Is Chip Zdarsky the hero Gotham deserves? On the challenges of writing Batman
Why it's hard to write a beloved character, and why his new book is a comic about comics
When the Canadian comic book artist and writer Chip Zdarsky was announced as the new writer of Batman last month, he was struck by the awesome challenge of coming up with original plots for the DC's flagship series — a character that's been around for over 80 years and has featured in thousands of comics and dozens of screen adaptations.
"A friend told me recently that more stories have been told about Batman than about any fictional character in the history of the written word," Zdarsky tells CBC Arts. "I don't know if that's true, but it sure feels like it when I'm writing a script."
But Zdarsky, a veteran writer best known for his work on series like Marvel's Daredevil and the indie hit Sex Criminals, acknowledges that when writing characters like Batman, it's inevitable that you occasionally wind up telling a story that's similar to one told by a previous writer. You just kind of have to accept it.
"You try to put your own spin on older story beats," he says. "A lot of smarter writers than myself have compared it to being in a cover band where you put your own take on something that already exists. Like, maybe my Daredevil is like a dance remix of an Evanescence song?"
Zdarsky is a bit of an anomaly in his industry. For one thing, in a medium where the creators are distinctly split into writers and artists, he's both. For another, his path to comic book stardom was through a newsroom.
Back in the early part of the 2010s, Zdarsky — working under his real name, Steve Murray — was a writer and cartoonist for the National Post. ("My official title was 'graphic columnist,'" he says.) In his downtime, he'd draw and write comics and publish them online as Chip Zdarsky. Through that, he wound up getting to know comic writer Matt Fraction, best known at the time for his work for Marvel on Uncanny X-Men and Hawkeye.
"We became really good friends and eventually talked about doing something stupid together, him writing and me illustrating," says Zdarsky. "It ended up being a book called Sex Criminals."
Sex Criminals is the story of a couple who discover they have the ability to stop time with their orgasms, and use that ability to rob banks in order to save a library. When it debuted in 2013, Time called it the best comic series/graphic novel of the year. In 2015, it was nominated for a Hugo Award.
"We thought we'd get three issues out the door before the publisher realized it was a money loser, but it shockingly went on to be a hit," he says. "After that I started getting a lot of offers, one of which was from a Marvel editor named Wil Moss who remembered buying one of my self-published comics, Monster Cops, back in the day. So he knew that I could write as well as illustrate, and I ended up doing small projects for him until I wrote a full series, Howard The Duck. I owe a lot to that duck. And the editor, I guess."
In addition to taking over Batman, Zdarsky is also getting ready for the launch of a new original series: Public Domain, which will be released by Image Comics. This comes in addition to his ongoing work on Marvel's Daredevil, and another original series for Image, the crime comic Newburn.
Unlike his work for the two big studios, Public Domain isn't about a superhero. Well, not exactly. Public Domain is a comic about comics and how they're made. It's also a family drama. In it, Syd Dallas, creator of The Domain — a massively popular, film franchised, merchandise machine of a superhero — has to decide whether or not to fight for control of the character he created and the family legacy that goes with it.
It's a story in which Big Comics is, to some extent, the bad guy. Zdarsky acknowledges that there's an inherent tension in, on one hand, writing a comic critical of the industry while, on the other, being the writer of Batman. That said, he's philosophical about it.
"There's always some sort of tension when you're a freelancer," he says. "There's tension in the fact that I have limited control over my creative work which will end up being read by the public. There's tension in the fact that I work for Marvel and DC at the same time. So, I'm used to it. I also had tensions back in the day when I freelanced for newspapers. The Globe and Mail was DC and National Post was Marvel, and I definitely had issues come up doing work for both publications."
Zdarsky is quick to add that, while Public Domain is a critique of the way the industry works, it's not meant as a criticism of any of the people he's worked with at Marvel or DC.
"I genuinely enjoy working with the people at those companies, because we all got into the business as a result of our love of comics," he says. "The staff at Marvel and DC work incredibly hard and are passionate about the books they put out. But they, as well as the creators who work for them, know the issues that have historically come up time and time again, and have to work within these systems."
He also points out that he's far from the first person to point these things out, and that more than anything Public Domain is just him following the classic literary advice, "write what you know."
But this is, perhaps, harder for him than most. Zdarsky co-hosts a podcast called "Mangasplaining" where his manga-knowledgeable friends make him read Japanese comics and discuss them.
"One thing I noticed is the wide variety of subject matter in manga," he says. "Ping pong, cooking rice, typography, basically wherever the creators' interests lie, there's a potential comic project. "
This brought him to the "sad realization," he says, "that the only thing I have a passionate interest in is comics — the industry and its history, the mechanics of comics making, their influence on the world."
He felt like the inner workings of the comic business would be a rich source of material, and the tale of a family trying to negotiate it would be "a lot of fun to write and illustrate."
"At the end of the day, I'm not writing this to moralize — I just think it's a great setting and situation for my characters, and a topic I'm keenly interested in."