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Interview: WAYWARD, SKULLKICKERS and SAMURAI JACK Writer Jim Zub

Jim Zub has quietly become a prolific comics writer over the last decade. Starting in 2001 with the self-published webcomic Makeshift Miracle, Zub got in with and subsequently became a key creator for UDON Entertainment, an Ontario-based publisher best known for making several art books and tie-in comics for Capcom.

Zub did a fair amount of these, including editing 2 Art of Capcom books and writing Street Fighter comics. Zub also launched a comic of his own with artist Edwin Huang, Skullkickers, a slapstick fantasy comedy published since September 2010 by Image Comics, serialized online and is now concluding this June.

Along with several other UDON personnel, Zub was drafted by Bandai-Namco to turn classic Namco arcade games as webcomics for the now defunct website ShiftyLook. He wrote the Sky Kid and Dragon Spirit webcomics and co-wrote Wonder Momo: Battle Idol based on an 1987 Japanese beat’em’up arcade game (the comic was later adapted into an anime webseries by Graphinica, for which Zub received a co-story credit).

Later going on to write comics for Dynamite,  DC and IDW, in August 2014, working with famed comics artist Steve Cummings (Deadshot, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight), Zub launched a new creator-owned series from Image, Wayward. Image’s promotional efforts have branded the series as “Buffy in Japan” and, given the story–which follows Japanese-Irish high schooler Rori Lane as she discovers the supernatural underside of Tokyo–that’s not too far off.

I spoke to Zub about collaborating with Cummings (who lives in Yokohama, Japan) on Wayward, Skullkickers, his soon-to-end run on IDW’s acclaimed SamuraI Jack comic, his current work co-writing the Conan/Red Sonja miniseries from Dark Horse with the legendary Gail Simone and the business and reality of making comics.

TS: Where did the idea of Wayward come from? What’s it been like working across the globe with Steve?

JZ: Steve and I worked together at the UDON studio a few years ago and had talked about teaming up on a project but, as it tends to happen when things get busy, we kept putting it off. When both our schedules finally opened up, we started tossing ideas back and forth. I had a big thematic idea about mythology in the modern world and Steve wanted to set a story in Tokyo, so we used those two things as the springboard and developed what would eventually be Wayward.

Steve and I try to chat on Google Hangout once or twice a week if possible just to touch base and make sure we both know what the other one is up to. With the time zone stuff it can get a bit crazy but we make it work. I’m usually getting ready for bed while Steve is getting ready to start his day, so it’s like two ships passing. When I wake up the next morning there’s a an email from Steve with the latest page, which always feels a bit like magic.

TS: One of my favorite features of Wayward are the essays written by Zack Davisson that really explain a lot about Japanese culture and mythology. How did he come on board? Do you have any hand in shaping his essays?

JZ: Zack was introduced to me through comic writer Brandon Seifert, a mutual friend. Brandon had no way of knowing but I was already actively looking for contributors to put together back matter essays for the series. His timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Right after we announced Wayward was coming from Image Brandon got in touch and recommended we touch base with Zack. With his background as a professional manga translator, Japanese mythology scholar, and all around Japanese history and culture buff, Zack was the perfect fit for our team. If anything, I needed to convince him that we were creating something worthy of his attention, not just a manga knock-off. Thankfully, Zack checked out our story outline and the first script and was ecstatic with what we were putting together.

I send Zack story notes of where we’re headed and each finished script so he knows what the bigger picture is for the series. From there he suggests different topics that reinforce our larger themes or fill in details we’re not able to cover in the comic. It’s a pretty organic process. I’m thrilled with how they’re turning out.

TS: As an artist yourself, do you have any hand in designing the creatures and characters of Wayward? Could you see yourself both writing and drawing a story if the need arose?

JZ: I’m not involved in the art/design of Wayward directly. Steve is ten times the artist I am so I leave that to him. I wrote pretty extensive character or monster notes and he interprets those in the designs used in the series. Where something really specific is required, I ask him for rough sketches ahead of time. Otherwise I let him do what he does best.

