[The most unlikely comeback of 2014 may just have been Howard the Duck’s cameo at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. A cult character who first appeared in a 1973 issue of Man Thing, he went on to become one of Steve Gerber’s most memorable creations, fricasséeing the Marvel Universe and contemporary culture. A 1986 film produced by George Lucas became a legendary bomb however, and a successful lawsuit by Disney over copyright infringement led to Howard permanently donning pants and getting a facial makeover. (Howard was also the center of various ownership battles over the years between Gerber and Marvel.) Since then he’s popped up here and there in the Marvel U, sort of a migrating duck of offbeat humor. After his surprise Guardians appearance, and given the more wide ranging of Marvel’s universe both on pwper and on the screen, a new ongoing series seemed right. And Marvel found just the man for the job. Torontonian humorist Chip Zdarsky, the pen name of Steve Murray, is a local legend for various stunts including running for mayor, befriending Applebee’s making hilarious infographics for the National Post. But it’s as collaborator with writer Matt Fraction on Sex Criminals, Time’s 2013 Comic of the Year, and one of Image’s best selling books, that he’s become a true social media phenom. With his finely honed, self-deprecating humor and discerning eye for a social trope, Zdarsky seems the perfect person to give the oft-misunderstood mallard another go round.
Howard the Duck #1, drawn by Joe Quinones and colored by Rico Renzi, is on sale today.]
Zdarsky: It happened quickly yet slowly. I started doing cover work for Marvel after Sex Criminals started doing well. I’ve been dealing with exclusively with Wil [Moss, editor of the project] and I did a 2 page story for him for Original Sins, a gag strip. He emailed me and said “Hey I have a feeling Howard is on the up and up, do you have any ideas for a Howard series?” and so I pitched my ideas and he liked them and we talked about it and batted around these artists and then got Joe [Quinones]. And during the whole process I didn’t even I think I had the job because I hate myself and I don’t believe anything good can happen [laughter]. I even did covers and wrote a script and I didn’t even think I had the job. I think mostly because I heard stories mostly, DC things where people were going all out on projects and then finding out somebody is doing the same project.
MacDonald: That guy in the building across the way also working on this series!
Zdarsky: Yeah exactly! Until the day that they announced it…I didn’t actually let it sink in that I would be working with Howard The Duck. I was a fan as a kid…a fan of the movie—because I was a child! But then I had this weird Uncle Fred who collected Howard and old Vampirella magazines, Robert Crumb stuff. He was kind of an underground comics guy. Howard was my favorite of those and whenever I would go over, I devoured them. It was funny, two years ago when I was working on the Vampirella project, he bequeathed me his Vampirella magazines and also his Howard the Duck black and white magazines as well, which I loved. So as soon as I got email from Wil… I cycled through the old issues, the old magazine and it was amazing. I love Howard.
MacDonald: Right, well its funny because I think I tweeted about [you having the right mind set for Howard], but what you’ve said in this interview makes you the perfect writer for it! “I hate myself and I don’t believe anything good can happen.” [laughs] Do you think being a ‘pessimist about success’, is a good attitude to have for writing Howard the Duck?
Zdarsky: I think it’s a good attitude to have for writing corporate comics because it is a job that you can be fired off pretty quickly. Whenever I explain how comics work to people who are not familiar with the comics industry, they’re like, so wait you have a job? But they can like firing you at any moment? And they do routinely? Yeah, that’s how it works in comics and then you try and get another job and it lasts for a year and you get fired and have to find another job. It’s all freelance no matter what unless you’re Brian Michael Bendis I guess or Geoff Johns. So with Howard specifically you’ve got to be a bit of a pessimist I think. Steve Gerber would go on some pretty good tears in the original run. I don’t think I have necessarily quite that world view but yeah, I predict things never going well for me, so that probably helps. So I won’t be disappointed if they fire me after 4 issues, like okay that’s 4 more than I thought I’d ever do.
MacDonald: I’m old so I read the Howard comics as a kid and they blew my mind because I was the perfect age for these comics, let’s put it that way. I haven’t really tried to read them since, so I don’t know how they hold up but this bits I’ve revisited show that Gerber is a very good writer, his technique was incredible. The character started as an absurd thing but was surprisingly well rounded. The original Howard run was about was very much the post Vietnam malaise in America, Howard ran for president in a post Watergate world. I think it was pretty universal but it was also very much the time. Do you change your thinking about the character? What is it… I saw on one of the covers instead of saying ‘Trapped in a World He Never Made’, it says something different.
Zdarsky: “Trapped In a World He’s Grown Accustomed To”.
MacDonald: Right. I loved that. Is that what’s propelling that forward now, is he complacent, what are his demons now?
