"Skullkickers" Bashes Your Face In

Between survival horror epics such as "The Walking Dead," superhero adventures in the pages of "Savage Dragon" and even pulse-pounding tales of underground dance parties in "Forgetless," there's little question that Image Comics offers readers a wide variety of genres to choose from. True to form, the publisher is about to embark on an entirely new genre: swords and sassery.

That's the genre writer Jim Zubkavich uses to describe "Skullkickers," his September-releasing Image series about a pair of unnamed mercenaries traversing a fantasy world filled with all sorts of monsters and mayhem. Speaking with CBR News, Zubkavich boiled down "Skullkickers" in another user-friendly manner: "It's a buddy cop film slammed into 'Army of Darkness.'"

"It's a fantasy-fueled action-comedy," Zubkavich explained to CBR. "Two mercenaries get wrapped up in capers and battles, some of their own choosing but others because of circumstance, and they need to muscle their way out. It's a fantasy world packed with monsters and other nastiness where most people just keep their heads down in order to survive. These two guys are too tough - and, frankly, too stupid - to do as they're told."

The titular Skullkickers consist of a pair of unnamed mercenaries; a gun-slinging human and an axe-wielding dwarf. "They're currently nameless," said the writer. "These gents are the fantasy equivalent of the Man with No Name for now. No one knows who they are or where they came from, just that they show up and kill monsters aplenty. It may change later on, but for now, their names aren't important. At best, they call each other by nicknames like 'baldy' and 'shorty.' The human is what passes for the brains of this less-than-organized operation. Even though he's the more physically imposing of the two, he hangs back and uses his pistol when he can. He's the guy looking for the best angle, the trick. The dwarf is emotional, explosive and unbelievably violent. He's judgmental and shortsighted, chopping first and asking questions later. Like a classic vaudeville comedy act, he's the goof while the human plays the straight man."

In the debut issue of "Skullkickers," readers are exposed to the two heroes' violent but often hilarious methods set against a fantastical backdrop filled with blood by the gallons, assassination plots and political intrigue. In other words, there's a lot to digest. "The first issue packs a lot in, definitely," said Zubkavich. "I didn't want it to be a slow burn. I wanted the reader to get a feel for how these guys operate and what to expect - fun action and banter alongside some mystery while lovingly poking fun at the kinds of fantasy stories I grew up with. I laid a bunch of groundwork for stories to come. There are quite a few layers to it but the 'kickers only perceive the most immediate and violent one at this point."

Returning to his description of "Skullkickers" as a "swords and sassery" story, Zubkavich once again pointed to "Army of Darkness" as a strong indicator of his new book's tone. "When you watch that movie, you know Sam Raimi and the crew love zombie and fantasy films, but they're also not afraid to point out how ridiculous some of it is," he explained. "That's the kind of balance I want to strike with 'Skullkickers.' I want the reader to have fun with this, to surprise them with something over-the-top, swashbuckling, a bit silly and occasionally gross. In an ideal world, 'Skullkickers' appeals to fantasy fans, gamers and also people who enjoy fun superhero romps like 'Hercules' or 'Invincible.'"

For his own part, Zubkavich is a lifelong fan of medieval fantasy "from novels and movies through to video games and playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends," he said. "All of it still swims in the back of my mind. 'Skullkickers' distills down those kooky D&D stories my friends and I created while chucking around dice alongside classic stories like 'Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser' or 'Conan.'"

In addition to "Skullkickers," Zubkavich is the project manager for UDON Entertainment. The writer's action-comedy series is being published through Image, however, due to its origin as part of the publisher's Eisner Award-winning "Popgun" anthology series. "[Cover artist] Chris Stevens and I talked about a quick and fun story to put together, and we basically wrote up a laundry list of material we both enjoyed - fantasy, action, monsters and banter," he recalled of the project's genesis. "That turned into a 10-page story called 'Two Copper Pieces' that ran in 'Popgun 2.' The title was in reference to the fact that these two mercenary guys would kill anyone for a couple coppers and that they were a pair of dingy no-names instead of typical 'golden' fantasy heroes. Everyone got a kick out of it, so we brought the duo back for a four-page story called 'Gotcha!' in 'Popgun 3.' After that, the powers that be at Image suggested we pitch a full-blown comic around the concept. We were having a ball with it and I had story ideas galore, so I came up with the name 'Skullkickers' and expanded it out from there."

Since then, the "Skullkickers" team has grown beyond the two creators. "Chris was the original artist on the short stories and his artwork is stunning, but he had other commitments he couldn't get out of," said Zubkavich. "Hunting for another art team to do it justice turned up newcomer Edwin Huang. He'd emailed me some samples out of the blue and I was shocked at how high quality they were for someone who just graduated from art college. I've seen a lot of comic portfolio samples over the years, and I could tell right from the get-go that he was capable of delivering the goods. A few sample pages later and that was happily confirmed. This guy's going to knock your socks off."

In addition to Huang's involvement as the book's interior artist, the "Skullkickers" team is joined by colorist Misty Coats and letterer Marshall Dillon. "Working with new people can be a bit scary, but it's also really exciting," said the writer. "Edwin adds momentum with solid line art and hilarious expressions, then Misty catapults it to the next level with clear and atmospheric colors. Marshall Dillon puts the lettering in place, juggling the banter and weird sound effects I've thrown in, and Chris Stevens delivers a knockout punch with an eye-catching cover. I feel really fortunate that the team has come together so solidly."

Having already completed the first two issues of "Skullkickers," Zubkavich and his crew are already hard at work on issue #3 in an effort to make sure that the series ships as scheduled. "Things happen and I don't have a crystal ball, but delivering the book when we say we're going to means a lot to me," said Zubkavich. "I'd like to deliver that first five-issue story-arc like clockwork so people can enjoy it regularly and tell their friends. If it rolls forward, then between story-arcs, there will be a short gap to rebuild the buffer of material, but that's built into the schedule. I don't intend to solicit stuff just for the heck of it if I know it's not coming out that month. As a new creative team, the only thing we've got is the quality and timeliness of this book to make our mark. Word of mouth can't grow on the comic if it's not coming out. Image believes in the concept and I feel strongly that we should give them a timely book to market."

Although the first issue of "Skullkickers" hasn't yet arrived in stores, Zubkavich is already looking towards the future of his new series. "The first story-arc works as an adventure that can wrap up with a satisfying ending if it has to, but it's built to continue [as an] ongoing and that would be my preference," he said. "I'd love to keep these two mercenary monster hunters busy for a long time."

"Skullkickers" #1 from Jim Zubkavich and the art team of Chris Stevens, Edwin Huang, Misty Coats and Marshall Dillon arrives in stores on September 22, 2010. Fans can stay up to date on all things "Skullkickers" at the comic's official website.

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