Where to begin?
This past weekend V. and I went to HeroesCon, and I had the pleasure to attend a panel dedicated to two of my favorite creators, focusing on one of my favorite books. If you aren’t in the know about Sex Criminals, one of the latest smash hits from Image, please do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s amazing. It’s astounding. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky have crafted what I believe to be one of the best books on the shelves right now, and they do it with a perfect blend of emotional gravity, sincerity and humor. In a single issue this duo can give the reader both punches to the gut AND laughter-induced tears. That’s something special. That’s a mark so many comics miss. And it all started as a pet project between two dudes who figured they could work together on a few dick joke comics before they got cancelled.
The panel started with moderator Doug Merkle introducing the creators. “With us today is one of comic’s top writers,” he began. “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m top writer,” said Zdarsky. The first – but not even close to the last – belly laugh of the afternoon.
Merkle’s first question was if Sex Criminals is at all biographical. “Yeah, sure,” said Fraction. “There’s a lot of characters that are my stories, or Chip’s stories, or the stories of our friends. There’s a lot of autobiography in it, just sort of veiled and filtered… to make a better story. I did get my v-card punched while Morrissey was playing, and neither of us knew where the radio was, and we were too terrified to get out of bed so we were stuck with him. Stuff like that.”
He went on to mention that Chip probably knows stuff about him that even Kelly Sue isn’t aware of – that they had a lot of long, honest talks together while in the process of creating their comic.
“Yeah, my girlfriend was worried about the time difference,” mentioned Zdarsky. “We could only talk after Matt and Kelly Sue’s kids went to bed, and so we had phone calls at like one in the morning. So I’d just roll into bed at two a.m. and my girlfriend would ask what I was doing and I’d be like ‘Oh, just talking to Matt about sex. It’s no big deal. Goodnight, Matt. I mean… Jessica.'”
“I actually told the real Jon and Suzie about taking their names and putting them into a comic called Sex Criminals,” Fraction added. “That was the only thing I was afraid of, telling them that.”
Zdarsky laughed, “Oh yeah, ‘Sorry, Jon. I took your very distinct name.'”
The moderator then inquired about what kind of research the team had to do for a book called Sex Criminals. “Beat off,” replied Fraction. “Beat off for a looooooong time.”
“I have to do the visual research,” noted Zdarsky. “And so far it’s been pretty good, until Matt was like, ‘Oh, p.s. we’re going to do a whole thing about shingles. Feel free to research shingles.’ I saw a photo of shingles on a taint.”
“I can’t imagine how much that hurt,” said Fraction. “I’ve only had them on my ass… the upper ass region.”
The conversation moved on to the letters page of the comic. “Yeah, the letter column is amazing – the letters are the best part,” stated Fraction. “People were very open right away and we ran the letters that were most true to the spirit of the book, and that begat more letters.”
“We did get an e-mail from an actual sex criminal,” he explained. “He’s in a federal pen, and when you send an e-mail from one, there’s an intermediary. You get an e-mail saying you’ve been contacted by a prisoner, do you want to accept this e-mail. So I’m like, ‘Alright!’ And I googled him. And he’s a monster, just a straight up monster. So he must have just been sending e-mails blindly out to any address with a variation of the words sex criminal in it hoping to reach fellow monsters. But yeah, that was the only bad letter.”
“Yeah, I stopped talking to him eventually…” Zdarsky said.
When asked about his secret origin – how he broke into comics, Zdarsky spoke about getting into making comics during a separation and eventual divorce.
“So I was going to shows and having fun,” he said, “and around the same time I got a job at a newspaper, kind of like a staff cartoonist and illustrator. So I’ve been doing both for all these years, and now it’s getting to the point where I may have to quit my newspaper job.”
“You might have to leave one dying print medium for another!” joked Fraction.
At this point Zdarksy began eating a muffin in a very… unique way. Like a baby bird being fed by its mother, but the mother is his hand? “Is there another way to eat a muffin?” he asked. “I’m just doing it like this.”
“Speaking of food,” Merkle said, “I wanted to ask why you get your own bacon?”
“Well we don’t call it Canadian bacon in Canada,” Zdarsky noted. “It’s peameal bacon. I don’t know what it means. They take the edges and roll them in meal. I don’t know where the “pea” comes from. That’s a quote!”
