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SDCC: Chip Zdarsky Talks Pranks, Copyright Infringement & the Magic of "Sex Criminals"

Over the last few years, Chip Zdarsky has gone from a mild-mannered reporter at the National Post to the Eisner Award-winning artist of "Sex Criminals."

And with his comics roster expanding to include high profile projects such as "Howard the Duck" and "Jughead," it's clear that the talented Canadian is becoming a national treasure. But in his whirlwind rise to fame, have fans truly gotten to know the man behind all that glamor? In his first ever Comic-Con International spotlight panel, Zdarsky opened up on his decade long comics career, his friendship with panel moderator Juliette Capra, and the curse of a certain variant cover.

Capra began the panel by sharing a charming photo of young Zdarsky -- aka Steve Murray -- in all of his mulleted glory while audience aww-ed and laughed in equal measure.

"I'm Canadian," he explained. "It was a very specific time, and it was very specific hair required by the whole community."

Capra asked Zdarsky to reflect -- did Steve Murray have any idea he would one day be the famous and popular Chip Zdarsky?

Of course he did. Zdarsky loved comics and collected them, coming up during the crazy '90s boom. He enjoyed drawing, but school quickly shattered the illusion that he could make any money with an art career. 

"I got a C-minus in art," he admitted. "But I got to go back to that high school and give a lecture in art with the same teacher I'd had." 
After high school, Zdarsky went to art school, where they attempted to drill his love of comics out of him. "It was all about illustration," he said. "If you showed up with comics in your portfolio, they told you to take it out immediately."

But the defiant young Zdarsky did no such thing -- in fact, once he left school he got right into comics. In spite of being new to most of the industry, and winning a Harvey Award in 2014 for Most Promising New Talent at the age of 38, he's actually been doing comics for thirteen years. What Zdarsky iactually s relatively new to is writing for different artists, such as "Howard the Duck" artist Joe Quinones. Capra asked him to speak on that experience.

"I'm able to take my feelings of anger at Matt [Fraction] and push that right onto other people," he said.

One artist in particular inspired mixed feelings in Zdarsky -- "Kaptara" collaborator Kagan McLeod.

"We went to the same school, and he was the star. They used his artwork for, like, five years after to promote the school," he said. Zdarsky described McLeod as Canada's top illustrator. "He's humble and smart. I hate him, too. This is a panel of realizations!"

McLeod was part of a studio Zdarsky formed to combat the stress of working at home. "Just kinda imagine a man working at home by himself all day," he challenged. The audience giggled as images of what sort of disturbing mischief could unfold. "So let's get a bunch of men to work alone all day!"

Another member of the studio was Cameron Stewart, who Zdarsky met on a dating site. He described being really into Internet dating and not into talking to people on the phone, so when he saw Stewart's art come up in the site's activity feed, he decided to reach out. "Wanna go for coffee, long walk on the beach, maybe get a studio?" he joked.

Zdarsky said that getting McLeod on "Kaptara" was a dream of his, and once "Sex Criminals" started doing well, he wanted to get McLeod back into comics. Capra noted that part of the appeal of McLeod's artwork is the inventive, crazy art in each issue, which includes cameos of Zdarsky himself. She mentioned that Zdarsky had a habit of putting his friends into comics, including "The Wicked + The Divine" team of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.

"And then there was that one time you put other people into your comic..." she led. Zdarsky looked at her in mock confusion, a grin already forming on his face.

Capra was, of course, referencing an inside joke known as "Brimpception" that forged her friendship with Zdarsky and Fraction. Capra alongside co-worker and fellow Valkyrie Heather Knight had an ongoing joke with the creators where they would pose holding an issue of "Sex Criminals" and send it to Zdarsky and Fraction who, in turn, would strike the same pose holding the photo of Capra and Knight.

It concluded when the creators decided that the best way to one up their friends was to put them on the cover of "Sex Criminals" #6. Zdarsky and Fraction printed about 120 copies of the issue and had them shipped directly to Fantastic Comics, where Capra and Knight work. Capra recalled opening the box and being blown away, but also realizing that whenever a future employer Googled her, her face would appear with the words "Sex Criminals" next to it.

"A lot of great things happened that year," Zdarsky said. "But that was the number one thing. Matt and I were so excited about it -- TV show, awards, whatever -- that was awesome. It represented the whole comic. It's us fucking around with people we love, and it's a fun joke. It cost too much money because we're idiots, but it was so fun."

Unfortunately, not everyone was as supportive of the loving gesture. Diamond Comics Distributors accidentally sent the special variant to a few other shops, and retailers refused to return them. "When one shows up on eBay, it drives me nuts," Zdarsky said. He had the auctions pulled, reporting the comics -- which were driven up to nearly $600 in bids -- as stolen.
Capra shared that she and Knight hadn't sold any of the issues, instead giving them to close friends and members of their women's book club.

Zdarsky commented to Capra, "It was like a weird sociological test on you guys. What are they gonna do? Are they gonna be really smart about these financially? No, no! They gave them to friends!"

But the spirit of the entire joke, including Capra and Knight's response, truly represented the community build around "Sex Criminals." From issue #2, fans were so immediately connected to the characters and their story that they began sending in very personal letters to the creators. How did Zdarsky feel about the immediate relationships readers had with the series?

