by Matt O”Keefe
IDW recently announced that in October it will be publishing a Samurai Jack as a comic book series that picks up the story where the animated series left off. I spoke with writer Jim Zub about what to expect from the book. We also discussed the headline-grabbing fourth arc of Skullkickers.
We can start with the obvious question: how’d you get the gig?
It was interesting, I’d actually been talking to IDW about another project late last year which didn’t end up working out just because of scheduling stuff. I got back in touch when my schedule opened up and asked them to let me know if anything was coming down the pipe, and I totally lucked out. The editor I’d been talking to, Carlos Guzman, told me IDW got the license for Samurai Jack and that they were searching for a writer. He said he was looking for pitches and things evolved naturally from there. I’m a big fan of the series so Carlos and I shot some ideas back and forth and sent my pitch to Cartoon Network and mine was the one they picked. So it just sort synced up really well in terms of my schedule and my love for the property and everything else. I feel very fortunate that it worked out the way that it did.
So you had a lot of freedom with your pitch? They didn’t come to you with a story?
No, they weren’t even entirely sure which direction they wanted to go with the series. They knew they wanted to pick up where the TV show left off but it was pretty open ended in terms of “Give us some ideas. Give us an idea of where you feel like this could go or what sort of elements you could introduce into the world of Samurai Jack.” I rewatched my favorite episodes and said, “Okay, what really makes this thing tick? Why do people love this property so much? Why do I love this property so much?” So I wanted to channel that without rehashing the animated series but at the same time not lose what people like about it.
Actually it’s going to be a perfect sync because Andy Suriano, one of the character designers on the TV show, is the artist on the comic. So it’s going to be right on target in terms of matching people’s expectations [for a Samurai Jack story]. Just the sketches and things I’ve seen so far… they look awesome.
The action in Samurai Jack is so fluid. Will you adapt that to the comic?
Yeah. One of the reasons Carlos approached me to pitch it was because I really like writing action and really like doing innovative stuff with action. I want to make sure the comic has that kinetic feel to it so I’m writing some really big, cool action scenes right into the series and make sure it feels like the animation. We’re doing things that are comic-centric but you still get that same sense of big action, big adventure, and big exploration. The show’s got such a great atmosphere to it; I don’t want to lose those elements and at the same time I want to introduce things that are uniquely comic-based.
Both Samurai Jack and Skullkickers are violent without being gory. Did you think about that when you started writing Jack?
Yeah. I mean, Skullkickers is something I want a 12 or 13 year old kid to be able to read it and be semi-grossed out by, but nothing beyond the pale. I think Samurai Jack does a great job building a similar vibe with its action. Some of the episodes are surprisingly violent but not in the traditional way. It’s very much intensity rather than just going for the cheap gore. I think that’s a really cool thing about the show. Similarly in Skullkickers I try to write innovative action instead of just straight out gore. We’ve done some ridiculous cartoony gore bits but that’s not the end-all be-all.
The score played a pretty big role in the TV show. Did you think about how to substitute that in the comic?
Well obviously it’s not like the comic will come with a soundtrack, but I think that sound or lack of sound is something we can play with. Where you emphasize sound effects does a lot; in Skullkickers we use a lot of them. I’ve finished two scripts for Samurai Jack so far and both of them play with panel pacing and use sound effects in different ways. I’m also working with Andy on the way the panels are laid out, not to create sound but to make interesting visual compositions and build up an atmosphere that was created by sound in in the TV show.
I think that with any adaptation you have to play to the strengths of the medium. We’re definitely making a fun, action-packed comic and want to play up those strengths. But we also want to take things from the animation and find ways to build up a similar feel even if we don’t have the exact same toolset. We can use the tools in comics as a medium to present things in ways people haven’t quite seen before.
Who’s lettering the book?
I don’t know who the letterer is, actually. I haven’t seen any lettering proofs at this early stage, but that’s a good question. I’m curious who it will be; I know I’m going to be pretty picky on that kind of stuff because I feel that lettering is such a crucial part of the comics-making process. Lettering can make or break people’s experiences in terms of how they read [the comic] and where their eyes rest on the page, so it’s definitely going to be a big part of the whole process.
Hoping for Marshall Dillon [the letterer of Skullkickers], personally.
Yeah, Marshall and I are a great team. He really understands my sensibilities so obviously I’d be thrilled if they asked him to letter it because he’s used to dealing with my idiosyncrasies.
It’s five issues. That was something we talked about a lot. In the TV show there were a lot of one-off stories, every so often they would have a two-parter, and we talked about if we wanted to go a similar route. I definitely think that later on in the series we’ll have more one-issue/two-issue sorts of stories if we get a chance but we wanted to open with something bigger. We wanted to start with a storyline that would really grab people and keep them on board for a little longer so they could hunker down and really understand the elements we’re bringing to Samurai Jack.
