Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
As I noted yesterday, 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.
And they were. If you missed part one, no worries; you can find it here. In part two, they discuss Marvel and DC, the recent focus on creator-owned comics, Dungeons & Dragons, their ad swap and more.
Zub: So, speaking of collaborators, how did your DC and Marvel work come about?
Cullen: I did a little thing for Marvel a year and a half ago, which was one of the Immortal Weapons books. That one came after I sent the editor a copy of The Damned. He finally got around to reading it and said, “Hey, you want to do this one-shot?” The new stuff all came about primarily through The Sixth Gun. A number of writers, artists and editors have picked it up, read it and either pushed me to their editors or thought I would work for other projects they had. It was definitely weird because I’m not used to anyone contacting me. I’m used to begging for work. For years I’ve gone to San Diego, and it’s the most humbling experience.
Zub: Yeah, up until now I’ve been going to San Diego with UDON and helping run the booth. This summer for me is, honestly, kind of terrifying. I’ve got this new trade now and I want to walk around, show publishers and say “I made this,” but I don’t know what the reaction’s going to be like. People are enjoying it, the sales are fine, but when you’re giving it to your peers -– editors, professionals, people you respect like that — you just don’t know.
Cullen: For someone like me, I’m networking adverse. I’m not good at it; I don’t like breaking the ice. I can’t stand those awkward first few minutes of meeting someone. Unfortunately, it’s the only way to do it. Thankfully there’s Facebook and Twitter for people who are paralyzed in person by it. You have to get out there.
Zub: A lot of people don’t appreciate how important the social element is. Some people get bitter about it, too. They think “You’re getting that opportunity because of your friends,” but you need to be able to do the work, too. Admittedly, people enjoy working with someone they like more than a stranger or an asshole.
Cullen: I’m not going to recommend friends who can’t do the work. It reflects poorly on me. But that’s not just comics, that’s everywhere! People want to interact with folks who have similar interests and can engage them, not just be a cold sales pitch saying, “Will you publish me”, right?
Zub: I think some people, artists or writers, they feel like if they’re talking to an editor that will be their only shot ever and if they don’t make that connection right then, it’ll never happen. In reality it takes years, you go to shows for years; interacting with people for a long time before it kicks into whatever it’s going to be. I didn’t fully appreciate that before.
My first year at UDON, the gang was doing a couple books like Agent X and Sentinel, so I thought I had an “in.” I grew up on Marvel books, and I figured this is my big chance. So I put together a pitch with Ray Fawkes. We brainstormed a cool new take on a character that wasn’t being used at the time, and I was really proud of the pitch. And, of course, it didn’t even make a ripple because who the hell were we? We had no body of work, and no one gave a damn. At the time I was really hurt, but I didn’t know about all those other social elements. I didn’t think about the fact that everyone who writes at Marvel has been where we were. Nowadays Ray’s done Oni books and a Marvel gig and now I’ve got UDON books and an Image book under my belt and I have a greater appreciation of the whole process. The time will come if it’s meant to be and doing the work, doing it well, is the most important thing.
Cullen: I would go to the World Horror Convention year after year and they’d set up these pitch sessions. They did one in New York, before The Damned came out, and I had a pitch session with Marvel. I remember putting all these pitches together for all these different characters -– Moon Knight, Devil Dinosaur, Morbius -– this big folder full of pitches. I wanted to throw it all at the wall and see what happened. It was Axel Alonzo and Ruwan Jayatilleke in the room. I sat down there and couldn’t even tell you what I said in the five minutes I had. I’m certain I sounded like a 12-year-old boy asking out the first girl he ever wanted to date; Stuttering, muttering. I think I even pitched Top Dog, that Marvel kid’s comic from the 80’s. [laughs]
Zub: That’s awesome. I know what you mean. I just didn’t appreciate how much those guys get inundated with material from every direction. In the end if you’ve got a body of work and if someone there likes it, then that makes all the difference. I know that a book like Skullkickers may limit me right now because the only clear connection is a character like Deadpool or whatever. If I show that I can write stuff that has a different mindset and atmosphere, maybe something will come of it. I’ve got the day jobs, I’m doing a book I enjoy and have more ideas for the future. I’ve still got the Marvel heart on my sleeve but I can’t worry about it in the short term.
Cullen: That’s honestly a healthy attitude to have about it.
Zub: The nice thing is I’m doing a book I love writing right now and I have the ability to pitch something else and have people at least look at it. Yes, there’s a part of me that really wants to write Dr. Strange and wants to make my mark on these long running characters but what I’m doing right now is great too.
I think it’s great that you’re able to leave your day job and just jump right into this stuff. That’s the dream.
Cullen: It’s taking some getting used to. Now I have to really prioritize my day. I’ve never been busier, but I’m enjoying it.
Zub: It’s weird because there’s been a surge of fresh conversation about creator-owned books lately. How do you feel about that?
Cullen: There really has been.
Zub: When I think about the fact that if we would’ve gotten Skullkickers off the ground two years ago, when I originally pitched it, maybe it would have done well but it might’ve just fallen through the cracks. I have no way of knowing. But right now creator-owned books seem to be a talking point again, and it’s exciting.
