When it comes to promoting his creator owned books there is nobody that works harder that writer Jim Zub. He is constantly beating the drum for his Image Comics series Skullkickers trying to reach new audiences.
“Skullkickers” is one of the most criminally underrated books being published by Image today. Zub packs each issue with tons of action, adventure, comedy and off-the-wall fantasy elements that make “Skullkickers” one of the funnest books to read each and every month. The series follows two hard-headed mercenaries kill monsters and cause havoc in their search for money, fame and adventure. Along the way, they’ll gore goblins, smash skeletons, punch plant people and whomp werewolves.
Despite earning its fair share of critical acclaim from the likes of MTV Geek (who named one of “Best Series of 2011″), Ain’t It Cool News, Bleeding Cool, and the rest of the comic critics community, Skullkickers has been flying under fans’ and retailers’ radar as it’s overshadowed by countless crossovers, reboots and re-launches.
Zub caught up with Bloody-Disgusting to chat about “Uncanny Skullkickers” #1 which hits store shelves this week, his online outreach to find new readers, and his sarcastic approach to the re-boot of his fantasy epic.
With a brand new story-arc providing the perfect jumping on point for new readers, Zub decided that it was time for his own tongue in cheek re-boot and a brand new #1 to put “Skullkickers” back into headlines. The first to launch the series is “Uncanny Skullkickers” #1, followed by “Savage Skullkickers” #1 and then “The Mighty Skullkickers” #1. Each of the brand new issue #1′s will feature parody covers of classic Marvel and DC re-launches that add to the fun.
BD: Let’s talk for a second about the idea to re-launch this new story-arc of Skullkickers with brand new #1s. Where did the idea come from and what was Image’s initial reaction when you told them what you wanted to do?
JZ: Not very many creator-owned comic series last 18 issues, let alone 18+ with the same creative team throughout. It’s hard to get people fired up about “more of the same stuff you already like” so I knew we had to make some extra noise as we headed into our fourth story arc. With a slew of re-launches from Marvel and DC it seemed sarcastically appropriate.
Some people at Image liked it a lot, others weren’t so sure if it was a good idea, but in the end Image is about creator choice and control so they let me roll with it.
BD: What was it about this story-arc that made it the perfect time for a re-launch and for new readers to jump onto the book?
JZ: I think each new story arc is a solid jumping on point for the series. We recap pertinent info right off the bat and make it easy for new readers to get on board. We have a master plan for six story arcs in total and this is the beginning of our second half, so it felt like a good place to bang the drum and see if we could increase the readership.
BD: Were you worried that you might alienate some long-time readers by renumbering the book? I notice that you do have variants that keep the series numbering intact to solve that issue for anyone that’s angry about the re-numbering.
JZ: Our monthly readership has settled into a small but stable number. I figured that if they’ve been with us for 18 they’ll stick it out for 18 more whatever the name and number is. Our wonderful readers are used to us being sarcastic jerks. Even still, to make sure we kept them happy we have the “legacy numbering” variant available. It’s a simple solution.
BD: The re-launch of the book was done obviously to help boost sales numbers and at the same time draw attention to a book that has been flying under fans and retailers radar. Now that you have initial sales numbers back for Uncanny Skullkickers #1, what can you tell us about the re-launch and how did it impact sales?
JZ: It’s a hype-builder, absolutely. I think we’ve made that clear with our crass promotion and sarcasm. I figured we might get some friction but that overall people would understand we’re having fun. I’m happy to report that Uncanny Skullkickers sales are more than double issue #18 and our next issue seems to be holding stable at that higher level. I’m hopeful we’re able to bring in new readers through this story arc and keep them around.
BD: There are a ton of cool variant covers for the launch of Uncanny Skullkickers #1. You are even participating in the Phantom Variant program, where a small group of retailers offer a specialized variant that is only available through their shops. Are variants just a fun way to offer some cool covers for fans or are they necessary to help add to sales numbers?
JZ: I think they’re both, especially on a small title like Skullkickers. At the low end a retailer-specific variant can really change the size of a print run, which lowers the cost per issue. It’s fun and economically sound. I’m thrilled we have a small and enthusiastic retailer base willing to invest in the series that way. I make sure those extra covers are extra special to help drive interest and sales their way as much as I can.
BD: You’ve said in past that you have roughly 36 issues of Skullkickers mapped out. Have you known how the series would end since its inception?
JZ: Once we moved past the first story arc into an ongoing series I knew I had to figure out some sort of “master plan”. At that point I sat down and mapped out the six arcs, figuring out how we’d up the ante and reveal crazy little secrets along the way. Having that ending firmly in mind has helped me to foreshadow future revelations. I’m looking forward to wrapping up the series and hope readers dig back through to find all the subtle connections and callbacks.
BD: To book end every story-arc you do a “Tavern Tales” issue where other creative teams get a chance to play around with Skullkickers by doing a short story, which has been extremely fun for readers. In issue #18 you did a contest where you gave an unpublished writer and artist a chance to get their Skullkickers story published in the issue. How did the contest turn out, how hard was it to shift through all the submissions and would you do it again for the next Tavern Tales issue?
