A number of years ago, the writer and comic-book artist known as Chip Zdarsky posted something called "My Marvel Idea Journal" on his website. Inside this black Moleskine notebook he recorded his off-kilter, slightly demented, and often inappropriate vision of a comic-book universe where Spider-Man abandons crime-fighting to pursue a career in adult films, "Doctor" Doom heads back to university to obtain a real doctorate and the Punisher makes love to his firearm. The material was bawdy and immature, yet, frankly, hilarious. Rereading it years later, it is also clearly the work of someone who never, ever, ever imagined he'd work for the largest and most prestigious comic-book publisher in the English-speaking world.
"There's no way I thought that would happen," says the man behind Chip Zdarsky's nom de plume, Steve Murray, sitting in a Toronto coffee shop earlier this week. He (briefly) feared posting the journal might prevent future employment with Marvel, but, he adds, "This was too funny not to do it."
He did it, and it happened.
Last Friday, Marvel announced that Murray had inked a deal to resurrect Howard the Duck, the much-maligned mallard last seen sipping a martini in a postcredit sequence in the summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy. The first issue, illustrated by Joe Quinones, will be published next March. The news caps off a spectacularly successful year for Murray, who has emerged as one of Canada's funniest – and weirdest – voices thanks to the combination of Sex Criminals (his breakout New York Times bestselling comic series), his irreverent and frequently profane Twitter persona, and an atypical résumé that includes a stint as an intentionally bad advice columnist, a requited Facebook love affair with Applebee's and a quixotic Toronto mayoral campaign. But Howard the Duck presents an entirely new challenge: Can Murray add punch to a character who's become a punchline?
"Somebody gave me the weirdest back-handed compliment," says Murray. "'If there's one person I know that sums up Howard the Duck in real life, it's Chip Zdarsky.' Wait a second – Howard's an angry, lonely duck. That's a horrible thing to say about a person!"
Murray has been reading Howard, a cigar-chomping, wisecracking bird who made his first comics appearance in 1973 and was given his own series in 1976, since he was young. "Howard the Duck – that was my weird Uncle Fred's comic when I was a kid," says Murray. "I'd go over to his house and he'd have all the issues. … When I got older he bequeathed them to me." He even has a soft spot for the 1986 George Lucas-produced big-screen adaptation that is generally regarded as one of the worst films of the decade. (In his review, the late film critic Gene Siskel asked, "Who was this stupid film made for?") So, in a bizarre way, it makes total sense that, earlier this summer, Murray was asked if he had any ideas for Howard the Duck, who hasn't starred in a comic since 2007.
"I knew Chip could nail the humour aspect, but there's more to the series and character than just being funny," writes Wil Moss, his editor at Marvel, in an e-mail. "A good Howard the Duck series needs to be about an everyman (or everyduck in this case) who can provide kind of a running commentary about the craziness of the modern world as he tumbles through the craziness of the Marvel Universe. I had a feeling Chip might be able to deliver on that."
Born in Edmonton and raised in Barrie, Ont., the 38-year-old Murray spent more than a decade as a cartoonist, columnist and all-around mascot for the National Post while working on his early, self-published comics Prison Funnies and Monster Cops. (Full disclosure: I was Murray's colleague for 7 1/2 years, and my face makes a blink-or-you'll-miss-it appearance in the second issue of Sex Criminals.) He adopted his nom-de-guerre in 2000, borrowing the name "Zdarsky" from a friend's ex-girlfriend and choosing "Chip" as a nod to Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts. For years the two personalities remained separate, with Murray, like a superhero shielding his true identity, hiding the fact one was the other. "I wanted to have a sad-sack cartoonist persona that lives in his mom's basement, paints figurines for money, has restraining orders against him. And that became a character." He describes the character as "an idiot who doesn't know what I'm doing. I've had no success in my life. No matter what, I'm going to mess things up."
