WCA 2019: IN CONVERSATION WITH JIM ZUB & MAX DUNBAR (RECORDED AT WONDERCON ANAHEIM, MARCH 2019)
Comic-Con International‘s sibling convention, WonderCon (29th-31st March 2019, Anaheim Convention Center), has over the years grown and developed into a truly epic event in the North America comic convention calendar, selling out over its entire weekend and bringing thousands of talented creators, publishers, artists, writers, cosplayers, actors and actresses and much more to Anaheim in California.
WonderCon has developed and evolved from what was primarily a passive ‘experience’ delivering show into one which companies and creators can now bring new projects and share updates on brand new content – we have been lucky to have a couple of correspondents visiting the show as Press, catching up with a number of these fresh stories.
One such correspondent is Samantha Maybe (@SamanthaMaybe) who had the chance to talk to comics superstars and frequent collaborators Jim Zub and Max Dunbar who have come together to produce a new title for digital distribution giant comiXology, STONE STAR, a brand new, original space-fantasy epic which took their cue from pop music artists like Justin Timberlake and Beyonce* to surprise release the book without the usual hype and palaver, allowing fans to discover the title all at the same time, no spoilers required.
(*FYI: in this analogy, Max is Timberlake and Jim is Beyonce. He pretty much admits as much in the interview and, frankly, he has the legs for it.)
Samantha has reviewed issue one of the book for The Convention Collective already… and she bloody loves it! As Sam talked to the pair about their motivations and inspiration for releasing the book in this manner, how the story of STONE STAR came about, their collaborative creative process in creating story and characters, and what Jim and Max feel their colourist (Espen Grundetjern) and letterer (Marshall Dillon), bring to the table…
SAMANTHA MAYBE: Hi, this is Sam and I am here with Jim Zub and Max Dunbar, and we are going to talk about STONE STAR which I’m super excited to hear more about from the creator’s themselves. This is one of the first times I’ve gotten to do an interview with the writer and illustrator! So yeah, I’m really excited just to hear about your collaborative process and what it’s like working with each other.
But, before we get there, I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about what the atmosphere is like being a comiXology original product, how all that kind of happened – it’s been kind of sudden – and what’s it been like being involved with comiXology and what do you think the general atmosphere is, with other creators stuff getting into it.
JIM ZUB: So, for me, I’ve done creator-owned books – almost all my creator-owned books have been at Image Comics, and they’re an amazing company, I absolutely love working with them. But when comiXology approached me, they were sort of like, “Hey, we want to do a book with you.” I said [to myself], “Well, what are the unique traits that they have that other companies don’t?” And the ability to digitally delivered to the widest audience possible was very exciting. But then, on top of that, I kind of threw it back at them and I said, “What if we did a simultaneous announcement and launch? What if we Beyonce-dropped this on people?”, and essentially didn’t give them any preamble, didn’t hype it, didn’t tease it, we just literally go, “Zub and Dunbar have a new project. When? Today. When do you get it? Now! When do you start reading? Go, click!”
And that was the exciting part for me, was the potential to surprise people that I couldn’t do, you can’t do with a print book. You have to solicit and catalog, and send it to the printer and the distributor, and release and hype people up. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love traditional comics but this was a unique opportunity to throw people a curveball.
And even my own friends in the industry and professionals, I didn’t tell them! It’s like some of my close friends are like, “How long have you been working on this??” The joy of having them confused and excited for something that came out of the blue, that was worth it, that was a really fun opportunity.
MAX DUNBAR: I mean, the hype cycle, as Jim said – especially on social media, [is] where the announcements come in waves, and then everyone says, “Oh, here’s a little bit of preview”, or “We can’t show too much, because I don’t want to spoil the issue”, and then you wait months in between each iteration of this. So, basically, for us to be able to say, “It’s available now, we’re announcing it today”, cuts through all of that, and that’s like a really fun thing to try out. Again, I also love traditional comics and print comics and stuff. But yeah, why not? Push the digital thing to its fullest and not worry about the same things you would worry if you’re doing a print comic…
JIM: …and there’s a spontaneity to it. We’ve been working on [STONE STAR] for a while. But there’s an electricity to pulling something out of your hat and going, “Hey, check this out!
JIM: “It’s done!” “What??” And people didn’t even know we were doing it, you know: great! And that is really exciting to me… The series itself has a lot of energy and a lot of electricity to it, there’s a lot of movement in the way that Max draws amazing action, and then for us to be able to carry that momentum through to the announcement release, it kind of feels right.
