One of the most popular video game franchises of the last few years comes to comics courtesy of IDW Publishing this October in the ongoing "Skylanders" series from fan-favorite writer Ron Marz with art by Mike Bowden and David Baldeon. While the series won't start until October, IDW is giving fans an early sneak peek at this week's Comic-Con International in San Diego, where they will release the convention-exclusive "Skylanders" #0 prequel comic. The new series marks a return to the series for Marz, who was a writer on "Skylanders SWAP Force," last year's entry to the hit fantasy adventure game series from Activision that uses physical plastic figurines to unlock in-game characters and levels.
Marz, Baldeon and Bowden chatted with CBR News in advance of the book's SDCC debut about IDW's "Skylanders" comics, revealing how it ties into the upcoming "Trap Team" game, which characters are their favorites, their personal experiences with the Portal of Power and much more.
CBR News: Before the ongoing series debuts this October, you're kicking things off with a "Skylanders" #0 at Comic-Con International in San Diego. What's that story about?
Ron Marz: The #0 issue is the debut comic, which IDW will have for Comic-Con in San Diego. The story is a prequel to the upcoming "Skylanders Trap Team" game, and it shows the machinations of villain Kaos leading up to the new game. You get to meet "Skylanders" characters from the entire franchise in the story. My friend David Rodriguez wrote the #0 script, from a story by David, Mike Graham and Alex Ness, all of whom work on "Skylanders" for Activision.
Which "Skylanders" characters will make up your core cast?
Marz: At least initially, the cast is going to rotate. We'll certainly see our share of familiar faces like Flynn and Spyro, but the first bunch of issues really shows off a pretty wide range of characters. We have stories featuring characters from all the "Skylanders" games, including the new "Trap Team" game.
So the new comic introduces new elements from "Trap Team?"
Marz: Moving forward, we're definitely using some of the "Trap Team" characters and settings. The "Trap Team" game and the comics debut at the same time, so there's a nice opportunity for cross-pollination. The "Skylanders" franchise is expanding, and the comics will certainly reflect that.
I'm not sure what I can say and what I can't, under pain of bodily injury from "Skylanders" ninjinis. I can tell you that some of the new "Trap Team" characters definitely appear.
Who are your favorite "Skylanders" characters?
Mike Bowden: I love drawing Pop Fizz, all the claws, teeth and fuzzy hair. It's a lot of fun. I've had a look at the new "Trap Team" characters and there are some great new ones that I really like and hope I get to draw.
David Baldeon: I'm going to go with Whiskers, the bird. It's a great design, and so fun to draw and move around! It looks like it comes straight out from a European fantasy album, and I love that!
Marz: If I had to pick just one, I'd say Flynn. He's a great character with so much personality, thanks in no small part to Patrick Warburton, who provides his voice in the games. Getting to write gameplay dialogue, and knowing Warburton would be performing it, was a treat.
How did you guys all get involved with thus series?
Marz: I got a call one day from David Hedgecock of IDW, who is the editor on the series. From what David told me, Activision recommended me to IDW, because I was already associated with "Skylanders." I had worked on the "SWAP Force" game for Vicarious Visions, which is an Activision subsidiary located in the Albany, NY area, about 30 minutes from my house. I went into the Vicarious Visions office a couple days a week while I was on the project, and had a really great time working on it. I worked with my friend David Rodriguez at Vicarious, and one of the things we always talked about was that there needed to be "Skylanders" comics. The world and the characters just seemed like natural fits for comics. So when David Hedgecock got in touch and offered me the gig, it was an easy decision to make.
Bowden: My name was passed to David Hedgcock by Sarah Gaydos who was one of my editors at Wildstorm Comics. I worked with her on the "Warcraft" series for about a year so she knew my work well. I did some samples and David liked what he saw enough to let me work on the #0 issue which was a lot of fun.
Baldeon: I had worked previously for Rovio doing some "Angry Birds" comics, which have finally been published by IDW in the US. David Hedgecock saw that stuff and was kind enough to consider me for this project. So, some samples after that, I joined the team!
David and Mike, what's your artistic process like? What style are you going for in "Skylanders?"
Bowden: I started off trying to make everyone badass and putting in lots of detail, which is really my default take on characters but I eventually eased up on that and made the characters look less threatening and softened some of my angles. I'm also opening it up more for colors and focusing on the shapes of the characters and less on shading and hatching. I try to add some humor to the page as well, I wanted to make Pop Fizz funny, from the way he acts on Flynn's ship to him fighting. The same with trolls, I like having them get knocked about all over the page, it just makes fight scenes more goofy and I think that works well with the humor of the game.
