Exclusive: Image Announces ‘Kaptara’, From Chip Zdarsky & Kagan McLeod: ‘Gay Saga’ In A Weird Cosmic Toybox [Interview]
Sex Criminals co-creator Chip Zdarsky and Infinite Kung Fu author Kagan McLeod plan to take readers to colorful, strange, and rather gay new worlds with their new Image ongoing title Kaptara this April. Announced by Zdarsky himself and Image publisher Eric Stephenson at the one-day Image Expo in San Francisco on Thursday, the book sees a waylaid earthman sent on an odyssey through peculiar worlds inspired by the action figures of the 1980s, on a mission to save his home planet.
The two Toronto-based writer-artists have known each other for years, and as they told ComicsAlliance, the roots of this collaboration go back to the studio they once shared. Kaptara is written by Zdarsky and illustrated in full color by McLeod, an acclaimed magazine illustrator making his return to comics. The story offers echoes of Flash Gordon and John Carter, and of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga, only... gayer. More gay. ComicsAlliance met with the team to find out just how gay, and to get the ball rolling on Motivational Orb mania.
ComicsAlliance: How do you describe Kaptara?
Chip Zdarsky: It’s like a sci-fi story, like the planet of Dr Moreau meets your childhood action figures. I’ve also been referring to it as Gay Saga, just to get more sales.
CA: Interesting approach.
CZ: Yeah. Thanks. I’m nothing if not a marketing genius.
CA: What’s the inspiration behind the series?
CZ: Kagan and I shared a studio with Cameron Stewart and Ben Shannon just over… ten years ago, was it now? One of the great things about the studio was that we would pass around this sketchbook, so whenever somebody had a break they would just continue a story in this sketchbook about outlandish characters and funny ideas, and the idea was to crack each other up with these ludicrous characters.
We loved that book so much, and when it came time to design a book with Kagan, we went back to that idea of the studio sketchbook, and throwing in all of our creative energy and outlandish ideas, but actually trying to get people to pay for it this time, instead of just passing it around the studio.
Kagan McLeod: In one of our big breaks in the studio days, Cameron Stewart was working on Seaguy, and he had a big double-page spread that called for thousands of superheroes from this Seaguy universe to be fighting a big villain, and he asked us for ideas for superheroes to draw, and I think we really delivered. [laughs]
CA: Do you own the rights to these characters?
CZ: Even back in the day that was kind of the joke in the studio; the one character that we’re going to be using in this project, the Motivational Orb – which I always thought was a breakthrough character just waiting for his chance to shine – he’s in that double page spread, this orb with arms, floating through space. I kept insisting to Cameron that, because of that, I own part trademark on Seaguy, so, him and Grant Morrison, I’ll have to see them in court.
KM: Some of the characters that did make it in to the Seaguy spread that will be on our cutting room floor are Cane and A-Bull. A-Bull is a bull-man with a big A on his costume, and Cane is… how would you describe Cane?
CZ: He just had canes for arms, didn’t he?
KM: His name was Kyle Caneman. He had two canes for hands.
CZ: Also, the Nevada Gymnast. He was a cactus in a wrestling outfit.
CA: So these characters won’t be in Kaptara?
CZ: Well, we can’t guarantee.
KM: They’re in Seaguy, but they’re unnamed.
CA: So who is in Kaptara? Let’s talk about your book!
KM: We had a similar brainstorming session where we just came up with a wacky cast like that and started from there.
CZ: Yeah. The genesis is the idea that when I was a kid and I would pay with He-Man figures or Marvel Super Heroes or Sectaurs or G.I. Joes, most kids would just play with these all together; they all existed in the same universe. I don’t know if you were a purist and you kept your He-Man figures separate from your G.I. Joes, but I had these elaborate scenarios featuring all of them. I always liked the idea that He-Man is on Eternia, but it’s a whole planet; what else is on that planet? The idea that the planet consists of all these other weird toy countries—
KM: Not to scale with each other.
CA: That’s an issue, isn’t it? Your He-Man and your Thundercat, they don’t match up.
KM: If you’re playing He-Man and G.I. Joe, they become this race of little people.
CZ: Yeah, exactly. We’ll have to address that at some point. I like the idea of analogs of those toys you grew up with encountering each other through this world, so there’s this chance of He-Man figures encountering My Little Ponies or Transformers. With a twist. Always with a twist. A legally binding twist.
