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Jim Zub Looks Ahead To “Wayward’s” Epic Return

by  in Comic News Comment
Jim Zub Looks Ahead To “Wayward’s” Epic Return

Jim Zub turned the fantasy genre upside down five years ago with Image Comics’ “Skullkickers,” an absurdist “Dungeons and Dragons” love-letter in comic book form. Zub and Image are at it again this year with the ongoing series “Wayward,” a Tokyo-tinted fantasy series featuring art by Steven Cummings and described by the writer as “Buffy in Japan.” “Wayward” follows a young half-Japanese girl in an epic battle with ancient mythical threats that have come out of hiding to destroy the world.

But don’t get confused — “Wayward” may be a fantasy but it’s not afraid to tackle real-world struggles. One such struggle is protagonist Rori’s cutting habit, which Zub said “was an aspect I’d never seen dealt with in comics before.” While speaking to CBR News, Zub also went into detail about the upcoming second storyarc and shared sales comparisons between “Skullkickers” and “Wayward” — and the better seller may surprise you.

CBR News: Jim, for people who have so far missed out on the series, what’s your pitch for the first collection of “Wayward?”

“Wayward” is a story about myths in the modern world, specifically teenagers battling ancient creatures of Japan on the streets of Tokyo. It’s about trying to find yourself in that awkward and strange phase when you’re transitioning from teenage years into adulthood.

Our touchstone character for the first story arc is Rori Lane, a half-Japanese, half-Irish girl heading to Tokyo to live with her estranged mother. She grew up with Japanese culture as part of her life but has never actually been there. Starting a new life in a strange new place and coming to terms with the changes that brings is at the heart of our story.

Rori is definitely an interesting protagonist. Seeing her cutting herself in issue #2 actually made me say “holy shit” out loud when I turned the page. Why did you decide to add this aspect to the character? And on a story note — what might happen if she cuts a kanji in to her arm?

Yes, Rori is a “cutter,” someone who deals with extreme stress by physically harming herself. It’s not something we spend an inordinate amount of time on, but it is an aspect of her character. I wanted Rori to have the struggles of a real modern teenager and this was an aspect I’d never seen dealt with in comics before. It’s awkward and painful to read that scene but we were careful not to glorify it. We received quite a few heartfelt letters from readers about that issue and I’m proud we were able to deal with it in a way that didn’t sensationalize it.

As you can see in the first arc, Rori’s power involves symbols and patterns, so that’s a good question but not one I can answer without spoiling things to come.

Made in Japan: Steven Cummings & Jim Zub Talk “Wayward”

The first “Wayward” arc ends on a pretty grim note, with some characters killed while others are missing and presumed dead. Where is the story headed as we move into the second arc?

Yeah, the ending is quite the downer, but that’s intentional. Our teenagers have been pulled into a much larger conflict and they need to understand the breadth of that before they can figure out where they fit in and what they should do next. Right now they’re unprepared and overwhelmed. The first arc introduced the characters and hinted at the bigger picture, while the second arc expands the scope of the story and gives some more answers while intensifying the action.

We’re taking a two month break for January and February and then come back with guns-a-blazin’ in March with our first trade paperback — value-priced at $9.99 — and issue #6 arriving in stores the same day. All of us on the “‘Wayward” team are incredibly excited for 2015.

What myths, monsters and legends will you be exploring in the second arc?

I don’t want to give away too much of where things are headed, but we’re definitely going to be diving into a wide variety of myths and fables from Japanese culture in our future story arcs. Jorogumo the spider lady has a role to play in the second arc, as does the Obon, Japan’s festival of the dead.

Could “Wayward” work in a country that is not Japan?

The first arc involves a lot of Japanese culture and fables, so I think it’s integral to the story, but I’m hoping that over time we’ll be able to expand things outside of Tokyo/Japan to explore other mythic cultures. Fingers crossed.

Do you have intentions to bring in any non-Japanese cultural myths or monsters at some point?

That also works its way into spoiler territory, but expect that Rori’s half-Irish side will have a role to play.

How many arcs out do you have “Wayward” planned? Do you have an ending in mind and, if so, when?

I’m trying to temper my desire to tell an epic with the realities of the comic market, but it’s tough. I know where the story could go and I’d be thrilled to roll out a long six-plus arc storyline, expanding the scope of it and showing events happening on a much larger scale, but I also have a more moderate four-arc plan that we can use if sales go a bit flat. The shorter version still has all the main points of what I want to say about myth in the modern world and I’d be happy to see that all happen, but obviously my fingers are crossed for us to go the full distance.

They mentioned “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” a lot in the marketing build-up for “Wayward.” Was this your choice? As a writer, do you have to consciously try to get that type of “X meets Y” description to sell the book to publishers, or is it thought of after the fact?

It was my choice, yeah. I feel like the “Buffy in Japan” descriptor is a succinct way to explain to someone what we’re going for, even though “Wayward” is quite different from “Buffy.” It’s not 100% accurate but it gives people a bridge to try out the story and understand the mixture of action and camaraderie we’re going for.

