We’re Straight Up Idiots: Chip Zdarsky Talks ‘Kaptara,’ Action Figures And Soap Operas
Over the course of its first five issues, Chip Zdarsky and Kagan McLeod's Kaptara introduced readers to an alien world where science, sorcery and barbarians collide for one of the year's weirdest adventures. What you might not realize, though, is how much the journey across the strange planet owes to General Hospital. Fortunately, Zdarsky is here to explain.
With the book on the verge of closing out its first arc with this week's fifth issue, I spoke to Zdarsky about the origins of the project, how he and McLeod fleshed out the increasingly bizarre world in the story, the complicated storylines he'd play out with his action figures that formed the basis of the project and, of course, the time he went to a mall to see his favorite soap opera star and was laughed at by "a room full of housewives."
ComicsAlliance: The last time we talked about Kaptara, you talked about how you and Kagan McLeod have wanted to work together for a while, but this always the kind of book you wanted to do together?
Chip Zdarsky: It was always the thing that we naturally did together already. In our old studio, we had a sketchbook that we'd pass around and draw ludicrous characters and situations, and Kagan was the best at it. I always knew that if I was ever going to do anything with Kagan, it would be something like this. He's so good at drawing ugly muscle men and weird sh-- that I couldn't imagine having him draw a normal cityscape or cars. It would have to be set on a different planet. I knew that much, that it would be something that would involve weird characters and weird settings. It wasn't specifically Kaptara in my head, but it certainly made sense that it ended up being Kaptara.
CA: Was there a time when Kagan drew a weird half-giant pug, half-tank thing, and you realized, "Oh hey, this looks like a toy for terrible children"?
CZ: I'm trying to think of what he drew in the past that led me to think this. God, I should try to find that old sketchbook and go through it, because everything he draws is amazing. When we both worked at the newspaper, sometimes we'd share desks, and I'd come in and he'd leave drawings pinned up. He was so good at drawing Judith Light from Who's the Boss and Alf. It would either be Judith Light or Alf sitting across from me, and Dartor from Kaptara essentially has Judith Light hair.
CA: And you're very complimentary to it, too.
CZ: Oh, she was one of the most beautiful women alive, as far as I'm concerned, and Kagan's tribute to her is Dartor.
CA: Now I have to ask, was there a moment where you two pursued the Alf license?
CZ: [Laughs] No. Wow. I never even considered that! That's amazing.
CA: I'm guessing you can get it cheap.
CZ: Probably. It'd be so great if we pursued it but just wrapped Alf into Kaptara. Didn't do him on his own, just said that before Alf came to Earth, he actually crash-landed on Kaptara and had a whole bunch of adventures there.
CA: It could be where he developed his taste for cats.
CZ: Yeah, just trying to eat cat tanks.
CA: Stranger licensed comics have happened.
CZ: I'm going to look into this now. That's brilliant, thanks.
CA: The thing I said earlier about Kaptara is that it makes me think of toys for terrible children. I don't think it's a secret that you're very heavily influenced by Masters of the Universe, right?
CZ: Yeah, moreso than when we started.
CA: I was curious about that. The MOTU stuff was never mentioned in any of the promotion leading up to that first issue, and it felt like a twist at the end of #1, when you suddenly have Dartor and She-La and Manton running around.
CZ: When we originally started promoting and working on it, the idea was that it was a planet of action figures, and it would cover the range of them. We knew that the focal point would be the Masters of the Universe-style muscle men and muscle ladies, but yeah, Kagan's so good at drawing that and it's so fun to write, there's so much variety to be found just within that weird genre, that we haven't really looked too far outside. The Glomps in #3 are kind of weird, gross Smurfs, so that's as far as we've gotten into tapping into weird '80s or '90s toys.
I'm sure we'll branch out eventually, but the He-Man stuff is so fun, and so funny to both of us, and Kagan's so good at it, that it just made sense to stay with it as long as we could.
CA: Masters of the Universe does have that weird blend of sci-fi and fantasy where you can have robots and barbarians and everyone just kind of accepts it as though it makes any sense.
CZ: Yeah, there's no reasoning behind it. It's just its own thing, the idea that you have barbarians with technology is just so funny to me.
CA: In that original idea, were there transforming robots and soldiers, too?
CZ: Yeah. The idea was basically, "How did you play with your toys when you were a kid?" Were you a purist who would only play with your Star Wars figures or He-Man figures, or would you have them all interact? I was an interaction kid. I'd create elaborate scenarios featuring the He-Man characters, Transformers, My Little Ponies, they'd all be part of one thing. That was the idea, that there would be an entire planet like that.
CA: Would you have them fight?
CZ: Yeah, but I was a soap opera kid, too, so I'd play out all the soap opera storylines that I was watching as a kid, just with all the different toy lines as different families from the soap operas.
CA: What soap operas were you watching? Were these weird Canadian soap operas, or did you have Days of Our Lives? Did you have a toy representing Stefano DiMera, The Phoenix?
