Marvel Comics has been ascribing to the concept of architects for many years now. Track the series of annual events and which writers are guiding the best-selling series, and it’s not difficult to see names rise to steer the ship, even if only for a year or two. Oftentimes this success isn’t met with a fall, but with a succession of sorts. Some of the hottest talent to ever fill the role of a Marvel architect, names like Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman, didn’t simply ride off into the sunset. They moved on to similar positions with the distinguished competition or focused on creator-owned work, sometimes choosing to return after a hiatus. Jason Aaron currently fills the seat as he masterminds yet another massive summer event in “War of the Realms.” Based on the past, it’s only a matter of time until Aaron and others currently working in this position leave the role open and waiting for the next big writer to fill it.
That presents one fun element of being a Marvel Comics fan, spotting the next writer who appears ready to take on bigger titles and tells the next senses-shattering event. While there are lots of immensely talented writers currently working at Marvel Comics, there is one who really stands out as the next obvious architect for the publisher, a name no one would have expected even five years ago, a man whose name makes everyone think of Sex Criminals: Chip Zdarsky.
For the Love of Genre
Zdarsky is not a fresh face to illustration or storytelling; he worked in journalism and launched multiple creator-owned series at Image Comics (and other publishers) before starting with Marvel Comics and being signed to an exclusive contract in March 2018. However, based on all of his work for the publisher so far, it would be impossible to guess that Zdarsky wasn’t groomed in the tradition of the superhero genre. All of his comics featuring spandex (for costumes, not other stuff) are in complete control of the tropes, history, and themes that make the tradition so popular today.
This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Superhero comics are one of the weirdest genres in existence, and Zdarsky has always excelled at getting weird. This is a context in which decades of convoluted history is often expected to be respected, and Zdarsky capably boils that information down into dialogue and amusing distillations, playing on experience as an artist to make those difficult summaries function without overpowering visual elements. Tonal transitions are every bit as essential to his success as pivots between comedy and tragedy often occupy the same issue or, even, the same page. Zdarsky’s scripting of joke-y characters like Johnny Storm or Spider-Man doesn’t offer a sometimes serious and sometimes funny take. Instead, they are both, capable of delivering a zinger in the tensest scenarios or reveal their heartfelt motivations through humor. All of this is essential to working within the superhero genre for any extended period of time.
For the Love of Character
There’s an added layer of complexity in working at Marvel Comics. Not only does a writer have to be skilled in the genre, but they have to possess an understanding of very specific characters. That doesn’t mean knowing exactly how many clones of Peter Parker are running around or rattling off past issue numbers for reference, it means understanding the appeal that have allowed these characters to continually capture new audiences for more than half of a century. Lots of people love Spider-Man, but not everyone can answer why so many people love Spider-Man.
Zdarsky has shown he has answers for many of Marvel’s most enduring characters, including the Fantastic Four and Daredevil. He also wrote Howard the Duck. Even with just half of the Fantastic Four present in Marvel Team-Up, Zdarsky explored themes of family, discovery, and change, the very stuff that made the original team foundational at Marvel Comics. His new run on Daredevil has tapped into the same ideas that have made the character an icon and launched the superhero careers of all-stars like Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis. Yet this new Daredevil and Zdarsky’s other takes never read as retreading the same ground. The new run might focus on trauma, violence, and penance just like Miller and Mazzucchelli’s classic “Born Again,” yet the presentation of those ideas are fresh, both in their plotting and thematic interpretation. It’s no small feat, especially with a character possessing so much history already.
For the Love of Zdarsky
After all of this, or just reading Zdarsky’s superhero comics from the past few years, you’re probably expecting a big final case for why he should be made the next architect at Marvel Comics. However, there’s a twist: Chip Zdarsky doesn’t need to be called an architect or given an event by anyone. He’s been doing the sort of work that shapes superhero comics all along.1comments
We might like to see Marvel Comics or another publisher present Zdarsky with specific new opportunities, but whatever the next thing might be for this particular writer, there should be no doubt that it will be valuable. Just consider Zdarsky’s work on series like Marvel Team-Up and Spectacular Spider-Man. It’s possible to cynically spin these as the off-brand versions of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man, respectively, the ones that matter less. Yet when you read them, it’s difficult to think of a take on these characters that have mattered more in recent years. It’s no accident that Spectacular Spider-Man #310 has been nominated for multiple Eisners or that Marvel Two-in-One has subtly outshone the relaunch of Fantastic Four it preceded.
Zdarsky’s work is a reminder that no one can give an artist permission to do their best work, as he has been bringing his A-game since working on Howard the Duck and Star-Lord. While certain writers might be asked to design events as architects, it’s the quality of work that makes it resonate with readers and other creators, providing a much more permanent impact than any crisis or war. That’s what Zdarsky has been doing all along and why he’s already Marvel’s biggest writer for some fans.