The only thing that’s made me laugh harder then these books was when I was trying to explain the books to other people.
Writer & Artist: Lisa Hanawalt
Anthropomorphized animals seen through dumb, dirty eyes and beautifully painted. This book is like the Louvre for jokes. It’s stunningly funny and you’ll never watch War Horse the same way again (I’m assuming everyone watches War Horse multiple times like me?).
Writer: Andrew Boyd
Artist: Ryan Yount
Pirates in the modern day dealing with hobos, unemployment and the music of Anson Williams. This is often overlooked but it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It came out in 2005 and I’ve been waiting for the follow-up ever since.
Paste: How have you been?
Chip Zdarsky: Life’s good. Real good. No, it’s freezing! It’s frozen and everything is horrible. This morning the temperature was minus 23. It feels like minus 37 with wind chill. It’s an indoor life for a while.
Paste: I was reading Prison Funnies recently.
Zdarsky: Wow. Deep cut.
Paste: I couldn’t help but think of a line in your introduction: “Every comic-strip artist is motivated by one all-consuming concept: hatred.” I don’t know how much I can separate between your Chip Zdarsky personality and reality, but I was reading that then going through Steve Gerber’s old Howard the Duck issues. His first issue features Howard as this hate-filled, depressed character about to commit suicide. How much do you see of yourself in Howard the Duck?
Zdarsky: It’s hard to say—I was doing Prison Funnies under a different name (Chip Zdarsky), but I was also doing it under a different character. Around that time, I’d also just been going through a divorce, so it was kind of a split personality thing (Steve Murray and Chip Zdarsky). My therapist actually really loves the fact that I developed an entirely new character around the time of the divorce. So the character had self-loathing. I didn’t. I’m sure I did to some degree, because I’m an artist and there has to be that. I never like my work—I think that’s a universal thing in most artists. At least artists who strive to become better at art do not like the stuff that they’re producing.
I’m not writing Howard as self-loathing, because I don’t think he’s quite had the realization yet. He has outward anger and a sadness, and there might be brief instances where he recognizes his role in that.
Paste: The Chip Zdarsky character has been to jail, and I noticed your work has pivoted between cops and robbers, law and disorder. You went from Prison Funnies to Monster Cops to Sex Criminals, and now you’re writing a private detective. That can’t be intentional, can it?
Zdarsky: [Laughs] That’s funny. I just recently noticed that, too. Everything I do has some kind of police/criminal element to it. The private eye thing might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s not purely me in that case.
I don’t even even know what that’s about. I was arrested when I was in my early 20s. Technically it was possession and concealment of a dangerous weapon, which was a toy gun. So I still had to go to court, still got the fingerprints, still had to go through all that. I was just an art student hanging around an art college with a $2 toy gun. I got to go through the system a bit, which is kind of what started Prison Funnies. The joke is that the Chip character actually went to jail. I think in some ways, the Chip character reflects what would have happened if that whole thing had gone terribly wrong, and I didn’t just go through court and get off. It would have been a path for me where I’d have actually gone to jail and created a living Chip Zdarsky character, instead of it just being a pseudonym.
During the student newspaper days, I did an interview with Chip Zdarsky by Steve Murray. I was contributing to the student newspaper and thought, ‘we have some space to fill.’ And that’s where I fleshed out the Chip character, which I found almost more fun to do than the comics themselves. Once I actually got on the road and started doing conventions and selling my comics, and pretending to be Chip at these shows with a cowboy hat and fake glasses. That’s when I realized what I wanted to do, which was a kind of performance art that happens to involve comics.
Paste: Didn’t you also maintain the Chip Zdarsky identity to keep the newspapers you worked for ignorant to the fact that you were working on comics?
Zdarsky: [Chip Zdarsky] is why I ended up doing comics under a pseudonym. I was working dually for the two major newspapers here in Canada, The Globe and Mail and the National Post. There was one instance when I ran afoul of one of the newspapers with the stuff I was doing in the other paper. So I basically promised an editor that anything I did that would be deemed inappropriate toward that paper, I’d do it under a pseudonym. I created the pseudonym, and then I was asked to do the comic strip for the university newspaper. At that point I said, ‘well this is probably going to be inappropriate so I should probably use this brand new pseudonym I came up with.’
That became a thing. I hated anyone knowing that Chip Zdarsky and Steve Murray were the same person to ensure that it was my little secret. But I could only keep that for so long. I didn’t exist online as Steve Murray until a few years ago because the newspapers weren’t really doing a push for it; I wasn’t technically a columnist at that point, so my name never showed up. Once the newspapers said we need to make a push online and (I needed) to put my stuff online under a name.
