Kickin’ the Gun #1: Bunn, Zubkavich on Skullkickers, Sixth Gun, process and more
Many who have been following this blog know I’m a fan of both Image’s Skullkickers and Oni’s The Sixth Gun. So when I saw that the two creator-owned books were having a mini-crossover of sorts — or, to be more specific, an ad swap — I thought it might be fun to see if Skullkickers writer Jim “Zub” Zubkavich and The Sixth Gun‘ writer Cullen Bunn might be up for interviewing each other.
So the duo hit Skype and had a long conversation that covered many different topics — how they pitched their books, their writing process, how they work with their artists, finding time to write and much more. My thanks to both Cullen and Jim for doing this, with an extra tip of the hat to Jim for transcribing it. Be sure to check back tomorrow for the second part of the interview.
Zub: So, let’s start right off with the big news. Did I hear correctly that you’re now writing full time? You quit your day job?
Cullen: I did. This is my third week as a full-time writer.
Zub: Awesome. What were you doing before that?
Cullen: I was the vice president of marketing for a small relocation assistance company here in Missouri. I was there for 15 years.
Zub: And how long have you been writing comics? I mean, how long would you consider yourself a professional?
Cullen: A professional? Probably about the time The Damned came out, the book with Brian (Hurtt). So that’s about five years ago. That was the first time I got any kind of traction.
Zub: And that was just a cold pitch to Oni?
Cullen: It wasn’t completely cold because Brian had worked with Oni on Queen and Country and Skinwalker, books like that. They knew Brian and were open to something he was involved with.
Zub: Okay then, the question then becomes how do you know Brian?
Cullen: Brian and I worked at a comic book store together 17 years ago. A comic and gaming emporium! It seems like it shouldn’t be that long ago. He was that kid always drawing on the back of comic backing boards, things like that. We started talking about putting pitches together, trying to get a comic book going. We used to hang out maybe once a week and tried to create stories but we never seemed to gain any ground.
Zub: Did you go to school for Writing, or anything related to that?
Cullen: I have a degree in writing from Southwest Missouri State University.
Zub: Was it scriptwriting in particular or just fiction as a whole?
Cullen: Fiction writing, primarily. It was around that time that Brian moved to New York and we stopped hanging out, but when he came back to St. Louis we started working on pitches again. Oni turned us down on a few things, but they finally jumped on The Damned.
Zub: Are those other ideas things you still have in the drawer?
Cullen: Yeah, actually! We pitched a Victorian England-style supernatural story and, even after they rejected it, they came back at some point and said, “You know, if you guys had pushed us, we might have considered it,” but we didn’t know.
Zub: You didn’t know the pitch process and didn’t know the editors well, right?
Cullen: Right, and it’s probably for the best anyways. The Damned was a stronger book and The Sixth Gun is definitely stronger too. We’ve actually discussed taking some of those Victorian characters and putting them in The Sixth Gun now.
Zub: That’s cool. No idea stays dead. It just gestates longer.
Cullen: That’s right! So, how about you? You have a day job, though your day job is a lot cooler than mine was…
Zub: I have two day jobs actually. I’ve worked with the UDON studio for just over eight years, starting as a colorist and artist but eventually helping manage projects and dealing with clients. I’m also teaching at a college here in Toronto called Seneca, in their Animation program.
My background is in Animation, traditional 2D-style stuff. I thought I’d end up working in Saturday Morning cartoons and I did do that for a bit, working for a bunch of smaller companies and start-ups that combusted. At times it was a real grind. I was going to go back to school for 3D computer animation, take a post-grad course and try to break into the video game industry. I came back to Toronto when my cash flow was really bad and set my mind on doing that.
My friend Omar (Dogan) and I worked together in Calgary at a start-up and he was now working at UDON. At that point I think he was colouring Deadpool. Anyways, I came back into town and hung out with him, showed him my Photoshop colouring and he eventually introduced me to Erik Ko, the guy who ran UDON. Within a few weeks they had some extra work and I started coloring comics as a summer job. The plan was to make a bit of money and then go back to school. One thing lead to another and I started helping organize stuff around the studio. I really enjoyed the work and wanted to be involved with comics any way I could, so I put my roots down and stayed. It’s the best summer job I’ve ever had [laughs].
Soon after that I started teaching part-time at the college and I’ve been there ever since too. So I’m juggling teaching and UDON work… and now Skullkickers on top. Skullkickers is my first professional push into creator-owned comics.
Cullen: Cool. How do you do all that? I know it was next to impossible for me. I had a real tough time in terms of balancing the day job with family and writing. What’s your secret?
