Jim Zub Chats with the Pullbox About Skullkickers: Caster Bastards & the Great Grotesque

Some days, I really love my job here at the Pullbox. I mean, I’m not quite ready to retire on the income just yet (our union isn’t quite…existent), but on occasion I get to chat with some seriously cool people. Icons and giants of the industry. My own personal heroes. Well, today was one of those days. I got to chat—at length—with Jim Zub about his new Kickstarter for the best swords, sass and sorcery comic of all time, Skullkickers (check it out HERE—only this time, it’s so much MORE than a comic!)…

PB: A cursory review of the original SK comics would point to this project being an inevitability, but how long has the idea for a SK adventure been percolating? And what finally made you decide to publish?

Zub: When Skullkickers wrapped up in 2015 I genuinely intended for that to be the end of it and not to return. Yes, we left things a bit open ended in the sense that the characters were clearly going to head off on more ridiculous adventures, but it was also clear that we didn’t need to see every last one of those in order for it to feel complete.

Between then and now the space for sword & sorcery has grown so much – Game of Thrones conquered TV, Dungeons & Dragons has never been bigger, and my own career as a writer known for fantasy has really taken off so the anniversary seemed like the perfect time to revisit our monster-mashing mercs and see what we could do in the here and now.

I had the idea of putting together some kind of 10th anniversary special back in January and reached out to Edwin, Misty, and Marshall to see if they were interested and available. They were and we had the band back together. Less than a month later the animation deal for Skullkickers went from “possible” to “active negotiations” and that delayed things a bit, but also provided even more reason for us to make this happen, so as soon as I got the animation deal settled I started jamming on what the new story would entail and how we could deliver it, slowly turning the germ of an idea into what we’re now launching on Kickstarter as Skullkickers: Caster Bastards and the Great Grotesque.

PB: Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sources seem to be a rapidly growing publishing alternative for both comics and gaming. What specifically appealed to you about the platform?

Zub: Comics has a long legacy of do-it-yourself projects and indy publishing, originally via the convention scene, then via webcomics, and now a combination of digital delivery and crowdfunding. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and these other outlets are a great way to raise awareness of the work and give people a stronger sense of what goes into making this stuff happen and the importance of their patronage.

I’ve wanted to pursue a crowdfunded creator-owned project for a while but, honestly, always found excuses to not do it. The work-for-hire stuff has been steady and the traditional publishers I work with have been great. The path of least resistance has been to just keep going with what I’ve already been doing, even while I compiled information from other people’s campaigns and could see what seemed to be working or wasn’t.

Then the pandemic happened, and it was a wake-up call. A bunch of the projects I had that paused for 4-5 months are now getting back into gear, but that slow down really brought home how much this stuff can change in a very short period of time and that even work for large corporations can vanish in an instant.

I think I have a relatively solid readership for something on this level, I know how to take a project to the finish line, and I know a lot of people who can help me get a high quality book printed and delivered, so really the only thing holding me back was myself.

I’m happy to keep writing for Marvel, IDW, Dark Horse, and other publishers, but I also want to make sure I always have a project where my hand is directly on the steering wheel and I can be sure it will carry through as planned.

PB: An offshoot from the previous question: With the recent changes at DC and the industry-shaking issues with Diamond earlier this year, how do you see the comic industry changing in the immediate and long-term future?

Zub: Every form of media was already going through upheaval thanks to digital distribution and the slow slide of traditional retail and the events of 2020 just kicked that into overdrive. Can single print issues survive in this market? Can comic retailers diversify their offerings enough to offset the change? It’s really hard to say.

I feel like individual creators with a clear focus may be in a better position to weather this storm over corporations. The crew at DC has no idea what ripples from AT&T or Warner Brothers are going to do to their future plans. Same with Marvel and Disney. We can all want to deliver our best and plan for six months or a year out about where we’d like it to be, but when the numbers come in budgets and mandates will be set and that will be that.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do that work, I absolutely do, it just means I have to be careful about balancing work-for-hire and creator-owned so I won’t get sunk if something goes wrong.