CA: Kagan, is that a visual reference point for you, the action figures of the '80s?
KM: Yeah, I think that’s kind of a jump-off, but it’s not going to be an overly nostalgic look. It’ll be its own thing.
CZ: It’s a good launch pad, but the stuff Kagan’s been drawing is so much better than what those toys were.
CA: What are the other visual influences?
CZ: Cactuses. You love cactuses.
KM: I’m excited to do this action adventure epic quest thing, but funny.
CZ: You slip things in like Mayan designs. You actually look at historical designs for character’s costumes.
KM: Yeah, armor, and just kind of weird period dress that you might not see. You definitely see the furry underwear, but that’s very easy to draw.
CZ: You’ve been drawing it for years.
CA: Chip mentioned Dr Moreau; are there weird animal elements that come into play?
KM: We shall see!
CZ: Page one has that amazing creature you designed. I’m enjoying being on the other side of this right now, being able to write, "Yeah, just come up with this big crazy thing," and Kagan designs this fantastic creature.
KM: In the script it will say, “A creature with big teeth”—
CZ: Classic Zdarsky!
KM: Your first instinct is a big cat, like a Battle Cat kind of thing, and well, we’ve seen that before, so how can we make a scary moose, or caribou, or something?
CZ: There’s our breakthrough character. Scary moose! Some kind of scary moose, or outrageous beaver.
KM: It’s what you know, just take it one or five degrees in a different direction.
CA: Chip, you’re the artist on another Image book with Matt Fraction—
CA: He’s the writer of Sex Criminals?
CZ: Oh, yeah.
CA: Have you learned much, from being the artist on one Image book to being the writer on another Image book?
CZ: Yeah. Writing is the better job. I’d never actually even read a comic script before working with Matt. Whenever I do my own books it would just be chicken-scratch notes, and I’d just piece it together.
The one thing I learned from working with Matt is to tailor the script for the artist. I can’t imagine the notes Matt would give me for Sex Criminals would be the same ones he’d give David [Aja] on Hawkeye. It’s like a conversation; it’s not just a script. He’s actually engaging the artist. I’m trying to keep it like that with Kagan.
We’re old friends; it doesn’t have to be super-strict. I know what he can do well, and I know what he can just do terribly. Nothing! It makes it super-easy that there’s not even a phase where we’re trying to get to know each other as writer and artist, because we already know each other that way. It’s almost like the script is one long e-mail to him. “Hey, how about this? You can do this – or this? Have fun!”
CA: And you guys are conceiving this world together?
KM: I feel comfortable giving suggestions and ideas and throwing them out. I think it’s great to give Chip the reins, but I’ll pop in with any hilarious ideas I’ve had.
CZ: Yeah, I might be an artist, but I’m nowhere near the artist Kagan is, so if I make a suggestion for something and Kagan has a better idea, for sure, I’ll let him go with it. And we’ll get together and talk about plot.
That’s the great thing about actually being here in Toronto together; we can actually get together and discuss it instead of phone calls late at night. It’s made it pretty easy. There’s not really dominion over either aspect of it. Also, we’ve both worked as illustrators for years, so we’re used to the idea of potential critiques and suggestions, and not being precious about the work. If I have to scrap something, I have no problem with that.
CA: Having known each other so long, what made you decide to work together now?
CZ: I miss Kagan doing comics. That was my big reason for doing this. Infinite Kung Fu was fantastic, and we both started out doing comics at the same time. Since then, Kagan’s become this internationally renowned illustrator, which has its perks I’m sure, but doing Sex Criminals this past year, I totally forgot what it’s like to do work that resonates with people, and I wanted Kagan to have that experience as well, to put out stories and create something that’s going to last longer than the newspaper sits on the stands.
KM: Yeah, exactly. I love the thrill of doing quick spot illustrations for various clients, they're in and out the door quickly and that keeps it interesting. But it's so different to work on something sequential that readers can really slow down and enjoy, hopefully more than once, and display on their shelf. It's a grueling process, making comics, but seeing a story come together in drawings is a great payoff even if the pace is glacial.
CZ: Especially if it’s your own story, being able to do whatever you want with it – which is why we’ve kept the concept pretty wide-open. We have ideas for the midpoint of the story arc and the end of the story arc and what happens in forty or fifty issues, or whatever, but we’re leaving it open enough to have the freedom to go, “Oh, hey, I’ve got an idea; let’s go over here for a couple of issues, let’s do this, let’s do that.”
