Spandexless Talks: Jim Zub of Skullkickers / by Patrick Smith

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My love for the monster mashing fun within the pages of Skullkickers is well documented (and even made it onto the cover of the latest HC collection) but in the last several months my pull list has had a pair of homicidal mercenary holes in it as the series has been on a short hiatus. Of course series writer Jim Zub has been keeping busy in the interim with his webcomic Makeshift Miracle (which we also reviewed) and working in ShiftyLook's video game-inspired webcomic Sky Kid. But now with Skullkickers set to come back I was able to ask the series creator a few questions on the realities of getting a monthly creator owned book out, what can be learned from online distribution, and what can be expected from a very cool contest. Spandexless: So I really don’t know what the logistics of getting an ongoing creator-owned book like Skullkickers out are like so can you get into the reasons of why you guys took a brief hiatus? Was it a personal decision for the creative team to recharge your batteries? Did Image need a break to take a look at the numbers? Was it a combination of the two?

Jim Zub: It had nothing to do with Image and everything to do with the financial reality of creator-owned comics in 2011-2012. Skullkickers is doing well by creator-owned comic standards nowadays but it hasn’t been financially lucrative enough to keep all the bills paid. Edwin took on extra freelance work to make up the gap and I’m always juggling other freelance stuff at UDON and on my own so, between those responsibilities, we felt it would be best to take a short break between arcs rather than promise a book we couldn’t deliver.

We’re still committed to the series and want to see it continue through the full story I have planned even if that means we’re only able to do one story arc per year. Slow and steady is better than not at all.

S: Something I really love about the book is that in the last issue of the main story you revealed that the real names of the characters might not actually be their names. Was that a direct response to everyone who kind of whined about the main characters never having names? Or was that the plan all along?

JZ: It was the plan all along. We gave out two names and then, in our typical sarcastic style, we tucked them away without clarifying if they are or aren’t the actual character names. I wanted to keep people guessing a bit longer. I think that no matter what we end up doing with the names our fans have christened them with “Baldy” and “Shorty” from here on out.

S: Well I know I do, and now with the newest story arc you take the skull kickers to the high seas for some pirate on pirate action. Is there anything that you specifically set out to put in this arc?

JZ: The big goal of Skullkickers is to have our “heroes” bulldoze their way through just about every classic fantasy setting/trope imaginable, so using the high seas and pirates is fertile ground for their kind of hijinks. At the same time we’ll be revealing more of the bigger back story of Skullkickers and hinting at some of the bigger things to come as the stakes continue to get raised with each story arc.

S: Can you go into any detail on the bigger aspects of the story of Skullkickers that you’re setting up? I would imagine it has something to do with that cosmic bull Shorty has had dealings with.

JZ: Without giving too much away, the big goal of Skullkickers is to romp through every fantasy cliché and setting, including the big daddy of them all, the “heroes of destiny” type shtick. The Bull Prophecy is definitely part of that. At every turn I want to have the typical fantasy stuff in play, but utilize the pieces differently and surprise our readers with different takes and outcomes then the norm.

S: I noticed while reading over the last arc that the crew the ‘kickers will be traveling with a band of all female pirates? Was there a particular reason behind that or did you just want to subvert the expectations of what a pirate crew would be?

JZ: It’s both, really: subverting expectations and making sure that we crank up the female quotient in the series. I want to show a really diverse cast of pirate ladies of all shapes, sizes and colors. I don’t want our series to be pigeon-holed in terms of content and am always looking for ways to surprise our readers.

S: Will this mean we’ll be seeing more female characters in the pages in Skullkickers? Because so far the only one we’ve seen is the assassin character and I think it would be interesting to see how a female character might react to the ‘kickers particular brand of mayhem.

JZ: Yes, absolutely. One of the tricks with the series is that “Skullkickers” is a generic title for the people in the series, not just the dwarf and big guy. The Skullkickers cast may grow and shrink as other people get pulled into the gravity well of monster mashing we specialize in.

S: You’ve also recently been syndicating Skullkickers online, how’s that been working out?

JZ: It’s going very well! The online site has been a fantastic way to “lend” tens of thousands of new readers the earliest issues of the series so they can get on board the Skullkickers adventure. Every weekday a new page goes up and readers have a chance to slowly read those pages bit by bit or, at any moment, they can click our handy comic shop finder/Amazon/comiXology link to get caught up on the later chapters. For series like ours where it’s a brand new property and we’re trying to build up recognition and an audience, it’s ideal. For new creators and new ideas I think it will start to become more and more common. Digital is just another platform and it runs alongside print. Both are valid and I’m determined to have Skullkickers available in as many formats as possible so people can discover and enjoy it.