CZ: My routine was Days of Our Lives, then Another World, then General Hospital. That was my afternoon during the summers, and then during the evening, I'd watch Dallas, Dynasty, and if I was able to stay up late enough, I'd watch Falcon Crest.
CA: Wait, how old were you?
CZ: It started when I was six.
CZ: Mom was at home with me, so we'd watch them together, and then one day dad came home and I ran up to him crying, screaming, "Johnny's dead! Johnny's dead!" And dad was like, "What?! Who's Johnny?! What's going on?!" and it turned out to be a guy on a soap opera.
In Grade 8, there was a soap opera star from Another World that came to my hometown to speak at a mall and sign autographs. I got there three hours early --- and keep in mind, I'm like 13. I'm not really the target audience for this thing. I got there three hours early to get a seat in the front row to see the soap opera star, and it was me and a room full of housewives.
When they said, "Do you have any questions for him," I put my hand up and I asked some dumb f---in' question about, like, what kind of tree he would be, and everyone in the room laughed at me and he answered the question. Then I put my hand up again, and I think I asked him what his favorite color was, and he was like, "Who is this kid? Is he from some student newspaper?" The whole room just pointed and laughed at me, and I felt so embarrassed that I didn't even stick around to get his autograph. I am deep into those soap operas. Deep.
So anyway, I'd play with my He-Man figures like I was re-enacting those soap operas.
CA: First of all, that is the perfect Chip Zdarsky origin story. I'm half convinced you're making that up for the legend.
CZ: No, no! Soap operas are comic books! Comic books are soap operas! They're interchangeable!
CA: Listen, I like pro wrestling, you don't have to explain this to me.
CZ: Yeah, exactly! And in the '80s, especially General Hospital, that was my favorite. They had spy organizations, double agents, evil twins, things like that. I loved it. Every once in a while, I'll just look up old clips to get that feeling back.
CA: When you were a kid, was that drama always what appealed to you about comics and soap operas that made you want to fit your toys into it? I mean, Masters of the Universe does not have a whole lot of ongoing drama.
CZ: Oh, yeah. It always bugged me with the cartoons when I was a kid that they were episodic. They never continued the narrative, so with my toys, there would always be long-running character arcs, because of soap operas and comics. I like the idea of continuing that in Kaptara, finally getting a place to put it.
I submited He-Man comics, too, when I was like 13. I subscribed to a Masters of the Universe fan letter, so Mattel would send out two or three pages, and I hated the comic because it didn't go deep enough. I would send them my own takes on He-Man, and nobody ever got back to me, obviously, because they were terrible, but now I get to do it.
CA: Do you remember any of the storylines that you did with your action figures, or was it just replaying soap opera stuff? Did you blend it? Was He-Man just standing in for the cast of General Hospital, or was he also trying to stop Skeletor from taking over the world, too?
CZ: I remember one instance that I directly lifted from a soap opera. If I recall correctly, it was Dynasty, and at the end of one season, it was the best, there was a wedding up in the Alps or somewhere, far away from everything, and everyone was there. All the good guys, the bad guys, all the families. I don't know what the trigger point was for this, but right when they were doing their vows, terrorists burst through the windows and gunned everybody down. The last shot of the season was a pan over the crowd of all your favorite soap opera characters, all their bodies on top of each other, and just fade to black, not knowing who lived or died.
Obviously, real-life terrorism is a terrible thing, and this is going back 30 years or so, but that just blew my mind, the idea that I'd have to wait a whole season to see who lived or died, so I played out that scenario with my characters. I'd have the buildup towards the wedding, I'd arrange them all. My mom must've thought I was nuts, walking into a room and here I am setting up an entire wedding ceremony with my toys. She must've recognized at some point what she'd done to me with soap operas.
But yeah, I'd have the whole scenario play out with those characters getting attacked, who lived or died. I'd have mass funerals and alliances would form. What a weird, sad childhood.
CA: I love that you had a season finale for playing with your action figures.
CZ: It was a big deal! I'd block off an entire Saturday just to do the season finale! And then I'd pick it up the next day. Sunday: "All right, here's what happened." I had zero friends.
CA: I can't imagine why. Nobody else wanted to go to the mall to see the stars of Another World?
CZ: [Laughs] Yeah. Oh, God.
CA: Now that I know all of that, it comes through in Kaptara really well. Our viewpoint character isn't a barbarian from an alien planet, he's a guy who left Earth beacuse of a bad breakup, and there's nothing there for him anymore. It's a very melodramatic origin for a book that has a wizard who wears his beard as underpants.
CZ: Exactly. Basically, the main character is me: Sad, without friends on planet Earth, so thank God it's Saturday so I can perform fake weddings with barbarians.
CA: You talked about having so much to do, and one thing that's really striking is that it follows the format of, say, those '70s Conan the Barbarian comics. Every couple of issues, he'd wander into a new town, or try to ransack a new ruin, and in Kaptara's first arc, the same thing happens. Every couple of issues they go somewhere new, attacking a wizard tower or meeting a town full of bug people. Is that just a function of having so many ideas to get out there?
