One-time Feathertale contributor (read: we discovered him) Steve Murray is a man of many names. A superstar of the comics industry, he got his start painting murals in his elementary school and first made his name by playing both sides of the newspaper war between the then-new National Post and the slightly mummified Globe and Mail. When he needed to distance himself from his more distasteful work, he created Chip Zdarsky as a pseudonym and alter ego. At the same time as Zdarsky’s comics career took off, Murray landed a permanent gig with the Post as an illustrator, humorist and journalist. There he published unhelpful financial tips under the name Todd Diamond and penned his own illustrated column, Extremely Bad Advice. In 2010 he ran for mayor of Toronto, receiving zero per cent of the eligible vote after failing to properly register his candidacy. In 2014, he contemplated running for the Canadian Senate but ran out of time after his work as Zdarsky landed him gigs with Marvel and Archie Comics. He has written and illustrated for Howard the Duck, Star-Lord, Spider-Man, Jughead and more.He’s also co-creator and artist of Sex Criminals, an adult comic about a librarian and an actor who become bank robbers after they discover their ability to freeze time during sex. That comic earned him the industry’s top prize in 2014 — an Eisner Award — for best new comic. Feathertale recently caught up with Murray over a breakfast burrito somewhere between the garage where he works and the art supply store where he buys fancy sheets of paper.
JUST THE FACTS
Lives in: A house in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. Born in Edmonton, but grew up mostly in Barrie, Ontario.
First story you ever wrote: A comic book in kindergarten based on The Empire Strikes Back. So it was probably exactly The Empire Strikes Back. The teacher liked it so much that she took the pages out and laminated them and put them up on the walls. At the time it felt like if your stuff was laminated, you’d made it. It was perfect. I’d love to put out a book that’s laminated just to get that feeling again. You know? Of being laminated.
Describe your workspace in five words: Wow. Okay. 1) Chandelier. I’m trying to figure out how to sum up my display tablet in one word. 2) Draw screen. 3) Guitars. My brother shares my studio with me. So there’s just a row of guitars. 4) Quiet. 5) Lonely. You can kind of go a bit crazy in there. I’m glad my workspace is at least outside the house. It’s technically a garage. I have to put on pants and walk across a yard to get to it.
Best friend: My cat Monster Truck.
Weirdest thing on your person at this very moment: A three-week-old movie ticket for Suicide Squad, found in my back pocket. I guess it’s time to wash my pants.
JUST THE QUESTIONS
FEATHERTALE: So you work in a converted garage?
STEVE MURRAY: My girlfriend and I bought a house five years ago. We converted a separate garage out back into my studio. It’s classy; we put up a chandelier and a skylight and wood flooring.
FT: Roald Dahl used to work in a shed. It was his writing studio.
SM: I think it’s the best space to work in.
FT: What does your girlfriend do?
SM: She used to work for the National Post. When I met her she was a copy editor, then she eventually got to be Weekend Post editor. She quit four months ago. She’s working for me now.
With a lot of comic artists that’s what winds up happening; their spouse sort of ends up supporting them, doing the finances and helping at conventions and dealing with incoming emails. So I was a little worried about how that was going to go. But it’s been great.
FT: You remember Feathertale, right? One of the little guys who published you before you took off.
SM: Of course.
FT: We published something called “The Collected Works of Chip Zdarsky” back in issue 10.
SM: I was so upset that it wasn’t nominated for a humour award.
FT: We were all very upset by that. I have a little gimmick for this interview.
FT: I brought you some markers and paper. I was hoping you would sketch your own likeness while we talk.
SM: Yeah, I can do it.
FT: Nice. If you do it, you get paid.
SM: Pff. I don’t want to get paid.
FT: What’s in your pockets right now other than that three-week-old movie ticket we already talked about?
SM: I think just tokens and change.
FT: Any personal artifacts in your wallet?
SM: You know, I did away with sentimental artifacts a few years ago. My wallet got a bit out of control. I now just have a single drawer in my studio that is reserved for sentimental things that I can’t throw out.
One of the worst parts of the first Zdarscon, part of it was I had bolted my Eisner Award to a table on wheels — the Eisner is like the comics’ Academy Awards thing — and it kept falling off and getting damaged. And I guess at some point while in the rental van, it must have fallen off and rolled under a seat, because it’s gone. I don’t have it anymore. But, I love the idea of somebody renting a van and just picking up an award that says, the award for “Sex Criminals.” I like to envision them having no idea what that means.
