Image Comics has been on a role lately, it seems, with what I called earlier today "really strong, character-driven stories with a bold voice." Although it couldn't be any more different in subject matter than The Walking Dead, Chew and Morning Glories, in my mind Skullkickers fits into that same category with those titles. Writer Jim Zubkavich and artist Edwin Huang have created a fun fantasy comic with two incorrigible mercenaries out to make quick buck, with nothing playing out the way they'd hoped.
I spoke with Zubkavich, who works for UDON Entertainment when he isn't writing comics, about the book and what's coming up for the as-yet-unnamed stars. My thanks to Jim and Edwin, who shared some EXCLUSIVE art with us, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at how some of the pages were created, including the crazy four-page spread from issue #3.
JK: For those who might not be familiar with it, what is Skullkickers?
Jim: The best way to describe Skullkickers is that it’s like a buddy cop film slammed into Conan – banter meets barbarians. It’s a sarcastically self aware sword & sorcery action-comedy series starring two monster mashing mercenaries who will do whatever it takes to get paid.
One of them is a surly stout dwarf with a violent temper and the other is a hulking brute who wields a strange anachronistic pistol that doesn’t seem to belong in their high fantasy world. In the first story arc neither main character is named, but our readers have christened them as “Shorty” and “Baldy” for the time being.
JK: I guess I assumed when I first saw the pistol in issue #1 that the story was taking place in some sort of medieval/industrial mash-up world, but now that you mention it ... is there a back story to the pistol?
Jim: Yes, there is a back story but I'm not prepared to tip my hand on it just yet. The world of Skullkickers plays fast and loose with an indiscriminate medieval fantasy time period in terms of culture/technology. There may be the occasional cannon out there on a seafaring war galleon, but Baldy's pistol is definitely out of the norm technology-wise and it will be explained at some point.
JK: Talking about the two main characters ... will we get more of their back story as the series progresses?
Jim: Absolutely. Back story and a more in-depth plot are right around the corner.
The first story arc, which wraps up with this month's issue #5, can be thought of as baseline to show how these two guys operate, but it’s just the beginning. What looks like a straight forward mercenary mission kicks off a host of political and magical maneuvers that plunge these two guys into the middle of world-shaking events. They may not see too far beyond their immediate violent needs right now, but parts of the bigger picture are going to become clear to our readers very soon and it’ll be fun bringing more pieces into play as the plot expands.
JK: I really dig the covers, especially the first issue with the skull. The covers are being done by Chris Stevens, correct? How much input do you and Edwin have in the cover creation process?
Jim: Yup, Chris Stevens has provided most of our cover art so far and is on board for the second story arc too, which we’re all really excited about. His eye catching layouts and lush rendering helps the book stand out in a crowded comic book shop.
Chris and I have been collaborating on many of the cover ideas, but that big bloody skull for issue #1 first print was all him. I throw out ideas and trust him to come up with some compelling composition options. He’s the kind of artist you can let loose and stand back to watch the magic happen. When I see a new cover sample pop-in to my in-box, it’s always a thrill.
JK: And what's the creative process like between you and Edwin?
Jim: Edwin’s been fantastic to work with. He follows my scripts very closely, roughing out page layouts quickly so we can make storytelling decisions and ensure that gags play out properly. Comedy only works if the action and expressions are really clear, so being able to bounce roughs back and forth really fine tunes the comedic timing. Once that’s all done, Edwin also sends the pencils for each page before they head to inks. It’s rare that changes need to be made at that stage, but getting a last look at the line art before it’s finalized is extra helpful.
There have been a few times where I've had a really clear idea of what I wanted to see on the page and I've sketched out a little thumbnail doodle of my own to show Edwin what I'm looking for. When that does happen, he takes direction like a total pro and delivers the goods.
I can be a real stickler about storytelling and clarity. I notice quite a few books that come out with confusing panel layouts, weird posing or poorly staged scenes and they drive me nuts. I want Skullkickers to be a completely solid read. Watching Edwin’s skills and confidence improve with each issue has been a blast. I can’t wait to see how his abilities grow in the issues to come.
Editor's note: here's a sample of the process Jim describes, from conception to production ... you'll find a second one at the end of the interview:
JK: What sorts of creatures can we expect in future issues?
Jim: I want to poke holes in a lot of stereotypical fantasy ideas, so expect to see elves, deadly faerie folk, plant creatures, goblinoids, fish people, mummies and many other uglies making their way into the book as the story rolls out.
JK: What were some of your influences growing up that contributed to your love of fantasy?
Jim: My love of fantasy grew out of playing the classic red box set of D&D in the early 80’s with my brother and it blossomed with novels, movies and video games as I entered my teens. Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Final Fantasy, Dragonlance, Shannara, Army of Darkness, you name it. Even when I was deeply invested in superhero comics I leaned towards magic/mythic characters like Dr. Strange or Thor because of their fantasy pedigree. I couldn’t get enough of it.
JK: The first two issues are now available via Comixology and the Image app on various Apple devices and the web. What are your thoughts on the growing digital market, and how has the book done so far in it?
Jim: I’m torn because I’m a big advocate of print and feel that books are the perfect gift for any age group, but I’m also impressed with the flexibility and reach that digital platforms have for getting material out to as wide an audience as possible. The free “zero issue” we put together for Skullkickers received some amazing attention thanks to linkage from sites like Ain’t It Cool News and Penny Arcade, and I feel that was instrumental in bringing much needed attention to an unknown property launching into a difficult comic market.
The comiXology issues of Skullkickers are doing quite well, as far as I know, keeping pace with a lot of high profile Image titles thanks to that digital outreach. That said, Image has been aggressive about insuring that physical issues have stayed in print and available for direct market retailers so they can build a solid reading audience for the series at comic shops and I fully support that. We’re committed to delivering the book on time and giving retailers a solid title for $2.99 they can rely on.
JK: For those of us who still love print, when is the first trade coming out?
Jim: The plan is for Skullkickers volume 1 to arrive in March, premiering at the Emerald City Comicon in Seattle. Image is putting some solid muscle behind the release, pricing the trade at the unbelievable value price of $9.99 to expand our readership and make it as easy as possible for people to jump on board the adventure and see what all the excitement has been about. Given how well that pricing has worked for other Image books like The Walking Dead, Chew and Morning Glories we’re really excited about the trade launch and are looking forward to promoting the book throughout the summer con season.
JK: In addition to writing Skullkickers, you also have a pretty cool day job at UDON. What do you do exactly, and what's coming up from UDON?
Jim: I’ve been a Project Manager at UDON for the past 7 years, heading up many of the studio’s Creative Services projects with movie, video game and advertising clients. I assemble creative teams, work with clients and ensure that artwork or other materials are handed in high quality and on time. It’s been an invaluable way to learn about the business and interact with a lot of different aspects of entertainment and art. It’s also given me the chance to spearhead a few special projects from concept to completion, like the Street Fighter Tribute commemorative art book and VENT, UDON’s new artist showcase/tutorial 10th anniversary book.
UDON has been quietly plugging away for over ten years working with some of the biggest companies in entertainment and I’m thrilled to be a part of the studio. I wish more people knew how dedicated the staff are and appreciated the quality of their art and design. The UDON crew don’t always beat their chest as much as they should and they have a lot to be proud of.
In 2011 UDON will be releasing a solid line-up of original and translated art books, manga and a few original graphic novels that I think are going to turn some heads. First out of the gate is the Mega Man Tribute art book being headed up by Matt Moylan, UDON’s Managing Editor. His love of Capcom’s Blue Bomber is infectious and I know this book is going to knock people out.