JZ: Each issue of Skullkickers has “bonus content” in the back- art or writing and I try not to repeat myself so we keep our readers guessing at what new treats they’ll find inside. The same kind of thing goes for the Tavern Tales issues. The Submission Contest was really great and we received over 300 submissions, but it was really time consuming and difficult making final selections and getting everything pulled together. I sent an email to each and every submitter to let them know if they’d made it or not and I corresponded back and forth with a half dozen finalists all while trying to get our regular issues completed and work my day job. As great as it was, I don’t think I want to do that again, let alone so soon.
BD: You’ve been very proactive at trying to make Skullkickers as accessible to new readers as possible by making the first issue a free digital download and serializing old issues for free to readers on Keenspot. Have you seen the benefits of your efforts to reach new readers online pay off in terms of sales?
JZ: We’ve definitely seen the benefits of online outreach and I’ve discussed this pretty extensively on my blog at http://www.jimzub.com/?p=2318
It hasn’t negatively affected our monthly issue readership and it’s helped quite a bit with our online sales, digital comic sales and convention sales. All in all, it’s been a real positive.
BD: Have you gotten any negative feedback from retailers saying these kinds of things hurt sales on the book? Why do you think other creators aren’t doing these types of things to promote their books in attempt new readers?
JZ: I haven’t heard anything negative from retailers about the online outreach. I’ve been really open with them and everyone else about the benefits and make sure that we’re serializing content from issues that are almost all sold out at the distributer level anyways. As you see with a lot of other webcomics, when people become fans many of them want to own a physical copy. Our trade paperbacks and deluxe Treasure Trove hard covers (combining 2 volumes with bonus material) are where we’re looking over the long term.
I can’t really speak for other creators or how they promote their work. I don’t think the digital outreach would work equally well for everyone or that every comic would see the same results. Skullkickers is easy to jump into, light-hearted and fantasy is big online, especially with the popularity of World of Warcraft and the Hobbit driving sword & sorcery interest. Even still, I really do think it’s important for creators to use every channel available to build their audience bit by bit.
BD: You recently caused quite a stir online with a post on your blog called “The Reality of Mainstream Creator-Owned Comics” where you outlined the reality of what creators get paid on creator-owned books. Were you surprised by the reaction that the article received and that most people don’t know that creators aren’t paying their bills with comic work?
JZ: A lot of people want to create comics professionally but I don’t think fans realize how few of their favorite creators are actually able to make a decent living at it, especially if they’re not actively working on material for Marvel/DC. Creator-owned books can have large rewards if it’s a breakout hit, but the odds are slim and it’s a real uphill battle.
Even people I knew who were working in other creative fields had an assumption that because I was being published by Image that I was making good money on Skullkickers. I was surprised that I couldn’t find that kind of breakdown definitively online so I decided to write it up myself. I wanted to be able to logically walk through the expenses involved and explain how things really work for the majority of creator-owned books. I’m glad people are finding it helpful and enlightening. That’s why I put together the tutorial posts on my site.
BD: In addition to Skullkickers you’ve got Pathfinder coming out monthly from Dynamite and you are about to break in a new artist for the series. What can you tell us about the book and what can you tell us about new artist Jake Bilbao and what he brings to the table?
JZ: Pathfinder is classic sword & sorcery with an emphasis on great characters and snappy action. It’s based on the best-selling tabletop RPG game and fiction line of the same name and, as an old school RPGer, it’s an absolute blast to be working with Paizo and Dynamite on the series.
The current artist on the series, Andrew Huerta, has done an amazing job establishing a dynamic and intense tone for the book, but he has a newborn baby in the house and his productivity has, understandably, been affected by the new arrival. Dynamite decided to give him a break and they’ve brought in the very capable Jake Bilbao to take over fully with issue #7. Jake’s confident figure work and strong storytelling should carry the torch well. The pages I’ve already seen for issue #7 look fantastic and I know fans are going to love it.
Although Pathfinder is a licensed comic series it’s been my goal from the very start to ensure that it’s 100% new reader friendly. It’s been really encouraging hearing from comic fans that they haven’t played the game but that they’re enjoying the comic on its own merits. The more new people we can bring on board the story we’re building, the better.
BD: I know in the past you mentioned that you had an idea for a horror book that was still in the infant stages. Anything you could share with us about that book? Are you still planning on doing something in the horror genre?
JZ: Andrew Huerta (the artist currently on Pathfinder) was originally the artist I had lined up for that horror creator-owned comic mini-series project, but he needed to take on paying work and Pathfinder hit the spot. I’m hoping I get to see that project launch later on, either drawn by Andrew or another appropriate artist. I’d rather wait for the right collaborator instead of jumping the gun and not having it turn out strongly. I have a few different comics in development and am hoping I can announce a new creator-owned project before the end of the summer.