PB: A Skullkickers RPG adventure would seem to be the culmination of two of the great loves of your life (sorry, Stacy!): gaming and comics. How does it feel to have reached this point in your career, and how has it been for you, incorporating your comic creation into your own gaming “module”?

Zub: Ha, yeah it seems like such an obvious “chocolate and peanut butter” pairing, but it took a while to figure out the right way to approach it.

I love tabletop RPGs and have played a slew of them over the years. I have pretty specific tastes about what I like and don’t like in certain games and one of those quirks is RPGs based on established stories. So, for example, I find it really hard to run or play in the Lord of the Rings setting because if you’re not Frodo or Bilbo or Strider or whatever, it just kind of feels like you’re perfunctory to the really meaty stuff that happens in the fiction. Same thing with the Dragonlance campaign setting. I love those books but I don’t feel a burning desire to play in that specific world because the Heroes of the Lance do the important stuff so either you’re trying to recreate what they did or you’re some weird bit player off on your own, which never felt satisfying to me.

So, playing Skullkickers as an RPG could be weird. Do you just play as Rex and Rolf? I mean, that’s one approach and it’s not necessarily a bad one, but it also feels limited and not quite what I want as a consumer or player.

Then the idea came to me that I could set a new Skullkickers story in a weird/fun location and use that place as a playground for people to run their own adventures there, with or without the actual Skullkickers cast being directly involved. If you want to play them in the adventure, great. If you want them running around as NPCs, that also works. If you want to just use the adventure itself and a completely original cast of characters, that’s built right into it. So, that was the key – making something that gives GMs and players the most flexibility and bang for their buck. That’s the kind of thing I’d be happy to put my name on and excitedly tell everyone about.

PB: So, beyond unending awesomeness, what are we looking at here? Is this a complete SK comic AND accompanying RPG adventure, a comic intro to the adventure, a whole new campaign setting…?

Zub: At the base level of our Kickstarter campaign it’s a brand new 30-page Skullkickers comic story set in a f**ked up magic school called the Academy of Serious Sorcery and Holistic Occult Learning. We haven’t spent much time showing how spellcasting does or doesn’t work in the world of Skullkickers (because our boys are decidedly anti-magic) so it’s fertile ground to explore and full of new jokes and weird situations.

It’s also a 70-page 5e-compatible adventure that fleshes out the Academy completely with tons of rooms, encounters, shifting plotlines, and NPCs along with new monsters, magic items, spells and even a social system for students as they try to earn enough goodwill to graduate.

You can have your current 5e characters infiltrate the school as part of a larger mission or roll up brand new student characters and play a campaign from freshman through to graduation. The comic story is how Rex, Rolf, and Kusia engage the school and some of its secrets, but in the comic they really only touch upon something like 20% of what’s in the RPG section. The three game designers I have working with me (Mike Olson, E.R.F. Jordan, and Clint Cronk) have been incredible – building on what I put into the comic story and the other ideas I had for the Academy while fleshing out every nook and cranny to make it feel like a weird and wonderful setting full of possibilities.

And that’s just where we’re at now in development. If the campaign funds quickly and we start hitting stretch goals both the comic story and RPG sections can expand with even more content.

PB: With the clearly ongoing interest in and love for your monster-mashing merc’s (this project and the upcoming animated series), any chance of a comic relaunch?

Zub: In terms of a relaunch, I don’t think Edwin and I have it in us to do a new monthly comic series, but if this is a real skull-kicking success it would be foolish for me to say we wouldn’t consider doing more. I know Mike has been having so much fun with the RPG design side of things that he’s mentioned multiple times that we should do more adventures or a setting book for the world of Skullkickers, but I don’t want to assume anything, especially this early into it.

This is my first crowdfunding project and I know how important it is to deliver on that. People are going to put their hard-earned money into this based on our pitch, the art, and my reputation. I don’t want to squander that or take it for granted. I’m focused on making Caster Bastards the best I can before I worry about anything else.

