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Chip Zdarsky on Howard the Duck, Lea Thompson and the Marvel Universe

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Howard the Duck and Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) in Howard the Duck (1987).

Interview—Chip Zdarsky

Chip Zdarsky is the nom de comics of Toronto-based writer/artist Steve Murray. Under the Zdarsky name, Murray’s work includes Image Comics’ Sex Criminals, Archie Comics’ Jughead and, for Marvel, Star-Lord (yep, the dude from Guardians of the Galaxy), the recent re-launch of Howard the Duck and, starting this June, a reboot of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man.

Zdarsky began publishing his own comics in 2000 before moving to Dark Horse. His (Murray’s) non-comics credits include the Globe and Mail, New York magazine, Canadian Business, and the National Post. From 2008 to 2014, he penned and illustrated a weekly advice column for that paper called Extremely Bad Advice.

This weekend, Zdarsky is a featured guest at the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival (May 20-21) at the Roundhouse Community Centre. You should definitely say “hi” and bug him to put your favourite Spider-Man villain (the Rhino! Electro! Paste-Pot Pete!) into an upcoming issue.

 

Shawn Conner: Were you an Archie Comics fan growing up?

Chip Zdarsky: Oh yeah, they were my first comics. Doing road trips with my family, we would buy tons of Archie Digests at the grocery store. As a kid, they felt like novels, like I was reading real books like my parents. All the Archie characters are imprinted on me at this point.

SC: Those digest-size books were marketing genius, and then to have them at the supermarket checkout…

CZ: It’s amazing. I know they still exist there, probably not quite as popular. It totally worked on me and a lot of other people my age.

SC: A Sex Criminals Digest would be fun

CZ: That would be awesome. The instinct is always to go larger, like the hardcovers. The bigger companies do Artist’s Editions, and zoom in on the art. That would be amazing if, once we finished Sex Criminals, we just did all these little digests.

SC: How did that book come about – did you and Matt (Matt Fraction, writer and co-creator of Sex Criminals) want to do something adult-oriented?

CZ: We were both at interesting points in our careers. Matt had gone through the whole Marvel experience and I think he was maybe feeling a little burnt out. He wanted to do something with Image, and Image wanted to do something with him. Meanwhile, I was working at the National Post as a columnist and illustrator. I was feeling the repetition of that job as well.

One day I emailed Matt out of the blue, we’d known each other about 15 years, just online, suggesting that we should do something fun together. He wrote back with the basic pitch of Sex Criminals – what if we did a comic where a couple, when they have sex, stop time and rob banks? It seemed like such a ludicrous idea that I was on-board immediately. Within a day we fleshed out the characters and situations. It was clear from the outset that it was a thing we were going to have fun with, and would be entirely for us and cancelled after three issues. It was pleasant surprise when that last part didn’t happen.

SC: It’s a very ungeeky geeky comic, if you know what I mean.

CZ: It changed as we worked on it. I don’t think we realized at the beginning that it was going to end up being a sex-positive, emotional story with all sorts of weird intricacies to it. It turned out better than what we pitched it as.

SC: It seems like it’s a comic with a lot of back-and-forth between creators and readers.

CZ: When the letters started coming in and we’d meet people at conventions who would tell us what the book meant to them, it kind of changed the way we interacted with the material. There came a sense of responsibility around the characters and the world. We always set out to do it right and do the research and think about it before we put pen to paper. But the reaction definitely cemented that idea. In the individual issues we have the letters page, and they’re my favourite part of every issue.

SC: When it comes to a character like Spider-Man, how do you do something new with this guy?

CZ: It’s a tricky thing for sure. Dan Slott has been writing the character for maybe ten years in The Amazing Spider-Man. He’s the guy driving the universe, putting him in these situations, updating things, testing the character against new backdrops. My mandate was to bring him back to New York, have more fun adventures. That’s basically what I’m setting out to do.

As far as doing something new with the character, just through the process of writing him with my voice, I’m hoping that will make it feel new and fresh. You want to have a character that feels like the character, but you also don’t want to feel like it’s author-less. My instinct with writing Spider-Man is still as kind of a lovable loser type.

SC: Have you gone through different phases of comic-book reading and fandom?

CZ: Oh yeah, definitely phases. As a child, Marvel and DC ruled my world. By the time I was in high school I got into the Vertigo books. When I got into college, I ran out of money, and I stopped collecting completely. Post-college, I started to get back into it again. My bookshelf ended up with more Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics books, stuff along those lines. I would dip into the superheroes and see what was happening.

Then, I had a period where I referred to my comic-collecting as “fantasy football.” I wasn’t reading a lot of the books, but I knew everything that was happening, who the major creators were, the players. It was like playing fantasy football without watching the games. Now I’m back into it for research and fun.

SC: With Spider-Man, there must be characters and probably villains you’re aching to take a whack at.

