Chip Zdarsky On ‘Sex Criminals': The Comics Alliance Interview
With the possible exception of whoever’s in charge of determining which comics get banned from being sold on Apple devices, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarksy’s Sex Criminals has been universally hailed as one of the best comic books of the year. The story of strange sexual awakenings, bank robberies, and the untold impact of porn left in the woods has earned its creators a huge fan following, a fourth printing of the first issue set for January, and being declared Time‘s best comic book of the year.
To cap off a pretty triumphant year, I talked to Zdarsky about how he hooked up with Matt Fraction, his reaction to the response the book’s been getting, and, perhaps most importantly, the secret origin of Sexual Gary.
ComicsAlliance: How did you and Matt Fraction hook up and decide to do Sex Criminals?
Chip Zdarsky: Matt and I knew each other, obviously, online, the way we all know each other. We’d chatted before about doing something, and a couple years ago I was on assignment in Ottawa. They sent me to Ottawa to cover a politician boxing match, which was very weird, and I ended up working all night. I was up ’til 4 in the morning, and I think I had to catch a train at 6, and while I was on the train working, I e-mailed him and said “We should do something!”
I originally suggested we do our take on fantasy, because we both don’t care for fantasy. I’ve never read Lord of the Rings, as a kid, I remember throwing the book across the room after forty pages. I know Matt and I both make fun of Ed Brubaker for his love of Lord of the Rings, and I thought it would be really funny if we did a comic about fantasy, knowing nothing about fantasy. Matt was like “that’s a good idea, but here’s a better idea: what about a comic about people who f**k, and they stop time by doing that and rob banks?” I was like “oh… yeah, okay, that’s pretty good. That’s cool.” I was just delirious because I hadn’t slept and I was on this train, but we went back and forth for the whole trip and I got super excited about it, and that was the beginning.
CA: It’s such a weird premise, and yet, as someone who’s followed your work for as long as I have, and who’s been a… do your fans have names yet?
CZ: “Restraining Orders.”
CA: As someone who’s been a Restraining Order for so long, it kind of is the perfect comic for you to draw.
CZ: Yeah, I think Matt likes the idea of really tailoring what he’s pitching to a specific artist, especially when he’s doing a creator thing. Like with Chaykin and Satellite Sam, that’s perfect, right? Picturing someone else doing it doesn’t even make sense. I think Sex Criminals is the same thing, like Casanova, oh my God. Those brothers working on that. He’s good at figuring out exactly who should be working on what.
CA: There’s so much stuff in here that seems purely visual. I don’t want to go through a list of awesome background gags, because I could, but there’s that bit in the first issue where it’s two pages of weird sex positions. Was that in the script as, like “pages 18 and 19, go nuts,” or did those names come from the script?
CZ: Issue #1, we spent a long time on, just feeling each other out and setting the stage, creating the world and everything. With that sequence, it wasn’t in the original script. There was another scene, I don’t want to give it away in case Matt uses it somewhere down the line, but it was a touching scene of Suzie’s youth. Reading it through, I was like “this is really good, but I feel like we need a break where it’s just a barrage of laughs.” I had an idea for a bathroom scene that was a bit more convoluted and didn’t really work as well in comics, and Matt took that and was able to pace it out much better.
When it came to the time to come up with the sex moves, we just went back and forth and I think we came up with a hundred of them. Just names that meant nothing. When he scripted it out, he just narrowed it down to his top twenty, I think. I was able to put them in where I needed to, and then I just had to come up with how to draw them. We didn’t actually talk about what each of the names meant, we just came up with as many as we could, and I had to figure out visually how to do it.
CA: I think my favorite is “ET: The Sex Move.”
CZ: With that one… I kept trying to make them not super obvious. I knew there would be a finger involved, there would have to be a finger involved, but I thought “if we could get a Reese’s Pieces in there somewhere…” that’s art. That’s art.
Even after I did it, Matt rearranged them for maximum joke effect, and we went back and forth on it for a while. It was the one scene that I was most worried about. If it didn’t work, the comic would not do well, I think. That seemed to be the barometer right there, because we’d promised a lot of sex jokes, and that was the scene with the sex jokes. If nobody liked it, we were kind of dead in the water.
CA: It makes an interesting contrast with the rest of the book, because you hear the premise of time-stopping orgasms and bank robberies, and you go in expecting a sexy action romp, then on page 3, Suzie’s dad commits suicide.
