Steve Murray is… Chip Zdarsky

How a mild-mannered former newspaper illustrator embraced his secret life and became a star spotlighted at this year's Comic Arts Festival


TORONTO COMIC ARTS FESTIVAL at the Toronto Reference Library (789 Yonge), Saturday (May 9), 9 am to 5 pm, and Sunday (May 10), 11 am to 5 pm, and other venues. Free except for special events. torontocomics.com.


“This guy. This fucking guy.”

In January 2011, Chip Zdarsky penned a single-page excerpt from a non-existent romance novel.

“Gary’s peeny was now erect,” read a passage from The Petals Fall Twice. “It felt like a quality bar of peeny-scented soap in her hands.”

Posted on Tumblr, the piece went viral, and Zdarsky found himself in Los Angeles pitching an animated series to Fox. Among his concepts were a show about action figures, a show about City Hall, and a show inspired by the National Post, where he worked at the time under his real name, Steve Murray. But he soon realized they just wanted the next Family Guy, and none of those was that.

“This guy.”

In February of that year, a longtime friend of Murray’s was put in charge of children’s lit at a major Canadian publisher. “This is great news! Especially for me!” he commented on her Facebook announcement. “Let me know when you want to hear the pitch for my nine-part YA series, Slarknor: Teen Dragon.”

He followed up with a 170-word snippet from a hypothetical young-adult manuscript: “With a swoosh of his mighty tail, Slarknor slammed Gary into the lockers. . . . Little bits of flame were poking out of his flame snout, like lighters at a (hot young band name TK) concert.”

For the next several months, he kept Slarknor up as a running joke, posting random samples on her wall.

She eventually got in touch to say she couldn’t get the idea out of her head and wanted to commission an actual book. They went back and forth with the company, but the process proved too slow. By that time, he was too busy to take on a novel.

“This fucking guy.”

In March 2012, Murray designed a quartet of fake books to illustrate a National Post feature on young-adult literature. One, Retreat Valley High, was a zombie romance. Another was Slarknor. A third was Altergeist, credited to one “Tammy Zdarsky,” “bestselling author of The Caveman’s Heart.” The accompanying blurb described a blossoming romance between teenagers Sandra and Jerome, the latter of whom was a ghost. 

Five weeks later, a development exec from a Hollywood production company sent an email to the paper:

My boss, filmmaker [name removed by NOW to save embarrassment], read your article After The Post-Apocalypse: What’s The Next Hunger Games? while he was on location in Toronto. The article mentions a book entitled Altergeist by Tammy Zdarsky. I’m wondering if you could provide me with the name of the book’s publisher?

Murray politely explained that it didn’t actually exist, but the producer remained undeterred: “You wouldn’t happen to have any other thoughts about Altergeist written down, would you?  We think the basic idea is interesting, and I’d be curious to discuss it with you further if you like.”

Murray wrote a brief treatment and they spoke on the phone the next week. Nothing more came of it.

“This guy.”

Around the same time, the Post assigned Murray to cover the charity boxing match between Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and then-Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau. Murray was exhausted and not looking forward to it.

On the train ride to Ottawa, he emailed a friend to suggest they collaborate on a comic.

Matt Fraction, the high-profile writer for Marvel, replied: “What if we did a sex comedy about a guy who, every time he ejaculates, stops time?”

To which Murray wrote back: “That is a romp I can get behind.”

This one took off. Published by Image Comics, the first issue of Sex Criminals debuted in September 2013 and became an acclaimed best-seller. Time magazine named it the best comic or graphic novel of the year. The volume collecting the first five issues turned into one of 2014’s hottest trade paperbacks (behind only Saga and The Walking Dead). Murray quit his job at the Post: drawing Sex Criminals had become a full-time thing, and because Image effectively operates as a co-op, virtually all the profits go to the creators.

Threaded throughout is a recurring voiceover, in which protagonist Suzie reflects on partner-in-crime-and-sex Jon with equal parts awe and frustration:

“This guy. This fucking guy.”

DougLastman2.jpg

Chip Zdarsky

Doug Lastman, the villain from the City Hall show that Chip Zdarsky pitched to Fox’s animation department.

