Earlier this year, we called Kaptara a sci-fi comic to watch out for, but it’s already so much more than that. We sat down with writer Chip Zdarsky to look at where the series is going, its sci-fi/fantasy twist, and the oodles of action figures that inspired the crazy world that Keith Kanga finds himself trapped on.
Image Comics’ Kaptara, penned by Zdarsky with art from Kagan McLeod, follows the adventures of Keith Kanga after his ship crash lands on an alien world. Separated from his crew mates, Keith finds himself in a wild word of crazy monsters, outlandish heroes, and sword and sorcery, and totally unprepared to face it. Five issues later, and with a trade paperback collection on the way, Keith has made some new friends on his journey to find his scattered crew... and maybe build a new life for himself away from a home he doesn’t really want to return to.
io9: We’re five issues into Kaptara now—have you been pleased with the response to the series so far?
Chip Zdarsky: Yeah. It was a trick series to kind of market originally, just because it’s kind of weird. The first issue probably doesn’t help things, because we did a bait and switch with a sci-fi Lost in Space story, and then by issue two it’s kind of an insane He-Man riff. It kind of feels a little under the radar, which I always kind of expected, as I knew Kagan [McLeod, artist on Kaptara] and I were doing the book for ourselves and hoped that people come along—and a lot of people have, it’s weird doing shows and seeing people with tattoos of your book that’s only three or four issues old! So the people that are into it are really into it.
I just feel like at this point it’s best to get the word out to everyone else that this is not a standard sci-fi tale, because there’s so many of them out there, and our concern has always been getting lost in the middle of all those.
Ahead of Kaptara’s release, you said that this was always the sort of comic you wanted to work on with Kagan. What’s that process been like on the series so far?
Zdarsky: I’ve known Kagan since art school—he was kind of the star artist at our illustration school. We started a studio together after school, and watching him work, and how creative and talented he is, I kind of always knew that if I was going to do a comic where I was just writing it, I’d get Kagan to be the illustrator of it. Back then, we’d have a shared sketchbook in our studio where we’d generate crazy characters and scenarios, and Kagan was so good at that—the idea for Kaptara sprang from the idea of working with Kagan. I knew, and it’s in evidence now, that he’s so outstanding at creating crazy worlds and characters. There’s almost a Jack Davis style to his drawings, where every character and pose is inherently funny.
So the process [of creating Kaptara] has been easy. For each issue we’d get together and talk it through, and Kagan would just be sketching away and making me laugh as he brings these dumb ideas to life. With all those things there’s not a lot I need to do on it—I can give him the most barebones description for a character and what he gives me back is so amazing that it inspires me to write it a different way, or go in a different direction with it just because I want to play to his strengths. He’s such an insanely talented man, it’s ludicrous. Upsetting.
You mentioned that the series had a bit of a twist, and after a scifi-heavy first issue it veers into an almost He-Man-esque fantasy adventures. Was that split always intended?
Zdarsky: I wanted there to be a bridge. You have the sort of normal character, which is Keith [Kanga, Kaptara’s protagonist], and he has to start from a semi-normal place. That’s the baseline of issue one, his journey there—that was never going to be fantasy, or anything crazy. So it was a lot of preamble and set up to get us where we needed to be.
I like the feeling of the bait and switch, too. I like the idea of someone reading it and then the first reveal of a crazy monster is like “Oh, that does not seem right,” and as we go one we reveal that it’s a ludicrous place that he’s ended up. The plan is to keep [Keith and his friends] encountering weird things, to keep them on that strange planet, and there’ll be some more elements introduced down the line that’s more scifi, but the heart of it is that action-figure style planet.
Aside from He-Man, what other properties inspired you going into the series?
Zdarsky: It’s funny, because the original idea was that when I was a kid, and like most kids when you play with your toys there’s no such thing as a division of universes, for lack of a better term. They all integrate together—my He-Man figures played with my G.I. Joes, with my Spider-Man figures. I like the idea of introducing that concept into the comic. The planet itself hosts different nations and countries that don’t get along, but they all represent a different kind of action figure or toy from my childhood memory.
The original plan was sure, you start out with the He-Man stuff, but then you have an island of My Little Pony, or nation of Transformers. We’ve done a little bit of that—the bug people [introduced in issue 3] are based on Sectaurs, which was like a sort of mutant-y insect-y He-Man in the ‘80s, and the Glomps were based on the Smurfs, but the prominent style is definitely He-Man. It’s so rich, and so weird. It combines fantasy and sci-fi and mage, you have these topless barbarians with swords operating laser machines on top of cats! All that stuff was so ridiculous growing up that it’s hard to leave that world now that we’re in it. As the journey goes on, we’re going to introduce more styles of characters, but the baseline that runs through it all is that Masters of the Universe feel.
Kaptara is a very funny series, but unlike some of your other recent work it’s very story based and about introducing this whole new world.
Zdarsky: Yeah, it’s tricky when you have to introduce a new world featuring brand new characters. You have to give the reader enough information so they understand it, that there’s context for things. When writing Howard the Duck [the ongoing Marvel series Zdarksy pens with Joe Quinones]... I’m not going to say it’s easy, it’s definitely not, but there’s a very straightforward thing to it. All the characters for the most part are defined for you, the world is defined. You don’t have spend a lot of time explaining who this Spider-Man character is, swinging by. With an original creation like Kaptara, that’s also not set in a recognizable place, a lot if it is about showing and telling people about the world, as you’re trying to build a story.