CZ: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s the thing. When we first started talking about it, it was like “hey, it’s going to be a couple of guys with their amateur dick jokes,” even up until the solicitation. The solicitation really played it up a bit more as a sex romp with jokes all over the place. I don’t think it even hinted on any kind of sexual journey or sexual awakening. By the time I got the script to #1, I was floored. I was like “Oh my God, this is beautiful, I probably shouldn’t be the one to draw this.” It was too much of a heartwarming story to wrap my head around the idea that Matt wanted me to draw it.
CA: It works well, though. It’s immediately compelling and engaging and fun and sexy and horrifying. There’s a lot of emotions involved.
CZ: It’s a weird thing to try to pull off. I’m glad Matt trusted me with it.
CA: Before we move on from the subject of the background gags, two questions. First, I want to know where Sexual Gary came from.
CZ: I had to decorate a teenager’s bedroom, and I knew I was going to put a pop star on the wall. I was just like, it’s got to be one of those weird, hypersexualized guys. “Gary” is my default name when I’m working with the National Post, whenever I have to name a character in a column, they’re always Gary for some reason.
Actually, I know the reason. The guy I work across from dated a guy named Gary for a while, and after they broke up, I just, I don’t know why, I was so mean to him, I would just put “Gary” in the paper all the time, just to drive him nuts.
CA: [Laughs] That’s horrible!
CZ: Yeah… I think Gary recently got married, so I brought Gary back again. I’m a bit of an asshole. I don’t know if he appreciated it as much. So yeah, Gary is my defaut name, and the idea of a teen pop sensation named “Sexual Gary,” I was pretty happy with that.
CA: My other question is that when they go to the unprintable porn store, the store I can’t name at my job, thanks, there’s all these different background gags for genres of porn, like “Obamacore.” Is that another one where you went back and forth or was it all you?
CZ: It’s back and forth. In the script, usually, Matt will list four or five items to set the scene, and for me, it’s kind of like automatic writing, where I’ll just sit there and sketch it out, and as I’m sketching I’m just filling in boxes. Like “Obamacore,” I just made the space for text and thought “hardcore, softocre, Obamacore…” and just wrote it in.
After I do all that and show it to Matt, he usually has a couple of extras to play off what I’ve done. Background stuff is mostly me, but Matt’s got a good eye to start it off, and what should stay and what should go.
CA: Another interesting thing about your work on this book is that, unless I’ve missed something, it’s been a long time since you’ve done a big sequential project like this.
CZ: Yeah. The last one I did was the third issue of Prison Funnies, which I didn’t even really put through Diamond. I just had a party here in Toronto and released them, and said “oh yeah, one day I’ll set up shipping and get these out to people,” but I never did. I was just too busy. So yeah, it’s been a long, long time.
CA: I was really surprised by it, because I know your illustrations from the Post. A lot of times you see people going from spot illustrations and static pictures to sequential pieces, and everything looks really staged. Everything in Sex Criminals looks natural. Nothing looks stiff — unless it’s meant to. Was that a challenge?
CZ: At the newspaper, they let me do whatever styles I want for illustration, so I’ve been keeping pretty busy in terms of illustrating and keeping it as natural as possible. With the comic, Matt’s script helped me a lot, because he was a bit more descriptive than he’d probably normally be, I think because he knew it’d been a while since I’d done comics, and to get a feel for each other. He’s done it on a very strict eight-panel grid. The entire book, when you flip through, the first two pages are the only times we really break any panel borders. It’s very easy to lay out, and that’s definitely made it easier for me to get into and set the stages. I’ve just been practicing.
I’ve been doing illustration every day for fifteen yeras, so at some point, you get a bit more natural at it. Comics, you’re telling a story, so it’s different than static illustration, but I think most illustrators are okay to make the jump from illustration to comics, because they’ve been telling stories in single panels for so long that it’s kind of liberating to be able to spread it out a little bit.
CA: An eight-panel grid would certainly make it easy to read on an iPhone.
CZ: I’ve never even thought of that. I’ve never done anything on a grid before, Prison Funnies I just made up as I went along. If I had done anything on a grid, it would be nine panels, because Watchmen was my Bible in terms of layout. When I first started doing eight panels, I thought “my God, this is so awkward, all the balloons have to be off to the side.” There’s not a lot you can do besides wide panels. I never even thought about reading it on a phone. That’s funny.
