Chip Zdarsky on the life of a comic book writer and why everyone loves Spider-Man
'He's endured over the decades because he taps into something we can relate to.'
Chip Zdarsky is a comic book writer and illustrator born in Edmonton and based in Toronto. The creator with a quirky sense of humour has worked on books such as the award-winning Sex Criminals, Kaptara, Jughead, Howard the Duck and most recently wrapped up a run writing the Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man series.
He will be in Toronto on Oct. 30, 2018 at the ROM to unpack the history of Spider-Man in popular culture, peering at the sense of nostalgia that have drawn generations of fans to this iconic character.
Zdarsky spoke with CBC Books about his love of comic books and his thoughts on the enduring legacy of the Marvel Comics character.
Have you always been an avid reader?
"I mostly read Marvel comic books growing up along with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. I, of course, read more widely as I got older. I just finished On Beauty by Zadie Smith, which was amazing. Her ability to craft and describe characters is so perfect, it boggles my mind. And I'm currently reading Ryan North's How To Invent Everything, which is insanely charming while teaching me more about how things work than my entirety of high school."
How did you get your start writing comics?
"It was a total accident. I went to Sheridan College for illustration and there was a job posting to work for the National Post as a graphic artist. The coordinator of the program recognized that I was the only guy in class that read the newspaper. He suggested I apply for the job and I worked there for 13 years.
"I started off as a graphic artist while there and then started pitching humorous stories told through a cartoon or illustrated format. I was also doing my own comics, most online gag strips. I then became friends with comic book writer Matt Fraction who was writing with Marvel Comics at the time. I remained friends with him for years as we both had similar sensibilities.
"He was on his way out at Marvel and wanted to do a new fun thing. And so we started talking about what that could be and it ended being the book called Sex Criminals, which is not as bad as it sounds. It's a book about a couple who, when they have sex, they stop time and rob banks. It might be as bad as it sounds, I don't know.
"But it quickly turned into a book about relationships and mental health and sexuality. We thought it would only last three issues and it became a thing. I had to make a decision to stay in newspapers or comic books — one failing industry or another. Hmmm. So I chose comics at that point."
What do you love most about writing Spider-Man?
"He's the first character in comics that was the teen hero that wasn't the sidekick. When you're young reading about his adventures, you can connect more readily to a guy like that. When I started reading him, he's in his 20s, down on the luck in New York renting a crappy apartment and it seemed like he was not doing well. But as a kid he was living my dream; he's like me. Every kid, every person sees themselves in that. They're secretly the hero of the story.
"Spider-Man's endured over the decades because he taps into something we can relate to. Not to mention the fact that he's completely covered up in his suit. He could be anyone! My friend's three-year-old daughter loves dressing as Spider-Man. It could be literally anybody and there's there's something amazing about that."
Spider-Man was the first character in comics that was the teen hero who wasn't the sidekick.
What's the challenge of writing stories about a character that's been around for so long?
"It's super intimidating because it's one consistent story that's been told over 60 years. He has literally done everything! The challenge is trying to find something that hasn't been done before with the character. Because my title ran alongside the other title, Amazing Spider-Man, which is considered the 'main' Spider-Man book, I always had to keep that in mind to not contradict whatever was happening in that book. It's creating the illusion of change without changing. And that's the secret of modern comics — at least with Marvel and DC."
There have been so many versions of Spider-Man in books, film and television. What makes the character of Peter Parker unique these days?
"It's interesting that there are so many offshoots of the character now! The trick is trying to figure out what makes him Spider-Man. He's a malleable character and I think he's probably going to be some shift to him whether it's having him progress in age or resetting him to be the youthful Peter Parker again.
"It's the 60 years of continuity that makes it all so tricky. It's hard to break free from that. He's a hero, based on the spider and he's probably the most popular hero in the world. He's super relatable and not only in comics but across all media."
Chip Zdarsky's comments have been edited for length and clarity.