FT: Were you able to replace it?
SM: Someone told me you can pay money to replace the trophy. But, again, I’m not sentimental, so . . .
FT: Does it matter more that you can just tell people that you won it?
SM: Well, at the time it was awesome. You spend your whole life watching people going up on stage and accepting awards. So to be able to do that, that was a high, but then you get home and it just goes on a shelf and you realize it symbolizes past glory. I mean, it can’t feed you.
FT: We last spoke five years ago. It’s amazing how much has changed for you. You’d just run against Rob Ford for mayor, you were working on a collection of random one-page stories, and moonlighting with the Post. You had this agent who’d just landed you some history book?
SM: It was for McClelland & Stewart. I took time off from the Post to work on it. I was trying to do a graphic novel of the entire Canadian history. I would spend every day at the Reference Library with thirty books around me, trying to piece together some sort of narrative. I drew maybe sixty pages and I inked maybe twenty, and I’d kind of written it all out and I realized I didn’t want to do it.
FT: So how did you back out of it?
SM: I paid the money back. It was the hardest professional thing I’d done. I remember crying the day I emailed them to say I couldn’t do it. I mean, I’d taken time off work and I’d taken the money, and I was paying taxes on the money and my agent took her cut. My heart wasn’t in it, and my response was that you only have so many hours in a day and you have to figure out what you want to do. So I returned the advance, and it hurt, it was a bad year financially.
I started sending my agent those one-page things, filled with weird novel ideas about taco trucks. And I didn’t hear back from her. And when I poked her she got back to me to say, “This is the first time this has ever happened to me. I have no idea how to deal with this stuff.” And I was thinking, oh yeah, she took me on to chase history stuff and now I’m just pitching her this weird stuff that I want to do.
FT: When you were young, what did you want to be?
SM: When I was five I just wanted to make it to six. As I got older I realized I liked the attention that came from drawing. I liked being the school artist. In Grade 5 I did the drawings for the gym, and they had projected them onto the wall and the older students traced them out. That was a great feeling of power, having the older students tracing out your work on a gym wall. In high school, being able to draw got me out of a bunch of scrapes. I was the tiniest kid in high school but the football team never beat me up because I would draw their tattoos for them before the big games.
FT: Were you the Screech [Saved by the Bell character]?
SM: You could say I was the Screech. If Screech was like, tinier or weaker.
FT: What did you do straight out of high school?
SM: I went to Georgian College for graphic design. That was the only thing I knew where you could turn artwork into a career. I did that for a year and they basically told me I drew too much. I’d turn assignments into big drawings with backgrounds and they’d look at it and say, “This isn’t really supposed to be about that.” I didn’t do too well, so I left. And I was like, “Well, how else can I make money?” So I went into media arts at Sheridan, which was like, film, TV, web. I lasted three days. And the same thing was happening. I was doodling in classes. An hour would pass and I would just lose focus. So I went into illustration, which I also learned was a way to make money. I did a year of art fundamentals, then got back into illustration.
FT: What was your first job?
SM: I suppose paper boy, but I didn’t last very long. McDonald’s after that. Then I worked at Canadian Tire for about five years. That was the best job I ever had.
FT: Why? Access to free nuts and bolts? The smell of rubber when the sliding doors open and you walk inside?
SM: Those were perks, but no. It was the feeling of helping people. I got the job and I thought I was going to be a cashier, but then they put me in the hardware department and the electrical department. And I didn’t know anything about any of that. So I had to learn about electrical and plumbing and paint and all the hardware stuff. And it was just such a good feeling, actually helping people and assisting them with their problems.
About five years ago I was up in the Junction Canadian Tire around Christmas, and there was a family trying to figure out what they needed to make a light. And the person working couldn’t really help them. So I jumped in and I was like, “Oh, you need this and this, and you need to pry this open and twirl this around this way and screw it.” And then I watched them leave the aisle. They had their lamp and they were happy and off they went. And I was walking home and I remember just crying a little bit because I hadn’t felt that useful in years.
FT: This is the second reference you’ve made to crying.
SM: I cry a lot. I’m an emotional guy. I remember getting home and talking to my girlfriend. I’d been at the Post for a while and I remember just looking at her and saying, “Illustration work is just the worst. It just feels like window dressing. I’m not helping anyone.”
FT: Would you say that being an illustrator is the worst job you’ve had, then?
