Monday, February 25, 2013

Fireside Chat with Jim Zub of Uncanny Skullkickers

Hello, gentle reader, it's time for another one of our Fireside Chats. So please feel free to curl up in your favourite sitting chair as we speak with comic book writer extraordinaire Jim Zub. We'll be chatting a lot of Uncanny Skullkickers, the all new #1 issue for his creator owned series that comes out this Wednesday,  February 27th. The book is both approachable for new readers and continues the great story that he and his creative collaborators have been telling all along. We'll be touching on the series as a whole, comics more generally, and some of Jim Zub's own personal background.  And as an added bonus, we also have some of the opening pages from Uncanny Skullkickers #1 for your reading pleasure, so get clicking to check it all out!

Jim Zub is one mighty prolific comic book writer. Not only has he been scribbling away at Skullkickers for 18-plus issues, he's the writer for Dynamite's Pathfinder comic and a number of webcomics, including his own Makeshift Miracle and ShiftyLook's Wonder Momo and Klona series. When he's not busy writing comics, he somehow finds the time to teach at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada and work as a project manager at UDON Entertainment. He's kind of a busy guy.

No keyboards were hurt in the making
of this interview.
Grant McLaughlin: When it comes to “Uncanny” Skullkickers, what motivated you to have this little bit of solicitation shenanigans? And did you expect the reaction you got to the move?

Jim Zub: Reaching 19 issues on a creator-owned series is becoming less and less common nowadays. A lot of creator-owned projects are mini-series or short run books. With that in mind, it's hard to gain new readers and generate press interest when the story is continuing, the creative team is the same and the plan is consistency. Press outlets rarely run articles headlined with "Series Continues And Is Still Worth Reading!" so I knew that we needed to bang the drum in a creative way to remind people we're still here and kicking ass.

I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. I figured it wouldn't hurt our sales because the current readership is loyal and pretty stable but figured it might help bring new interest from outside.

GM: How have you found the reaction up to this point? Is it still too early to tell if it's had any impact on sales?

Zub: We've got Final Order sales on "Uncanny" and initial orders for "Savage" at this point and it's had a surprisingly strong impact. I don't know if it was the pointed sarcasm, the press, the teasers, fan and retailer exhaustion with relaunches or the power of the Marvel-esque adjective, but sales on Uncanny Skullkickers #1 are more than double our previous issue #18. Savage Skullkickers' initial orders are even a bit higher than initial orders were for Uncanny, so obviously I'm thrilled. I'm hopeful that it brings a new readership and new energy to the series.

GM: That's great news! Was it always the plan to roll out a new adjective every month or did that follow from the positive reaction you received with Uncanny Skullkickers?

Zub: When I pitched this bizarre relaunch-itis idea to Image the idea was always to do it every month for a set number of months. It was planned this way from the beginning. I knew some people would like it, others would hate it but more people would be talking about the series and I felt it would have an overall positive outcome. So far, so good...

GM: Each of the Skullkickers story arcs has differed in their style and focus. What can readers look forward to as Eighty Eyes on an Evil Island kicks off?

Zub: Part of the goal of Skullkickers is playing into certain fantasy cliches/tropes with each story arc. We've thrown in undead monsters, medieval city/underworld adventuring, thieves guilds, faerie folk, pirates, sea monsters... all kinds of different sword & sorcery elements all slamming together and our 'heroes' running ramshod over each and every one.

This one is our 'jungle/exploration' arc so all of those tropes will be coming out to play- tropical weather, savage creatures, rainforest survival, ancient temples and apes, lots of apes.

GM: Speaking of change, this arc signals a shuffling in our two leads, as Shorty the dwarf has been switched out for Kusia the elf. How will that impact the book's dynamic going forward?

Zub: Right off the bat, Kusia is easily twice as smart as the dwarf, which means there may actually be some battle strategy put into play. Scary, I know. :P

Rex and Kusia definitely have a different dynamic, and that's one of the fun things about writing this arc. The back and forth our readers have grown accustomed to gets shaken up and we get to see new interplay and banter. Kusia isn't a typical heroine, but given that our boys haven't been typical heroes this whole time, that works out just fine.

GM: Longtime readers will know that Kusia actually appeared all the way back in issue #1 of Skullkickers as the hooded assassin and has been in and out since that time. How long has it been in the cards for her to come in as one of the book's leads?