CZ: I’ve been working at Marvel for a couple of years now. Right off the bat I was doing Howard the Duck, and I used that book as an opportunity to start working with my checklist. My instinct is always, I’m going to get fired with issue one, so I should do what I want to do right away. The first issue of Howard the Duck had She-Hulk and Spider-Man show up. They didn’t need to be in those stories, I just wanted to check off, Hey, I got to write some Spider-Man dialogue, I got to have She-Hulk interact with Howard. A lot of the Howard run was me putting in characters I always wanted to write, just so I could do it while I had the opportunity. So I’m already kind of scratching those itches.

Spider-Man’s a completely different thing. The one character that I’m writing right now that I haven’t been able to do before is J. Jonah Jameson, which is awesome. Partly because I have a newspaper background, but also because he’s one of the greatest comic characters ever created. Being able to write dialogue for him is insanely fun.

Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man hits the racks at your friendly neighbourhood comic shop (and online stores etc) June 21. For more info on this year’s Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, visit vancaf.com.

Read the second part of my interview with Chip at shawnconner.com.

Chip Zdarsky is the nom de comics of Steve Murray. When I was a kid, I loved Howard the Duck, the comic book series and character created by Steve Gerber and published by Marvel Comics. After a falling-out between the writer and the publisher, Gerber left and Bill Mantlo, another writer from the Marvel stable, took over the duck’s adventures until no one cared anymore. And then there was a movie – a 1987 mega-flop that also happened to be the first big-budget movie ever based on a character from Marvel.

Remember, this is a company with thousands of characters in its intellectual property arsenal, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk… you know, all the names that have earned billions in box-office receipts in the last 10 years. And their first movie was a talking duck!

But Howard is back, brought to life through a synergy of luck, nostalgia and property rights; he made a cameo at the end credits of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and makes another cameo in the second, just-released movie. In between, Marvel re-launched a limited-run Howard the Duck series, hiring Canadian artist/writer Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals, the upcoming Marvel reboot Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man) to script*. One memorable story arc featured as a character none other than Lea Thompson, the actress who played Howard’s sort-of love interest Beverly Switzler in the movie.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Chip (real name: Steve Murray) about Howard, his work on the title, and Marvel. Read on, true believers!

Howard and Beverly meet again in Howard the Duck # 8 (2016). Joe Quinones art.

SC: We were talking (in the first part of the interview; read it at thesnipenews.com) about J. Jonah Jameson, and J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of him in the Spider-Man movie. Is this a case of everything feeding of each other, where he’s taking how the character’s written in the comics, but also now comics are kind of emulating what he’s brought to the character?

CZ: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m sure J.K. Simmons was also watching the old Spider-Man cartoons when he was a kid. I think that’s where most people know J. Jonah Jameson from. Everything kind of feeds off itself and circles around. I just did Star-Lord** for Marvel. Clearly the movies have influenced the books. They took a specific version of the comic characters, plopped them into the movies, made them a lot more light and fun, and that has influenced the books again. A character like Star-Lord has gone through so many variations, that it can’t help but be influenced by various takes on it.

SC: He was originally created for one of those black-and-white Marvel magazines in the seventies by John Byrne, am I remembering that right?

CZ: I think it was Steve Englehart, and Chris Claremont as well, he wrote some of the Marvel magazines. I’ve got a few of them. They’re trippy, psychedelic – you wouldn’t be able to draw a line from that to how Star-Lord is now in the comics or the movies. Even in Marvel continuity I think it’s considered something separate. But that’s the nature of the books, especially when they’ve been around as long as they have. Things will change, especially if they’re a secondary or tertiary character, like Star-Lord certainly was. You can revamp and change over and over again – less now that he’s been cemented with the movie. Spider-Man, though, there are certain elements that have to stay the same, or at least reset back once you’re done telling you’re story. Because he is Marvel’s biggest character, arguably.

SC: So from what I understand, you got into Howard the Duck comics through your Uncle Fred?

CZ: Yep. I think everyone should have an Uncle Fred in their life. He was the uncle who collected comics, specifically the underground stuff. He was the old hippie with the ponytail and mustache and acid flashbacks. Whenever we’d go over to his house, I would sneak away and read his books. Through him I was turned onto the old Marvel magazines, like Howard the Duck*** and Star-Lord, and anthology titles.

Howard meets Beverly in Howard the Duck #1 (1976). Frank Brunner art.

SC: So you would have read the Bill Mantlo Howards before the Steve Gerber comics?

CZ: Yeah. I have a very clear memory of reading the magazines first. And then finding my uncle’s Gerber comics and going back to those. As an adult, I’ve read and reread all of those books. As a kid they were just fascinating. My parents would look over and see I was reading a comic about a duck, they had no idea of what I was actually reading.