SM: You can’t really complain about an illustration career because you’re drawing for a living. I was once a muffin man. I had to get up at like, four a.m. and make muffins. I lasted about a week. That was the worst.
FT: If you could rip the skin off of one person’s body and stick it on your body, whose would it be?
SM: That’s a tricky one. Do I go with someone I hate who I want to skin, or do I go with something that will make me beautiful, even though skin draped across me wouldn’t be beautiful?
FT: I guess eventually it will rot.
SM: I think probably just myself. I’d like to take my skin off and put it back on, but in a more pleasing way. Like a bit tighter.
FT: Like reconstructive surgery?
SM: If there’s time travel involved, then me from twenty. Beautiful skin back then. Skin you could eat a burrito off.
FT: I’m trying to think of journalists who were also in the comics industry, but all I can think of are Tintin, Clark Kent and Peter Parker.
SM: I’ve always looked up to Peter Parker. I was always confused, though amazed, that this freelance photographer would end up in these one-on-ones with the publisher and the editor-in-chief of the Bugle. That just doesn’t happen. But then after a few years at the Post, I achieved this kind of Peter Parker status where I would have these weird meetings with the publisher because I was kind of like the mascot of the place.
FT: You mentioned that you didn’t sleep last night.
SM: My girlfriend’s out of town, so my schedule is all out of whack. I’m lonelier than normal, working all day, not talking to anyone, talking to the cat for too long. Staying up late.
FT: Do you struggle to shut your mind down?
SM: There’s always three or four projects on the go that I have to figure out. So I do, yeah, find it hard to shut the head off. It’s not that I’m some genius who’s always thinking. It’s the deadlines. They kill me.
FT: Are you the kind of guy who wakes up at three in the morning with anxiety?
SM: I’ll have a period like that for two or three times a year. Like leading up to Zdarscon, I couldn’t sleep.
FT: Let’s talk about Zdarscon, because this is your own making. You’ve handcuffed yourself to this thing.
SM: Oh, it’s all my fault. I can’t blame anyone.
FT: But this is part of who you are. You’re the guy throwing the anti-ComiCon across the street. And we’ve come to expect that each Zdarscon should be bigger and better than the first, which was just you dressed in white sitting in a park with your Eisner.
SM: It’s a dangerous thing to create something that people expect to see grow. I don’t know what to do for next time. I mean, this year’s worked so well.
FT: It was basically a love-in, right?
SM: We got this nice executive suite in a hotel. Half felt like this weird comic-book shop, and the other half had all these creatives just laying around in bed, taking photos and signing stuff. It was the most relaxing way to do a show. We had five people come in at a time. The lineup was outside the hotel.
FT: So this whole thing began as an anti-ComiCon statement. Does it even feel political to you when you’re doing it?
SM: People in the know understand that this was born out of the fact that I don’t like the show, and I don’t care for the guy who has run it for the last fifteen years. But people not in the know just think I’m being a doofus. Which is fine. I don’t want to make it an antagonistic thing. It’s more about the fun we can have by not doing that show.
FT: What did your parents do?
SM: Their philosophy was, you do the jobs, you get the money, and you do the things you like with the rest of your life. And their hope for their kids was, you do a job that hopefully you like and you get the money, and then you can also do the things that you like. My dad worked for a phone company, my mom worked for a barbecue company. But now they spend six months of the year in a trailer park in Florida, six months of the year in an apartment in Barrie. That’s their lifestyle. They golf every day.
FT: Do you go down to Florida in the winters, then?
SM: I went down once. A senior-citizen trailer park is a weird thing, man.
FT: You once said you created Chip Zdarsky as “a sad-sack cartoonist persona that lives in his parents’ basement. Paints figurines for money and has restraining orders.” What happened to that guy? How did he evolve into an Eisner winner?
SM: I created him because my editor at the Globe was upset that I had done this thing with the Post kind of slamming the Globe. I told her that if I did anything again that reflects poorly on them as my main client, I would do it under a pseudonym. So that’s how the pseudonym came about. I was also at a U of T paper and we decided to make it a bit of a character. I interviewed myself as Chip Zdarsky, and he was doing this comic strip that was kind of terrible, really dark stuff. Then when I — sorry, he — had enough to make a comic out of it, I started touring and doing the conventions as Chip. I had just been divorced, so it became this kind of weird split-personality kind of thing where at home I was just an average guy, but then on the road I was this breezy, over-the-top extrovert drunk in a cowboy hat and big glasses. It was a total character and it was a lot of fun. But as I developed a bit of a name at the Post doing stuff as Steve Murray, it got a little weird.