SAMANTHA: One of the things that you talk about in STONE STAR is this kind of traveling ‘entertainment ships’, right. It called to mind one of my favorite prose novels, THE NIGHT CIRCUS where I mean, the idea of the ‘traveling circus is at the heart of that. So yeah, you chose to take that and throw it into space! So boy, what was it that made you want to do that, to effectively to make a circus in space?
JIM: A lot of times, when you’re writing a story, particularly an action story, you have to come up with reasons for people to have conflict. “Why do these people fight? Was it good versus evil, what is at stake?” And I said, “What if we made the action…” The central premise of an arena is ‘conflict’. So now we no longer have to justify why people are in conflict with each other: it’s a sport, it’s an entertainment, it is about celebrity, and winning, and all those things, and now we can build the culture around it.
And so it’s about competition, it’s about the sort of ‘city’ of Stone Star, the community that is built up around the hype that builds up around the competition, in the broadcasting and all the things that the station is. In my original ideas, it was going to be a planet that was an arena, and then I thought, “Oh, it’s kind of a pain. How do people get there?”, and I said, “Wait, you turn it on its head.” It’s the thing that travels from place to place, it goes from planet to planet, the arena is mobile, not people coming to it, it comes to them. And that had that kind of weird throwback of the ‘traveling circus’ – going from town to town but on this galactic level
SAMANTHA: And you get to throw in fun questions, like, “How do they choose where they go? What draws them to those places, as well?”
JIM: Also, you have that ability for characters who are on that planet to kind of ‘run away to the circus’, like they can join up or, in some cases, be thrown into it, against their will: “You just joined Stone Star!” So, there’s something kind of fun about all the stuff that surrounds the station just as much as the central core of battles.
MAX: I like to think of it as, if you took one of the biggest sports stadiums in the world and you just lifted it up, so all those people that work in it, now have to live in it because they can’t go home. Essentially, what do they do, they would re-purpose things, they would pick up supplies from everywhere they go. So, that very much factored into the whole look and vibe of the interior of the arena, so we’ve got shanty towns, we’ve got presumably nicer parts of the arena where the elite and the celebrities stay. And another part about the conflict is that, yeah, there is conflict in the arena, but any time where you get competition, celebrities, and difference in class, that will bleed out conflict into the actual society itself. So there’s just a lot of room to play around with the various different aspects of a roving gladiatorial sports arena. It’s just a really fun sort of playground.
SAMANTHA: The things that you do, in terms of the action, is just so seamless and it’s such a cinematic book to read, I can’t help but see it kind of animated in my head while I’m turning the pages! So, can you talk a little bit about what it’s like, both from the plotting and the panel structure, how you guys work together to make sure that you’re providing enough textual cues and movement cues that to physically keep all that motion so seamless because it really does flow so well…
JIM: For me, when it comes to the story… World-building, it’s all about informing the reader in a way that they can easily understand, you don’t want to overwhelm them with info dumps, too much information so they lose the details. What I want to do is give you the broad premise – “Oh, cool, it’s a mobile arena, it goes from planet to planet, they touched down, and this is an example of how it all works together.” And then we can add to that with little salient details, or Max can fill in a lot of that visually, and give you a sense of the jumbled townships that have built up in the lower levels of the ship where we show you people taking out the garbage – you know, there is a lot of blue-collar work that needs to get done to maintain this ridiculous over-the-top thing!
And so, some of it is inferred and some of it is surface level narrative and some of it is visual stuff that Max can bring into the mix and leaving enough of that open for him to go find fun designs in the heat. I say to him: this is what it should feel like, everything has a very industrial quality and has a very used quality. This is not a pristine clean spac, this isn’t the Apple store of sci-fi, right?? Yeah, this is very much clunky and chunky, everything has a lever, everything feels like it has vents and big industrial parts. [To Max] But you show me how far you want to take that, you give this a grander sense of scale. You put bits of yourself into that… and then I get excited and feed on it.
MAX: Jim is like, with the action, with those moments, it’s the perfect mix of telling me what I need to know, from a storytelling point of view, but keeping it open enough that I can hopefully use the things that I’ve learned over the years to try and make it as kinetic and interesting looking as possible for an action sequence, or a chase sequence, something like that.
So, yeah, it’s a great mix of being hands-on when it comes telling me the information I need to know, but also trusting me and being hands-off, it’s like, “Okay, so we’re going to do this. So, you know, just go crazy with it. And let me know if you have any issues…”
JIM: “Here’s the end result…”
MAX: “…here’s the end result, here’s what has to happen.” In the first issue, there is a wild chase through a market and I know that it’s going to end up crashing into a pillar. So I incorporate, in the market’s design, pillars because I know that there’s going to have to be pillars…
SAMANTHA: Just the one, just the one pillar! [laughs]
MAX: Yeah, just that one pillar – it’s the worst luck of all, right? [laughs] So, I mean, that kind of thing, where it’s very much I take what he says, and what has to happen and incorporate that into the design. And then I think in certain situations, Jim has taken those designs and then incorporated them back into future parts of the story.
