Interview: Writer Chip Zdarsky On He-Man, Angry Smurf-Like Beings, And ‘Kaptara’

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Keith is a snarky gay scientist on a space mission. Like all space missions in pop culture, this one goes horribly wrong and strands Keith on a planet where a certain beloved ’80s cartoon full of spaceships and muscle-bound men with swords comes to life. That’s the basic premise of Kaptara, written by Chip Zdarsky and drawn by Kagan McLeod. Zdarsky sat down with us to talk about ’80s nostalgia and the baffling nature of Fisto.

Keith’s an unusual hero. How’d he first come to mind?

Pretty much for me, he’s Peter Parker before Uncle Ben dies. He hasn’t quite learned a sense of responsibility. He’s combined with myself and friends of mine, where we all know deep down we’d be scared shitless on an alien planet. My favorite kind of story is the hero’s journey, where someone has to become a better person. That’s the challenge of Kaptara, taking Keith from smug loner asshole to somebody who works with others.

Landing a gay man in an elaborate He-Man parody is an interesting choice. How’d that come together?

It’s funny because originally the idea was to cover all sorts of ranges of, for lack of better term, action figures that myself and Kagan grew up with, even toys like My Little Pony and Smurfs. Each nation would be the different types of characters.

What happened is I fell in love with the the He-Man style, and it’s hard to tear ourselves away. Dartor just reads as a Masters of the Universe style. That’s our biggest touchstone for it, too, we both grew up with the He-Man figures as the main toys we played. I had half He-Man toys and half knockoff He-Man toys, I had so many of them!

Speaking of that, we meet the Glomps, who are essentially internet trolls as Smurfs. How’d you even come up with that?

The idea of the world of Kaptara is that there’s no real racial problems or inherent misogyny or sexism, and sexuality is what it is, it’s not dissected or frowned upon. The initial idea was “That negative energy exists somewhere. Where does it go?” That went to the Glomps, the worst that world had to offer, so they were cast out. It was just this natural thing, everyone was like “Are these are MRA types?” “It’s kind of chicken or egg in my mind. “What’s the worst thing?”

It’s a sense of entitlement and just despising people who aren’t them who don’t subscribe to their views, it encapsulates everything bad in the world. I like to think they’re reviled by both the heroes and the villains.

I have to ask: What’s your favorite He-Man figure?

Fistor. He barely appears, but there’s this absurdity about him. They’re all ludricous, but what’s his deal? Did he have a hand amputated? Does he have to wear a glove over his giant deformed hand? Also, the name is just amazing. He’s the one character that if we just put in Kaptara as is nobody would blink an eye.

How do you balance the earnest nature of most of the characters against Keith’s sarcasm?

I’m trying to keep it so that people are talking the way myself and my friends would talk. I’ve learned a lot working on Sex Criminals, Howard the Duck, and Jughead, they’re all different books aimed at very different kinds of people. I’m learning as I do it. Before now, I was a one-off joke guy. With a continuing series like this, the exposition is slightly harder. My editor says “Make sure the character calls the other character by their name.” I don’t say “Hey, Ben!” I say “Hey!” I recognize there’s exposition and tricks that go against natural language that need to be used.

Motivational Orb is maybe my favorite gag in the series. How’d that come up?

It’s funny because the entire reason for doing the book was to work with Kagan. We had a shared studio years ago. We used to pass around a giant sketchbook and come up with ludicrous characters. Motivation Orb has been around since 2000. Cameron Stewart needed thousands of heroes in Seaguy, and that’s his first appearance! And now Kaptara’s kind of our excuse to revisit those and come up with new ones.

What goes into the design of the book? How much is you and how much is Kagan?

It’s 90 percent Kagan! We tend to get together a fair amount, so we’ll just riff. I’ll say something, he’ll say something back, he’ll sketch, I’ll add to the sketch, he firms up the design. I trust Kagan so much. I can say “some sort of Battle Cat style thing” and Kagan will come up with a cat tank. We did a signing a few months ago. One of the sketches that he did for a customer was of a cat tank, each one distinctly hideous yet somehow adorable.

Where does Kaptara go in volume two?

One of the things that I’ve been trying to do that I find tricky is, I pitched it as a romance book too, I wanted Keith to have romantic partners, but he’s also crash-landed and scared shitless. No time for love Dr. Jones!

For the second arc, I want to build Keith’s relationship with Manton a bit more, so that it actually builds something, now that he has quiet moments to reflect, flirt and engage in normal relations. I haven’t sat down to plan out a long story like this before, and the one thing I’m learning is you can only plan out so much before the story takes you in other directions.

Kaptara is out monthly from Image Comics, and you can find the first collected volume in comics shops December 23.

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