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FAN EXPO: Udon Entertainment

by  in Comic News Comment
FAN EXPO: Udon Entertainment

Toronto’s 2010 Fan Expo wound down with a panel looking back at the first decade of manga-influenced art studio and publisher UDON. The presentation by Project Manager Jim Zubkavich wasn’t entirely retrospective, however, and at times it also diverged away from the Canadian company’s best-known output – licensed adaptations of Asian media properties, especially Capcom’s video games.

That was where Zubkavich began, and he spent about 20 minutes going over the studio’s publication history, from its earliest titles to more recent ones like last year’s limited-edition “Darkstalkers Tribute,” or the latest “Street Fighter” release. But he also noted that an overlooked side of UDON’s work is the “creative services” its artists provide for various clients: advertising art, conceptual or environmental schematics, designs for toys and sculpts. Zubkavich reeled off a diverse and esoteric list: over 100 character designs for Zack Snyder’s upcoming film “Sucker Punch,” a digital comic tying-in with Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” an elaborate new “Starcraft” piece for Blizzard, and painstaking sprite redesigns for Capcom’s remastered “Street Fighter HD.” The latter was especially challenging, Zubkavich said, because every sprite had to remain within its spatial constraints from the original game.

The Project Manager took care to note that UDON is also publishing unlicensed texts, not adaptations alone. He showed sample pages of a new art book devoted to the anime-inspired Chilean artist Genzoman. The volume will compile some of the cartoonist’s numerous illustrations for a South American collectible card game. Zubkavich then previewed the studio’s imminent book “Vent,” an anthology of original stories conceived by UDON’s stable of regulars. Tutorials outlining their artistic instruments and working methods will be featured as well.

Later, Zubkavich had the lights turned back up and invited questions from the audience. The first one was about the assimilation into UDON of artists made “homeless” when Pat Lee’s Dreamwave prominently collapsed. Zubkavich replied, “A bunch of the artists from UDON did come from Dreamwave originally – a lot of them met at Dreamwave and had varying good and bad experiences there. But because of those ties that they had, when Dreamwave closed up shop we took in quite a few people. Guys like Joe Ng, for example, he was a really well-known artist on ‘Transformers,’ and when Joe brought his portfolio to me at a convention right after Dreamwave went belly-up, I said, ‘We’re not doing robot stuff.’ He said, ‘I draw people too.’ I said, ‘Whow me.’ And no word of a lie, this was on a Friday at a con, and by Sunday he had page samples of ‘Street Fighter.'”

On a lighter note, the next fan inquired, “You had so many Japanese noodle dishes to name your company after, why Udon?” Grinning, Zubkavich answered, “Eric [Ko, UDON’s Chief of Operations] and the guys were sitting around trying to come up with a name for the studio so they could make it an official company. And they sat around for a couple hours, trying to throw out cool names. And then one of the guys, I think it was Andrew [Hou], just started throwing stupid food names in, because he was really hungry. ‘Hamburger. Let’s go get a… Hamburger Studio. Let’s go for…Sushi.’ Back and forth, until someone said ‘Udon.'”

After describing the torture of knowing about ‘Street Fighter 4’ over a year before it could be announced, Zubkavich was asked about UDON’s aborted ‘Rival Schools’ comic – was it too niche, the fan asked? The frank response was, “Yes.” “We had Corey Lewis, the guy from ‘Sharknife,’ and [we were] going to do it as a full-color series, but the reality is that it’s such a niche game,” which resulted in Lewis excitedly producing the book in black and white. “[The first issue] shipped a little bit late,” Zubkavich continued, “and retailers were expecting full-color, lush, beautiful UDON. And then they got this very stylized black-and-white book. And the retailers just flipped out. The sales were **terrible**. And so we just sort of carefully folded that up and put it in a drawer.”

A plaintive query about breaking in to the industry moved the panelist to an extended monologue full of advice. At one point, Zubkavich jokingly pointed out that he’d begun working at UDON as a summer job and has managed to remain around seven years later. He stressed the potential of the Internet to ease a newcomer’s entry — UDON has over 36,000 Deviantart followers — and the merits of versatility.

As the hour expired, marveling at the irony of his studio’s past work with both of rival game developers Capcom and Konami, Zubkavich joked, “We’re whores.”

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