CA: Do you want to talk at all about the Apple stuff?
CZ: [Laughs] Ah yeah, the Apple stuff. That was an unpleasant surprise. It was weird.
CA: The book has been a hit. It’s been a pretty strong seller, and it’s so weird.
CZ: It’s upsetting. The most upsetting thing for me is that people who buy exclusively on Comixology don’t know what’s wrong. If they go there and they bought #1, they’re just waiting on #2. There’s no notice that pops up that says “Guess what? You have to get #2 through the website and upload it to your device. Sorry!” I see people posting messages like “The second issue’s taking forever to come out!” and I have to ask if they’re trying to get it on Comixology. I have to tell them they’re not going to get it because it’s bad. It’s bad and naughty.
CA: They’re anti-Obamacore.
CZ: It was both a blessing and a curse. I hate, hate the idea that anyone who wants something can’t get it, or doesn’t know it’s available. But at the same time, it was a fun little burst of press for us.
CA: It always sucks to have a book that’s controversial for not being available, but it is one of those things that keeps it in the news after that first issue. The first issue always gets a lot of coverage, and when the second issue comes out, even if it’s really good, which Sex Criminals #2 and #3 are, nobody talks about twos and threes the way they talk about #1s. This has kept you guys in the news cycle, and you’ve gone out of your way to let people know that they can get it on the web, through Image, in stores… You’ve got multiple printings of the first issue. The fourth printing is, I think, everyone’s favorite cover of 2014.
CZ: That was another pleasant surprise.
CA: How long was that in the works? You’re in Toronto, Fraction’s in Portland. I know you guys had that release party where Fraction got his nipples pierced onstage…
CZ: The funny thing was that it came out last week, and we discussed it and did it two days before that. We knew there was going to be a fourth printing, because Image had already said that. They said “We know you don’t have a cover ready, so we’re just going to mention it to retailers,” and I was like “maybe we should do this.” The question was how, so I basically did a sketch and sent it to Matt, and said “you pose like this, light it from the front, and send me that photo. I’ll take care of the rest.” He did it overnight, and then in the morning, I got my girlfriend to take a photo of me, and then by mid-afternoon it was done.
CA: So you weren’t together for it.
CA: I feel like you just told me there’s no Santa Claus.
CZ: I know! I’m proud of the fact that I was able to pull it off and people thought we were together to do it. That’s another thing with my newspaper job, they get me to PhotoShop things all the time, so I’m pretty good at quick, basic, not-cinema-quality photo manipulation stuff. Matt sent me his photo and his friend Alex was taking the place of me, and it was an iPhone quality photo, so it took me half an hour to match that and make it look like a studio photo. It was maybe two or three hours of work in the morning and then I sent it off to Image, and they were like “hoooooly s**t.” The next morning, it came out.
It was really quick. It all happened extremely quickly, and I didn’t even know if people would like it. I have no concept of that, really, I do something because it makes me laugh. Originally, across the top, we had “The Time Magazine Comic Of The Year!” and then Matt suggested the Hawkeye/Inhumans gag and the Applebee’s gag, and yeah. That’s what went out.
CA: Time Magazine Comic of the Year. I mean, I know you were excited about being in ComicsAlliance’s Best of the Year list…
CZ: They both hold a special place in my heart.
CA: That’s gotta be nice.
CZ: It’s one of those things. My parents have never quite understood what I do, even for a living. They understand that I’m in the newspapers and that I’d do comics once in a while. Whenever I’d do Prison Funnies, I’d hand it to my dad and he’d look at it and laugh and go “oh, son.” That was kind of the extent of it. Then the Time thing happened and you get the call from the parents and they’re super happy, Image is super happy, Matt’s super happy, and wow, people are super happy with me. That’s weird!
CA: And then your parents ask you what the book’s about…
CZ: My parents love it!
CZ: Yeah, it’s pretty funny. They were there at the launch party at the sex club.