The dialogue in the show is pretty minimal. Jack in particular doesn’t talk a whole lot. Is that going to hold true in the comic?
Other characters in the show tend to do the talking and the same will hold true here. Even though I love doing banter and dialogue, Jack’s personality is very set so I’m trying to be as respectful as possible to that. He’s stoic and he’s quiet and he’s thoughtful. When he speaks it’s with real purpose. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of the character. He doesn’t say a lot but when he does speak it’s significant.
You said the creator of Jack is drawing the covers.
Yeah. Genndy Tartakovsky [Dexter’s Laboratory, Star Wars: Clone Wars] is illustrating the subscription-only variant covers for this first story arc. As a fan of all his creations, particularly Samurai Jack, I’m absolutely thrilled to have him involved.
It’s going pretty good. I like mixing things up; I really want to keep challenging myself in different ways. I’m planning some new creator-owned projects and I want to write more commercial properties. The important thing is that the challenge is there and that I’m growing as a storyteller, so when a project comes along where I feel I can contribute something strong I want to dig into it.
Skullkickers just finished its adjective arc. How was it received?
It was good. I was a little nervous at first that people were going to flip out [over the renumbering] but the majority of readers thought it was really fun. Some readers are still asking when the next reboot #1 issue is coming out and I have to disappoint them, but I really get a kick out of people telling me they want Justice League of Skullkickers or something outrageous like that. I’m glad people responded well to it and that it got people talking about the series again. That was the whole point. That’s why companies do reboots in the first place: to draw attention to what they’re doing and bring in new readers with a jumping on point. We abused the heck out of it but in a sarcastic way that jives with what our readers expect from Skullkickers.
I loved the Dwarf side story in the first chapter of the new arc. Reminded me a lot of what Mark Waid is doing with Thrillbent (small modifications to a basic panel template). Have you thought about jumping into that format?
It’s funny. My background is in animation so you’d think I absolutely would, but the weird thing is I really like playing with the printed page. I’d almost rather have multiple panels on the page that feel like animation as your eye runs across them than actually do the panel-by-panel, click/click animation you see from Thrillbent and other publishers. I just love the printed form and don’t know if Mark is going to be able to print those books; you’ve got so many panels that are repeating so it would look weird on the page. So I don’t know. I think it could be cool but I’m not 100% sold that I want to do it with my own stuff. But I think it’s really great that other people are experimenting in that direction.
Yeah, we’re doing another Tavern Tales issue. At the end of every arc we do these jokey short story issues. This one is about the characters before they’ve met each other. We’ve got one story about the dwarf and one story about the elven assassin lady and one about Baldy back when he was a cowboy. People find the prequel format compelling, so we thought we’d poke that in the eye.
Have you announced a release date for the next arc?
We haven’t. I always make sure we have enough work done and that we’ve built a real buffer. I think the professional thing to do with retailers and readers is to give a release date that’s 100% real and not just wishful thinking. We’ve done twenty-three issues and I think we’ve shipped two of them late? And even then by only a week or two at the most. I think one of the things that’s helped [the series] is we do what we say we’re going to do and deliver when we say we’re going to deliver.
Are you still planning on ending the series with Issue 36?
I am. It’s been the plan since around Issue 3 or 4 and now that it’s in sight it’s both scary and exciting.
Sometimes some of our readers get worried when they read about our commercial work but the reality is that it’s not taking anything away from the creator-owned. If anything it’s helping it, putting more money in the war chest so we can keep doing Skullkickers.
You teach, you’re an animation coordinator, you write a bunch of comics… how do you balance it all?
Working with reliable people, good scheduling, really careful timing, and knowing my own productivity. I have a very, very patient wife and wonderful friends. Every so often I have to do some binge writing and sequester myself away at which point productivity goes way up and I go on marathon writing sessions.
Would you have drawn Skullkickers yourself if you had the time?
It would have been cool, but I like writing things that I can’t draw well so it’s fun bringing someone else into the mix. It’s hard to say; I really like working with Edwin [Huang, the illustrator of Skullkickers] and with all kinds of different artists. I feel like that’s now a part of the comic book process for me so it’s hard to say. Before Edwin came aboard I was working with Chris Stevens and he was supposed to be the artist of Skullkickers. When he left the script got mothballed. I guess that kind of answers the question because it wasn’t being drawn until Edwin came on board. I think I would have enjoyed doing it, but the time just wasn’t there.
Samurai Jack will be released in October. Follow IDW for updates about the series. You can find Jim on his website and on Twitter @jimzub. The fourth Skullkickers trade is now on sale at comic book stores, bookstores, and digitally on ComiXology.