S: Along with Skullkickers you've had a few other notable excursions with webcomics lately with Makeshift Miracle and ShiftyLook’s SkyKid, all of which are a bit different in how they're presented digitally. Have you learned anything about working with webcomics and how they differ from a printed floppy whether that be reception, readership, how the content is received?

JZ: I’m definitely learning a lot about putting content up online and the differences between that versus the normal print comic distribution channels. The potential size of an online audience is obviously a lot bigger, but you have to compete with a lot of other media for their attention. The content needs to be regular, it needs to be entertaining and you have to look to a much longer timeline to gain the loyalty of an online audience. With each new project I approach online I feel like I’m learning a bit more.

S: Something I've really found interesting while reading Makeshift Miracle is just how different your writing is from that on Skullkickers. In fact if I didn't know you were involved in either I would even say they don't even read as the same person. Is that difficult or is it one of those things where you don't really notice and you just subconsciously switch gears given the project?

JZ: Writing Makeshift Miracle definitely engages very different creative gears for me in terms of mood and pacing. I’m channeling a whole other set of influences and it alters my writing approach substantially. Skullkickers is pulpy ridiculous action with frequent story beats and relentless momentum while Makeshift is a slow and thoughtful, almost brooding, surreal mystery that comes from things like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and dramatic manga. It takes its time to reach each big revelation and then slowly comes away from them, leaving those big moments lingering. Working on both projects at the same time has been fun since they each have their own methodology.

S: Your also going to be doing a short story in the Princeless trade from Action Lab. How did you hook up with Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin and how did you writing a cross over with the Skullkickers and Princess Adrienne come about?

JZ: I've been a member of the Forumopolis forum community for quite a while. M and I are both on their and we occassionally post art, stories or other stuff. When Princeless was announced M posted about it on the forum. I followed up and tracked down the first issue, then contacted them asking if I could help promote the great work they were doing on the series. The idea of a team-up short story evolved from there.

S: Can you tell us at all what your story will center on?

JZ: The crossover tale has the Dwarf and Adrienne confronting some ruffians at a supply shop during their respective travels. A bit of banter, some threats of violence and a Skyrim-influenced in-joke make it in there. It's short and sweet.

S: Very cool. And since we're back on Skullkickers awhile back I read your Op-Ed on the Graphic Novel Reporter and you had a really interesting point about how North American culture seems fine with over the top violence but not with sex which basically allows you to skirt the line and makes Skullkickers perfect for Young adults. Even with that caveat have you gotten any truly negative responses to Skullkickers use of violence? If so were there any in particular that stood out?

JZ: Not one complaint so far. Heck, we even made YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Association)’s “Great Graphic Novels 2012” list which means, according to their listing, that we “meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens”. We’re not just violent, we’re “quality literature violent”.  :)

S: What about some notable positive responses from younger readers?

JZ: Our readers, young and old, love the irreverent attitude of our characters and their stupid solutions to the problems they find themselves in. They enjoy the snappy dialogue and colorful artwork. The violence isn’t unbearably gory or creepy. The violence sits somewhere closer from the middle to Looney Tunes than it does any kind of realistic carnage.

S: It definitely is at that, Lastly I was wondering if you could explain a little about the current Skullkickers writing contest to get a short in an upcoming issue. Was there a particular reason you wanted to open up the flood gates to the fans and what in particular you’re looking for in a pitch?

JZ: We’ve received so much positive feedback about the series and when I got to conventions I see dozens upon dozens of people who are creating their own comics or are looking at ways to break in and get their work seen. I wanted to use the little bit of a toe hold I have to give a couple hard working folks their chance to see their work published, whether this is the only comic they ever do or if it’s their first work before they take off with their own comic later on.

I’m looking for a short story that feels like a Skullkickers tale: a simple and easy to understand core premise, enjoyable banter and fun pay-off that’s appropriate but also a bit unexpected. The writer only has six pages, so it’s important that it doesn’t over reach and try to do too much in that storytelling space. When I read the overview I want to be able to visualize our boys in that situation, causing chaos, and our readers enjoying the ride.

The next Skullkickers arc landed in comic stores this past Wednesday, along with their new hardcover volume. But if your looking to catch up, you can support Spandexless by buying any of the volumes from our Amazon web store.