Baldeon: In my case, I was intrigued by the storytelling style that came through the animation samples that David provided. It was fast paced, dramatic and yet lots of fun. I really wanted to go with that and, from the models provided, get to nail a visual style that conveyed that particular pace into the pages. The characters being fuzzy and cute and funny and this being an all ages book does not mean there cannot be some cool, well paced action in there -- and the source material certainly lends itself to it!
Ron, you also worked on the "SWAP Force" story. Will anything you wrote in that game make its way into the new comic stories?
Marz: Certainly, a number of the same characters will appear, whether they debuted in "SWAP Force" or another game. I had a great time writing dialogue for Flynn, so he definitely appears in the first few issues. Comics in general can take themselves a little seriously, so it's a nice change of pace to work on something that's intended for all ages, and is actually meant to be fun and funny.
You're getting some writing help from David Rodriguez. How does that writing partnership work?
Marz: I think I've known Dave-Rod -- which is what we have to call him now to avoid confusion with David Hedgecock ... for more than a decade now. We first met at a Wizard World Chicago convention when I was working with CrossGen and Dave was with a Chicago-area game developer. We stayed in touch and out of the blue Dave ended up moving to the Albany area, where I live, to take the job at Vicarious Visions. Obviously Dave's day job is writing for video games, but he also writes comics like "Finding Gossamyr" for Third World Studios. Dave is really the go-to guy for "Skylanders" stuff; he's immersed in it every day. We work on the stories together, kicking ideas back and forth and kicking the scripts back and forth. It gives us an excuse to meet at Starbucks. I introduced Dave to vanilla bean Frappuccinos, and there's no turning back now.
Ron, what are some of the differences in writing a video game versus a comic book?
Marz: The obvious difference is a comic is static images and video games move. A lot of my work on the "SWAP Force" game was game play dialogue. Working on a game is much more of a team effort in terms of scope than doing comics. In a video game, you're one of literally hundreds of people working toward the same goal, each person contributing their piece of the puzzle over months and even years. It's such a vast undertaking that you're part of an army of creative people. Comics are a team effort as well, but the team is maybe five or six people total, and you're on a monthly schedule to get the work out. I enjoy both experiences because ultimately everything boils down to story and character anyway.
What have been your experiences playing the game itself?
Marz: My preference is actually to watch my kids play the game, because then I can take in the entire scope of the game. I can pay attention to everything that's going on, all of the characters, all of the backgrounds. When I'm playing, I end up focusing on just what my character is doing, rather than soaking up everything that's there.
Bowden: I was new to "Skylanders" before getting called up but I'm now working my way through "Spyro's Adventure" and "Giants." They're fun and a lot easier going to play than the games I'm used to. I really like the humor, it reminds me of "Ratchet & Clank" in that sense. I think the most unique part of the game is the portal of power and I did get addicted to switching the figures when I first started. Playing it has given me a feel of the world and I also use online videos of cut scenes to reference anything else I need.
Baldeon: I have to be honest, the game was off my radar, like most games. It's my gamer friends that keep me up to date with the video game medium, mostly with the concept art part of the process, since I have almost none to zero time to dive into any of them (which is as bad as not reading comics or books or not watching movies). But working on the "Skylanders" comics has certainly aroused my curiosity. There's a deep, wide, rich world in "Skylanders" that I really want to explore in its video game form as soon as I can!
How much creative freedom do you have on a licensed project like this?
Baldeon: The characters are very well defined and designed, very distinctive. So, of course always keeping in mind the kind of book this is, we have room to play with the visual interpretation of the characters and apply our personal style, and the narrative needs of each scene and page. And the writing is very dynamic, it has a fast, fun pace, so it really lends itself to have fun drawing and telling the story.
Bowden: I have a lot of freedom with layout and choosing which "Skylanders" to draw on the page, the script often allows me to throw in many characters of my choice within reason so on one hand I have a lot of freedom. I don't have as much freedom to stylize the characters as I would choose to, I can only push things to a certain point as the characters need to be instantly recognizable to the game fans.
Marz: Obviously we have an advantage in that Dave Rodriguez, who helps develop and shepherd the "Skylanders" games, is part of the team. It streamlines the process greatly. Beyond that, it's really not that different than working on Big Two superheroes, "Star Wars," or any other franchise. You understand that your job is to work within the parameters of the property.
"Skylanders" #1 is on sale this October from IDW Publishing. "Skylanders" #0 is available exclusively at Comic-Con International 2014 in San Diego.