Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Chip Zdarsky is a ridiculous human being… and that’s probably why we love him. After all, this is a man who reached highs in comics by drawing a place called Cumworld. It’s easy to write off anything he does as nothing more than silly. I know that’s what I did months ago when I picked up the first issue of Kaptara. I never got a chance to really spend time with it… that’s sort of the bitch goddess that is comics. There’s too many of them and not enough you. So it went unread, until a few weeks ago.
On paper Kaptara is a Sci-Fi comic book about a traveler who gets stranded on an alien planet and must stop an evil warlord bent on coming to Earth to enslave everyone. The story’s main character is what makes this book matter and gives it a voice that actually says something series. Not something you’d consider from the guy who writes Howard the Duck. In Kaptara, Keith is a twenty something gay man who sees his being stranded on a world with no friends, family, or even acquaintances as a liberation. He’s the type of person who grew up so shunned by society that every word he speaks and action he takes is drenched in bitter resentment of those who’ve found love, success, a way to fit in.
Before my flight to PSX, I got to sit down and read this week’s KAPTARA Vol 1 (issues 1-5). While a flight from Long Beach to San Francisco is only a little over an hour; the good people at Jet Blue saw fit to give me more travel time by last minute delaying both the flight to and from SF. Kaptara ended up being a good comic. But it wasn’t until I was sitting at the gate waiting on my return flight home when I had an epiphany about what its seemingly odd lead was saying.
Isolation. Even in a world full of people.
Sure everyone feels it from time to time, but there’s something about the confinement of seeing the world around you and knowing you don’t fit in. Those still trying to figure out their sexuality, people living with the internal struggles of being transgender, even those who’ve received diagnoses about incurable disease. Maybe Keith isn’t the most extreme case but he represents a festering loneliness most writers won’t go to. It’s not a woe is me type of depression. This is the kind of isolation that makes someone feel as though you can only experience life by looking through a barred window that never opens, never quite catches the sun.
That’s the magic Kaptara has as a story. There’s other stories in comics, film, and games which feature gay and lesbian protagonist; most don’t face the feelings of disdain and bitterness someone who lived the life of an outcast can have. It’s something that hasn’t been done this well since the real mutant vs flatscan days of the X-Men. Will Keith overcome a lifetime of being an as**ole because he feels shunned to save the world he blames for his ineptitude? Can he allow himself to feel happiness or has be become so jaded that the concept can never register?
It was a privilege to talk to Chip Zdarsky about Kaptara; where he and the stellar Kagan McLeod are going with this story and what things from our childhood the pair will spoof next:
Comics Beat: Hey Chip, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Admittedly, I’d only had the chance to read the first issue of Kaptara at launch then only recently sat down with the first five and found it’s poignantly saying something important. The first thing about this story that stuck out to me was how long form it feels. Most of, if not all, the rest of your work has been pretty one-maybe-two-night stand. What’s the shift in storytelling form been like for you?
Chip Zdarsky: I love it! It’s nice to be able to map a thing out as if I’m a real writer. One thing I’ve learned from reading author interviews and working with Matt (Fraction (Punisher War Journal)), is to not be too beholden to the outline. So, we have a grand plan, but if opportunities open up for characters while working month to month, you need to follow that and re-draw your map a bit.
The most challenging part has been to take our main character and try to grow him. He obviously has a long way to go as we just finished the first five issues, but I love having the opportunity to have people explore and change. You can do that to a degree with Marvel work, but you can’t have a universe where everyone has recognized their flaws and overcome them when you need to keep publishing stories featuring those characters. With KAPTARA we have an endpoint in mind, so that’s freeing for character development.
CB: Can you tell me a bit about how this story came about?
CZ: It really started with Kagan and I working in a studio together in the early 2000s. There was a sketchbook that we, and our studiomates, would fill with outlandish characters and scenarios. Kagan was so great at coming up with them, and an amazing illustrator, that I knew if I ever had the chance to work with him on a book it would have to have few limits.
A couple of years ago I had an idea which sprang from the memories I had playing with toys as a kid. Like, even though I had some GI Joe and He-Man and Transformer toys, I played with them together, like they all existed in the same universe. I think most kids were like that! So I imagined a world where they all co-existed, each toy group getting their own distinct town or city. That was the starting point for KAPTARA. But Kagan and I wanted it to feel like a journey, like a Wizard of Oz through an alien planet of barbarians and robots, so that’s when we introduced the classic idea of a lost crew trying to get home to Earth.