Zub: Time management is everything. I looked at these opportunities and said to myself, “I want to do all these things. They mean so much to me.” Constantly thinking, “This is what I want to do and if I don’t do them will I regret it?” The answer has always been “yes,” so that drives me when I work.
I’m not perfect about organizing or productivity, but when this all started I looked at what I was spending the majority of my free time doing — watching TV, playing video games or whatever. Social time with friends and family is important but even looking at that I realized what was important and what needed to be prioritized in order to get the work done. I guess I’m just obsessive-compulsive.
Cullen: No, I think that’s a good point. I talk to a lot of people who want to break in and they don’t know how to do it while making ends meet, and I was right there with them for many years — trying to write fiction, short stories and novels. It wasn’t until I started really treating this like a job that I was able to make any headway whatsoever.
Zub: I think people look at this and they say, “Well, it’s just comics” or “Hey, I’ve got a cool idea,” but everyone has ideas. Are you going to develop it, work on it, make it into something and really push yourself? That’s the difference between an idea and completing something worthwhile.
Cullen: Folks always say, “I just don’t have time to do it,” but when they sit down in front of the TV watching shows they don’t even enjoy, some sit-com they don’t even laugh at -– there’s 30 minutes right there. You have to make the time.
Zub: I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou because I know what it’s like to feel frustrated and not know where to start. The hardest part is at the beginning. Page one, you know. Maybe your first story will suck, but the next one will be better.
Cullen: Yeah, totally. There are all those elements about networking and getting in with publishers involved at some point, but the one constant is that if you don’t do the work then you won’t get anywhere. I know people who write on their commute to work while they’re on the train in the morning or during a 30-minute lunch break. That’s their writing time.
I used to get hung up on the whole “I hate doing this work when I’m not sure anything will come of it.”
Zub: I think everyone goes through that. Unfortunately you need to prove you can do it before anyone’s going to pay you for it.
Cullen: Absolutely. So… Skullkickers is your first big push for yourself, creator-owned. How did it come about?
Zub: It happened in a really strange sideways series of events. Chris Stevens, he’s now the cover artist on Skullkickers, was doing a bunch of work for UDON and he was approached by Joe Keatinge at Image about contributing a story to Popgun 2, Image’s anything-goes comic anthology.
Joe told Chris he could do any kind of story he wanted, so Chris and I talked about the kind of things he likes, what he’d draw if he had his choice. So, he wanted to draw a fantasy tale but something earthy, not a typical heroic kind of fantasy. I brainstormed this idea for two monster hunter jerks, Chris liked it and went off to do it. A couple days later he admitted that the whole thing sounded funnier when I told it over the phone than when he tried to write himself and he asked me to write it up. So, we did up a 10-page story called “Two Copper Pieces” and Erik Larsen, publisher at Image at the time, quite liked it. He told us if we wanted to do more with it he’d green light it.
We did another short story for Popgun 3 and I outlined a five-issue adventure for these two guys, but as soon as we started working on it as a series things just stalled. Chris’ schedule got slammed, financial problems crept up, just everything that could get in the way did, you know. So eventually after Chris penciled half of issue #1 it just got mothballed and I figured it would never going to go forward.
Cut to two years later and Edwin Huang, this young 20-year-old art student, applies to UDON looking for work. They don’t have any openings but I was really impressed with his portfolio. It’s good, the storytelling is good. Almost everything is firing on all cylinders. So I sent him an e-mail and encouraged him to keep working on his stuff. We ended up talking back and forth and I eventually sent him the Skullkickers script just as a way for him to practice and build up his portfolio. He really busted out some amazing quality pages, picking up where Chris left off, and the next thing I knew we were getting the book going again.
Cullen: Awesome. Finding an artist who can do the work and one who communicates can be so difficult. That’s a great story and a real win for you there.
Zub: Brian’s a real workhorse, too!
Cullen: Oh yeah! Brian’s a great collaborator, and he challenges me. He won’t let me phone it in. If I ever get lazy, then he’s gonna call me on it. He has a knack for storytelling, and I know he has some stories of his own in him that he wants to tell as well. As a visual storyteller I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator. When we started working on The Sixth Gun he just told me point blank “Don’t hold back. Go ahead and challenge me in whatever way you want to. You’re not gonna scare me off with this book” which is obviously very liberating. I can do anything I want and say “You told me it was alright”! [laughs]
And that’s why we have characters with 36 feet of iron chains flying around in the air that he has to painstakingly draw link by link, or a flock of owls attacking people in a hotel in New Orleans because Brian told me to challenge him! He asked for it, he got it.
Zub: The bond you two have is driving both of you to push yourselves in terms of quality.
Cullen: Absolutely. You can tell that this is a book he’s really enjoying. He loves what he’s doing, and it’s all there on the page.