CA: [Uncontrollable laughter]
CZ: The funny thing is that Matt knew they were coming, and said “oh, when I’m onstage getting my nipple pierced, I should call your mom up to hold my hand, that would be amazing.” When it came time to do that, the club was beyond capacity, it was so hot, we said into the mic “Chip’s parents are here, can Chip’s mom come up and hold his hand?” They weren’t even there. They were upstairs in the sex rooms. There’s a third floor where everyone goes to have sex and apparently my parents went up there, so they couldn’t hear Matt’s cries for help.
CA: That’s uncomfortable.
CZ: It’s mildly uncomfortable. My parents are pretty happy with everything.
CA: Was that the first time they were aware that you own that Garfield suit?
CZ: Yeah, probably. But they didn’t even flinch. There were photos being taken of us together and they never once said “hey, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re dressed as Garfield. That’s, uh… that’s something new.” They just roll with it. It’s great.
CA: On the subject of real-life interactions with Sex Criminals (the book), I saw you mention on Twitter that you use a model for Suzie, and she’s getting recognized.
CZ: She went into a comic shop in London, Ontario with her fiancee, and they asked for Sex Criminals and the guy was telling her they’d sold out of some but might have a couple left, and her fiancee goes “yeah, she’s in it! She’s the model!” and the guy goes “Oh my God!” and has photos taken with her, got her to sign copies, wrote a blog post about encountering her. She’s ecstatic with this weird level of notoriety. I don’t know if she’s told her parents yet that she’s the main model for Sex Criminals.
CA: For Time‘s Comic of the Year.
CZ: Exactly. It was funny. I knew I wanted her for the character when Matt and I first started discussing the character, I had the visual in my head, and it looked just like my friend. For the guy, for Jon, he’s a friend of mine that works for the Beguiling, the comic shop. We mostly used them because of the wide disparity in height, because we thought it’d be really funny. The idea of a very tall man and a very short woman making love is always a pretty good visual, I think. So when I got them into the studio for the first time to take reference shots, they’d never met each other, and I was like “so, okay, so, um, scene one, you will be… kind of… grinding.. her body… with your body… on a sink, and, uh, all right, let’s start!” It was a nice uncomfortable three hours.
CA: It’s just like Love Actually!
CZ: It’s just like Love Actually. Imagine being invited, by me, into my studio, where I’m going to take pictures of you simulating sex acts for a few hours.
CA: And I assume you’re in the Garfield suit in this scenario.
CZ: The one thing I’ve noticed with this, and so has Matt, is the fact that since the models are real people and they’re friends of mine, it stops me from making them objects of titillation, if that makes sense. If I’m going to draw them in a sexual situation, I’m not going to play up my friend’s sexiness or something, you know? It keeps the focus on the story and less on someone getting off to the comic, which I can’t really imagine, and which is what Apple imagines people doing.
CA: You say that, but people are determined, Chip.
CZ: But still!
CA: One last question: When’s Monster Cops coming back?
CZ: Well, I’ve got a five-issue outline sitting here on my computer. A few years ago, I pitched the idea around to a couple of companies, and nobody quite bit, but I’d love to do more.
CA: Are you going to call those same people up again and go “Hi, this is the artist of Time Magazine’s Comic of the Year, Chip Zdarsky.”
CZ: I know I should be more business savvy and leverage this, but Sex Criminals is going to take time. We have a fair number of issues planned out. Unless something horrible happens, we’re going to keep doing that for the forseeable future. I’ve definitely got the Monster Cops scripts sitting here ready to go, it’s the kind of pitch where I come back to it every couple of months and just think “oh man, this is good.” I’m not usually a fan of my own work, but I love the idea of getting into fans of kids, you know? And it would be such a funny follow-up to the sex book that’s banned: my all-ages book.
CA: It is, without question, my favorite use of Vampirella in a comic.
CZ: I can’t believe they went for it!
CA: You can’t believe the people who published Vampirella let you do a comic where Vampirella was illiterate?
CZ: I know, but in the end, she learns to read, so it’s all right. I remember when Harris approached me to do some sort of crossover. I said “all right, here’s the pitch, I don’t expect you to go for it,” and they were like “no, do it.”
CA: One imagines that Harris Comics had a sense of humor about Vampirella. Congratulations on a pretty successful year.
CZ: I honestly did not think it would happen. It’s pretty weird. I’m used to being this weird guy right outside of comics, and I’ll do one weird thing once in a while and people will go “oh, ho ho ho, that’s good, but you can just go right back to where you came from.” But yeah, this… this is a whole different thing.