Cullen: It’s been just a few months of real intensity. It’s nice to see the attention.
Zub: Between Scott Pilgrim and The Walking Dead, there’s been a sense that these properties are just as worthy as superheroes. I don’t know if a book like Chew would’ve shown up on peoples’ radars before and now they’re really pushing the forefront.
Cullen: Some of these books are really the gateway for new readers into comics as a whole. A book like Skullkickers is a fantasy book, a comedy book, and you can get people who might be into either of those things.
We get a bunch of people who come up to us at conventions and say “I don’t normally read westerns but I read The Sixth Gun”… do you get that with Skullkickers?
Zub: Totally. They tell me “I don’t read sword and sorcery stuff” or “I’m not a D&D guy” but they enjoy the book and they get into it anyways. It’s easy for new readers to pick up.
You’ve got so many fantasy elements in Sixth Gun. Are you getting fantasy fans on board?
Cullen: Yeah, we are. A lot of people categorize the book as a “horror-western” and to me it’s really a “fantasy-western.” There’s fantasy, swashbuckling, the Old West and monsters –- somewhere in there I’ve gotta catch something people are going to like.
Zub: I think both of our books have real cross-genre appeal going for them. They work in multiple fan camps. Taking elements from different areas and retooling them to surprise and entertain.
Cullen: The Sixth Gun as I originally pitched it was definitely a horror story. It was much smaller in many ways, and I don’t think the audience would have responded as positively if we had gone that direction with it. It was originally conceived as a six issue mini-series and it was a bleak, very dark and depressing story. Drake was a villain. He was the bad guy in the piece even though he was our point of view character. Maybe he is even now, but…
Zub: He definitely has moral greyness. In Skullkickers, because I’d written the two idiots as wholly morally reprehensible in the short stories, I needed to pull back a bit and make sure it stayed fun in the series. They used to be maliciously nasty and now they’re more ineptly bad for everyone around them.
Cullen: You want it to be fun at times, dark other times. When I get together with the Oni guys they’ll ask me “Is Drake evil or just morally grey?” and I don’t want to answer that question yet. I know how his arc plays out but I kind of like that even my publisher isn’t sure just yet.
Zub: Swashbuckling is a great term for both books. The adventure is the thing, not good versus evil.
Cullen: Okay, so let’s get back on this creator-owned stuff… We got some buzz when we did the ad swap between our two books.
Zub: Yeah, and that’s also how this whole interview between you and I came about, too.
Cullen: I don’t think the ad swap is anything groundbreaking, but I got a lot of people asking me about it, wanting to know how it came about and why we did it, all that. Why do you think people reacted that way to it?
Zub: Whether it’s true animosity or just a big game, there’s this entire Marvel versus DC antagonism, right? This sense that they’re at each other’s throats for the market share. So publishers, business people in any industry, everyone thinks that if they’re not actively partnered together they can’t possibly be happy for someone else’s success. This weird assumption that every sale you get is one you took away from me or some crazy crap. The feeling that I have to choke you out in order to “win,” something ludicrous like that. So the idea that two companies would be cool enough to say “Hey, let’s brag about each other because we feel there’s some crossover appeal here” is nice and it’s noteworthy. I don’t understand why more companies don’t do it.
Cullen: I freely admit that, especially now that I’ve grown past it, several years ago I had real difficulty being happy for other peoples’ success, even good friends.
Zub: Oh, I’ve been there. The more people I meet in this industry, the more folks you see going through upswings in their success and it puts you through an emotional ringer wondering “Am I not doing the right thing? Am I missing opportunities?”
Cullen: I had a really rough time of it. I couldn’t be happy for anyone and I had to fight through that because it was petty and stupid. I think a lot of creators have to fight through it.
Zub: Totally. You go to a convention and you see other people with line-ups at their booth or you hear about some amazing new project just announced and all you can think is “I really want to be there. I want to feel that.” You can’t help that but you have to look past it.
Cullen: People love to talk about the things they hate and the things they think are terrible or stupid, but we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the things that are awesome. I’m glad we did the ad swap because I think people who like The Sixth Gun will enjoy Skullkickers. They have different vibes, different moods, but the audiences are compatible. I am happy to be able to say “this is something I like and I think you’ll like it too.”
Zub: Places like Twitter where creators, retailers and fans are having frank discussion is part of it too. People seem more willing to talk about the things they enjoy. I don’t want to rage about what sucks in such an immediate forum like Twitter. I want you to know what I like, to get excited about possibilities. I find myself being more positive, hoping it’ll follow The Golden Rule. I want people to speak positively about me and the best way I can do that is to make sure I’m not spewing negativity.
Cullen: Yeah, it all comes back.
Zub: As much as I feel I’ve learned things working at UDON, this summer in particular, emotionally, it feels a bit like I’m starting over. I’m making impressions on people who didn’t even know my name before. I’m out there for the first time saying “I have ideas” and “I write stories.” That scares the crap out of me.
It’s been great talking about the books. I am so glad we had this conversation, Cullen.
Cullen: Yeah, I am too. I appreciate it. We will have to meet up at San Diego and drown our sorrows.