CZ: It was definitely part of the plan. It's kind of a cross between those Conan books and Wizard of Oz. You want the characters to come across a new thing every couple of issues, either add someone to the group, lose someone from the group, have different obstacles as they move on. It's a journey, right? It's totally, shamelessly Wizard of Oz in that sense.
A lot of it is to keep things interesting for Kagan, as well. I wanted to make sure that he'd have something new to draw every issue. I'm well aware of what it's like to draw the same characters over and over again, talking, walking, interacting. You can go stir crazy from that, so it's important to make sure Kagan has something different for each issue, and to do that for the reader as well. You want to create the feeling of a world, too. If I'm going to set it on another planet, then I want to explore that planet. I don't want to have them sitting there in this singular city talking about their problems.
CA: I don't feel like that is a problem in this book.
CZ: I kind of worry about it. We have our solid crew now, and I just want to do individual issues with each of the characters, but if I do that, that's an entire arc. This is my first team book, really. Sex Criminals is kind of becoming a team book, but Kaptara, I totally understand the problems of writing Justice League or X-Men --- X-Men more so because some of those characters don't have their own books. There's a desire to put focus on those characters and explore them individually, and that's tricky to balance with keeping the full narrative moving along.
We're going to do a bit of it in the second series of Kaptara. I think we're going to start off with She-La going back to her hometown and introducing everyone to her parents. Have some fun there.
CA: For all of its travel around Kaptara, the first arc is very much about building the team, and it's interesting that our viewpoint character takes a while to join up with everyone else. He definitely has that Joseph Campbell "refusal of the call."
CZ: [Laughs] I really wanted to have that end of #1, where he's just like "no, f--- it, this is great, I'm just gonna hang out." A lot of people took that first issue to mean that he was just an asshole, and that's that, and I had to be like, "No, he's going to grow and change, he'll join up." It's the beauty of going issue to issue, you can have a character develop and teams form and people grow.
CA: Were you concerned about that, though? He seems disproportionately willing to sacrifice the entire planet Earth.
CZ: I wasn't concerned until #1 came out and people were like, "Why is he such an asshole?" and I said, "No, he's just me!" It made me look really inwards, like, "Wait, am I an asshole?"
I mean, I didn't go into a deep, depressive funk or anything, but I think about the people I surround myself with. My girlfriend often points this out to me, she's like, "You like assholes. Your friends are, generally speaking, assholes. They're funny assholes, but they're still assholes." And yeah, totally, that's what makes me laugh. Deep down, all my friends have solid hearts, but they'll tear you to pieces for the sake of a joke. Keith was very representative of a lot of friends of mine and myself, and when people say, "Oh, I don't like that!" I think, "Wait, you don't like me, then."
That was tricky. He's grown over the first five issues, he's become more of an active participant, maybe less snarky once he realizes the stakes. There's a deflective nature of humor that I believe both you and I understand, but it takes a while to get there.
CA: A lot of it can very easily be read as that defense mechanism. The first big crack in that is when he finds the family photo from the captain, and we see it break down more when he finds Laurette.
CZ: Yeah, he even says to her that once the shock of the planet wears off, he has to find his way home and help his friends. There's a hero's journey, but there's also an emotional thing. I likened him to Peter Parker before Uncle Ben dies, when he's just like, "Ah, f--- this, it's all about me. It's all about gettin' paid." But we didn't do it over eight pages, we did it over five issues. It's a bit trickier to convince the reader to come along with that, especially if they're turned off by assholes.
CA: So what can we look forward to in the next arc? You mentioned She-La going home, which seems interesting.
CZ: In the last two pages of #5, we basically introduce 60 new characters. In the trade, we wrote bios for all of them. It took Kagan forever to draw that page, to design all those new characters, and it took forever for me to write the bios. We're straight-up idiots.
So basically, all of those characters come into play. There's a big battle in Volume 2 that's going to raise the stakes more, and a big part of it is going to find the other crew members as well. I'm a big fan of not spoiling stuff and having cliffhangers.
CA: Final question: What's your favorite Motivational Orb saying?
CZ: In my studio, I've got some artwork up, but there's one thing pinned to the wall that's a motivational saying for me, which is just, "Nothing Gets Done If You Don't F---ing Do It." It's the most basic motivation, like, "Oh, that thing you need to finish? You need to finish it. You know how that thing's not done? It's because you haven't finished it." That's the personal one that keeps me going.
There's one motivational saying from #5 that I don't want to spoil, but it's definitely my favorite. I love "Underestimating Your Enemy Is The First Step To Defeat." He's so cocky. He's tied up and that's just scrawled across him. He's an orb and he's going to trounce you.
CA: An orb with surprisingly ripped arms.
CZ: I did not expect that from Kagan, but I should've.