Although my background is in art/animation and I can illustrate, I’m definitely slower than my excellent collaborators. I don’t know if I’d have the time to be able to complete a story with the same level of quality/care I see from Steve (on Wayward), Edwin [Huang](on Skullkickers), Max [Dunbar, the artist on Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate from IDW], or from my many other artistic partners. With my current writing schedule, it would be impossible.

TS: No spoilers, but String Theory ends with Rori in a really rough place. What can you say about her journey (and that of Ayane and the others) going forward?

JZ: The second story arc is going to be a rough one on the whole cast as we continue to push them into unfamiliar spaces. Without giving too much away, the scope of the series widens and readers will learn a bit more about how all these supernatural elements are connected. Gaining that knowledge requires sacrifices.
TS: In Wayward #6, you introduce a whole new protagonist in Ohara, a Japanese classmate of Rori who gets caught up in the mayhem and as she experiences it, it’s rather shocking and horrifying. Why did you feel the need to bring a whole new character on board?

JZ: Without giving away too much of the future story, Ohara’s introduction contrasts with Rori’s and gives a grader view of life as a teenager in Tokyo. Her story is meant to parallel in some ways and divert in others as we build towards the larger theme of what Wayward is really about.

I wanted to throw readers a curveball, to show them that although Rori has been a crucial part of the Wayward story she’s not the only character worth following as it progresses.

TS: You had a switch-up in colorists around issue #3 and also did some of the coloring yourself early on. Was the switch from John Rauch to Tamra Bonvillain a hard one?

JZ: Scheduling and deadlines are always tough. John did great work but he also had a ton on his plate and we realized early on that it might throw off the original schedule I had planned out, so I started looking for someone who could work well on the project over the long haul and I pitched in on coloring when needed while we found someone to take over for John. Steve recommended Tamra after she colored some covers he’d drawn for Dynamite and she’s worked out wonderfully on the series. I feel like we’re really firing on all cylinders now.

TS: You’re very candid on your website about the realities—business, financial and so on—of making comics, with a slew of tutorial posts linked right on your homepage. What inspired you to be so upfront about creative labor?

JZ: I know what it feels like to be searching for information about the industry and not being able to get any solid answers, so when people started asking me about how to make comics on Twitter, I realized I could write about my experiences and hopefully give some people a clearer understanding about how it all works. I want people starting out in comics to know what they’re getting into, both the good and the bad. It’s better to be prepared than to go in with unrealistic expectations.

It’s also a time-saving measure. Instead of individually trying to answer questions about how I write, how to pitch a story to a publisher, or how to find an artist for a project it’s far easier to write it up once solidly on my site and then point people towards it.

TS: In your recent post about creator-owned economics, you compared sales of Wayward and Skullkickers print issues, with Wayward outselling Skullkickers by a fairly wide margin all across the board. Given that both books were published through Image, why would you say that is?

JZ: As I cover in that article, I think there are a bunch of factors involved:
• Comics as a whole are doing a heck of a lot better, especially creator-owned Image books.
• I’m more well-known as a creator with a bunch of other titles under my belt so there are more readers aware I had a new series coming out.
• I built up my relationship with retailers over the years so they were more likely to order and promote Wayward.
• Image and I did a slew of press throughout the whole pre-order period and release for the series.
Wayward is a more inclusive story that I think appeals to a broader potential readership.

TS: You also coordinate the Animation program and teach Animation History at Seneca College. Given that a lot of Internet virality is concerned with the recent when it comes to animation/anime, do you find a lot of your students are being exposed to stuff they don’t know?

JZ: I definitely want to show my students animated films and art styles they haven’t previously been exposed to, absolutely. I think it’s really important that artists embrace a broad spectrum of influences and open themselves up to new work all the time, so I try to bring that same attitude into the classroom. A History course isn’t about memorizing dates and names, it’s about understanding the greater context and influence of that history on the here and now.