Zdarsky: Well, a lot of people were asking me if I was going to bring Beverly [Switzler, Howard’s girlfriend] back because she wasn’t in any of the preview stuff. I’ve removed her and kind of made that a bit of mystery because my idea is that Howard has actually been here for a while. So once you’ve accepted that you’re part of this world, you have to find your place in it. He always had a loneliness even when he was with Beverly throughout the original run, but I feel like at this point he wouldn’t necessarily have that. I removed Beverly because it recreates the loneliness aspect of it. It’s so weird to think about Howard the Duck and talk about Howard the Duck! I’m still not quite used to it. [MacDonald laughs.] I’m overseeing a duck! Even the comic themselves have changed a lot and but it was always satirizing popular culture Kung fu movies of the time or ‘Star Wars’…
MacDonald: The Blanderizer, that was one of my favorites.
Zdarsky: [Laughs] Exactly!
MacDonald: Doctor Bong, the Kidney Lady.
Zdarsky: Yeah… and so popular culture now is Marvel, they’re the dominant force. I’ve got this opportunity to have him within the Marvel universe playing around with that world in which he’s no longer the odd duck, so to speak. I put him in New York and I’ve got all these super heroes and stuff flying around. In New York he’s not so much of an anomaly anymore. People aren’t whispering or yelling “Oh my god there’s a duck who talks!” as much as they used to. That’s also why I gave him a job as a private investigator. I felt like I needed him to try and figure out what he wants to do here at least at the beginning. We want to go weird and strange places because of the Howard tradition.
Zdarsky: Especially at the beginning. There are a couple of reasons for that, one is that I want to show him in that universe, I want to firmly plant him in there because the cases he’s going to work on are going to involve a lot of these characters. It’s also because I still have that thing where I still think I’ll be fired [MacDonald laughs] and this is my one chance to write Spider-Man’s dialogue, so I’ll totally shoe horn that into issue one. And in every issue it’s, hey, can I use this character? And Marvel has to check with different offices—they must hate me by now because I’m trying to use everyone, because it could end at any moment.
MacDonald: Is there Woodgod? That’s the one everybody is going to want to know. [General laughter]
Zdarsky: So far I haven’t put in that request. I have a feeling that if I put in that request there would be no issue.
MacDonald: I don’t know, I’m telling you, listen Wood God, man. Or maybe The Vulture, you know, a lonely old man…Anyway enough from me. Who is Howard? What kind of guy is he?
Zdarsky: Obviously by appearance, he’s the anomaly, he’s trapped in the world he never made, but he’s actually the most relatable character that Marvel has. He doesn’t have any powers or anything, he’s just like an average guy who cuts through bullshit… and especially now throwing him in with all these other Marvel characters, you can have that personality shine through by calling people on their weird shit. One of the preview pages that they put out was with Spider-Man, a nod to [the original] issue #1, just to get it started off. But its also Spider-Man, you’re a weird fetish spider and you’ve got this weird fetish cat, like go kiss some criminals! People should probably call Spider-Man on that stuff. It’s great to have Howard be that character.
MacDonald: Let’s talk about writing a little bit. This is the first comic that you’ve just written?
Zdarsky: I was writing it simultaneously with my new series for Image, Kaptara with Kagan McLeod, but otherwise, yeah its the first time I’ve written something where someone else has drawn it.
MacDonald: And also your first sustained work for the Big Two?
Zdarsky: Yeah. I did that two pager for Marvel but that’s it and it’s unbelievable. Working with Matt [Fraction] on Sex Criminals was also my first time working with a writer. I was always a little jealous of Matt having the ability to write a sentence and then I would spend like a day trying to bring a sentence to life, Working with Joe on Howard, I said it before and it sounds really cheesy but it’s like an honor, in a way, to have somebody draw your words. Whenever I get the pencils and inks and colors back I’m just wow, people are doing things because I wrote a few words. It’s a strange responsibility. I’ve never had that feeling before and I’m also apologizing in the script…
MacDonald: For making them draw things?
Zdarsky: Yeah, if I said something like a giant outer space theme park, you know there’s a note to Joe apologizing, because I know what that means because I’m doing it on Sex Criminals.
MacDonald: But you’re lucky, Joe is such an amazing artist, he’s great.
Zdarsky: He’s unbelievable. But the only downside is that when they get the pages back, they’re different from what I envisioned but they’re better and then it makes me realize I’m not that good of an artist. [MacDonald laughs] I’m like, oh wow! When I got the job doing Howard, Wil Moss asked me to do some Howard redesign sketches. I sent them to Wil and he liked them. But then he brought Joe onboard and got Joe to do the same thing. Mine just look like hot garbage compared to Joe’s, so I’m glad he’s on the book.
MacDonald: Right, he’s a very inspired choice. You have a monkey in these preview pages. Is this an all animal book?