SC: I remember being disappointed by the Mantlo stories when I was 15, but I haven’t read any of those books for a long time.

CZ: It’s definitely not the Gerber voice. In revisiting the material, I also read a lot of interviews and stories about Gerber and Howard. One of my rules at Marvel as a result was that I never mention Duckworld. I talk about him going home, but I never talk about Duckworld because that was a Mantlo creation that I knew Gerber hated at the time. Because his vision of Howard’s world was an anthropomorphic world, with Disney-style characters living ordinary, boring lives. I loved that idea, it was much more interesting than Duckworld. The fact that as soon as Gerber was kicked out of the company and off the book, what followed was the explicit nature of Howard and Bev’s nature, the Duckworld stuff – as a kid it was titillating and amazing, but as an adult it’s like, Aw, man. One’s a boring idea, and the other is kind of a weird sexist idea. Parts of the stories hold up, but not the overall feel, I don’t think.

SC: But do the Gerber stories hold up today?

CZ: I look at it a lot like fine art. If somebody did a Jackson Pollack painting today it would be a good painting but it wouldn’t change the way people view the art form. I think you always have to consider the time period. It’s a story that’s well-told and funny and interesting, but the broad satirical nature of it, which was kind of refreshing at the time, maybe doesn’t hold up as well now, considering how satire is used. In my run, I stayed away from that kind of stuff. There’s kind of an underlying satirical take on popular culture in the sense that Marvel is now the popular culture. Like, Howard the Duck would make fun of kung-fu movies or Star Wars, but now the thing to make fun of is Marvel and DC, because those are the things that are in the zeitgeist, that dominate Hollywood and culture. I tried to keep that as a subtle thing running through the book – the overabundance of superheroes in that world, reflecting the overabundance of them in ours.

SC: And then there’s the irony of Disney owning Marvel now, after that fight over the size of Howard’s bill.****

CZ: I don’t know if there was much a fight as it was Disney just told Marvel what to do, and Marvel didn’t even want to argue it.

SC: Lea Thompson, who played Beverly in the Howard the Duck movie, is a character in some of the issues you did. Did you collaborate with her?

CZ: There was some interaction between her and the artist, Joe (Quinones). I know he ended up meeting her and giving her some original pages to thank her for being a part of this. I love a good stunt, and I do have an affinity for that movie. Within the book, with the idea of superheroes taking over everything, and with variations of the character in different creator’s hands, it made sense to somehow weave the movie in.

I love Lea Thompson, she was my first crush and my favourite actress when I was a kid. I had the idea to put her into the book as herself, and Marvel reached out to her and she was game, she was totally on board, which was awesome. She didn’t balk at anything. They were so fun to write, and I think for Joe they were fun and daunting to draw. I don’t think it would have turned out as well if we didn’t have an artist as amazing as Joe.

Lea Thompson, who played Beverly Switzler in the movie version of Howard the Duck, appears as herself (!?) in Howard the Duck #9 (2016).

SC: Is it a movie you can make a strong case for?



CZ: Nope. Not even close.

SC: There’s a tiny corner of revisionist thought that maybe it’s not as bad as everyone remembers it. But it’s a very small corner.

CZ: Yeah. I can’t bring myself to watch it. I watched some clips, in preparing for the book. As a kid, I thought it was awesome. I especially loved the music, I remember recording off the TV set when we had the video playing, just the final song of all of them onstage. I was enamoured with it.

Video – Howard the Duck theme song:

There was a thing that happened, I was in Victoria visiting my girlfriend’s parents. We went out to dinner one night and the owner of the restaurant knows my in-laws. And he’s also a Howard the Duck fan, and I’d just gotten the job (writing Howard). He found out and was super-excited. While we were eating he played the movie on the restaurant TV, and he sent me over a plate of duck wings. It was the weirdest experience. The movie was playing silently and I was watching it while I was gnawing on duck wings. It was so uncomfortable. Even without sound, I was like Oh no, I should never re-watch that. It’s a bad movie.

SC: It’s so weird to think that was the first real Marvel movie.

CZ: I know, it’s crazy.

SC: After all those years of Stan Lee trying to get a movie made of a Marvel character.

CZ: I wonder how Stan felt about it.

SC: Excelsior!

Lea Thompson, who played Beverly in the 1987 Howard the Duck movie, as she appears on a variant cover for Howard the Duck #9 (2016). Joe Quinones art.

* I should note here that Howard has popped up in the Marvel Universe, in his own title – including a 2001 mini-series written by Gerber that featured the character transformed into a giant rodent – and others’, numerous times over the years.

** In 2016, Zdarsky wrote six issues and an annual featuring the character.

*** Marvel canceled the Howard the Duck comic book with issue #31 and moved him into a series of bi-monthly black-and-white magazines from 1979-1981. They featured some beautiful art by Michael Golden.

**** This really happened.

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