I generally don’t worry about that kind of bite-sized Hollywood-style logline until after a story is built. It can be useful for pitching a concept but it’s no replacement for the actual story development process.

Are you doing any cool promotions or advertising efforts with “Wayward?”

I did a whirlwind of conventions and store signings around the launch and we did quite a few store specific variants for our first issue to help raise awareness. Image has been on such an incredible roll this year with killer new creator-owned comics and I feel really fortunate that Wayward was one of their stronger launches. I’m hopeful we can build a strong reading audience and keep the momentum rolling.

Teenage Challenges Collide with Japanese Mythology in Zub & Cummings’ “Wayward”

Steve Cummings, the phenomenal artist and series co-creator of “Wayward,” did a limited run of self-published Japanese language versions of the issues that he’s been selling in Tokyo. Only a handful of copies have made their way stateside, so they’re quite the collectible.

You worked at legendary anime production house UDON Studios for ten years. How did that experience help inform “Wayward?”

I’ve been a fan of Japan — anime and manga, but also the culture and history as a whole — since high school. That, along with working at UDON and travelling there several times for business and pleasure, helped inform “Wayward’s” story. It’s a mixture of research and life experiences.

Being at UDON taught me a ton about publishing and project management — invaluable info for when I started my creator-owned books at Image — and it also opened me up to dealing with Japanese companies as we worked on video game and publishing projects overseas. Working at UDON also introduced me to Steve Cummings, which started us on the path to creating “Wayward” together.

Steve is raising a family in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, and his involvement is integral to getting the details of Japan spot-on. Steve, along with Zack Davisson, who writes cultural essays on Japan in the back of each issue, work with me to ensure that the story feels grounded in the “real” Tokyo. The city has an incredible amount of variety and we wanted to make sure that people saw it as it really is instead of just the high rises and temples that tend to show up in most media.

What other anime or manga content is Wayward influenced by?

I love the intensity of Urusawa’s work, especially “Pluto.” Hiroaki Samura’s “Blade of the Immortal,” with its brutal fight scenes and fragile elegance, has definitely had a part to play. Although the tone is very different, Shigeru Mizuki’s “GeGeGe No Kitaro” revolutionized the whole concept of Yokai in Japanese popular culture so obviously that’s a big one too.

You’re well known for being well spoken about comics industry trends, so where do you see the comics industry at this point one year from now? Do you think 2015 has any seismic shifts in store for publishers?

2014 was an incredible year for me personally and the industry as a whole. Comics are mainstream in a big way again and readers are looking for new stories and new ideas. Being in the midst of this modern creator-owned boom is a dizzying and wonderful experience. I just want to keep holding on and enjoy the ride. I’m so thankful to Image for giving us a platform for publishing “Wayward” and putting it out to as wide an audience as possible. The success that it’s seen is a direct result of the trailblazing they’ve done for the past twenty-plus years. I’m thrilled to be a tiny part of the Image family.

It’s hard to say what big changes are coming. Digital reading seems to be more integrated than ever and publishers and retailers finally seem to be embracing the fact that digital sales aren’t going to destroy comic shops or ruin the industry. The more outreach to new or lapsed readers, the better.

Diversity is increasing, both in the characters/stories and the creators themselves, and that’s a very promising sign of the future. I want more diverse styles of art and storytelling, more engaging new voices, more creativity and risk-taking… I think that’s what it’s all about.

Have we finally reached the digital acceptance tipping point?

I think so, yeah. Many retailers now understand that the digital reading audience is mostly an additive market rather than their direct competition. New readers discover comics online and most eventually want to get printed copies of their favorites. Single-issue sales may one day be supplanted by digital releases but, for the foreseeable future, people still want printed books, especially trade paperbacks and hard covers.

The same goes for the creators themselves. Stories that would previously have been niche projects are able to get a foothold thanks to the wide reach of the internet. The number of webcomic creators who have built up massive audiences that are now able to sustain themselves thanks to Kickstarter or Patreon seems to be growing every year. More creators, more creativity.

Finally, you put an in-depth analysis of “Skullkicker’s” sales up on your blog recently. What insights did you draw from the numbers? Are you able to apply what you discovered to the future?

The market has changed so much in the last five years, particularly on the creator-owned and digital front. Readers are looking for new ideas and new voices and I think that’s incredibly encouraging. Creator-owned books aren’t just asides being done by creators as they look to super heroes for validation; in many cases they’re the core books they’re known best for.

When I compare the launch of “Skullkickers” and “Wayward” there’s no contest. Between Image’s incredible market growth and my larger profile we were able to hit a much larger audience. It shows me the importance of continuing to put out new work and building bridges to retailers and readers with each project.

“Wayward vol. 1: String Theory” and “Wayward” #6 are out this March from Image Comics.

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