By Matt O’Keefe
Jim Zubkavich has been creating comics since he began self-publishing Makeshift Miracle in 2001, but he really broke onto the scene in 2010 with Skullkickers, an ongoing series from Image Comics which Zub describes as a buddy cop film slammed into Conan the Barbarian. In addition to his jobs as Project Manager at Udon Entertainment and Program Coordinator for Senecca College’s animation program, he’s currently balancing his time working on Skullkickers, Pathfinder for Dynamite Entertainment, the next volume of Makeshift Miracle, and a trio of webcomics for Bandai-Namco. I asked him about his writing process and his experiences working on the different titles.
How far have you plotted out Skullkickers? Is there an end in mind?
Skullkickers is plotted out through to the end. It actually feels weird to type that, but it’s true. Unless something major changes, we’re planning to wrap up the story after six story arcs in issue #36. Skullkickers will be six trade paperbacks or a fantasy trilogy of hardback books (each one containing two arcs). That’s my plan, the art team is on board and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to see it through to completion.
How do you think you’ve grown as a storyteller since the series began? In what ways do you think you’ll continue to grow?
It’s hard to know where things will develop, but I’ve definitely felt a shift in my confidence levels since starting the series just over two years ago. I feel like I have a better handle on storytelling, plotting, dialogue, you name it. Like any other skill – the more you do, the better you get at it. Writing three arcs of Skullkickers has refined my scripting process, clarified of my storytelling and enhanced the way I deliver humor and action. I’d be thrilled if that continued to develop as I go forward. I know I still have lots to learn.
The panel count per page in Skullkickers has increased since the beginning of the series. Was that a conscious decision?
The panel count increase happened naturally as the story became more complex. Skullkickers #1-5 was a bombastic adventure with minimal repercussions and only two main characters. In the second and third arc we really broadened the world and introduced a lot of other elements, so keeping all those balls in the air requires extra density. I think we’re in a good groove now though. I don’t expect we’ll need to increase the panel count again from here. I like the balance we’ve struck with action and exposition.
What do you like about the five-issue arc?
There’s a real structured build up/peak/and payoff to the 5 issue arcs in Skullkickers. I use the first two issues of each arc to introduce as many ridiculous elements as I can, reveal their connections in the third chapter and then plow through them to a bombastic finish in parts four and five. I don’t want the story to become repetitive, but structurally each arc does follow that format.
What’s your view on violence in comics and other entertainment media? Are you trying to say something about it through Skullkickers?
It does boggle and amuse me that our book can have a 12+ age rating without any complaints. We showcase blood spurting, limbs lopped off, choke holds, barfing, swear symbols and gunfire, but no one has ever told us we’ve gone too far. As long as we steer clear of nipples or sexual innuendo we’re in the clear. I don’t think I need to say anything else. It’s a joke and punch line all on its own. Modern North American entertainment believes that rampant violence is okay, but sex is foul and terrifying. It’s a bit hard to fathom at times.
I’m writing a story I think fantasy fans will enjoy and I crank up the violence for humorous effect, but whether or not that’s truly appropriate for kids/teens is really up to parents to decide. YALSA (The Young Adult Library Services Association, an offshoot of the American Library Association) listed us on their “Great Graphic Novels For Teens” list in 2011, so clearly we’re striking a chord with that age group.
The sound effects in Skullkickers are great. How closely do you work with Marshall Dillon [the letterer] on the design of them?
I write them into the script and Marshall masterfully works them in with Edwin’s art. I know that sounds pretty boring, but that’s really all there is to it. Occasionally I’ll add or take some away once I see the lettering proof, but most of it is in there before Edwin even starts drawing. It’s pretty rare that I ask for lettering edits nowadays. Marshall knows what I like to see with the sound effects at this point. He’s the best.
You’re very good at catching up readers on the series in the first couple pages without letting it feeling dry and expository. Is that hard to pull off?
Astute readers may notice that the recaps being delivered by the little old lady in issues #7 and 13 are there to catch-up new readers on the series, but they also contain tidbits of new information as well. I want it to be informative and entertaining, a refresher filled with personality and a few extra jokes so our regular readers won’t skip over it. Those introductions also give me a chance to look back at our previous story arc and sum it up for myself, reminding me of the key plot points we’ll be getting back to down the road.
You thank someone in every issue of Skullkickers. How did that start, and what kinds of things are you thanking them for?
All creative projects have a hidden support system in place – friends, family, and supporters – people who help the process along in direct or indirect ways. I try to mark those down as time goes by and give them a little tip of my hat wherever possible. It’s nice to look back on old issues and remind myself of all the great people who have helped us get this far.
Skullkickers #18 just came out about a month ago, with the story from Tavern Tales contest winners Aubrey Sitterson and Ivan Anayawork inside. How was it working with newcomers? Do you think you’ll run the contest again?