Zub: I know that you’ve had this feeling — when you get new art and it just pops in your in-box.
Cullen: I love it! It’s like Christmas. Getting new pages from artists helps keep me sane. They’re little rewards I get throughout the day. It’s just “Hey, here’s what I’ve been working for.” That’s one of the advantages of comics anyways, the collaborative nature of it. Seeing what an artist is going to do with the material I wrote.
Zub: Because I come from an art background, it’s all pretty visual in my head when I write it. I get an idea of how it might look but it’s not fully formed. It’s a bit murky, but I know that the description of a panel can all fit in one drawing. I’m not describing four actions in one panel or anything like that.
Cullen: I do that occasionally. Brian always calls me on it when it happens. I haven’t done it in a while. It usually comes up when I’ve changed something and just missed taking a bit out from before.
Zub: Sometimes I get really picky, and I feel bad about it. Edwin is new to this, and he’s really eager, so he’s super careful. I feel like I can be ultra-specific. Sometimes I’ll specify the exact page layout because, especially with comedy, I need it to be just so in order to work. And he really hits the mark. But in turn I feel weirdly protective like I don’t want to steer him wrong.
Cullen: I’m kind of a stickler for certain pacing elements. I want things to appear in a certain panel, but I trust in Brian as an artist.
Zub: You write full script, right?
Cullen: Oh yeah. I write a lot more detailed than many scripts I’ve seen, but I don’t write a novel or anything like that.
Zub: How much reference material do you send? Visual reference kind of stuff, or do you leave that up to Brian?
Cullen: I’ll occasionally put it in there. We’re working on an arc that has a lot of trains, and I went to the transportation museum here in St. Louis and took pictures of all these trains from that era on my phone. Still, I don’t generally put a lot of links in the scripts I send to Brian. I know he’s slavish to that stuff.
Zub: It’s so easy to tell when I read The Sixth Gun that you’re both coming from an inspired mindset. You love westerns, you love the supernatural and you want that love to come through in the work.
Cullen: We’re very much on the same page in terms of the kind of story we want to tell and building a world is also really important to us. We wanted to make sure that The Sixth Gun was taking place in its own fantasy world.
Zub: Melding those western and fantasy elements… where did your love of westerns come from?
Cullen: My Dad owned a photography studio, and I’ve got a picture from when I was just a little kid where I’m wearing a jean jacket, jeans and I have a black cowboy hat on. They did a double exposure of me holding myself hostage, western-style. So I obviously loved cowboys even way back then. It was a steady diet of westerns on Sunday afternoons and reading weird western comics.
One of my favourite writers is a guy named Joe R. Lansdale, and he writes a lot of weird western stuff. He wrote a novella called “Dead in the West” and I go back and re-read that probably once a year because I really like what he did with it. In fact the first short story I ever sold was a weird western. It was to a magazine called Eldritch Tales.
Zub: A small press kind of thing?
Cullen: Thankfully the story never got published! [laughs] It wasn’t a very good story. A cowboy rides into town and fights Cthulhu creatures and snake men… that was a long time ago. I’m pretty sure I just sold it for copies. I still have a printed out copy of the story. Sometimes I think about sharing it with the world, but I’m not quite ready yet.
So, now my question to you is, I was thinking about Skullkickers, where you’ve got all these great sound effects. Did you name it “Skullkickers” before you came up with the big “Skull Kick” that ends the first story? Which came first, the title or the ending?
Zub: The title came first. When I went ahead and was planning the mini-series Erik Larsen wisely told us the “Two Copper Pieces” title wasn’t very engaging. So I just started jamming words together that sounded violent and cool. For a bit it was called “Corpsekickers,” which sounds quite awful. I don’t know where it came from in the end. I combined those two words, and it just worked. I was so worried that someone else must have used it elsewhere so I Googled like crazy to make sure no one had and then snapped up skullkickers.com as soon as I saw it was available. It just sounds too good!
I wanted to end the mini-series on the biggest, most bombastic note I could. Are they gonna fight a dragon or some other big beasty or what? I eventually came up with the idea for the Corpse Giant, the 30 foot tall zombified mess of bodies oozing together, but I didn’t know how the two idiots would kill this thing. When I struck on the idea of killing it from the inside out, that’s when it all clicked, and I worked backwards from there with the Dwarf’s leg and all that. It changed the whole middle of the outline and really tied it up with a bow.
Cullen: It does read like some of these things happened in a Dungeons & Dragons game…
Zub: Most people assume that it’s “my” D&D game, but it’s actually not. It intentionally feels like a game that’s headed off the rails though.
Cullen: Do you still play Dungeons & Dragons?