Those days are well in the past. Basically after I won the Eisner Award, the paper was like ‘yeah, we kind of need to acknowledge this now.’ They did a jokey article about me winning the award. If I was going to come out, it’s best to come out after winning an award, than ‘Steve Murray was arrested last week. He is also known as Chip Zdarsky.’
Paste: There’s a trend right now where indie creators will go to the big two and then shift to creator-owned books after a given time. You’re doing the exact opposite. What appeals to you about working for established intellectual properties?
Zdarsky: Well, the funny thing is the advice to anyone trying to break into Marvel or DC is to produce your own work first. Nobody says, ‘keep submitting to Marvel and DC and don’t actually make a comic.’ So the way it’s worked in the past is that people do create their own books than end up at Marvel or DC. So in effect, I’m continuing that tradition a little bit.
Image is such a great company to work for, but it all falls down to you as a creator. It’s kind of like self-publishing under an imprint with some help from people. My experience at Marvel has been wildly different in both good and bad ways. You have so many more people that you have to deal with. Whereas with Sex Criminals, Matt and I basically put it together. I do a bunch of design work and lay it all out. Image uploads it and that’s pretty much it. I think somebody proofreads it, thank god. But Matt and I are basically putting the book together ourselves.
At Marvel, it’s a lot different. There are a lot more people that things need to go through, and a lot more people involved in the creation of a book. It’s interesting. You look at Robert Kirkman from The Walking Dead. He did his own stuff and then got into Marvel and then left Marvel. That’s kind of how it goes. Matt (Fraction) wrote closer to self-published work. He did Rex Mantooth and The Five Fists of Science, went off to Marvel, and now he’s going back to (creator-owned work). For me it was partly the fact that I can’t do any more drawing than I physically do right now. I’m doing pencils, inks and colors on Sex Criminals. That’s well above a full-time job. Not to say that writing is easier, because it’s not necessarily easier, but the time constraints are fewer. So I knew that I’d want to do some writing. I was asked to pitch on Howard, and I thought why wouldn’t I? I wanted to do more writing, so why not do more writing and get paid and do it on a character that I’ve always loved? It wasn’t a super easy choice, but it was easier than you might think.
Paste: How do you view Howard the Duck operating in the Marvel Universe? What’s his significance?
Zdarsky: This is purely a selfish thing, but my assumption when I took the job is that I’m not going to last more than four or five issues, either because I’m going to do something wrong or people aren’t going to buy it or Marvel burns to the ground or something horrible’s going to happen. I’ll be done after five. So by putting Howard into New York, home of all the superheroes, I was able to write all the superheroes that I want to write through this comic, and scratch that itch while I have the opportunity. The funny thing about Howard is that he’s the most normal character in the Marvel Universe in a lot of ways. He’s just a guy. He’s a duck, but he’s just a dude. By contrasting him with Marvel characters like Spider-Man — who’s a grown man who puts on a skin-tight outfit and goes around punching people — Howard’s the character who will point out that that’s kind of crazy. You know? Even though he’s a talking duck.
Throughout his previous comic runs, Howard would always end up in wild, wacky situations as the voice of reason. I liked the idea of scratching my itch to write various superheroes and supervillains, because I’m not going to get a chance again. But I also have Howard in the middle of it pointing out hypocrisies.
Paste: Your description reminds me of your one-page Original Sin contribution. Was that a test run for this?
Zdarsky: Unbeknownst to me, I guess so. I got into Marvel just through covers. The editor had read Monster Cops years ago. So he knew I could write and he knew I was funny. Sex Criminals raised my profile, so he got me to do some covers, and I kind of went above and beyond on a couple of them and made them funnier. And he was like, ‘oh, we got a backup strip. Do you want to do them?’ And I said, yeah, sure. I put my all into it, thinking that this would be my one and only chance to ever do these characters for Marvel. When it came time for them to consider rebooting Howard, I was fresh in their minds because I’d just done that and was invited to pitch. It was relatively quick, unless you add in the Monster Cops situation….because that was 10 years ago. It took 10 years, but it also took about ten months.
Paste: Are there any properties or characters you can’t wait to tear into?