Zub: Much like the overall structure planning after we decided to make Skullkickers ongoing, Kusia’s expanded role came out of that six arc story development. I was always intending to kill one of the two boys and once I figured out how best to handle that with the dwarf it all came together.

GM: Also, like Kusia, will her new found talking and rhyming sword start to play a bigger role as well?

Zub: Hmmm… hard to say. :)

Embiggen to see what Jim is talking about.

GM: Well played, Jim. Glad to see that that wacky prophesy will be playing a role in what's to come. Speaking of, it's my understanding is that you plot things out pretty well in advance. I've read at various times that Skullkickers is currently scheduled for a 36 issue run. Is the book loosely plotted through all 36 issues at this point?

Zub:
When Eric Stephenson asked me if we’d like to take Skullkickers from a mini-series through to an ongoing midway through producing issue #3 and at that point I knew I needed a long term plan to hold it all together if we were going to do that. I sat down and plotted out the main story and we’ve stuck to most of those original plans. Small details change and better ideas come up from time to time but that original plot structure for the six arcs I developed at that point is still working.

GM: More generally, what made you want to do Skullkickers?

Zub:
Skullkickers is a love letter to the fantasy stories I consumed and games I played while growing up. It’s Dungeons & Dragons, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Conan the Barbarian and Army of Darkness all rolled up into a sarcastic self aware ball of fun.

When I used to play Dungeons & Dragons with my older brother and cousins we’d always start off trying to tell a serious and important story but it would degenerate into laughing and troublemaking antics. Skullkickers is a comic built around that kind of manic energy as these jerks bulldoze through the clich├ęs of a regular fantasy story and make a huge mess out of it.

GM: Your two main collaborators over the course of this series has been Edwin Huang and Misty Coats. How did you first encounter them and what is your work process like with these two?

Zub:
I’d originally developed Skullkickers with Chris Stevens and we were hoping to launch it back in 2008, but Chris had financial commitments that wouldn’t allow for the risks of a creator-owned book and other personal stuff on his plate so I put the pitch and first issue script away and figured it would never get made.

Edwin was getting ready to graduate from art school and send his portfolio samples to the UDON studio. I saw them and realized he had a lot of skill, especially that early in his career. The studio didn’t have any room for a new artist but I wanted to encourage him so we started emailing back and forth, staying in touch. The conversation eventually came around to the possibility of collaborating and I pulled out the old script for Edwin to drop up some samples from. We’ve been roaring ever since. He’s genuinely one of the most professional and responsible people I’ve ever worked with.

Christina Strain, an artist/colorist who’s done a lot of coloring for Marvel over the years, recommended Misty for the project when I showed her pages and asked what she thought of it. I explained the animated-looking style I was hoping to see in the book and Misty hit it right off the bat. Her sample pages are right there in our first issue.

Both of them, along with Marshall Dillon our stellar letterer, are a joy to work with. All four of us are in different cities so it’s all done digitally and we don’t chat very much on the phone, but there’s still a great bond we’ve built up over the past two and a half years. We’re used to each other and our working habits. We’re all juggling Skullkickers “on the side” in addition to our day jobs and freelance work so it takes a lot of give and take. Even though it doesn’t pay like other work everyone on the team treats it as a priority and I’m deeply indebted to them for that.

I act as the ‘Project Manager’ on Skullkickers, organizing the schedule, shepherding files and making sure there aren’t any hold-ups along the production line: writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering and final design. I also interface with Image to make sure solicits go in on time, press releases get written and convention stuff gets planned out. Creating the art takes a lot longer than writing so my fair share of the work is in organizing those other things so Edwin and Misty can focus on getting the art done.

GM: On the topic of process, Skullkickers is known for some of the most playful sfx in comics, with many of them amounting to simple tongue in cheek descriptions of what's happening on the page. Can you speak a little as to where this practice came from?

Zub: It comes from an unexpected source, actually. I love reading old manga and the translated onomatopoeia in manga can be really bizarre and specific at times. Some of the sound effects are musical ‘tones’ to denote importance, feelings like ‘tension’ or even wonderfully sublime concepts like a sound effect for ‘complete silence’. Those sound effects clearly left their mark on me. In the first issue of Skullkickers we didn’t have any weird sound effects but by the time we got to issue 3 I sprinkled a few in and people went wild for them. It’s been part of our arsenal since then and I now have to stop myself from over abusing them.