Zub: Barely ever, unfortunately. It really is a lot of fun if you get the right group together. It’s all about who you’re playing with. Whether it’s dramatic stories or more like a board game where you’re hoarding treasure -– every group is different and the game changes to suit it. If you find a group that’s all in the same mindset then it can be incredibly creative and really fun. If not, then it can be a real quagmire. Did you play?
Cullen: Yeah, I played D&D and other role-playing games for many years. Brian Hurtt, Matt Kindt, Shawn Lee and I have talked about trying to game again. Brian has never played anything like that. He says he wants to, so we’ll see.
Zub: I have a group here sort of in the same boat. We talked about Skullkickers and that rolled into a D&D conversation. They’re intrigued and want to get a game going. You need a group with the right attitude to make it work.
Cullen: You never really shake it. I thought I was done and packed my books away, sold a bunch of them. But I go to the comic shop and there they are, tempting. I was there today and I saw the new Gamma World. I read the back and thought “This sounds awesome!”
Zub: They’re really open concepts that lend themselves to stories and new ideas. They’re a neat little framework for creativity. You can make whatever kind of story you want.
But even still, Skullkickers isn’t D&D. It does feel like these guys are bulldozing through your favourite fantasy story and wrecking everything though. They’re too big, too stupid and too boisterous. When it comes to the humour of it, pacing, dialogue and subplots, I take it very seriously. I want to create a high quality “funny book.” Some people assume that “funny” equates to “easy,” that I’m not thinking as much about it. But I really do take it seriously and want to make it all work.
So, back at you, when you’re generating the story, how tightly do you plot things out? How far ahead have you plotted?
Cullen: I plot it out pretty tightly. I do a page beat-by-beat “This is going to happen on this page” kind of thing.
Zub: Oh, I do that too!
Cullen: Sometimes I’ll break that down even further and then say “Okay, this important thing happens on this particular panel” all before I write the script. I’ve tried a bunch of formats trying to see what will be the magic bullet for me in terms of what’s going to work for plotting out a comic every time and it almost never works the same way twice for me. The other day I mentioned that I wrote a script all in long hand and some people couldn’t believe it. They wrote me messages saying, “Are you serious? All in long hand, why would you do that?” but sometimes that’s just what works.
I’ve never felt more ludicrously self important than when I’m actually leaving myself voice messages of story ideas. I’m driving down the road saying into my phone “One of the guns shoots fire…”
I’ve got The Sixth Gun plotted out for 50 issues. I mean, broad strokes, mainly “in this arc this stuff will happen” sort of thing. And when I get closer it becomes more specific. I get down to the issues, then the pages and then the panels.
Zub: So issue 50 is the ending or 50 as a story goal that continues from there?
Cullen: 50 will end it. 50 issues will be needed to tell the story. Everything from the first issue will play into the ending.
Zub: For me, we were doing Skullkickers originally as a five-issue mini and then when Eric Stephenson (Image’s current publisher) said “Hey, sales are decent enough. If you want to keep going, just do it” I knew I wanted to tell a bigger story. That was after issue #3 came out, so I immediately started putting new subplots and foreshadowing in issue #4. From there I had to figure the bigger picture out –- broad arcs to make sure I know where it’s going. I’ve got an ending now and it’s a matter of wondering whether I’ll get a chance to tell it all.
Cullen: That’s always the question. We have an ending planned and things are going well. Oni Press is very pleased and it looks like we’ll reach that goal, but you never can tell. For The Damned we’ve also got a big ending planned that ties everything up in a nice little package, but we don’t know when we’re going to be able to get to that.
Zub: Exactly. I know how I want Skullkickers to end and in the middle I could compress it or extend it depending on sales and the will of the art team. Because it was originally a mini-series, I said to Edwin, “If the book doesn’t make enough money, at least you’ll have a great portfolio of solid work you can show around in the summer of 2011.” And here we are, we’ve got that trade. My deep-seated fear is that he’ll get scooped up before we can finish this thing. Someone at Marvel or DC will snap him up because he’s consistent and professional through and through.
Cullen: Brian’s in for the long haul but he has to eat, so with other books like The Damned he had to move on to other projects.
Zub: Exactly! I don’t begrudge that at all. I totally get it, but I obviously have that intense sense of “I want to see this through to the end.”
Now that I’ve got a little bit of traction, the cork has been unplugged and now I want to do more books. I want to show that I can write a variety of subject matters. I want to write something dark, something emotional, all different areas. I want to find more collaborators, but you don’t know what you’re going to find in terms of consistency or professionalism when you work with other people. That’s kind of scary.
Cullen: That’s just as difficult as finding a publisher. You want to make sure they’re artistically appropriately, too. That they have the right feel for it.
Check back tomorrow for more from Zub and Cullen on superhero books, non-superhero books, social media and more.