Talking with Jim Zub, Part 1: Skullkickers breaks 500,000 page views

Jim Zubkavich got plenty of buzz for his comic Skullkickers when it was just in print, but now that he is running the early chapters on Keenspot as a free webcomic, it's really a hot ticket: One month after the comic debuted on Keenspot, his traffic has reached over half a million page views from over 38,000 viewers.

As you will see below, Zubkavich is not afraid to talk real numbers, and we quizzed him on why he would take a hit comic and put it on the internet for free and how his other online comic, Makeshift Miracle, is working out. In part two of this interview, we'll ask about his newest project, Shifty Look.

Robot 6: Skullkickers has gotten all sorts of critical acclaim, and I assume it has sold well in its print incarnation. Why did you decide to put it online? And why at Keenspot, as opposed to your own site?

Jim Zubkavich: No matter how well Skullkickers has done as indy creator-owned comic, the unfortunate reality of the print comic business and retail system in 2012 is that once the series is running, it’s incredibly hard to keep growing the audience on monthly issues. Some readers you started with convert to trades, others move on. The reading audience nowadays is less likely to jump in to a random issue and start from there unless you give them an easy way to catch up. Serializing our earlier issues online is the equivalent of lending thousands of new readers our earliest adventures as a way to get them on board the Skullkickers concept.

Keenspot has a massive loyal online audience that consistently reads webcomics. They have great outreach and experience in building that audience, along with a solid ad revenue system in place thanks to the tens of millions of pageviews their combined sites get each month.

Instead of starting from scratch and spending my time trying to find people, Keenspot allowed me to get the site running and in front of a huge group of potential readers who are primed for the type of content we’re doing. That way I can focus on making great comics. It’s not a turnkey solution and there is upkeep and interaction, but a lot of the infrastructure and outreach is taken care of. I wouldn’t have that kind of impact on my own site, not without a massive outlay of time and extra money.

Robot 6: How will you monetize it?

Jim: The site updates 5 days a week and we currently have enough material to last us over a year on that update schedule. Every day readers can clearly see the story evolving and, just below the latest page, it shows them that there are more chapters/issues they can read any time they want – via their local comic shop, as digital issues on comiXology or by buying our trades online through their favorite outlet like Amazon. Without trying to sound cocky, I’m banking on being able to break down their resolve day by day with our fun comic.

If that doesn’t work, we’re still making money from online ad banner revenue bit by bit and will have expanded visibility at conventions. I think no matter what happens, the website enhances our ability to make money (directly or indirectly) and keep doing the comic.

Robot 6: You told Gary Tyrrell that in your first week on Keenspot, you got more readers than all three printings of Skullkickers combined. (I assume you are counting each comic sold as a single reader?) Has that momentum continued?

Jim:It has, actually. We’re now just under the one month mark for the site and we’re growing at a solid rate. The site, as of February 21, has 503,000+ pageviews from 38,000+ readers. That’s more than triple the number we sold for our first printed issue. In four weeks we’ve expanded our possible audience and are letting thousands of new people know we’re out there and have a fun totally accessible comic.

Love fantasy? Read Skullkickers?

Excited about the Hobbit movie coming out? Read Skullkickers.

Playing Pathfinder and pumped about the upcoming 5th edition of D&D? Read Skullkickers.

It’s just a click away.

Robot 6: I know it's early yet, but what sort of effect has it had on sales of the print comics?

Jim: Since we’re between story arcs and the new issue won’t be out until April, I honestly don’t know at this point. Our upcoming Skullkickers Treasure Trove (combined vol 1 & 2 deluxe hardcover) arrives the same day as our next issue, April 4, and I’m hopeful the extra exposure will help increase pre-orders. With the way the accounting and tabulation works, I won’t know the effect for quite some time.

Robot 6: Do you think the print comic has helped the popularity of the webcomic (rather than the other way around, which is how the model is usually supposed to work)?

Jim: Based on the feedback I‘m getting from the new audience trying us out, I’d actually say “No, not really”. They’re fantasy fans, RPG fans, and webcomic fans, not necessarily print comic readers.

The vast majority of these new readers aren’t comic shop regulars and they hadn’t heard of us before. They’re the elusive “new reader” the comic business keeps talking about but rarely seems to grab hold of. They’re not biased for or against independent creator-owned work. They just read comics online and support the ones they like.

Robot 6: Do you see yourself possibly transitioning to a digital issues/print trades model, like the Foglios do with Girl Genius?

Jim: I’d like to keep printing physical issues as long as the market will have us. I’m not looking to abandon comic retailers at all, especially the ones who have gone to the wall for us. I think both can and should co-exist peacefully. The more outlets, the better.

Robot 6: Makeshift Miracle has been a webcomic all along. How does your audience for that compare to Skullkickers?

Jim: Makeshift has had 45,000+ readers and more total pageviews in the four months it’s been online, but it’s also a slowly unfolding dramatic story with a 2 page per week update schedule. Skullkickers’ 5 updates per week and its ridiculous violent content will outpace Makeshift soon and that’s fine.

They’re very different stories with different goals. Obviously I want both to succeed but I understand that Skullkickers is an easier “sell” in the mainstream. I’m thrilled I can have both stories on the go. They both scratch different creative itches I have.

Robot 6: A while back, you posted a downloadable copy of the first chapter of Makeshift Miracle and encouraged people to torrent it and share it with their friends. How did that experiment work out, and would you do it again?

Jim: It’s almost impossible to track torrent download stats, which is one of the reasons the entertainment business loathes it so much, but it was a totally worthy experiment. A few thousand people downloaded it and dozens of people ‘seeded’ and shared it. I’m assuming there were a bunch of new people in there trying to out. I doubt someone who read the updates online would then go to the hassle of downloading it again. Considering that the whole point of serializing Makeshift online was to get the word out about it, torrenting the online pages synced up with that incredibly well.

Robot 6: Do you think you could make your living solely as a comics creator based on those properties and that marketing? Is that your ambition someday?

Jim: I’d be thrilled to make my living solely through creative pursuits, especially ones I have a stake in, absolutely. I have no idea what form that will take though. One of the downsides of this steadily moving industry is that you’ve got to be constantly shifting your goals to keep up with the changes as they come along.

Star Wars: Allegiance Introduces Admiral Ackbar's Son Into the Resistance

More in Comics