He loved it. The letters column is Zdasrky's favorite part of the production cycle, specifically after he's finished all of the art and Fraction sends him the letters to be included. "Seeing the letters means it's actually a 'Sex Criminals' issue," he said.

Another personal relationship in Zdarsky's comics career is one he has to the titular character of a new series he will be writing, following the adventures of Archie's beloved sidekick, "Jughead."

Zdasrky noted his similarities to the character -- "Girls are icky, I like burgers."

Jughead was a character he'd always been fond of, and when Mark Waid and Fiona Staples' "Archie" was announced, Zdarsky reached out to ask about doing a variant cover. After a little back and forth, including speaking with Archie President Mike Pellerito, Zdarsky was thrilled to discover that he wasn't just signing on to do a variant -- he was the new writer on "Jughead."

He plans to stick closely to the tone Waid and Staples are establishing in "Archie," but will add more fantastical elements to "Jughead." And with Zdarsky working all over the board between licensed and creator-owned work, consistency and freedom are things he's learning to balance. Although he loves the range to work on a variety of projects and the freedom that he's found in them, he's recently learned that there are some crazy ideas that just don't work out.

For example, Zdarsky and Fraction wanted to do something fun for "Sex Criminals" #11. Their first idea, putting $1,000 into a random issue, turned out to be a bust. "You know what's illegal? Doing exactly that. There are all sorts of state laws against it," he said, laughing.

Instead, the pair decided to hand draw 1,000 covers, seal the bags and mix them up with the standard covers. Zdarsky and Fraction flew to the printer's and, fueled by Krispy Kreme and Skype chats with their families, spent thirteen hours creating the little masterpieces. The creators worked in mixed media format, using everything from pens to stickers. Zdarsky recalled one cover, featuring Spider-Man's head with star stickers covering his eyes and the word "entourage" coming from behind him. Another one showed Batman pooping on Commissioner Gordon's chest. "This is art, right?" he asked.

Sadly, fans will never call the twisted variants their own. When Zdarsky got home, after thirty five hours of sleeplessness, he was greeted with emails from their publisher asking what the heck he and Fraction had been thinking, using Batman and Spider-Man on Image books.

"Four lawyers later, we couldn't get Image's lawyer to budge," he said. "What if we draw a top hat on Batman and cover his ears?" he asked, hopeful to save their work. But the answer remained no -- he and Fraction would have to re-do all of the covers.

"There's no way we could do that again without dying," Zdarsky said. Instead, 500 blank issues were shipped to Fraction and 500 to Zdarsky, and they each worked from their respective homes, pausing to show one another their progress. "I showed Matt all of my ball drawings and he showed me all of his dick drawings," he explained.

And the curse of "Sex Criminals" #11 hasn't ended yet. "I got an email yesterday from the printer. The machine that does the polybagging broke. It's going to be another week late. I just wrote back 'HAHAHAHAHAHA' and Matt wrote 'Why does God hate our cum angel?' Spoiler -- there's a cum angel in the issue."

Still, Zdarsky hopes things will go off without a hitch for the new release date. "Unless Diamond fucks up," he added. "I'm just throwing that out there."

Capra turned to the audience for questions, and a line quickly formed down the center aisle, including a surprise appearance from Mark Waid.

Waid approached the mic. "I would like to know who your favorite member of the Justice Society of America is," he asked, as Zdarsky narrowed his eyes playfully. 
"Which is the one -- Terrific Midnight?" Zdarsky began, seemingly flustered at the question. "He's got 'fair play' written on his arms, which I don't understand at all... I don't know. Does it have Superman -- no? Ugh, it's Superman!" 

"Thank you, Mr. Zdarsky," Waid smiled.

"This last couple of years has been a little crazy," Zdarsky admitted. "I never thought I'd be in the position where Mark Waid would be asking me questions at a panel. Everything he's touched has been gold. 'Archie' is spectacular, and I love you, Mark Waid!"

Were there any other characters Zdarsky would like to write?

"I'd love to steal whatever book Mark is writing right now," he said. Additionally, he'd love to work on "Fantastic Four" and a treatment of Spider-Man built through jokes in "Howard the Duck" featuring the web-slinger sadly mourning his Uncle Ben called "The Inconsolable Spider-Man."

The next fan noted the ongoing joke of Fraction routinely and intentionally misspelling Zdarsky's name in "Sex Criminals."

"That originally stemmed from the fact that Matt is an asshole," he joked. The prank began in issue #2 but has presented Zdarsky with some real complications. "I was invited to this comics festival in the Philippines and they wanted to bring me out, but asked if I'd done anything since I was fired from "Sex Criminals." As far as the Internet is concerned, I stopped working on "Sex Criminals" as of issue #2."

Was there anything he ever regretted putting in "Sex Criminals"?

Just the 1,000 issues of Batman defiling Commissioner Gordon, mostly.

As the panel closed, Zdarsky hugged Capra, thanking her for being there. With equally sincere enthusiasm, he turned toward waiting fans, happy to sign autographs and take horrible photos until SDCC employees asked that the panelists move outside. Beyond his talent as an artist, it's clear that so much of Zdarsky's popularity comes from his natural ability to connect with readers in a genuine, hilarious and inclusive way. Some creators have earned fans, but Zdarsky has built a community and watching it thrive is truly inspiring.

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