KM: We’re anticipating a Motivational Orb mania. [laughs] We’ve factored that in. But if he doesn’t take off, we can…
CZ: Kill him in issue three. He’s this floating sphere with arms, and he always has a motivational saying across his body, for whatever the situation requires. So he inspires people constantly.
KM: He’s our Orko; our Snarf.
CA: Every good story needs one. Let’s talk about your lead character. I’ve read the first issue script and… can you actually say who the lead character is?
CZ: We’ve got a bunch to start with; it sort of shifts and changes throughout the story. It’s a tricky thing with the first issue, and even with solicitation copy; how do you solicit a book for issue two or three if you’ve done something drastic in issue one?
CA: So we can say that something drastic happens in the first issue?
CZ: We can say that… the story starts. I think the thing with an issue one is, even before issue one comes out, most people have an idea of what issue one is going to be, based on the amount of hype, and previews, and review copies and stuff.
I can probably go ahead and say that the main character is going to be Keith Kanga, which is a name Kagan came up with.
CA: Kanga is an anagram of Kagan!
KM: I was just about to say that.
CZ: I didn’t even realize that. You sonuvabitch! He created the whole thing as an anagram for, ‘Kagan is the creative force on this book’.
I think it’s OK for us to talk about that Keith is the main character. I don’t think that’s some giant shock twist.
KM: He’s on the cover.
CA: That’s a solid starting move. And Keith is a gay man?
CZ: [gasp] Yeah, he’s our gay Indian lead. Because we know what sells.
CA: So when you say it’s Gay Saga, that’s not just being glib?
CZ: No, yeah, it’s actually Gay Saga. If there’s one thing I’ve learned with Matt doing Sex Criminals, when we started working on it we had Jon as the main character, and it wasn’t clicking. It felt too easy, a couple of white dudes writing about a white dude, jerking off all the time. There wasn’t anything new or interesting there. There was no challenge there. So we changed it to be Suzy’s story, and it clicked with us, it resonated, it made us work harder, and check ourselves to make sure we were telling the story right instead of just going on autopilot. So the lesson I learned there is, don’t take the obvious, easy road as a creator.
So when it came time to figure out who the main character was going to be on this, I think right from the beginning, we knew he was going to be gay because there aren’t enough gay leads, especially in something that involves romance. I think you were saying... what was your 2015 resolution?
CA: I said I want to see same-sex romances that start during the story and develop through the story.
CZ: Yeah. Not just be a fun little twist.
CA: Not just in the last five minutes of the story; "These two get together; this person has secretly been gay the whole time."
CZ: Yeah, we don’t want that. He’s gay, he’s out, there will be shenanigans on the planet, and there’ll be developing stories with him, in terms of romance. It’s weird, because it’s almost freeing to be on an alien planet, because you don’t have to necessarily deal with social ramifications for the character on earth.
CA: But he’ll be meeting a lot of gay aliens?
CZ: Tons of gay aliens. Tons of gay aliens.
CA: Do they have a concept of sexual identity?
CZ: Yeah! Yeah, there’s sexual identity. I’ve got a few characters where it feels a bit more fluid. There’s no history of stigma on the planet, at least in the area we’re starting out in. Yeah, it’s fun to write, it’s refreshing.
CA: Chip, you’re best known for Sex Criminals right now, which is a comic that’s sufficiently raunchy that the censors at Apple won’t let grown-ups read it. Kagan, you’re best known in comics for Infinite Kung-Fu, which is swift, kinetic action and violence.
CZ: So you’re asking, will there be a lot of f-ck-action in this?
CA: What’s the sex/violence ratio? What are we looking at?
CZ: It’s all pretty cartoonish. It’s going to be teen-plus. Swearing, probably not nudity. There’ll be kissing. Totally fine with kissing. There’ll be some over-the-clothes action. Over-the-armor.
CA: You could rate the issues by base.
CZ: That’s a great idea! “This issue is rated Second Base. For teens!”
CA: Do you think Apple is going to ban you again?
CZ: No. With the Sex Criminals thing we narrowed down what they banned us for, even though they didn’t say. We looked through the issue; “Well what is it about this issue that raised their ire?” And it’s, uh… it’s sperm. We’re pretty sure it’s the sperm. So I can probably say that Kaptara is sperm-free.
