ONE TO WATCH: Jim Zubkavich

When it comes to high octane, no holds barred fantasy tales filled with more asskicking than your weekly D&D throwdown, nothing beats Jim Zubkavich's "Skullkickers." The hit Image Comics series focuses on a pair of free-wheeling mercenaries set in a world familiar to fans of the fantasy genre with a few anachronisms and oddities thrown into the mix, not the least of which is that the lead characters were introduced with no names, referred to by fans only as Baldy and Shorty.

The original "Skullkickers" story appeared in Image's "Popgun" anthology, written by Zubkavich and illustrated by Chris Stevens. When the ongoing series launched, Zubkavich was joined by artist Edwin Huang. As the driving force behind the book, which will be reaching the end of its second major story arc "Four Funerals & A Bucket of Blood" with September's issue #11, CBR News spoke with Zub about what initially got him interested in comic books, what role his webcomic "The Makeshift Miracle" played in getting "Skullkickers" made, what exactly the deal was with not naming his leads for so long and how his off-kilter creator-owned book my actually lead to some mainstream writing gigs.

CBR News: Let's start this all the way back at the beginning -- what originally got you interested in comics?

Jim Zubkavich: My comic reading started with random issues bought at used bookstores or flea markets -- pretty much anything my older brother didn't have a vice-like grip on. We shared comics and built a collection up bit by bit, eventually starting a pull list at our local comic shop.

When I was younger, watching the G.I. Joe cartoon, they had those split-second "Buy the Marvel Comic!" statements at the very end of the credits, spinning the latest issue cover out on to the screen. That was like a command from on high, and I started collecting the G.I. Joe comic avidly soon after. Around the same time, I expanded into superhero books with "Amazing Spider-Man" and "Marvel Tales" so I could catch up on the older Spider-Man issues I couldn't afford, while my brother dove into the X-Men. By the time "Secret Wars II" started, we were both complete Marvel junkies, buying up everything we could find and testing each other with trivia from "The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe."

Was there a specific book or run that changed how you look at comics?

Like most kids, my collecting started based on characters and then slowly migrated towards certain creators as I began to notice that not all stories were written/drawn the same and that certain ones really sparked for me. Michael Golden's work on "G.I. Joe Yearbook" stood out as looking amazing and unique, and I ended up following that to his "Doctor Strange" issues and the unbelievable "Avengers Annual" #10. His work got me thinking about comic art in a whole new way. Soon after that, I'd be hunting specifically for stuff by John Byrne, Paul Smith and Art Adams.

Beyond just enjoying certain artist runs on books, my next big watershed moment was probably when my brother came home to visit after his first semester at University and he brought Japanese manga/anime with him. There were a lot of Japanese Engineering students at University with him, and they'd brought their comics and cartoons to Canada, hooking big swaths of students with so much cool, new stuff they hadn't seen since "Starblazers" or "Battle of the Planets" was on TV.

The variety of subject matter and new kinds of stories in manga really blew me away. I had been so focused on superheroes, and all of a sudden there was science fiction, history, romantic comedies, samurai dramas and horror, all done with this engaging graphic style and confidence. It totally rocked me and got me thinking about comics as a whole medium instead of just superheroes.
When did you first realize you wanted to actually get into comics on a professional level?

I actually was working in the animation business before comics ever became a possibility. I was a huge animation fan and, seeing the sheer number of people needed to work on TV shows or features in animation, that seemed like a much more realistic goal than getting into the comics professionally. I loved comics, but didn't see any avenue I could pursue to make the leap into it. Going into art/creative things was already a risk and freaked my parents out -- though they were very supportive -- and I didn't want to be unrealistic about what I could or couldn't do, so animation became my focus. Comics came later on, almost by accident, with "The Makeshift Miracle."
How did your webcomic "The Makeshift Miracle" come about and how did it help your career?