Zdarsky: I threw Spider-Man into issue one because that was a given. I think every writer of superhero books dreams of putting a bit of dialogue to Spider-Man. So I got him in, I got She-Hulk in the first issue, because I love the current She-Hulk run. I got a few more coming up, I just don’t want to spoil them. I’m trying to build up to one of those big, dumb superhero battles and throw as many in as I can. This is my only chance.
Paste: How’s Howard the Duck going to interact with all of the craziness in Secret Wars?
Zdarsky: Yeah, I think he’s probably going to be the one who starts off the war. I dunno. [Laughs] It’s so funny because I did this cover for Marvel, these weird animatic covers, and every state of the animatic gets printed into a different cover. They wanted all these different stages of Howard’s life, so i drew a throwaway joke of one of the stages being a tombstone, where it says “Howard Gave His Life Valiantly Fighting in the Secret Wars,” and then a stage after that where he’s alive, just looking back at that tombstone. I did it just as a joke, not knowing anything about Secret Wars, besides the title and the initial press release. It’s funny to see people online saying ‘Oh, is that a spoiler?! Is Chip trying to tell us something about Secret Wars?’ Nope! I know as much as anyone.
I’m not at the level of Marvel where they’re consulting me about giant events. I can’t imagine being at that stage. I think I’ll be slightly outside, no matter what.
Paste: The original run on Howard the Duck also skewered pop culture at large—I remember issue #13 was a sendup of The Exorcist and there was also a Star Wars issue. How much is your title going to stray outside the Marvel Universe to lampoon other media?
Zdarsky: The ironic thing is, the Marvel Universe now is the popular culture. When Gerber was tackling Star Wars and The Exorcist, those were the major movies of the day that were seizing the populace. Now it’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America and Avengers. It’s a strange time to be parodying popular culture in comics, because comics is the pop culture. The first arc is firmly set in the Marvel Universe, just to reacquaint readers with Howard and the world he lives in. I have some ideas. I’m not necessarily tackling current popular culture. I have some throwback things to older movies and TV shows. It’s funny, I just wrote some dialogue for Star-Lord in issue #2, and afterward I realized I’m writing him like he’s Archer. [Laughs] I gave him a few lines and I had to stand back and go ‘I’m totally just doing Archer right now. But it’s working, so I’m just gonna keep going.” So things are kind of subtly and subconsciously hanging in that direction.
Paste: You’re also tackling other older pop culture references in Kaptara with artist Kagan McLeod, which is coming out in late April from Image. How’s that project going?
Zdarsky: Oh, it’s fantastic. Kagan’s one of the most talented, funny, creative people I know. So, every time I get a cover or some pages from him, I’m just blown away. It’s tons of fun to write. It’s been insane just comparing Howard to this, because in Howard there are restrictions for working with a character who’s been around for a while in a setting that has tight continuity, and to be able to create a world cloth like this with a friend. It’s been a lot of fun.
Paste: So, this is a gay spoof on the world of ‘80s action figures?
Zdarsky: I had this idea years ago for a story that was basically an extension of when you’d play with these action figures as a child. The fact that they’d all coexist together—you wouldn’t just play He-Man separately from your Star Wars figures. They would encounter each other. I liked the idea of having the He-Man planet of Eternia, but where you see the other parts of Eternia where My Little Ponies live, where Smurfs live, or Transformers. The idea that there’s one planet that houses all these outlandish action-figurey characters. And I’m also making it a Wizard of Oz adventure, featuring a guy stranded there, having to accomplish goals, and attempt go back home. The fact that he’s gay may stem from the homoeroticism of some of these action figures. Hunky, hunky He-Man.
Paste: What were your favorite cartoons and action figures when you were a kid?
Zdarsky: I started collecting Secret Wars at the perfect age of eight or nine and immediately found out that toys were involved and bought all of those. Got all the He-Mans that I could. G.I. Joe figures, even though I never watched the show, so I never knew who the characters were. I just loved them. Even weird ones like M.A.S.K.. Some Sectaurs, some Crystal Warriors. It was always a hodgepodge—I was never a collector of one thing. You work with what you got. Sometimes your parents would just be like, ‘oh, here. Here’s some knock-off He-Man brand.’ I’ll do what I can.
Paste: Are you going to have SilverHawks in there at all?
Zdarsky: [Laughs] Maybe. They’re on the list. I spent a bit of time just going through, trying to find all of these brands of toys. I’m having trouble with ‘90s toys, when I grew up past it. There was obviously the onslaught of Japanese characters and Pokemon, but I’m having trouble coming up with fantastical ‘90s action figures.