C2E2: Zdarsky, Young & Browne Are Image Comics' Funny Guys

Friday at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo [C2E2] closed with an early evening panel dedicated to Image Comics' current slate of comedy-focused titles and witty creators. In attendance were Ryan Browne (writer/artist, "God Hates Astronauts"), Skottie Young (writer/artist, "I Hate Fairyland") and Chip Zdarsky (artist, "Sex Criminals"). Image's David Brothers served as moderator for the comedic conference, which kicked off with an appropriate and impromptu grind dance between Zdarsky and Young, which got the crowd pumped up for the proceedings.

Only two of the three panelists -- Young and Zdarsky -- were present when the panel started. "It was sort of a 'Lord of the Rings'-ian journey to find the panel room," Young said, commenting on the labyrinthine nature of the convention center. Fortunately, the first book up for discussion was Young's "I Hate Fairyland," which debuts at Image later this year. The series is a pastiche of young adult fairytales where kids go on mystical journeys and return to their normal life, usually having learned a lesson.

"Usually, those adventures last a couple of days and they've learned a valuable lesson," Young explained. "But Gert, she's not really good at quests, so she finds her way to fairyland and she is stuck there for thirty some years because she can't find that fucking key. On the outside she looks 8, but she is 40 on the inside, and has eaten sugar all her life. She just wants to go the fuck home."

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Asked if he gave thought to using curse words in the book, Young said no. "Ultimately, it's funnier if I make up my own curse words," though the original title was "Fuck Fairyland." Brothers did mention that that title might have flown at Image, considering that they publish both "Bitch Planet" and "Southern Bastards."

Next up was Zdarsky's newly launched "Kaptara," a series written by the "Sex Criminals" artist. "Skottie's book deals with nostalgia for the tales of fairylands," Zdarsky said. "Mine is a little more macho. It's nostalgia for He-Man figures, and their rippling muscles."

"Adam was super was macho!" Young said sarcastically, referencing He-Man's alter ego and his knack for rocking pastel colored duds.

At this moment, Ryan Browne arrived. "Sorry I'm late," Browne said. "I screw up all the time." But Browne did show up just in time to talk about his book "God Hates Astronauts." When asked what the book is about, Browne said it's about "jokes and humor. There's some violence. If you like Image books, it's an Image book. It's a comic book -- a book with lines and words and colors."

"I will pay one million dollars for this movie idea!" Zdarsky said, pointing at Browne.

"It's a superhero parody, sort of, but it's more of a parody of 'Die Hard' and 'Robocop' with a hint of 'Family Matters,'" Browne continued. "'Family Matters' as if it was written by the Coen brothers -- and dumb it down a few steps, and that's what it is.'"

Backing up a bit, Young made sure to point out "Kaptara" artist Kagan McLeod, whose art excited Young enough to cause him to sensually touch his nipples. Zsarsky complimented McLeod's ability to draw rippling muscles.

Brothers started into the general discussion about comedy, noting that Zdarsky doesn't "punch down" with his jokes. "I worked at a newspaper for 14 years, and I would do joke stories and cartoons. I realized that the safest way to tell the joke is to make me the butt of the joke," explained Zdarsky. "If I made fun of seniors, I would get a million angry emails from seniors saying that they can write emails. I learned pretty early what the lines were. There's nothing funny to me about punching down. I'm a garbage human, so almost everything is punching up for me."

"It's weird when you think about writing comedy, because I don't think about that while I'm doing it," Young said. "I don't think, 'I'm going to be funny.' I grew up reading 'MAD Magazine' and 'Calvin and Hobbes' and 'Far Side,' so that's what storytelling was -- the brevity and quick, one image."

"It's really tough to make a statement that you are funny, because that puts a lot of pressure on you," added Browne. "I learned early on that if I made the comic I want to read, I started getting confidence of people getting the humor. Then I just decided to be a really self-serving human being and make myself laugh the entire time, and hope that other people have the same sense of humor I do." Browne noted that "God Hates Astronauts" is effortless because of this, which earned gasps from his panel mates. Young compared Browne to Michael Jordan due to Browne's effortless humor.

"I'm only comfortable doing this because I set all the rules for myself, and the rules are there are no rules," Browne said. "The rules are based off me making myself laugh."

Zdarsky discussed working within parameters, saying that it's easier for him to work on Marvel's "Howard the Duck" because there are rules set in place for him to subvert. "'Kaptara' is so open-ended, that freezes me a little bit more... With 'Sex Criminals,' my audience is Matt, and his audience is me."

The audience question portion began with a question about whether anyone on the panel has done standup or improv. Zdarsky said that he's wanted to do a stand up bit where he bombs on stage and his girlfriend tells him from the crowd that he can do it. "She starts crying, and I'm just pissing myself." Zdarsky insisted that he's "usually pretty bad in front of people," before launching into an impromptu standup routine, "You ever notice, where do those socks go?" He noted that convention panels are a great place to perform since the audience is usually already on their side, unlike people at comedy clubs who pay ten dollars for a beer and dare the comedian to make them laugh.

Brothers admitted that he's tried doing open mics, calling the experience fun but harrowing. "I want to do stand up with a buddy," Zdarsky said, offering to do a routine with Young.

A question came up about their fallback gags, and Young said, "When all else fails, just do an absurd sound effect."

"I just try to push it to the page break," Browne said. "The page flip is the comedian artist's best friend. If you can build up tension to that story, you can completely flip what's happening on the next page. When I get stuck, really, I just draw violence, or an animal, or an animal committing an act of violence."

"My go to is sadness," Zdarsky said.

"Seriousness in a silly situation is always funny," commented Browne.

An audience member asked Zdarsky when he pulls back on visual gags. Young turned to Zdarsky and paraphrased the question: "Can you stop doing all this shit?!"
"I knew this shot of the porn store [in 'Sex Criminals'] was the first shot of that location," explained Zdarsky. "There were 74 jokes in one panel. I'm not even joking. All that stems from my guilt. I have internal Canadian guilt over someone paying $3.50 for something I've done. The key to holding back is time, but also what's happening in the scene. If there's a scene with characters talking about their feelings, I'm not going to put a fuck joke in the background. I'm not a monster." Zdarsky noted that word balloons eventually cover up a lot of jokes, so sometimes they're only for himself and Fraction.

Asked if they've ever gone too far, Browne said there are moments where he thought he had. "I just went with it anyways, and those are usually the moments people point out as being their favorites. So once again, I just do whatever I want to do, and hope it continues to hit. I keep my humor in this certain level where nothing is really nasty."

The panel then was asked about the best sex tips they ever gave, to which Zdarsky responded, "Mine... the tip of my penis," causing the panel to break down in laughter.

Zdarsky then addressed which comes first: plot or jokes. "I'll come up with the basic beats first and then ask what crazy things will come from this, and then string jokes together."

"I'm very visual in nature," Browne said. "I'm not convinced I know how to read, which is a problem as a writer. I find something that makes me laugh -- a scenario or pun of a name of a character -- and then I figure out who that character could be. There are no scripts for my book. I make a loose outline and then I draw each page, and change what's happening based on what I think is funny." Browne noted this process has led to him throwing away completed pages because he changed his mind about jokes. "I don't work in an efficient way, is what I'm trying to say."

Brothers asked if the panel ever reuses jokes. "I only have one joke," Browne said. "Someone gets hit, and a funny sound effect."

"People repeat jokes [in real life]," Young said. "You have to catch yourself. That's where the second draft comes in, to make sure you're not repeating yourself."

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