So it’s a little tricky. In a lot of ways it’s slowed down some of the plot that I’d kind of hoped would have happened by now. It’s weird to be surprised as the writer, but I typically am! We’re dealing with a larger cast, brand new settings. One of the things in my original pitch was to introduce a romance for Keith [who is a gay character], and there’s hints of it by the end of the first trade but not enough, I don’t feel. The second arc we’re really gonna delve into that more strongly. Another part of it is like, I wrote down that I wanted a romance but I also wrote down that he’s terrified and running for his life, trying to get his crewmates back to Earth. It’s like that Indiana Jones phrase, “No time for love, Doctor Jones.”
The first five issue are all about Keith’s new “team” coming together, and starting their quest to find the rest of his crew, but we don’t really know them just yet. Are we going to get more of an exploration of those characters and Keith himself?
Zdarsky: Everyone has adapted to the situation [on Kaptara] differently. They find Laurette [one of Keith’s crash-landed crewmates] at the end of this arc, and she’s clearly been a lot better with this than Keith has. She found some people, she’s working on a plan, she’s integrated into the planet than Keith. As we go one, we’re going to discover that the remaining crewmembers from the ship have all kind of reacted to the planet different. Keith represents the reader the most, because I think we’d all be scared shitless there, but they’re the human connection. The second volume will solidify the crew by the end of it, all the pieces will be in place—it’s actually fun working on a thing that’s long reaching, like a story that goes on for 60 issues. It’s fun just plotting out stuff like “Oh then this happens, and there’s a twist here, and then this character shows up.” I find myself having to stop getting excited about what’s coming down the road while we’re still working on the thing that’s happening right now!
It certainly sounds like it’s an enjoyable process for you.
Zdarsky: Oh Yeah! It’s the hardest thing to write, but it’s the most satisfying in the end.
As well as the human crew, we have the people who Keith meets on Kaptara, like She-La and Manton. Will we be digging into their stories as well? I guess this is my roundabout way of asking if we’ll get a solo story about Motivational Orb.
Zdarsky: Absolutely! The first issue that we come back to after the break is... I’m not going to say it’s a relaxing issue, but it’s going to be more of a character issue where they hold up in She-La’s hometown, so we find out a lot more about her [as well as] what kind of guy Manton is and why he keeps people at an arm’s distance, his previous relationships. Even Motivational Orb [a floating orb with arms that displays inspirational messages across its face] I have a pretty solid idea of what its backstory is.
It’s tricky. My point of reference for stuff like this is Matt [Fraction, who works on Sex Criminals with Zdarsky], because he’s the person I work most closely with. I know how hard working on X-Men was for him, juggling so many characters and expectations for them. Now I’m finding that with this too, it’s like “Oh yeah, we need to find out more about Melvon [a naked space wizard traveling with Keith] or Dartor [Kaptara’s He-Man stand-in]. Is he just a one-note character or is there more to this guy too?” God, I wish each issue was 40 pages so I could squeeze in everything!
Issue five ends with that fantastic spread of villains that the villainess Vilektra bands together to take over the planet. We ran a video of you and Kagan going through some of that process—can you tell us a little bit more about the process of going into that? Was it as fun as you two made it look?
Zdarsky: It started before that video. We did a signing in Minneapolis together and while we were there we figured we’d spend some time sort of plotting out issue 5. I wanted to end on something big, and Kagan was like “Oh, well how about a reveal of characters?” The more we talked about it... he wanted it to be like, a three-page spread—you’d have two pages [full of characters] and then flip it to see another with the stragglers! It was his idea to make it huge.
We were on the plane coming home, and started typing out names for characters, making each other laugh so hard that I was worried the stewardess was going to ask us if we needed help. [Laughs] We came up with about 40 solid names, did the video and came up with some more, and then I just stepped back and was like “Alright, you draw what you need to draw!” When he showed me the final spread, I almost died. They’re so good. Every single one of them could be an action figure. They’re all so distinct and amazing. So the next step was, for the trade paperback we have a two-page spread in the back that’s just biographies for all those new characters. Kagan spent all this time doing something to make me laugh, and I just wanted to do these dumb little write-ups for all the characters to make him laugh. The whole process took weeks, but I think it was worth it. And now we have all these fun characters, we don’t have to come up with any more! [Kagan’s] come up with more characters in that one month than most artists do in their entire career.
Hopefully it means that at some point there is a really fantastic Mr. Kisses action figure on toy shelves.
Zdarsky: [Laughs] Oh god, I can’t wait to see Kagan draw him in action. So gross!
We’ve been looking at where Kaptara has come from, but can you offer us a bit of a tease for where the story is going next?
Zdarsky: The next volume is just like, huge battles and romance. It’s... it’s bigger than any movie fight, for sure. It’s hard to say without giving stuff away—basically the next arc sets up everything that’s happened on Earth [while Keith was away]. That’s a mystery we’ve been dangling, so we figure it out by the end of that arc. It’s a fun surprise, I think.
Kaptara’s first trade paperback volume, Fear Not, Tiny Alien, is in stores December 23rd.