JIM: This is what’s so important. A lot of times I talked to people who want to write their own comics and they will try and lock down every single aspect of the story and every single aspect of the visuals, even before they’ve got the art team on board. And it’s like: this is collaborative, we are a team, Max Dunbar and Jim Zub are the co-creators of STONE STAR! I want to come to [collaborators] as early as possible into that process and say, “Here’s a bunch of cool, influential things that excite me: what do you see and what do you want to draw, and I will play to your strengths.” And then, when he’s having fun, the work looks better and I’m having fun writing it.
And that elaborative process is so valuable to me, as a writer, and so valuable to me in a visual medium – I’m not trying to make maps, what I want the book to be. I want us to be the book, and be as excited about it as we can be. And it sounds so obvious, but I see so many times people will have an idea in their head and all they can be as disappointed when the artists can’t read their mind. Yeah, and I’m like, that’s not how this works!
MAX: And, from an artistic point of view, getting down to the minute description of, say, the main character… writer and artist, I think, should find that together. It’s totally cool for Jim to be, “Well, I was thinking he be more like, you know, grizzled or tall or lanky…”, whatever, that’s great! But it shouldn’t come as a laundry list right at the beginning: you can achieve that and find it together, and that just gets you as an artist way more invested in the property, you feel there’s way more of your own aesthetic in the world, rather than it being, like, “Oh, I’m drawing Jim’s world here!” So I know this is our world that we’re creating together.
JIM: A lot of the marketing around comics tends to be writer-focused, ‘writer first’, they will literally say things, like, on a superhero title, they’ll just say it’s the ‘writers book’ because you have different artists on it. And I need people to know, it’s a visual medium, I need them to know that the heart of this is Max’s visual design – if he doesn’t present it well, all my flowery language, all my dialogue is going to fall flat!
SAMANTHA: So much of the character development comes from the [art]…
JIM: …the expressions, the panel choices, all that stuff. Three different artists are going to draw the same script in three vastly different ways…
MAX: This comic would look completely different and have a different feel, presumably, if it was a different artist working on it.
JIM: So then, that means that Max’s involvement has to be crucial. Max’s delivery has to be part and parcel of how I write, because otherwise… if I could take him out and put anyone else in, then it’s not special. What makes us special is the two of us bringing our best to the page every time.
SAMANTHA: So could you walk me through quickly what the process is like when you were developing a character? Pick any one!
JIM: So I would come up with a name and I would come up with a couple of sentences description of what their broad role in the story is and some personality traits…
MAX: [For example], Volness is this sort of gladiator trainer, so Jim told me…
SAMANTHA: A very distinctive character!
JIM: Sure, he’s a classic trope – that mentor figure who’s seen too much and feels too bitter.
SAMANTHA: You got that immediately, you see him in the first panel and you know what he’s all about.
JIM: I didn’t say exactly what he looks like, I said, “Here are the kinds of traits he might have, or these are sort of some visual cues that get you…
MAX: The biggest part, the biggest description [that I got] was that he’s old, he’s grizzled, he is missing both his arms but one of them is a robot arm because if he was had two robot arms, he’d be too dangerous! They don’t let him actively participate…
JIM: What you’ll find out in the later part of the story is the people that run Stone Star won’t let them have a second cybernetic limb because they’re scared of his ability, right?
MAX: So, as an artist, that is super open to interpretation, right, but also really exciting because I felt like immediately I started picturing the character. But it took a while for me to come up with a design because you can go any direction with that, he’s essentially an alien so you’d be like, “Oh, is he a huge, like, Sasquatch type guy? Or is he this or that?”
JIM: Is he wiry? I didn’t say how tall he was!
SAMANTHA: Is he two feet tall? [laughs]
MAX: Well, exactly! So I sort of ruminated over it, you know, take public transit, like on the bus or whatever, I’m drawing pages and pages of really fast, rough sketches, different ideas, just letting go sort of free association. And then I started leaning into this idea, why don’t we do like an old, rough Clint Eastwood type, a Gunslinger type but, like, really crotchety? Sort of like, y’know, GRAN TORINO?