Zdarsky: It was like one of the only notes I got from higher up at Marvel, let’s not make this the anthropomorphized book. That’s Hei Hei, She Hulk’s monkey from Charles Soule’s She Hulk run. That’s such a good book and that’s part of the fun. I’ve set this book in She Hulk’s building—Charles approved all of that and he put Howard in a cameo in the last issue of She Hulk. It adds a weird little thrill to see creators pick up on things you’re doing and kind of going back and forth. You don’t really get that with Sex Criminals aside from making fun of The Wicked and The Divine.
MacDonald: Well let’s talk a little bit about that. Are there any adjustments you have to make? You’re also doing an Image book with Kagan, are there mental adjustments you have to make for working in somebody else’s sandbox here, the Marvel Universe home of the world’s most recognized book characters?
Zdarsky: In a lot of ways its easier because the characters are defined for you, they have the voice of Howard or the voice of Spider-man. If you’ve read those comics over the years and you’re observant enough, you can kind of pick up those voices. With Sex Criminals and Kaptara, you’re generating it and so you have to maintain a consistency with something you’ve just created, which is sometimes a little tricky. The process is so different with Image. Matt and I basically work on that book together, and its just us and so when we have a friend proofread it and we upload it to Image and then they upload it to the printer the next day, they don’t see the script, they don’t see the pencils, there’s no stages for that book, its just us back and forth. With Marvel, even the two page strip I did, there are four editors cc’d on the emails and everybody is safeguarding the characters and making sure tone and characters are consistent. Which only make sense, but you always have to have that in your mind when you’re writing these things now.
MacDonald: On the other hand I guess its like you have more of a safety net in a way too, like you have more people checking to make sure you didn’t screw up.
Zdarsky: I receive pretty much uniformly fantastic notes and that’s not kissing ass at editors, there are things that slipping through the cracks at my end partly because I’m not that familiar with the continuity of the characters, partly because maybe I’m overworked, but yeah the editors have been fantastic. Wil spotting plot issues and [Marvel executive editor] Tom Brevoort is like an encyclopedia of Marvel, you know, they’re good people to have in your corner.
MacDonald: Well, we’re big fans of Wil Moss at Stately Beat Manor. I don’t want to stray too far into your Image work, perhaps that would be another interview at some point but I mean, Sex Criminals—good lord, this book has become a phenomenon, is that safe to say?
Zdarsky: Yeah… I don’t like labeling it, but it’s made convention experiences a totally new thing.
MacDonald: Chip, I think we first met 15 years ago, 14 years ago back in the Warren Ellis Forum which is scary. You’re one of a number of creators coming out of that scene so to speak, Kelly Sue [DeConnick] was there…
Zdarsky: Kieron [Gillen].
MacDonald: Matt Fraction, Jamie McKelvie, Andy Khouri, now an editor at DC, Bryan Lee O’Malley was on there, Alex DeCampi, Brian Wood…
Zdarsky: That guy, what’s his name Warren Ellis?
MacDonald: It’s just pretty insane how many people were on there. You’ve always been known as this incredibly funny guy or the guy with the great gimmick like running for mayor or something. And now you’ve put all that to use on social media to [promote your creator-owned comics.] I think you said at New York Comic Con you guys had a meet up and people couldn’t get into the bar, there were so many people standing outside…
Zdarsky: Yeah. It’s nuts. I was giving a talk to a book festival exclusively for publishers and a lot of people were asking about social media. Like, should they get their authors to all do social media and I said “NO!” You do it because you like it. If you like telling jokes and talking to people, great. But people can smell someone selling something a mile away. Authors with a Twitter account where there’s no activity and all of a sudden it’s [Author voice] “oh what a great day to sit down and “#write.” The next tweet is an Amazon link! I just have fun. There’s no point where I’m just promoting something. It’s how I had my career at the newspaper and its how the comics thing is turning out; just doing things that I want to do.
MacDonald: Did you sense a change? You have always been very active on social media but was there a change in how people interact with you after Sex Criminals became such a hit?
Zdarsky: Twitter is kind of the same because you follow the same people. People will respond to you. With the Howard thing I’m getting a lot of people saying “Hey I’m an old Howard fan, don’t fuck this up!” Everyone has their ideas of how a character should be and I know that’s going to change a lot after next week for me. Facebook is funny because my parents are on there and they’re lovable and they like to interact with me… and so its kind of strange now to have my mom making some sort of comment about my work and then two comments later someone trying to make a cum joke to me. My parents are fantastic and all my friends are fantastic and they all kind of roll with it but at some point… I actually had a nightmare last night. I just talked to Matt on the phone [about] this nightmare where I was at home and my girlfriend was coming in through the front door and she smiled at me and I said a joke and then somebody, a guy in a hooded sweatshirt came up behind her and started to attack her. My instinct was to run and save her no matter what. And then something clicked, oh no this person is not malicious, he’s just slow or stupid and I had to get him off her without really harming him. And so I did. I grabbed him and then woke up and then I just lay there and was like, oh my God I just had a dream about the internet! [laughter] Really I just had a nightmare of people on Facebook, interacting with people that I love and maybe inadvertently harming them but they don’t know any better.