FT: So you were Steve Murray at the Post but you were still Chip Zdarsky on the outside, writing filth and stuff.
SM: There was a time when I never expected to really do anything with my real name that would garner any attention; it was always just illustrations. So once I had two fan bases, it got really weird. And I didn’t know how to promote both stuff.
FT: This was around the time that Steve Murray was running for mayor?
SM: Right, and meanwhile, Chip’s still doing dumb, dirty comics and jokes and stuff. Eventually they all merged into one and I came out and said, “All right, my name might be Chip but I’m actually Steve.”
FT: So who was Todd Diamond and why did he have to go away?
SM: The only reason he went away is because I no longer work for the Post. We were always looking for dumb stuff to do there, myself and the video editor. And we thought it would be funny to do a dumb financial advice segment as a sad sack who had clearly lost everything. It was great. I mean, we basically got paid to do skits for the paper under the guise of information/entertainment. I don’t even know what they were thinking.
FT: Let’s talk about your process. When a publisher gives you something like Jughead, do you have to then go back to the reference library and review the canon? Or does it even matter?
SM: It’s really loose canon. There’s not a sense of continuity in those comics. I mean, you can dip into a Jughead or an Archie comic at any time and not be lost. You’re not going to be hit with Jughead with his arm in a cast and say, “Wait, what happened?” There’s none of that. They’re trapped in high school. The same things keep happening. Sometimes they’ll meet new characters. I mean, writing that was like writing on instinct. You know how Jughead sounds. You know how Archie and Veronica sound. It’s almost like automatic writing. You have the voices in your head and it just kind of comes out. The only research I had to do was, there’s a lot of allusions to the weird fantasy stories that they would do, like Jughead and the gang as spies or as superheroes and those kind of repeating things in the comics, so I’d go back and reread those.
FT: Is working on Archie kind of like if you’re a screenwriter and you get Days of Our Lives?
SM: I tell you, getting the Jughead job was more exciting than getting Howard the Duck or writing Spider-Man. I mean, I grew up reading them. These were the comics I first read.
I recognize that they could be someone’s first comic at an early age. All my childhood road trips were filled with those digests. They felt like a kid’s version of a novel. So I loved the characters, and the fact that I could create a thing that I could hand off to kids was great. I mean, Howard the Duck was great because kids could read it, but it’s not meant for kids. There are allusions that will go right over their head. But with Jughead, right after the comic was slated to come out, word got around in my neighbourhood, and all of a sudden these kids were coming up to me and saying, “Hey, you’re the Jughead guy.” And I’d be like, “Yeah!” And when the comic came out I was able to give it to kids, and that felt special. I mean, with Sex Criminals, I can’t give that to kids. I can’t even give it to adults half the time.
FT: What means more, Sex Criminals being named comic of the year by Time magazine, iTunes banning it as pure smut or winning the Eisner Award?
SM: With the Eisner, there was build up to it. You work yourself up to it thinking you’ve actually got a chance and then it happens. Where as the Time magazine thing happened in silence. I was just online one day and someone said ‘Congratulations!’ and sent me the link. I was like, ‘Oh cool.’ Then I backed up a second and was like ‘Woa woa woa!’
So much of my time is spent alone, so even when something like that happens you’re just sitting there alone in the studio and trying to reach out to people to celebrate. And so I called Matt, (the writer in Chicago), and he couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe it. It was just surreal and weird.
The iTunes thing, I feel like that was a bigger deal. When we originally conceived of the Sex Criminals we wanted to make a big digital push because it’s the kind of book that a lot of comic shops in the south just won’t stock because of its title. So we wanted to make sure everyone would have access to it, and then all of a sudden Apple decides that they can’t have access to it. A lot of people get their comics through Apple. So that was super upsetting. But then it kind of reversed things for us. Suddenly people had to go to comic book shops. So print sales went up while we were fighting Apple about the digital stuff. It wasn’t just a weird blip and it helped contribute to an important discussion about access to materials.
FT: You say you spend most of your day alone. How many other conversations do you expect to have today?
SM: I had one conversation with a human yesterday, which was with the woman who gave me my coffee. And it was basically just ‘Thank you.’
FT:So this interview is a treat for you?
SM: Yeah! Well in comics your social life is either with no one or it’s with thousands of people at comic conventions. All of a sudden you’re like this focus point for all these people. It’s weird.