I love collaborating with people. I’ve been working at the UDON studio for almost ten years helping organize and manage creative services projects, so this sort of felt like I was project managing a project for myself. Having such a rich pool of talent to choose from through the contest obviously helped. Ivan’s artwork is already at a professional level, so we just needed to nail down the storytelling. Aubrey’s been around comics for quite a while and knows what he’s doing with scripting and pacing. I was thrilled to see how they stepped their quality up, especially in an issue with so many other talented creators.
I’m not sure if I’ll have time to run another talent competition for our next Tavern Tales issue. Going through every entry was really time consuming and making the final choices on the winners was pretty stressful. My projects are piling up for 2013 and I need to make sure those take priority. So, in short, another Tavern Tales competition is possible, but looking unlikely.
You do a lot to help out up-and-coming creators, between the Tavern Tales contest, your tutorials about breaking into comics, and ads for other books in the back of Skullkickers issues. You even did a crossover with the comic Princeless in the back of #14. What motivates you to do all that?
I’m still finding my way in this industry and I never want to forget the winding journey involved in “making it”. I still don’t feel like I’ve really “made it” in any way, shape or form, but there are some very immediate experiences I can draw upon to tell people about – distinct things I wished I’d known just a few years ago when I was getting started. If I can help steer people clear of career potholes or improve their creative productivity then that’s something I’ve thrilled to be able to do.
In addition, writing out these tutorials has been a way for me to formalize my thoughts on the comic-making process. I have to justify to myself why I work the way I do and make sure it’s explained in a logical way. It’s been helpful for me too, as weird as that sounds. The fact that people have responded so positively to me giving advice or reaching out to new creators is wonderful. It feels like I’m part of a strong creative community where creators encourage each other instead of looking to tear down the competition.
What’s coming up in Skullkickers?
Our fourth story arc should be starting in February. As much as I’d love to just keep things going each and every month we’re not quite paying the bills with creator-owned comics right now, so Edwin and I have to take on other freelance work to make ends meet. I’m capable of writing Skullkickers monthly and he’s capable of delivering the art monthly, it’s just the financial realities that gum things up.
Anyways, the fourth story arc plays with the clichés of explorer/jungle fantasy stories, with savage threats, hidden treasures and tropical antics. Kusia and Rex are shipwrecked on a mysterious island and the trouble they encounter there should keep everyone entertained.
Now that we’re moving into the latter half of the big story readers will start to see more and more callbacks to earlier plot lines and tidbits they probably didn’t even realize would be important. I want our readers to frantically dig through back issues to see that we really did plan all this crazy crap out ahead of time.
How’s your experience working with Dynamite on Pathfinder going so far, and do you have any plans for more work for hire?
Dynamite and Paizo have been great to work with on Pathfinder. It’s been a pretty ideal balance of letting me develop the cast and overall story while lending a helping hand with in-depth lore and details fans of the game will really appreciate. As much as I’m a tabletop gamer and Pathfinder fan, I’d never be able to keep all the world material in my mind at all times, so having Paizo’s editors there to make suggestions has been invaluable. Their feedback enhances the work without taking anything away from the character-centric plot I’m focused on.
I’ve actually got more work-for-hire writing in the pipeline right now and am hopeful it’ll get announced in the next month or so. Needless to say, 2013 is looking exciting and there should be lots more to talk about soon.
What are the challenges/benefits to writing a one-page-a-week webcomic like Dragon Spirit?
All the ShiftyLook strips I’m writing for Bandai-Namco (Dragon Spirit, Klonoa and Wonder Momo) are really enjoyable to work on. There’s a real gratification to writing scripts and seeing them illustrated and online a week or two later. The punch line-driven pacing and minimal panel count in the strip format makes them tough to write for compared to a full issue of a comic, but I’m enjoying the challenge. Each one has to be lean and mean to deliver a joke/payoff while also moving the plot forward.
When will Makeshift Miracle be returning, and what can readers expect in the next volume?
Makeshift Miracle: The Boy Who Stole Everything is all scripted, barring a few minor tweaks, and Shun is cranking away producing stunning artwork for it. He’s about two-thirds done at this point, so we’re shooting for a Spring 2013 release, right around the same time we released Makeshift Miracle: The Girl From Nowhere this year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s as well received as the first one so we can keep things rolling with a third book. If we had to end the story with Book 2 we could, but I have a lot of ideas I’d love to incorporate into another volume.
With all your current work fitting into one genre, do you worry at all about being branded as “the fantasy guy?”
Earlier this year I did worry about being stuck with that label. These awesome fantasy projects all collided together at the same time and I didn’t want to let any slip away even though it could have really typecast me as a writer.
Even still, Skullkickers is very different from Pathfinder or Dragon Spirit in terms of tone, plotting and characterization. Thankfully all three of them have their own hook and read quite differently. The only element I want in common with all of my projects is that they should all be solidly entertaining. I’m a huge fantasy fan, and will never shy away from that, but I’m happy that in 2013 readers will be seeing material from me beyond sword & sorcery.