TS: Given that now, compared to when you started, it’s a lot easier to become famous in webcomics/self-publishing through the Internet (Nimona, Dinosaur Comics, etc.), do you think the barrier to success online is harder or easier?

JZ: It’s really hard to say if it’s easier or not. The internet has created an incredible platform for artists to release their work and build up a fan base, but there is more content than ever before so it can be quite difficult to compete on that level. What I do think it does is broaden the voices so they’re not just limited to one geographic region, which is really important. It strengthens the overall creative/comic community and allows for unexpected collaboration.

TS: Your well-received work on IDW’s Samurai Jack comic is coming to an end in May. Do you feel you got to wrap things up nicely?

JZ: I could easily have written another 50 issues of the series because it’s such an incredible show with so many different aspects to it, but I am really happy with the stories we put together and am extra-proud of our final issue as a coda on the whole thing. Obviously I’d love to see more animated/comic Samurai Jack but, if that doesn’t happen, then I feel like issue #20 is a pretty cool way to end things off.

TS: Skullkickers is coming to an end in June after five years and 34 issues. How does it feel to end such a major project?

JZ: It doesn’t actually feel quite real that it’s ending yet and I don’t think it will until that final issue (which we’re jokingly numbering as issue 100) is released. Skullkickers is the comic that really put me on the map in terms of being noticed as a comic writer so obviously it’s near and dear to me. I’m really happy Edwin and I are getting the chance to end the series with such a big send-off story arc.

TS: You’ve currently got the Conan/Red Sonja miniseries from Dark Horse going, co-writing with Gail Simone, whose work on Red Sonja has been praised for essentially revamping the character. What’s that collaboration process been like?

JZ: As far as the story development, Gail and I brainstormed elements we thought were essential to making this a real epic tale and then started bouncing it back and forth, pacing it out, refining those elements until they worked as a whole. We wanted to tell a big sprawling sword & sorcery tale that spanned years as Conan and Sonja meet at different key points in their lives.

In terms of scripting, it’s been a ‘tennis match’. After the overall story pacing is worked out, each of us writes a full script section and ‘serves it’ over to the other, who writes the next part while making small refinements to dialogue or pacing as it moves forward. It’s been a creative challenge, but one that I think is bringing out some great qualities from both of our writing styles.

TS: Do you change the way you script based on the artist you’re working with?

JZ: A little bit. Every project is a bit different and, the longer I work with someone the more familiar I get with their strengths, so I definitely focus my scripts for the artist better as each project goes along and I see how they translate what I’m writing to the page.

TS: How do you switch mindsets between doing original work and licensed material?

JZ: Working with established properties requires a lot of research and learning about what makes them tick but they also push me into writing new stories I wouldn’t have done on my own. Original stories are a lot more open and I can indulge a lot more of my weirder ideas, but creating the overall structure for all of it is a lot of work. I enjoy doing both creator-owned and work-for-hire projects at the same time. They exercise different creative muscles and challenge me in different ways.

TS: We’ve seen an explosion in the last few years of licensed comics that not only live up to the spirit of the source material, but some that take it in a whole new direction. Why do you think that is? Do you see that continuing?

ZUB: Comics are relatively inexpensive to produce compared to live action film, video games, or animation and they can be put together by a tight-knit team compared to most other productions, so I honestly think it started off as a cheap way to produce new content, but has evolved into being a viable outlet for extending the life of those same properties. There have always been a bunch of licensed comics, but the quality and creativity being put into recent ones has helped prove their viability to readers. I don’t see why that wouldn’t continue as long as publishers put passionate and skilled people on the comic creative teams.

Cover image via

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Categories: Comics, Interviews

Author:Tom Speelman

A lifetime of reading comics and watching television has left Tom with an inexhaustible supply of pop culture knowledge from the obvious to the obscure. Rather than keep it all in his brain for use at parties, Tom turned to writing a few years ago to help him share that knowledge with as many people as are remotely interested. Tom writes for several websites including The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, Loser City and others. For even further rambling, follow him on Twitter @tomtificate.

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