FT: Wil Wheaton — sorry, let’s just call him by his real name — Wesley Crusher once said, “Of all the friends I have, Chip Zdarsky is among them.” What does that mean to you?
SM: It means he is a very generous man. Wil’s a good guy. I’ve known him online for ten years now. We met in person a year ago. He’s a totally sweet guy, just a total nerd who has had the weirdest time of it. That’s a good quote. Nothing more there.
FT: Here’s another quote: Warren Ellis says you have “an almost Andy Kaufman-like scary humour.” Do you agree? If so, where does it come from?
SM: No, I don’t. I don’t know if you could actually have a conversation with Andy Kaufman. I don’t delve into any kind of character for what I’m doing. I don’t have to wreck my life to make the joke — yet.
FT: Sometimes you just like to put on a white suit and sit in a park.
SM: Yeah, exactly.
FT: Where does that urge come from?
SM: Just being a tiny kid that was usually changing schools, so you had to either fight people or make them laugh to get by.
FT: This seems like as good a time as any to bring out the magic markers and ask you to draw your portrait.
SM: Oh, good. Magic markers.
FT: It’s all I could find in my house. I find it fascinating, the dichotomy between the characters you create and the ones you inherit. Is it more stressful to care for the characters you inherit?
SM: The thing with Marvel Comics is that you know you’re just not going to please everyone, because everyone has their own opinion on what the character should be. Like, I’ve taken over Star-Lord, which is a very tricky one because he’s drastically different than what he once was. He has changed character several times, and now with the movies he’s something entirely different. So I’m going to get yelled at, no matter what I do. You just have to accept that. But it’s easier to write those characters, similar to the Jughead thing, because the voice is in my head. Like, I can write Spider-Man, I know how Spider-Man sounds. There’s an emotional built-in structure there.
There was an issue of Howard that was drawn by my childhood art hero, Kevin Maguire. He used to do Justice League and I was so excited to work with him. I was like, “Whatever you want to draw, just let me know.” And he said, “I just want to do a bunch of superheroes and dinosaurs.” And I was like, “Done!” So I wrote the story for him, and seeing the pages come in where I had him drawing Daredevil and She-Hulk and Captain America, I mean, that was like it. Now that I’ve got that checked off, they could fire me from Marvel tomorrow and I’d say, “Well, all right. At least I had that.”
FT: When you were a kid you had favourite illustrators more so than characters?
SM: When I was really young it was character, but then it got to where I just wanted wherever the artist was going. My favourites changed. Walt Simonson, he was one of my favourites. I followed him from title to title and he wound up doing a Jughead cover, and I was like, that’s awesome. It’s nice to be working in comics, because the dream of meeting and working with your heroes is so achievable.
FT: Do some of the guys who came before you hold a special place for you? Will Eisner, the man behind The Spirit, or even Joe Shuster, the Toronto boy who co-created Superman. Is there anyone with a career arc that you like?
SM: Comics generally don’t end well. A lot of people in comics go in thinking, this is great. Then they get on the hit list and they think it’s going to last forever, and then they’re fired.
FT: And then they’re living the last few chapters of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
SM: Exactly. I’ve done a lot of comic conventions where you meet some of the old stars, and now they’re working in an IT department somewhere or in the post office, and on weekends they draw people for a hundred dollars. That’s fine, and it’s nice, but it’s a reminder to me that that’s where we all end up.
The industry is just brutal. You don’t own your work if you’re working for Marvel or DC. Styles change, and some artists keep up with it or have their own thing that keeps up for a long time. It’s all based on the whims of the publisher, really.
You run out of steam, you run out of stories. You get old, and people don’t want stories from old guys. Or you fall out of favour. You’re just replaced by someone younger who will do it for less. There’s no security for anyone. There are a few people who have managed to stay at Marvel and do Marvel things, but even they have stuff on the side.
FT: This portrait you’re drawing is becoming a far more finished product than I expected it to be. This looks like it should cost me more than a breakfast.
SM: This is actually one of the least ugly portraits of myself that I’ve done. Like, maybe I think I’m a big shot now. Like, I’ve got all my hair here. I don’t think I’ve used marker in like, fifteen years.
FT: What are you doing there? What is that?
SM: A tear.
FT: Oh, look at that. He’s crying.
SM: My finest work.
FT: The next time you see this it will be in print.
FT: Okay, well, let’s get you back to the garage.