GM: Speaking of "on the side", word on the street is that while you're writing comics, you still maintain a position as a Project Manager at UDON Entertainment and teach in Seneca College's Animation Program. Why are these the things you want to focus your time on and how do you manage to find time for them all, on top of (presumably) having a personal life where you relax and occasionally sleep?

Zub:
Creator-owned comics aren’t exactly a bedrock of financial stability so, like almost everyone else I know in comics who isn’t regularly working for Marvel/DC, I’m juggling other work to make sure the bills get paid. That’s the reason why Skullkickers has breaks between story arcs. We could deliver the series monthly if it was bringing in more money, but for now we have to build up a buffer of material and then release it in arcs.

Both careers started pretty close together. I’ve been working with UDON since mid-2003. I started there as a colorist/occasional illustrator and then shifted over into helping organize and manage creative projects (illustration/design for games, movies, advertising, etc) that were coming into the studio. It’s been a great place to get a ton of experience working on projects for different companies while staying in one place. Although it’s been my goal since 2010 to move into a more creative space and write more than manage, I still have close ties to everyone there and help out on projects as they come in. The UDON crew are like family and they’re very supportive of my creative aspirations.

My formal training is in art/animation and, before getting into the comic business, I worked in animation and taught at a small private art college in Alberta. When I moved back to Toronto I was just starting to get consistent work with UDON when a teaching opportunity at Seneca opened up and I started doing both as a way to stabilize my finances. I started teaching at Seneca in January 2004 and have balanced both jobs since then. The college really likes that I’m actively working in art/entertainment. They want their instructors to be involved in the business and bringing those current experiences into the classroom.

I have an office at the college and, when I’m not teaching classes, I’m usually in there plugging away on freelance writing, checking in on UDON projects or sending out a flurry of emails about Skullkickers production. I meet up with the UDON gang once or twice a month to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of projects. When freelance writing, like working on Pathfinder for Dynamite or other gigs, gets too busy I try to plan ahead and take on less UDON work so that everything can fit.

A lot of my friends here in Toronto are comic/creative freelance people as well so they know what it’s like. We steal away time now and then for get-togethers, dinners out or board game nights. When Toronto conventions happen I like to throw a house party on the same weekend to hang out with friends who come into town. By travelling to so many cities for conventions we’ve built up a little network of friends and professionals all over the place. You have family and you have a little “industry family” too.

My wife says the first thing she hears when she wakes up in the morning is the clatter of keyboard keys from my work room at home and the last thing she hears before she drifts off to sleep is the same, and it’s not really a joke. I push myself really hard because this is the crazy balancing act that’s required right now. I’m committed to these 3 roles (project manager, prof and freelance writer) and people are relying on me to deliver on all of them, let alone convention travelling (I did 15 conventions in 2012) and occasional downtime. It takes long hours and thousands of emails to keep all three rolling forward. I don’t know if it will always be this busy, but that’s the way it is right now. It’s exhausting and exciting, draining and invigorating all at the same time.

GM: Building on your response, why are creator comics so important to you?

Zub:
Working in a creative commercial industry is wonderful, but there’s definitely something ‘more’ about working on my own ideas, my own stories. Without trying to sound too dramatic, more than describing myself as an “artist” or a “writer” I feel like my occupation is “storyteller”. For me that encompasses more of what it’s all about. The story is the thing. On most commercial projects I’m part of that storytelling process but there’s all sorts of other layers to it so it’s not just my story anymore. It’s fun and I enjoy it, but it’s part of a larger structure.

When someone comes up to me with a Street Fighter comic and they want it signed, I’m proud but I know that they’re a fan of the game and the characters created by other people first and foremost. When someone brings up a copy of Skullkickers I know they like that because of the hard work our team put into the series and it wouldn’t exist otherwise. It's invigorating. It keeps me working and pushing my skills.

GM: Similarly, why do you think they're important to the industry?

Zub:
The biggest new comics of the past 20 years haven’t been corporate comics, they’ve almost all been creator-owned creations: The Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim, Bone, Saga, Mouse Guard, Hellboy, you name it. These new ideas and characters are crucial to keeping the industry fresh and reaching into new areas of storytelling a corporate publisher wouldn’t necessarily think to go into. The passion of a small group of creators can tap into something unexpected that innovates and inspires.

GM: One other thing that I really want to touch on are the tutorial postings you've been making on your site. I'm interested in the why of it. What pushed you to start these posts in the first place and what motivates you to continue them now?

