One of the most dependable, highest quality lines of comics these days is the Image imprint Skybound. Everyone knows about Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Invincible, but as this interview with Editor Sean Mackiewicz reminds us, Skybound is about more than zombies and superheroes. Yesterday we ran an interview with Daniel Warren Johnson, the mind behind the amazing Extremity, and we’ll post an interview next month with Donny Cates, the passionate mind behind the forthcoming Redneck. Mackiewicz sets the stage for both great comics, along with some interesting thoughts about what sets Skybound books apart from their peers and a candid view of the health of the comic book industry these days.
Click here to download an mp3 of this interview.
Sean Mackiewicz: This week we came out with Extremity, created, written and drawn by Daniel Warren Johnson, with colors by Mike Spicer and letters by Rus Wooten which basically centers on Thea, a young woman in the Roto clan who were attacked by Pazina and in the process her mother was killed and the hand with which she draws – she’s an artist — was cut off. And now her family is trying to get revenge. We follow that journey of a young girl dealing with these extreme circumstances as they go one by one to hunt down these people that ruined her life and seeing if that heals the wounds.
I met Daniel two years ago at Emerald City Comicon. I have a coworker, Shawn Kirkham, who had met him. Daniel was doing personalized zombie head shots. He would draw you as a zombie. We had looked online and seen his comic Space-Mullet. That was a ton of fun and he had eight preview pages of this book which he has redrawn most of — I think one of the pages is actually still in the first issue
He’s someone that we immediately wanted to work with. He’s an extremely thoughtful writer. We’ve never done a book with a writer/artist but there was something personal there.
I think that’s the approach that we take to all our books where it’s a familiar genre story with a slight twist but it’s really the grounded characters and the emotional stakes that hook our readers and have them come back for more. Then there’s the fact that he draws beautifully — we always say it’s basically Mad Max meets Miyazaki. It’s just like a crazy world that only Daniel could replicate from his head.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Yeah, it’s both wild and strange-looking but also the characters just have such depth to them.
Mackiewicz: You’re looking at the last page right now. Thea has just done something horrific and she’s reckoning with what she did to both protect her brother, who doesn’t want to engage in this violence, and her, who has decided to, but is extremely conflicted about what kind of person this is making her. Especially as she was a young woman who was very passionate about drawing and now with that taken away from her she’s just found a new art to practice, I guess.
CB: That’s part of the fun as a reader that you come along on journey with a character who seems to be one thing and becomes something else.
Mackiewicz: Yeah absolutely. Revenge dramas have been pretty popular across the past couple decades and we wanted to make sure we found a new angle on it. Especially following a young woman as she’s maturing and taking responsibility within her now-diminished family and how conflicted she is about it. So many so many times you see these movies where it’s all just about fulfilling and getting your revenge. We deal with whether that’s a hollow emotion. Is that something worth seeking or are there greater things in life that will fulfill you?
CB: You said this book came to you more or less fully formed but you did a lot of rework on it. Tell me what you do as an editor to add richness to that they’re creating.
Mackiewicz: With Daniel actually, when we started the process, I asked him if he wanted to do full scripts or plots because I think a lot of artists when they draw for themselves or draw their own stories, they either start with layouts… it can be a number of different ways. I didn’t want him to write a full script if that was just too much work for him to do because he had so much of it. He was like, “no I think that keeps me disciplined.” So we’re always about three scripts ahead of where he’s drawing. He’s written issue 10, He’s drawing issue 9 right now. We had three months of intense writing and he loved it. It’s full dialogue.
And then myself and my assistant Arielle [Basich] read them and make sure — I think foremost we’re checking for emotional authenticity and then also clarity of storytelling, making sure the important details of the world that he wants communicate are out there.
First issues are especially the hardest because, one, you’re establishing what this world is and what the uber story is that we’re trying to tell over the course of the story, and then also what the conflict that you’re looking to resolve within that issue is. It’s mostly just clarity of storytelling. We’re not there to impose the story we want to tell. We want to make sure we’re chipping away the story he wants to tell and making sure that that’s on full display.
CB: We just talked about emotional authenticity when we were talking about Redneck too.