MacDonald: I think you should put that dream in Howard the Duck.
Zdarsky: [laughs] I think maybe I am turning into Steve Gerber! There was that issue where it was almost all text and he just kind of talked about everything. Maybe I’ll hit that stage. I had therapy this morning, so perfect timing.
MacDonald: This is a question though I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot. Chip, do you wish that Howard didn’t wear any pants?
Zdarsky: [laughs] I don’t care at all! Originally he was clearly a parody of Donald Duck but he’s moved so far past that, you could put him in a gorilla suit and its fine. Its especially funny now that Disney owns Marvel. All the legal injunctions—that’s the first thing that happened after I said yes to this, I got all the original documents where they lay out how Howard has to look to be differentiated from Donald. It’s a fascinating glimpse into comics history. But…honestly I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about pants or no pants on ducks.
MacDonald: Oh Chip, you’ve really changed.
Zdarsky: I know, I really have! I’m so busy now, I can’t think about these ducks and their pants!
MacDonald: Okay on twitter this morning Kelly Sue inspired me to start asking some new questions [in a multi tweet comment, De Connick listed all the questions that men never get asked but women are asked over and over and over], and you’re the first person I’ve interviewed since then, so you’re going to be the guinea pig. What is it like to be a man in comics?
Zdarsky: [laughs] Oh my god! It’s fantastic! Its just fantastic. I loved her rant, it was amazing. But yeah, I wake up every morning and I’m just I feel blessed, I’m a white man living in a Canadian city, I’ve got a beard…
MacDonald: Chip, how do you balance work and family?
Zdarsky: [laughs] I’m very lucky in the sense that my girlfriend is also busy with her job, so we have the same hours. I wake up from anxiety every day and I start working at 8 and then I work until 11 o’clock at night and that’s usually when my girlfriend stops working and so we meet up at 11 o’clock when midnight strikes and we talk about our days and we go to sleep and have our nightmares about the internet. It’s great!
MacDonald: Wow, you know what, you’re living the dream. Literally you’re living a dream.
Zdarsky: When I quit my newspaper job—I did Sex Criminals for almost a year while doing my newspaper job full time which was crazy and dumb.
MacDonald: Just so anyone reading this knows, you did regular comics for the National Post, the big daily paper in Toronto?
Zdarsky: My job title there was graphic columnist, which I made up because I needed one and I wrote articles, I did reporting, I did columns, I drew, I did cartoons, videos. I was kind of a jack of all trades. It was the best job I could’ve hoped for but I just hit this point where I had to focus on something, so I had to quit that job. But I forgot what a freelancer brain is like, where you’re terrified of turning anything down because it will never be offered again. So I had this weird bit for a month or two where I was saying yes to everything and then thought, oh my god. I physically can’t do it. So I know I’m leaving that phase now. I’ve got all these regular jobs, but I’m not accepting too many cover gigs anymore.
MacDonald: You know many of the top writers, a lot of them used to be cartoonists, like Brian Bendis and Brubaker and…
Zdarsky: Seth, isn’t he at Marvel now?
MacDonald: Do you like writing now? You’re just getting into it, but writing, drawing or both, what’s…?
Zdarsky: I’ll always draw something but I can only draw one book a month. I can write two at least, I recognize at some point during the course of Sex Criminals, that Matt doesn’t necessarily have the easier job but he definitely has the job where the time restrictions are easier and I want to give it a shot. With the Kaptara book I want to get Kagan drawing comics again. He’s an insanely successful illustrator here but Infinite Kung Fu came out years ago and I just wanted to show people his work, he’s so good.
MacDonald: He is, he’s amazing. I didn’t realize that Infinite Kung Fu came out that long ago. I think we made it one of our books for the year [at Publishers weekly] actually. They say the way to success is surround yourself with the best, so good move! Just to wrap this up on a Howard note, in the first issue, we set up “Howard the Private Eye” and meeting Spidey and so on but anything else you can say about ongoing storylines that you can tantalize us with?
Zdarsky: All I can say is I feel like I’m luring people into a conventional comic book story and then I’m going to hit them with the weird stuff. I keep sending these emails to my editor saying you know, this is coming up and this is what this means and then I go ohhhhhhhhh boy. I figure if I make it past issue 5 and people stop paying attention, I can do very weird stuff.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.