When the floor was opened to questions from the audience, the duo was asked about the iTunes situation, the problem with acquiring the rights to reproduce the lyrics of Queen’s Fat-Bottomed Girls, and how they seemed to help the comic rather than hurt it.
“The good thing is that there were two very sincere attempts to get the lyrics,” said Fraction. “We on two different occasions held those pages till the very last instant. We would have loved to use the real lyrics.”
“There’s actually a physical layer within the Illustrator file with the lyrics and without the lyrics,” explained Zdarsky. “I basically had the production guy standing with his finger over the button, just waiting till the last possible minute.”
Fraction went on to lament that Audi recently acquired the rights to use We are the Champions in a commercial – the same company that made cars for Hitler.
“Hitler’s personal sled-makers they’re cool with. Two humble, small-time fans – no. So that was a disappointment.”
As for the iTunes thing, Fraction called it a gift from God. “It was amazing! It’s a bummer because you want your stuff to be available from as many different vendors and markets as possible, but they are allowed to decide what is or isn’t appropriate for their market, and we are allowed to make fun of them for it. There’s a shop that didn’t carry the first issue, not because of the drawings of sex, but because of the drawings of the drawings of sex.”
Next up was and inquiry into the character Jazmin St. Cocaine, and the reasoning behind the scene she was in.
“I think that people do more than criminalize sex work or sex workers,” said Fraction. “They treat them as sub-human or less than, and that offends me. It isn’t just unfair, it’s inhuman and cruel. And I wanted to have a character that could make these easy jokes. It was the chance to introduce that into the mix without… sounding like an asshole lecturer. Life is an educational learning curve, and I wanted our characters to learn that too. That’s gonna to come back. She’s coming back!”
The scene with Suzie’s first sexual experience was also brought up, with an audience member wondering how Fraction made it ring so true to the female experience. “I asked Kelly Sue about the language,” he said, “because I figured that nothing would out me more than using dude words in ladytown. But the most revelatory thing for me was that a lot of experiences from all these women were too terribly separate. I think that’s this grand thing that divides us. We’re all alone together. It’s strange for everybody the first time.”
Suzie’s friend and ex-roommate Rachel was talked about next, with the question centering on their friendship and how that was done. “I’m fascinated in how different female to female are to male to male relationships,” mentioned Fraction. “There was a place that I used to get my haircut in Kansas City, and for some reason the women that ran the place decided that I was one of them. And when there was no one else in the shop but me, shit would get real. I felt like I was the Predator, and no one could see me! Rachel comes back. Chip did a really wonderful bit of cartooning in issue seven where they encounter each other for the first time in volume two, and it involves a muffin.”
When asked how many issues they see the series going, the duo agreed, “We’ll go until it’s not fun anymore or until people start to lose money. We have kind of an open road. We know where we want it to go, but to grow the world, you can’t do it too fast or too weird. It’s not that book. So we have all these ideas, we know more than the characters, but we have to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t make it a terrible book that no one wants to read.”
“Jon and Suzie are about to discover that they aren’t the only two, or in the case of the sex police that there’s more than five. They are about to discover that there are others like them. That’s going to be a big part of the story, and how the world grows, meeting these other people.”
When asked about who does most of the joke writing, Fraction admitted that, “All the good stuff is Chip.”
“Usually in the script Matt will have five to a dozen things he imagines there,” Zdarsky said, “and then the rest is me just automatic drawing like, ‘Thats a tit!’ I’m at the point where I’m putting jokes in knowing FULL WELL I’m just going to cover them up with a word balloon.”
“It’s put us both in a place where we can very quickly come up with porn parodies for things,” said Fraction. “The other night we were talking about how we can’t keep going back to Cumworld – it’s going to get boring- so we’ll go to like Porns and Noble? Like fine literary erotica? In one of the issues I kind of wanted to do a porn big box store, like a Costco. Eighty gallon drums of lube.”
“I remember when Matt initially said like, ‘Oh next issue maybe we’ll do this Costco of porn,'” laughed Zdarsky. “That’s the only time I’ve gone, ‘NOOOO! Fuck no! Please!’ The first panel where they walk into the porn shop, that took me three days I think. For one panel. There’s like 70 jokes in there.”
Fraction mentioned that some of his favorite jokes are ones that Zdarsky put into the book. “Like there’s this literary series that everyone in the book is reading called Wolf. Book two was Wolf 2: Wolves. And then it was Wolf 3: Fox? These are the things that keep me going.”
