Jim Zub might be better known for his work at Marvel, Dark Horse, and IDW, but Skullkickers was the comic that put him on the map. The 30-issue Image series, completed in 2015, feels like madcap Dungeons & Dragons sessions brought to life and broken down into cohesive storylines. The world of Skullkickers always seemed like a perfect fit for a role-playing game, and Zub is making it happen with Skullkickers: Caster Bastards and the Great Grotesque, now on Kickstarter. The Beat interviewed Jim Zub about the Skullkickers Kickstarter, developing the RPG, and what it’s like returning to the series.
Was the Skullkickers game already in the works or did it come together because of the pandemic?
I knew I wanted to release a comic special to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the series and I realized I could expand the scope. Originally, I thought we could add a bit of gaming content to the comic but it kept growing. I wanted to do more and get more ambitious with it. Make something really special, something really different that brings together two things I’m really well known for and that Skullkickers exemplifies: gaming and chaos.
I also wanted to make something I couldn’t just do as a comic. What’s nice about this project is that it’s an amalgamation of two forms of entertainment I wouldn’t pitch to a comic book publisher or a games publisher because it falls somewhere in the middle.
Is the comic an introduction to the game itself?
The comic story is self-contained. It’s 30 pages and takes place at a magic school called the Academy of Serious Sorcery and Holistic Occult Learning, a weird place full of strange characters, creatures, and encounters.
The Skullkickers go through the school in the comic, but the role-playing game adventure really fleshes it all out. The RPG section explains the whole school year, each room on every floor, the teachers, and all the things that can happen above and beyond what the Skullkickers get into in their story. You can create characters, go through the school year, and mess around on your own adventure or you can drop some of the encounters, spells, and stuff into your regular D&D game.
It’s a little bit of everything in that way. If you want a game product, it can be a game product. If you want a comic, there’s a comic to enjoy it and you can check out the RPG guide to learn about the stuff that’s under the hood.
Did it feel like going home writing Skullkickers again?
It’s weird because the last five years have been so transformative for my career. When we wrapped up Skullkickers, I was writing my second Dungeons & Dragons miniseries. Now I’m writing Conan the Barbarian and co-authoring the Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurers Guides with Andrew Wheeler and Stacy King. Now, after working on those characters and properties, I’m returning to a series that’s basically a love letter to both of them.
Skullkickers isn’t a one-to-one parody because I don’t find that kind of thing funny. It’s a comedic series in the spirit of those kinds of stories. Skullkickers combines the rough and tumble world of Conan with the high fantasy and chaos of Dungeons & Dragons. Now I’m working on both those properties at the same time while also making new Skullkickers.
Writing Skullkickers is very liberating. I love telling Conan and D&D stories, but there are a lot of approvals involved in that process. On Skullkickers, Edwin Huang, Misty Coats, Marshall Dillon, and I can run with an idea just because it makes us laugh. There’s a simplicity and a purity to that which I missed.
Are you coming at Skullkickers from a new perspective now that you’ve worked on the properties it pokes fun at?
I definitely have a bit more of a devil may care attitude on it now. We went buck wild on Rick & Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons and that went over really well so I feel like I’ve got a pretty good head for what works with the genre and how to drill into that and have fun with it. The good thing about the Skullkickers cast is they all motivate story because they’re constantly getting into trouble. It’s not a deep plot, but that’s kind of the point. The emotional set up in a Bugs Bunny cartoon isn’t deep or meaningful either, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
Skullkickers stories are about the setup and payoff of fun encounters. I write Skullkickers sort of like 10-year old me playing Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a sugar rush where characters kick monsters in the face and create chaos.
The one thing we hadn’t really done in Skullkickers before was magic, weirdly enough. Some magic happens to the protagonists but they don’t perform magic themselves. Putting them into this highly charged magic environment with the school and these teachers creates a lot of fun contrast. The story offers a peek behind the curtain of what spell casting looks like in the world of Skullkickers. Just like everything else there, it’s twisted and strange and not quite what you expect.
Currently, I’m also working with an animation studio named Copernicus to develop a Skullkickers animated series, and I have the benefit of hindsight since Skullkickers already exists as a comic. Knowing where the story goes means we can set up and pay off story beats more elaborately and confidently than we did in the comic.
As part of my work on that animated series I had to write up a document to describe the humor of Skullkickers and, let me tell you, it’s the weirdest document I’ve ever written because I had to analyze my humor in the comics and figure out what’s funny and what is specifically Skullkickers funny. Figuring that out proved helpful for the role-playing game as well because I could explain to the designers the exact comedic style I wanted.
Was there anything about creating an RPG that was different from what you expected?
The original plan was to finish the comic script before we brought in game designers to create the RPG, but my schedule worked differently than I hoped so I was only about two-thirds of the way through when it was time to start making the game.
I said to the designers, look, I want you to feel free to pitch ideas into the mix because I want you to have fun with this as well. And they pitched tons of great ideas, some of which made their way back into the comic story. I hadn’t anticipated that kind of back and forth with them and that our conversations would have that effect on the comic.
Everyone working on the RPG has been cool and creative, putting little bits of themselves into it, which is very heartwarming. I’m the one organizing it and paying the bills, but I want everyone to feel like they have a stake in this and are having fun because that’s when you get the best results.
The process is similar on the animated series. Copernicus told me what they really liked about Skullkickers and they also shared what they thought they could improve upon, which I was thrilled to hear. I don’t want to just make a panel-by-panel adaptation. I’m a better writer now than I was back then, so I want to see what we can do to strengthen it all.
I’ve been writing comics steadily for about 12 or 13 years. I’ve written somewhere around 60 trade paperbacks worth of comics in that time. At this point in my career, I’m not trying to prove anything, and that’s very liberating. All I’m asking is how can I make the best version of the Skullkickers cartoon and RPG possible and how can I make sure everyone involved feels good and excited about what we’re doing? What really matters is we’re having fun with it. If we do that, readers and players should have a great time too.