***

Chip Zdarsky sits in the shadows this damp April evening, his arms flailing more than could plausibly be necessary. When the man born Steve Murray signs books as Chip, that means putting on a show for each fan who greets him.

Maybe 30 have gathered at the Central on Markham Street for the Toronto launch of Kaptara. A new series drawn by Kagan McLeod, written by Zdarsky and published by Berkeley-based Image, it’s a sci-fi/fantasy with a gay romance at its core, partly based on the action-figure pitch to Fox.

In the course of his talking with one fan, I jot down some things that come up: soap opera star Staying Alive soccer-ball-shaped Cheetos tree wedding real-life brimpers candle in the wind. At least two are lovemaking positions from Sex Criminals. “Brimpers” is also the term for that series’ enthusiasts – of whom there are many – touched by the surprising emotional depths of a comic about a couple whose orgasms bring time to a halt.

The next morning, Zdarsky is off to the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2), where he’ll sign thousands of autographs and draw just as many sketches for his fans. It’s his first convention appearance on a panel for Marvel, for whom he writes the rebooted Howard The Duck. Like Howard, Zdarsky is a former underground iconoclast awkwardly shuffled into a larger world he’s grown accustomed to. 

Zdarsky is a star at these events. When, during the Marvel Q&A, a man asks him for a hug, he goes all out and they tackle each other to the ground. (For Zdarsky, the adequate is never sufficient.)

But there’s no shortage of Zdarsky in Toronto, where he makes his home, and so the local Kaptara congregation is a more intimate affair.

Having written down the wrong time, I show up near the end, missing out meeting his mother and father. But I’m already sort of acquainted with the former, from an email NOW got a couple days earlier:

Is there any where in Barrie we can get NOW MAGAZINE? Our son, Chip Zdarsky (Steve Murray) will be in it in a few weeks and we’d like to buy some copies.  Thank you, Una Murray

I show this to Zdarsky on my phone.

“Aww, my mom,” he says.

***

Until December 2013, it was still officially a secret that comic creator Zdarsky and National Post illustrator Murray were in fact one and the same. But it was a secret the way Daft Punk’s helmetless faces are a secret: anyone who ever thought to wonder could easily find the answer online, and those who know them in real life are likely amused that it was ever deemed privileged knowledge in the first place.

When Time honoured Sex Criminals, I excitedly tweeted that “the National Post’s Steve Murray – aka @zdarsky” had placed first on their list.

“Ha! I guess if I’m going to be outed as @zdarsky this is kind of the perfect time!” @NPsteve tweeted back.

Almost a year and a half later, there’s barely any Steve Murray left in the public eye. 

When Sex Criminals took off, Murray went on a four-month leave from the Post to devote himself to drawing it. By the end of summer 2014, he’d decided not to return. Everything he now produces is under the Zdarsky name.

It’s not as though he was a low-profile cartoonist at the Post. Among other responsibilities at the paper (his formal title was graphic columnist, and he once had to go on short-term disability after blowing out his wrist drawing a full-page spread of the top 101 Sesame Street Muppets), he functioned as its de facto mascot and lovable prankster-at-heart. 

In fall 2010, he fake-ran for mayor. In June 2012, he rappelled down the side of City Hall to promote a Make-A-Wish fundraiser, donning a Spider-Man costume to do so. 

Murray’s peculiar career arc is such that he’s gone from dressing as Spider-Man to writing for Spider-Man in a little less than three years. (A hapless, easily traumatized web-slinger shows up in his Howard #1.)

He created the Zdarsky identity circa 2000, partly to separate his self-published comics from the graphics work he was doing for places like the Globe and the Post. But the character also emerged shortly after his divorce, “and there was a part of me that just kind of liked the thrill of it, liked the thrill of having a secret life,” he says over sushi near his house in the Junction, following his return from Chicago.

“After the split, I tended to kind of act out more as Chip – like I would drink and sleep around and do all sorts of terrible things as Chip.”

Leaving the calmer Steve at home in Toronto, he’d go to conventions as his alter ego.

“My therapist, I’m sure, is gonna write a book about it one day.”

Only when the Post pushed its staff to put themselves out there on social media did he develop a public persona under his own name. 