In the mid '90s, I attended Sheridan College and took their Classical Animation program. Around the same time, the internet was really growing fast. I distinctly remember that the majority of students in my first year didn't even have an email address and a year later, almost all of them did. One of my friends showed me some comic strips he was reading online -- "PVP" and "Sinfest," amongst others. The whole idea of posting comics online really took me by surprise.

In 2000-2001, I was working in animation off and on on a freelance basis and teaching animation related courses at a private art school in Calgary, Alberta. The freelance work wasn't satisfying and teaching was okay, but also quite repetitive. I could feel my skills getting stale and a sense of boredom creeping in.

In the evenings, I was getting ideas down on paper for a comic story I wanted to tell. It was a fusion of a bunch of things I loved: manga/anime, Neil Gaiman books and coming of age stories like "Stand By Me" all jammed together. I did some research on self-publishing and realized that I didn't have enough money on hand to pay for printing. I'd never been to a comic convention before, so the concept of hand-selling a self-published book seemed daunting and crazy. The web seemed like a much more viable and accessible option. It didn't matter where I lived or my budget; I could create the work and post it online for friends and family to enjoy. After puttering around with some basic HTML and creating 12 pages of story to make sure I had a bit of a buffer of material, that's exactly what I did. "The Makeshift Miracle" launched in mid-September 2001.

I had no expectations and was really learning as I went; writing, panel pacing, using Photoshop, HTML -- all of it. I posted three pages a week and kept posting, using the momentum generated by encouragement from my friends to keep going. Every time I put up a page I wasn't proud of, it motivated me to put up better work and strengthen what I was doing.

Soon afterwards, I started getting emails from complete strangers and traffic increased pretty steadily. Scott McCloud sent me an email that winter, telling me that he was enjoying the story. That turned into correspondence back and forth, and we've been friends ever since. The web and webcomics really exploded at that time and I was caught up in a community of comic people that were springing up all over the place. It was a really exciting time to be creating something new.

"Makeshift" ran from 2001 to 2003. Except for a few short breaks for Christmas/New Years and moving across the country for a new job, I kept posting three pages a week throughout. The amount I learned about storytelling, digital art and online promotion was invaluable. There was no way of knowing it at the time, but the friends I made through "Makeshift" and knowledge I gained really worked out well down the road.
From what I can tell, your first pro comics work was contributing to "Darkstalkers Tribute" #1. How did that come about?

Actually my first "pro" work was earlier than that. In 2003, I joined the UDON studio thanks to a recommendation by Omar Dogan, one of their founding artists. Dark Horse had hired the UDON guys to re-color old Conan comics -- "Chronicles of Conan" Vol. 1 and 2 -- and everyone expected I would be there for a couple months and then go back to school for some retraining in computer animation. I lucked out because more work came in and I was able to stay on board at UDON and juggle freelance illustration duties for magazines, RPGs and some other advertising stuff alongside helping reorganize the studio's files and client lists. By Christmas of 2003, I was a Project Manager at UDON, working on various non-comic client projects.

From there, I think my next comic-related gig was co-writing/managing the "Exalted" comic UDON and White Wolf put together based on White Wolf's epic anime-influenced tabletop RPG game. I'd done a bunch of illustration for "Exalted" through UDON and really liked the world, so being able to generate some new material for it felt like a big step. Everyone on the team had hopes that it would be a long running and successful series that would complement the Street Fighter books UDON was already producing, but it didn't go the way we planned and the series was cut short after only one story arc.

When and how did your love of fantasy start? You can tell from reading "Skullkickers" that you're a fan.

Around the same time my brother and I started obsessing over comic books our cousins showed us how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Soon after that, my brother received the classic red box Basic set of D&D and we were off and running. We didn't follow the rules properly (Joe, my brother the Dungeon Master, was 12 years old at the time and I was only 8), but we had a lot of fun. Each adventure became a little epic story in our minds and it led to a deep love of fantasy, mythology and ancient cultures. From there it spun out to fantasy novels, movies, video games and even attached to our superhero reading with characters like Dr. Strange and Thor.
How did hook up with the Popgun folks for the first Skullkickers stories?