CA: Kagan, what are you most looking forward to bringing to life in this world?
CZ: Say ‘Motivational Orb’. Get that Motivational Orb mania up and running.
KM: I like the idea of assembling a team of – I don’t want to say ‘losers’…
CZ: A ragtag crew?
KM: Yeah. We’re going to have a muscle man; I picture him as Conan the Barbarian, but 47 years old, past his prime, leathery.
CA: Like a Governor of California kind of thing?
KM: Yeah! We’ll have this classic quest team, but not straightforward. Part of what made each other laugh so much in the studio was doing these superhero characters but making them slightly gross! Melvon, the wizard, we’re really looking forward to this character. We wanted to have a wizard character, and I love drawing decrepit old men—
CZ: We all have our passions in life.
KM: So that’s where we started. For some reason I just drew a naked old man and Chip came up with the idea that he has to be that way because he’s a shapeshifter. He can’t get his clothes to shapeshift.
CZ: The nudity started because I always wondered why wizard hats were so wide. So now we have him in this wizard hat that protects his body from the rays of the sun. We realized last night there are thirteen suns that this planet revolves around. It’s quite a mess.
CA: So do most of the characters start with a visual idea?
KM: Yeah. We had the idea of the type that we wanted to get for the team that we’re trying to assemble, so we think ‘sidekick’, we try to come up with something…
CZ: I went over to Kagan’s studio to try and brainstorm future issues, and we had these Smurf analogs showing up, and oh my god, I haven’t laughed that hard in years. Kagan designed just the most revolting Smurfs you’ve ever seen. They’re so fantastic.
KM: I hope that translates to a greater audience.
CA: So there’ll be a lot of creepy, disgusting characters? Grotesques, basically?
CZ: Yeah yeah. But; romance! I think it’s a similar situation to Matt and I, most of our goal is to entertain each other. Matt will put stuff in the script to make me laugh, and I’ll try to hide things in the art to make him laugh, and I think Kagan and I have the same relationship in that way, where I’m writing a book for Kagan, and Kagan’s drawing a book for me, and it’s like, we’re constantly trying to make each other crack up.
KM: We’ve seen the epic quest fantasy before, so we want to do our take and knock it down a little bit, in terms of taking itself seriously.
CZ: People always say there needs to be more comedy in comic books, so we’re continuing in that long tradition of putting out some sort of funny book, and people will be like, “Oh, wait, we don’t like comedy.” [laughs]
CA: So the first objective is to make each other laugh?
CZ: I’d say so.
KM: With someone like Chip it’s a badge of honor to make him laugh, because he’s so funny, so I feel like that’s the ultimate test.
CZ: Oh, you! Kagan was the funniest guy in the studio. He was the quietest, but he was the funniest. When he would do a drawing or tell a joke, it would always be the one that won out over everyone else’s.
CA: So what you’re saying is, Cameron Stewart isn’t very funny?
CZ: [laughs] Cameron was at least the fifth funniest guy in the studio. No, I love Cameron. Cameron, I love you, you’re very funny.
CA: What does the title Kaptara mean, by the way? It makes me think of Gymkata.
CZ: We originally called the book, ‘Worlds'.
CA: That’s a terrible title.
CZ: It’s a terrible title, and also hard to pronounce. Every time I would say, “Oh yeah, we’re doing a book called Wooooorlds”; it would just fall out of my mouth. Kagan had a suggestion; we wanted to base a lot of it around mythological journeys, so he suggested Crete, or a play on Crete, and when I looked into it, the original name for Crete was Kaptara, which was a much nicer sounding word.
KM: We love naming planets after a bunch of Greek stuff.
CZ: It’s part of our high-minded hilariousness.
CA: Who do you think is the target audience for Kaptara? Who should pick up this book?
CZ: Everyone. 100% of the general population should pick up this comic. It sounds sort of cliché, but I think there’s something in it for everyone. Kagan’s art is a huge draw – obviously for myself, but for a lot of people who loved his work on Infinite Kung Fu, and his illustration work.
I make the joke that it’s Gay Saga, to sell books, but it is Gay Saga. If you like Saga but want it to be more gay, you should pick this up.
Kaptara debuts in April from Image Comics.