An awesome mashup of comic and Tabletop RPG adventure and a killer new animated series will have to be enough for now, I guess…

PB: So, the Skullkickers are now firmly entrenched (well, -ish) in the realms of Dungeons & Dragons. Any possibility of a Rex, Rolf, Minsc & Boo mash-up in the future?

Zub: Caster Bastards uses the 5th edition SRD so it’ll be fully compatible with Dungeons & Dragons, but isn’t endorsed or officially connected to D&D in any way. I know that sound pedantic, but it’s really important to make that distinction especially since I do a lot of official work for D&D on things like the comic series, crossovers with Stranger Things and Rick and Morty, and the D&D Young Adventurer’s Guides.

If Wizards of the Coast wanted to do an official Skullkickers-D&D book at some point I’d be humbled and thrilled, but otherwise I’m treating Caster Bastards as its own thing that benefits from the larger audience D&D has helped bring to my work over the years.

PB: You’ve developed your own beloved sword-and-sorcery adventure comic (SK) as well as your own, equally-beloved teen monster-slayer comic (Wayward), written Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Agents of Wakanda and the freaking Avengers…as well as Rick and Morty vs Dungeons & Dragons and a host of D&D comic stories, done script development for Wizards of the Coast and co-written the Young Adventurer’s Guides for WotC…AND now written your own tabletop RPG module. What’s left for you?

Zub: I still haven’t had a run on Dr. Strange! When I was a kid, he was one of my favorites because he was both a superhero and wizard, and with my love of D&D that meant he was ridiculously cool. I’d love to have a really long run on Conan the Barbarian and an equally long run on Dr. Strange. There are other characters and ideas too, but those two are at the top of my list.

In terms of RPG-related stuff, I’m absolutely thrilled I’ve now written more RPG-fueled comics than just about anyone, but there are other tabletop games I’d love to take a crack at in comics – Vampire: The Masquerade and the World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, Feng Shui…there are so many great games out there I know would translate well to the comic page.

PB: Any other upcoming projects we can look forward to that you’d like to shamelessly plug?

Zub: Jody Houser and I co-wrote Stranger Things and Dungeons & Dragons, a new mini-series illustrated by Diego Galindo that chronicles the way D&D changed the lives of the Hawkins, Indiana kids before and during the Stranger Things TV series. It’s an absolute nostalgia bomb because those kids started playing D&D in the same era I started playing, so it’s been a joy to fondly look back at that time and channel that nostalgia into a bit of a love letter to the hobby and the 80’s.

Conan the Barbarian continues in October and I’m putting our favorite Hyborian in some really cool and crazy situations I haven’t quite seen before. I’m planning for the long haul on the series and looking to deliver pulp-worthy sword & sorcery action, month after month.

Stone Star arc 2 arrives later this year from comiXology Originals. Max Dunbar’s artwork has leveled up so much and this new arc is just ridiculous in terms of world building, design, and crazy space-fantasy action. It’s creator-owned so we’re able to go buck with new ideas as they come to us.

Two more D&D Young Adventurer’s Guides are written and are going through the editing and art directing processes now. These books are the perfect way to bring new people into the hobby and I’m so incredibly proud of what our team has put together. I get messages from kids and parents every week and it warms my heart to know that it’s having a real impact with people and unlocking the creativity that comes from tabletop RPGs.

As an extra-special treat, here’s a quick preview of the new Skullkickers tale from Skullkickers: Caster Bastards and the Great Grotesque:

You can explore all things Zub on his blog, Zub Tales. And of course, look for the soon-to-come Skullkickers animated series in the next year or so…and again, you can check out and back Skullkickers: Caster Bastards and the Great Grotesque on Kickstarter HERE. Be sure to check out all of the cool options—there’s even a chance to get some (exceedingly rare on any market) Skullkickers original art…though I might just have beat you to one of the pieces…

Interview by Andy Patch, Contributing Editor

Academy of Serious Sorcery and Holistic Occult Learning tower design by Max Dunbar
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