The editors of "Popgun" actually approached Skullkickers co-creator Chris Stevens, asking him if he wanted to contribute a short story the second volume of their anthology. Chris was working with me at the UDON studio on a variety of art projects at the time, so when he couldn't come up with a story idea, I started bouncing ideas off him until he was inspired and excited. I figured it would just be the brainstorming, but a few days later he asked if I'd write the short story and I was happy to dig in on it.
Obviously it debuted through the publisher's anthology, but what was behind the decision to launch the ongoing "Skullkickers" at Image?

Erik Larsen was the Publisher at Image when "Popgun" Volume 2 came out with our original Skullkickers short story titled "Two Copper Pieces," and he really enjoyed it. After we did another short story in Volume 3, he asked if we'd be interested into doing a longer story with the characters. I started fleshing out the concept into something more epic and more ridiculous. Although we tried to get the series off the ground, scheduling and other personal stuff got in the way and Chris had to bow out.

I was convinced that the book was dead, but, two years later, along came Edwin Huang to pull "Skullkickers" out of its mothballed state.
How did you and Edwin Huang start working together?

Edwin was heading towards graduation at the School of Visual Arts in New York and sent the UDON studio a portfolio submission. His work was solid and I was really impressed with what I saw, but the studio wasn't looking for anyone new at that time.

I sent Edwin an email letting him know that I really liked his work and that he had the chops. There were some small critiques I gave him, but overall, his work was sharp and I felt he had the goods to break in if he kept at it. He responded soon after and we started up an email dialogue about his work. When he mentioned that he created his page samples just out of his head instead of following a script, I offered to send him a spec script -- "Skullkickers" #1 -- I had on hand so he could practice and improve his craft. Following the more cartoony designs Chris had created, and picking up from where Chris left off, Edwin started busting out amazing pages, even while he was still working on his graduate projects.

The script was given to Edwin just as an exercise for him to improve his skills, but as soon as I saw the pages, I started wondering if he might be interested in coming on board as the actual artist for the series. Within a couple weeks, Edwin must have come to the same conclusion because he offered to pencil the 5 issue miniseries and we were off and running. It was an amazing feeling to pull that pitch and first script out and start up from where I'd left off two years earlier. 
When you were looking for a publisher, were people telling you that a fantasy book like this wouldn't sell?

Since Image has published "Popgun" and Erik Larsen had asked us to pitch "Skullkickers," Image was the first place I approached. UDON's publishing schedule for 2010/2011 was pretty much set, and although there are some artistic elements that feel a bit UDON-y about SK, the subject matter and style isn't really what people expect from them. Given Image's diverse publishing line and the humorous bits in "Chew," "Invincible" and "Savage Dragon," I figured "Skullkickers" would work well there.

Thankfully, we didn't really hit any resistance to the fantasy concept. Eric Stephenson liked the quality and the writing and that was that. The fact that there aren't a lot of fantasy books on the market may have even helped a wee bit since it was counter programming to all the grim and gritty superhero stuff.

If Image didn't pick it up, I would have pushed hard to get the series attached at Oni or Dark Horse, two other publishers who wouldn't shy away from fantasy stuff.
Was not naming the series' leads an important story point to you? What was behind that decision?

When "Skullkickers" was just a 5 issue miniseries, with our fingers crossed for more, the whole "Men With No Name" thing seemed like a fun little gimmick to play with and in line with the sarcastic nature of the book. The two characters are rude and indifferent to most of the peasants around them, so I just figured they'd never make introductions. They'd roll into town, kill monsters and roll out, usually causing more damage than the villains they were supposed to be saving everyone from.