The punchline is that as his anti-hero persona, Murray is enjoying more success than at any other point in his career. Sex Criminals, co-created with the writer Matt Fraction, has become a genuine comics phenomenon since launching just 15 months ago at a Toronto sex club. Chronicling the misadventures of a pair of twentysomethings who turn to a life of crime after discovering they can stop time when they orgasm, it was named Time Magazine's best comic of 2013, and earned the pair an Eisner Award – the comics equivalent to an Oscar – for best new series. A movie or TV deal seems like a sure-thing ("There are definitely announcements coming, but I can't really say anything," he says), and Just the Tips, an incredibly filthy and incredibly funny sex guide that grew out of the comic, arrives in stores next week. (The original printer was so disgusted by its content that it refused to produce the book. Sex Criminals was banned by Apple, as well, resulting in an avalanche of media attention.)
"The thing that we thought would work against us worked for us, which is that there's nothing else quite like it out there," says Murray, who's also working on a new sci-fi/fantasy series with Toronto illustrator Kagan McLeod that will debut in April. "We're just doing a weird sex comedy with a sci-fi twist filled with dirty jokes – that seems like it's destined for failure."
Instead, Murray and Fraction found themselves the main attractions at the first ever "BrimpForum," which was held at a Manhattan bar last month. (Fans of the series call themselves "Brimpers," which cannot be explained in this newspaper.)
"I walked in the door and everyone in the bar turned to look at me," he recalls. "I've never had that feeling before. They were whispering, and talking, and staring at me. And I realized, 'The bar is here to see me.' They had to open up another floor of the bar because it was so crowded. … It's a responsibility that I'm not used to."
Murray now has to reconcile the fact that an alter-ego created for anonymity has made him semi-famous. He seems slightly embarrassed by the attention. A year ago he might show up to a convention and spend more time talking with colleagues than signing for fans; now, he's mobbed by hundreds of admirers. He admits there's a small part of him that misses the days when he had to hustle for attention, and making even a single sale was a big deal. (The first trade paperback of Sex Criminals has sold nearly 75,000 copies.)
"No matter how inside I get I still feel like I'm an outsider," says Murray. "And I play that up."
In August he chose to forgo Fan Expo, the giant comic-con held in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Instead, he organized Zdarscon, a tongue-in-cheek rival one-man show that took place across the street. "I could have easily just gone into Fan Expo and made several thousand dollars from being there, but that's not fun and I hate that show," Murray explains. Dressed entirely in white, he held court in a red-leather wingback chair outside the Fan Expo venue, a rack of his comics on sale beside him and a six-foot-tall banner bearing his likeness on the other side, shaded by an umbrella held by his manservant, Alex Hoffman, the real-life model for Jon from Sex Criminals.
"We got rained on. We hit a car. I got heat stroke for like three days afterwards. We made almost no sales." He grins and shakes his head, as if he can't believe it happened. "But it was so fun. So fun!"
What do you think of Chip Zdarsky?
"I can't talk too much about Chip without inviting him to breach the terms of the restraining order. I will say that he's one of the most gifted illustrators of his generation, a terrific designer and possessed of an almost Andy Kaufman-like scary humour, and I hope dearly that one day he will accept medical help with whatever the hell is living in his brain." – Warren Ellis, novelist and comic book writer.
"Chip Zdarsky is like a gay assassin in a spy movie. Chip Zdarsky is a beautiful dragon that resides inside a crystalline toilet. Chip Zdarsky is like Kafka. Not Franz Kafka. I mean the other Kafka. Chip Zdarsky is the Uncle Dad you never knew you wanted – or needed. Chip Zdarsky is stranger than fiction." – Matt Fraction, writer of Sex Criminals.
"Chip Zdarsky is going to marry my mommy and become my daddy." – Kate Leth, comic book writer and artist.
"I've known Chip Zdarsky since his goth-cowboy days, and he was a beloved part of my wedding as the stripper at my bachelor party. Deep at his core, Chip Zdarsky is one of the greatest human beings I know, enveloped in a thick muck of his accumulated sin and filth." – Christopher Butcher, co-founder and director of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.
"When I met Chip, I asked him to draw me a mounted 8-point buck with wieners for antlers. I know Chip is a gentleman because he did not draw me an 8-point buck – he drew me a 10." – Marguerite Bennett, comic book writer.
"Well, I like him a lot, but let's get real … he's no Steve Murray." – Eric Stephenson, publisher, Image Comics.
"Of all the friends I have, Chip Zdarsky is among them." – Wil Wheaton, actor and blogger.