Zub:
The tutorial posts on my site have two functions:

Firstly, I'm practically OCD about responding to communication requests. I know how awful it can feel when I send messages to people and they don't even respond and I'm hoping that no matter where my career goes I can maintain reasonable communication lines and stay accessible. A lot of the interactions I have with readers and strangers circle around requests for information about the art/comic business- How to break in, how I work, how to get started with writing and what-not. Writing individual responses to these questions is impossible. I'd either never have time to get my work done or the answers would be so brief that they wouldn't be helpful. My compromise is writing information posts and then linking people to them to answer their question as cohesively as I can. They get an answer and I save myself a lot of time.

Secondly, I find it helpful to think about and write down some of my thoughts and processes as a way to organize what I think about those subjects. I have ideas and assumptions about how I work but actually clarifying them in a blog post and ordering them helps me to get a better understanding of my work methods. If I can't figure out why I work a certain way it forces me to address that and clarify it. It's a bit of public analysis that can hopefully help other people or at least get them thinking about their own work.

GM: Very cool. And do you have any writing habits? Music that you listen to, place you need to be, or things you do to get into the groove?

Zub:
I tend to write in silence. No music or other background distractions if I can help it. My writing schedule has been squeezed pretty tight lately so it's not always possible to find isolation and quiet time to write but that's the ideal. I find outlining and page pacing to be difficult, but once I've built that structure scripting tends to go pretty quickly, though I'll tend to go over dialogue a few times to make sure the characters sound right and that back and forth banter flows well.

GM: And while it's abundantly clear that you keep a full schedule, do you have any time for reading in all of it? If so, what have you been going through lately?

Zub:
I try to read a bit each night before I go to bed. A lot of comics, especially on Wednesdays and Thursdays after new releases. Prose-wise I finally read through Grant Morrison's Supergods a few weeks ago and am currently digging into The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers as research for a possible upcoming project. Comic-wise I'm loving Locke & Key, Atomic Robo, Superior Spider-Man, All-New X-Men, Batman, Justice League Dark, Chew... all kinds of great titles coming out right now. It's a wonderful time to be a comic fan.

GM: It truly is a good time to be a comic book fan! Similar to that last question, are there any works that are particularly formative for you (whether comics, prose, movies, or other)?

Zub:
Formative works, eh… my tastes have run pretty eclectic over the years. I grew up on a steady diet of 80’s Marvel Universe comics and my favorites were Amazing Spider-Man, Dr. Strange and the Uncanny X-Men. From there I transitioned over to early English-translated manga including Appleseed, Ranma ½ and Video Girl Ai as well as Vertigo titles like Sandman, Preacher and Transmetropolitan.

I love fantasy novels like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Conan, more earthy swashbuckling stuff than the Lord of the Rings kind of material. I don’t mind Tolkien, but mercenary jerks are more my speed.

80’s movies definitely inform a bunch of my storytelling: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and The Goonies.

GM: And as we wind down, do you have any upcoming projects that fans should be keeping their eyes out for that you'd like to highlight?

Zub:
The first Pathfinder comic collection from Dynamite arrives in late April with six issues in an over-sized hardcover, which should look pretty spiffy.

Makeshift Miracle: The Boy Who Stole Everything, the second graphic novel in the series, should be released by UDON in late 2013. Readers can get caught up on our website:www.makeshiftmiracle.com

Over on ShiftyLook I’m still writing Wonder Momo and Klonoa for Namco-Bandai with new strips posted every week, which is quite a blast. www.shiftylook.com

GM: The only other thing I have for you is our Literary Rorschach Test. The gist of it is that I have 10 words for you and your job is to answer with the first thing that comes to mind. It can be anything at all: a word, a sentence, or a full blown paragraph. The call is up to you.

Skullkickery
– Boot to the Head
Romp – In the hay
Comedy - Slapstick
Teamwork - Traitor
Challenge - Deadlines
Time - None
Balance – In all things
Newfangled - Technology
Next - Generation
The End – For now

GM: Thanks so much for your time, Jim.

Look out for copies of Uncanny Skullkickers #1 at your local comic book shop this Wednesday, February 27th.  If you've been faithfully following Skullkickers, you know the hilarious action-adventure goodness that awaits you.  If you're new to the series, this is the perfect place to get started and discover a true comic book gem.


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