Comics Beat: Kaptara has such a unique voice to its protagonist Keith. You’re jumping between projects writing for a smart-ass duck, an underachieving Hamburglar, and drawing millennial bank robbers having sex, to a gay space explorer who by all accounts is like an antithesis of Captain Kirk; where do you even find the time to do them all? How do you change mindsets to write for those books then go into Kaptara?
CZ: Yeah, the time crunch is … tricky. I try to make SEX CRIMINALS the first thing I do every day and then switch over to whichever writing project is most on fire from encroaching deadlines. It’s not healthy, but each project is too fun to pass up.
And changing mindsets is easy and welcome! It’s nice to be able to put a project aside and then clear your mind to work on something different. HOWARD and JUGHEAD are easier because those books are filled with defined characters, for the most part. You know how Jughead and Veronica sound. You know how Howard and Dr. Strange sound. With KAPTARA and SEX CRIMINALS, we’re creating new characters so you’re constantly adding new tics and history to them as you go.
CB: To touch a little more on Keith. Him being gay really plays to his motivations for being an outcast who’d sooner forget about Earth rather than return to a world where he feels shunned. As a writer where are the lines between something being genuinely diverse and something using diversity for diversity’s sake?
It’s what you do after you recognize diversity in your story. Everything about a character informs the writing and illustration process, and Keith’s sexuality definitely plays a part in KAPTARA. The genesis of making Keith specifically gay stemmed from a friend of mine wishing there were more examples in pop culture of gay romance building in a story instead of being used as a “surprise!” moment. That felt like a good idea for a bunch of reasons, so we’re especially going to be exploring that more in volume two.
CB: This year, Image Comics alone has just about flooded the market with space tales. In any medium that wouldn’t necessarily bode well for independent storytellers trying to say “me too” yet Kaptara has managed to find its own niche. In your eyes what sets it apart from other Sci-Fi tales on the shelves or on the screen?
Zdarsky: Wellllll, we pretty much bait-and-switched in issue one as the sci-fi adventure quickly turned into a cartoon fantasy with sci-fi elements. This is really a humour book that mixes up a few genres and if it took sci-fi to get us there, so be it. It’s … there’s nothing else on the shelf like us, from what I can see. I don’t know if that’s good for us or bad!
Comics Beat: From Flash Gordon, Smurfs, G.I Joe, to Lord of the Rings; Kaptara’s nods to fantasy and animation is fun to read and best of all it doesn’t apologize for taking jabs at the irreverent parts most never thought about as kids. What other things can readers expect you to satirize in Kaptara’s next arc?
CZ:The next arc has a BIG BATTLE, so expect us to poke fun at big, all-important battles in fantasy and superhero movies. Also, since Kagan introduced OVER 80 BRAND-NEW BAD GUYS at the end of the first arc, we’ll probably be spending a fair amount of time exploring them and poking fun in the process. It’s going to be pretty wild and epic.
CB:Artist Kagan McLeod has been great visually on the book. What makes him perfect for a story like this? Has there been anything done visually that didn’t make it into the series so far?
CZ: Kagan is the best. He’s so wildly creative, but it all ends up on the page. That’s the nice thing about this being set on a planet that we get to create as we go; the lack of restrictions. Nothing really gets thrown out when you create 80 BRAND-NEW BAD GUYS, y’know?
We’ve been friends since art school and he never ceases to amaze me. I feel like he’s Jack Davis crossed with John Buscema. So dynamic and effortlessly funny with his drawings. This was written for him and I can’t imagine anyone else illustrating it.
Comics Beat: I know you used to take the challenge of watching movies to see if they could make you break down in tears. Have you had the temptation to try and pen a story that us weep like a baby watching a puppy get deported? If so what would it be about?
Zdarsky: Well, Howard the Duck #2 from last week was probably my first real swing at a grade-A emotional story. My personal tear-triggers are children and pets in danger, so I suppose if I were to write such a story for KAPTARA it would involve a young cat-tank facing certain death.
Comics Beat: It would have to be pretty big for a cat-tank to face certain death.
Everyone who loves timeless animation fantasy and characters who push the limits of taboo should give this book a read when the KAPTARA Vol 1 trade hits stores this Wednesday 12/23/15.