Zdarsky, for example, joined Twitter in July 2007. Murray came aboard in August 2009, and the latter gradually eclipsed the former as the comics career took a back seat to the day job. 

But since the success of Sex Criminals (whose 11th issue comes out next month), the tables have turned. And Zdarsky, like Murray, has grown up.

***

Steve Murray first came to Toronto because of a weapons charge.

While he was an illustration student at Sheridan College in Oakville, his roommate brought a fake gun to a coffee shop over his protests. The item was in Murray’s control when police arrived, and the two were charged with possession and concealment of a dangerous weapon. (The fact it was fake didn’t matter.)

His parents took the ordeal with good humour, baking him a cake with a file inside for the next time they saw him. But Murray took a year off school to fight the charges, and he moved to Toronto. 

He got a job in the magazine section of the now-defunct Chapters in Yorkville and through that met people involved with the Independent Weekly, a student paper at U of T. He started doing art for that publication – including his first comic strip, Prison Funnies – and eventually became its production manager. (Ivor Tossell, a future Globe columnist who became the Independent’s co-editor the year after Murray left, recalls Prison Funnies “rattling my delicate, respectability-seeking sensibilities.”)

It was around this time he created Chip Zdarsky, borrowing the last name from a friend’s ex-girlfriend.

“I didn’t think much of Steve using my surname at first, but I have been really impressed with his success over the years (and secretly relieved that he’s not a rabid bigot or anything),” Nicole Zdarsky tells NOW in a message.

“I’m glad he’s a successful sex pervert,” the Las Vegas stay-at-home mom adds with a smiley emoji. 

Returning to Sheridan to finish his program, Murray couldn’t attend his computer class due to a conflict with his student paper job. He got a zero in the mandatory course.

The only way he’d graduate was if he could transfer a computer credit from an earlier stint at Georgian College in Barrie. But when he got his transcript from Georgian, he remembered he’d failed that course, too, having met a girl with whom he’d skip class.

“Oh, I’m fucked,” he quite reasonably concluded.

But like Cadet Kirk besting the Kobayashi Maru, he came up with an outside-the-box solution.

“I used my skills with computers to recreate the transcript and print it out with better grades and give that to my coordinator,” he says. “So I felt justified, because I was using all my computer skills to do that. And my computer skills in skipping the class [to be the Independent’s production manager] in the first place. 

“Sheridan hates it when I come back and tell that story.”

***

At the sushi restaurant, he feels like shit: exhausted from C2E2 and suffering from, at minimum, a very bad cold. To make it through the weekend, he no longer drinks at conventions now approaching 40, he has more mundane ways to get sick.

Even having known him socially over the years, and having collaborated a few times for the Post, I’ve never before encountered him when he’s “off.” It’s like talking to an actor in between takes, near the end of a long day of shooting. Not at all the chipper dude buoyantly chatting with Applebee’s.

“I want people to see me as being like a happy, fun guy,” Murray says, explaining why he cultivates the Zdarsky persona.

And is he that guy?

“No. Of course not. Not all the time. Generally I am. But, yeah, for sure, when something like this happens I get insanely depressed,” he says of the sudden illness that’s temporarily knocked him out. “The idea of not working is, like, just painful.”

Murray typically works 12 hours a day, six days a week, the majority of them drawing Sex Criminals. When he’s not on the road, he’s in his studio, a converted garage in his backyard.

Working, for him, is not an act of bloodletting, of squeezing drips of inspiration from a mind playing hard to get. He overflows with ideas, and his process of creation is a compulsive act of catharsis. 

It’s almost off-putting.

He fashioned Zdarsky as a sad sack loser who doesn’t know he’s a sad sack, bouncing between parties and his parents’ basement. A smiling guy with a nose dressed in cocaine, as he depicts in his Twitter avatar.

But as success caught up with the both of them, the differences dissolved halves divided by a long-ago rift have found each other once again.

His newfound creative freedom has opened up whole other landscapes where the distinctions don’t matter so much.

“I’ve never had this kind of control and opportunity. And so it’s like, what do you do with it?” he wonders, a hint of fear in his voice as he approaches the unknown. 

“Are you gonna blow it?” he asks himself. “Are you gonna blow it, Chip?”

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

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