An audience member asked for more porn parodies of movies, and the crowd began to shout out titles, which the creators rattled off. “69 Jump Street! The Grand Bootyfest Hotel directed by Piss Anderson! Assvengers! Scott Dillcum VS The World… with sex! Scott Pilgrim Fucks The World!” “They’re not all gems,” said Fraction, “but we can do it.”
The next question was how they started working together, with Fraction answering that he’s always been a huge fan of Chip. “I knew him from the internet. He tickles my funny bone. It was just a matter of understanding what a fucking genius this guy is… and fooling him into working with me.”
“Someone told me about a guy named Matt Fraction and I was like, ‘Uh okay I’ll work with him,'” said Zdarsky. “I’ve never really wanted to work with anyone, whether on a comic or in a sexual way. I’m a solo man, always have been, always will be. But Matt’s writing is so good, and so funny and rich. Even his twitter feed has me laughing all day long. I knew that if we worked together we’d just be making each other laugh the whole time, and it’d just be a comic for us and cancelled, yes, within three issues. So THIS is really fucking weird.”
“I love you man,” Chip told Fraction. “I love you so much, Chip,” he replied.
“I was saying the other day that we’re now con husbands,” Zdarsky said.
Fraction chuckled, “I told my wife that in bed last night. ‘Chip and I are con married, I like him so much!'”
When a reader asked if superhero comics are a necessary evil for the industry, Fraction said, “I don’t think it’s a necessary evil. I think you should be able to buy what you want anywhere you want it. I love superhero comics, but I love a lot of different comics. I don’t want to cut the pie into more pieces; I want to grow the fucking pie. Fuck pie!”
Zdarsky was then questioned about the comics he currently reads. “Ummm Hawkeye?” he said. “Very good, good job. I kind of was off comics for awhile, and when I started to work on the book I thought I should see what else was out there, so I bought a lot of books just kind of based on artists like Chris Samnee and David Aja. One of the other books that really caught me was Saga. I just got lost in it immediately. It’s like delicious candy, reading that book. The writer really lets the artist use the whole page, and only writes like three or four panels per page, MATT. Just great to see that level of freedom. That series is an inspiration.”
A reader mentioned that one of her favorite things about the series is the sex tips in the letters section, and wondered who wrote them.
“It’s mostly Chip,” Fraction said. “Chip and I are about to get together for a Sex Criminals editorial summit, during which we’re going to write and collate and collect the tips, more moves, more advice, some letters. It’ll be available in a book called Just the Tips, and then the tagline ‘Coming down your chimney this Christmas!'”
“Not gonna lie, the title came first,” noted Zdarsky.
“I’m not kidding,” Fraction continued. “Like everything else in this book, it is a game of chicken that nobody has stopped.”
When asked if they’ve sought out help or advice from sex professionals for the book, Fraction responded with, “Not really, but in the next issue we have an interview with a sex educator, Emily Nagoski, and then she is going to answer reader questions. We want to have “ask a sex worker” as a column. There’s an OB/GYN friend of mine that I tormented with questions, and I’d love to have a urologist. The letters column is becoming so amazing, and there are times when I don’t know, and I don’t want to be glib. I really want to make that a feature.”
The final question of the day was regarding the scene where Jon and Suzie first meet, and how that was realized. “I’d seen that happen,” said Fraction. “That is totally non-fiction. I was at this party, and there was this amazing girl who was like… sitting on a throne. And all night long guys were coming up and pitching woo at her, and she just sat there like she was holding court. And at some point a guy asked her if she liked books… and she said her favorite book was Lolita. And a buddy of mine who is a trained Juilliard actor heard this, and just happened to have a really good James Mason in his pocket. So he busted out the opening litany, and this girl heard it, got up, and floated across the room and sat in his lap. And that was it, they were together. It was amazing… It seemed like a good meet-cute to steal.”
As the panel wound down, Zdarsky asked the crowd if they’d be willing to participate in a little video. There was a couple cosplaying Jon and Suzie, and he wanted to take a video of them running around while the rest of the audience remained still, to simulate The Quiet. Everyone happily complied, and as filming progressed, the pair ended up on stage and Jon took the microphone and got down on one knee and proposed. Round after round of thunderous applause closed this memorable panel, with Zdarsky shouting into the microphone, “I’d like to see the X-Men comics do that!”