I purposefully made each of them visually distinctive and easy to describe in contrasting ways (short and tall, bearded and bald, blue and red outfits, axes and a gun) so our readers could still identify them even though they didn't have names. Since the,n the readers have dubbed them "Baldy" and "Shorty" and the names have stuck, even when we gave them other names in the actual series.Some readers and reviewers found it a bit frustrating at first, but when it comes to creator-owned comics, you have to use every tool in your toolbox to get people intrigued. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but either way, it was a talking point and raised some extra interest when we were launching the series.
It seems like people are craving the kind of big, fun action-adventure stories being told in "Skullkickers." Why do you think that is?

I think it's escapism, plain and simple. The world's dark enough right now with political, economic and nature-borne upheaval happening all over the place. Books like "Skullkickers," "Atomic Robo" or "Super Dinosaur" are bombastic and fun, giving people something to smile about. I have other comic stories, other titles, coming down the road that will be darker and more emotional but I intend to keep "Skullkickers" solidly focused in the "giggle-inducing and ridiculously entertaining" category. 
You're obviously a fan of fantasy, but that doesn't stop you from poking fun at some of the more ludicrous aspects of the genre. That seems to be an attitude that a lot of people, especially on the internet, don't seem to have.

Fandoms can be overly protective. They think that poking fun at their pop culture preferences equates to criticizing them personally. Fiction and storytelling is filled to the brim with amazing and ridiculous things. There's lots of room to embrace and poke fun at it, sometimes at the exact same time. In an ideal world, I'd like for "Skullkickers" to evolve into something like the "Red Dwarf" TV series, where each episode is ludicrous and comedic while the structure of the whole is surprisingly complex and engaging. As we head through the third arc, I think people are going to be surprised at the things we've been building up to.
Do you have a list of fantasy tropes you want to get to in the book?

If we're able to keep sales steady and I don't wreck Edwin's mind and drawing hand, I'd love to push through a host of fantasy adventure tropes: pirates on the high seas, jungle exploration, Vikings in snowy peaks, demons, gods and armies of monsters. All of them are perfect fodder for the Skullkickers to encounter on the epic quest that they don't even realize that they're on.

With "Skullkickers" getting a good deal of heat, how has your career or place in the industry changed?

Up until this year, I'd done a good job at securing my place at UDON as a Project Manager and occasional artist. What's been great about "Skullkickers" is that I've been able to show a lot of people that I can take the management skills I built up (communication and organization) and leverage them alongside creative storytelling at the same time. "Skullkickers" is on time, high quality and a lot of fun. Whatever happens next, I wouldn't be pushing myself even half as much creatively without it trailblazing the way.

I think "Skullkickers" also surprised a lot of people who have worked with me professionally. Close friends knew that I liked to tell funny stories and socialize, but when it came to work, I tended to be pretty serious. Getting some of that more humorous stuff out has been nice and I think it's showing some people a different side of me.

Over the convention season, it was a really cool feeling meeting people who were discovering my work for the first time. When they talked about how much they enjoyed "Skullkickers," it was a real point of pride for everyone on the creative team.

Have you been talking to any other companies about new books, or do you have anything planned with Image?

I'm happy to say the answer to that is yes and yes! I have a new UDON comic project being announced soon, and, with a bit of luck, another Image project being announced before the year is over. I can't wait to show people the other stories I have on deck. Good times ahead!

Given your love of super-hero comics, do you have any interest in working at Marvel or DC Comics?

The gravity well of nostalgia is too powerful for me to say no. Yeah, absolutely I'd be thrilled to contribute to Marvel/DC properties and turn writing and storytelling into a more full-time career. Although I grew up primarily a Marvel kid, DC's New 52 initiative opens up all sorts of creative possibilities, and that intrigues the heck out of me.

Both companies are putting out some top notch product and it would be a thrill to see if the things I've learned working on commercial properties with video game companies, movies and toys as part of UDON translate over well to generating new material for Marvel/DC. Playing in the corporate sandbox and working on creator-owned material at the same time is the best balance I could ask for. In short, it's an incredibly exciting and creative time right now in the comic business, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it!

"Skullkickers #11 hits stands September 28

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