Mackiewicz: Yeah, it’s important. I think it’s something that Robert Kirkman and David Alpert, who also runs Skybound, care about. It really comes from them. No matter how outsize the genre situation is and how crazy the world is, we want to make sure that the readers are really connecting with the protagonist. Whether you agree with their actions or not, you want to understand what they’re going through and hopefully that push and pull of falling in love with that character but also disagreeing with where they are and not wanting them to take the path that they have decided to take.
CB: What comes out after Extremity?
Mackiewicz: The next book that we’re launching is Redneck by Donny Cates, Lisandro Esterren and Dee Cunniffe. It’s our first book about vampires. I’ve been working at Skybound for four and a half years and we’ve always stayed away from vampires just because they’re pretty familiar territory at this point so we’re really looking for what would be the Skybound take.
Donny’s pitch just wowed us mostly from the emotional place it was bringing him. He really opened up about things in his family’s history. It was something that was struck a chord because it was so raw emotionally and to something that he was going to use to inform his take on vampires. The title Redneck seemed like a no-brainer after a while.
Sometimes finding a title for these books can be a challenge. Not all of them are pitched with the title we end up using. Like, for example, Extremity was something we probably came to a month or two before we announced it. It had a working title for a long time and sometimes you abandon that working title. Redneck was just one of those that I think for the first five seconds you wonder if that’s a bit dopey. Then you realize, no it fits this book perfectly. It’s got a pulpiness – Texas, vampires, barbecue… it’s dead on.
It’s hard to find those. It really is. In a crowded marketplace you want to make sure you have something that’s direct and people notice from the title what that is. Especially if you see the logo and the “r” and “k” form little canine teeth. It’s also a neon flashing beer sign.
With Invincible, we just kicked off our final arc, “The End of All Things”. We just released issue #133, the first part of the final 12. Ryan Ottley just came back to the book after a yearlong hiatus in which Cory Walker, the co-creator, came back. It’s going to be a fun time.
CB: Are you going to miss that book? You’ve probably worked with it for most of your career at Skybound.
Mackiewicz: Yeah, it’s a book I’ve been working on since, I think issue 96 was my first. Between that and The Walking Dead they basically ran for a hundred issues before I came on their identity was crystal clear so it’s mostly my job to make sure they come out on time and the fans are entertained by the letters page.
But I think it’s a great time for people. Especially now you can get superhero fatigue but this is a superhero epic with an ending. If people are curious it is the time to check it out before it comes to a close.
I love those characters. My favorite character Battle Beast was already killed off a couple of years ago.
CB: I’ve been reading the series in real-time. It’s been a roller coaster. We talked about how actions have consequences. Maybe that’s the theme that runs through all the Skybound books.
Mackiewicz: Yeah, the end of 132 had a huge death. We pick up the beginning of the next arc dealing with the ramifications of that. There’s two big bads that are lurking out there, Frag and Robot, depending where you stand about the Robot. You may differ with his choice of what he’s done but his results are pretty positive. Both those guys are out there and will definitely come into play as hopefully we wrap up all the pieces
CB: How do see the comics market these days and where do you see it moving in next year or two?
Mackiewicz: You know, I was a little worried last year. We have a lot of books in development. The last quarter there was a lot of talk about retailers with some stores going under. But from what we’ve seen from new Image launches and from Extremity, it’s been pretty positive. The main thing Skybound brings to our books is a consistency of quality across the line plus on-time shipping.
I just went to ComicsPro and talked with 200 retail accounts. They seem to be pretty upbeat about their chances. We do a good job communicating with them and giving them advance looks at everything. Before they finalized orders on Extremity we gave them two issues. Same thing with Redneck. We just want to clearly communicate with them.
It’s a great time to be doing passion projects at Image Comics right now.
I love it. I do. I used to work at DC. I worked there for five years and it’s great to work on these big icons but when it comes down to it, it’s better to work on stuff that you own or invested in. That’s something that comes back with Daniel. We started talking with him about what he wants to do next whenever Extremity runs its course. With Donny we’re always looking for new projects.
The possibilities are endless sometimes. After four and half years I think I’m finally getting to understand what I can do in my role as Editorial Director to help new creators and to bring in creators from other companies, Marvel or DC, to revitalize their career and work on the stuff that they’ve never had a chance to.