SAMANTHA: My mind went to Stick from DAREDEVIL…
MAX: Yeah, exactly, yeah! So, and then I was like, “Okay, well, that’s like a really good start, that tells me sort of 50% of the character, but then what are the alien parts. So […] you sort of exaggerate those, he became quite tall and lanky and had fit, narrow hips, wide shoulders, long muscular neck. And then I just sort of infused some goat into him because an old goat sort of fits with that! They’re tough and cranky, and so I gave him some horns, which you don’t see for a while because he’s wearing this big weird straw hat, whatever that is. [laughs] And Jim was like, let’s give them a hat and a poncho! Let’s really go into this Eastwood phase!
JIM: Once I realized that he was Eastwood, I was like, let’s lean into it, let’s do The Man With No Name!
MAX: So I did do that but I was, I didn’t want it to be like, y’know, ‘Clint Eastwood, cosplaying as an alien’! So I was, well, I’ll just give him this really weird wide brim, flat, thick hat, I assume it’s moving out of something. And yeah, like just layers of the weird fabric for his poncho…
JIM: …like everything he wears, it’s woven out of bitterness. Sheer bitterness and spite!
MAX: [laughs] Exactly! So yeah, like that character came together, like, slowly at the beginning, [through] my own personal development but once I figured out what I wanted, it was really fast. Once I drew his face for the first time, I was like, “Okay, now this is the body that makes sense with it.” And I sent it to Jim and Jim was like…
JIM: …that’s changed the ‘voice’. Because, early on in my head, I was sort of free associating, like, is he more like a Zen Master? He could be a very stoic, stiff, sort of straight-laced monk, or he could be like a cranky old, crotchety Yoda kind of character, anything in between. And as soon as you sort of went with that ‘Gunslinger’ vibe, well, he’s not going to talk like a Zen Master! He’s gonna be real, y’know, insulting and gruff and have a take-it-or-leave-it feel and that changed. I knew, plotwise where we were going to go but, all of a sudden, the interactions between him and Dale become very different because now I can see that crusty exterior and the way he’s going to interact and play off of Dale… It works but I wouldn’t have known that until I’d seen it.
MAX: So, that’s really great. Also, as an artist, so much of the time, everything’s all written down and it feels almost like you’re plugging your art into someone else’s story. But then Jim telling me, ‘This is awesome, this is going to inform how I write the character and I’m going to go back, probably do what I’ve been doing and change some stuff around to make it a better fit”, you feel like, well, we really created this character together. The name, the voice, and everything was Jim, then I brought some of my own stuff to it and now we’ve created something three-dimensional and so that’s really fulfilling and awesome. And I just a great way to do it, I think.
SAMANTHA: Yeah, I love it. I love what I’ve read so far, it’s can’t wait to keep reading it. I definitely think that that you both have a strong voice that comes through on the page – so cool to see it come together…
JIM: That’s great to hear, but I’ve got to credit our other collaborators. Yeah, you’re gonna have a nightmarish time spelling this, but it’s in the credits: Espen Grundetjern, he’s our colorist out in Norway and that guy is brilliant! I’ve worked with him many years ago, he’s phenomenal, I was so happy to get them on board here. And my letterer, Marshall Dillon – Marshall has lettered every creator-owned book I’ve ever done, we’re dear friends. When I was starting out, and I had very little money budget, Marshall literally lettered my first book for no money because he believed in the project, we retroactively paid them after we made a profit! I owe that guy so much…
MAX: [Marshall] brings so much character into the letters and Espen brings so much mood and atmosphere, most of the color choices are completely his, I trust him implicitly…
JIM: …that mixture of an alien feel to it but the familiar notes, how the lighting [of a panel] changes how you feel about a scene, the lighting choices direct your attention on the page, where you’re supposed to be looking and why is it that colour, y’know what I mean?
MAX: And he’s a master of it because a lot of people don’t know what goes into something that he’s doing but there’s all sorts of aspects of colour theory, knowing where to lead the eye, drawing distances, light and shadow that he just… I get pages back and I’m floored every time, Jim can attest, it’s like all caps!! Like, this is crazy.!laughs]
JIM: [laughs] Yeah, it’s like a fun thing, it is like opening a gift every time you crack open a new file and you’re like, I wrote that, he drew it, and we’re all acting like it’s a brand new thing!
MAX: And honestly, if people like the look of the comic, Espen been as a massive part of that, Marshall is a massive part of that – if they think that the sequences are particularly thrilling or exciting, they’re both a massive part of that, so I can’t give them credit enough.
JIM: One thing about lettering, where the word balloons go and where sound effects go, changes the way you read a page and if a letterer does a great job, it’s invisible. You’re too busy enjoying the book to realize how much effort went into it and so good lettering never gets enough credit but bad lettering always stands out because it stops you cold on the page. You’re like, “What am I supposed to be reading, in what order? Why does this not work?”
MAX: It can be a thankless job – big thanks to [Marshall] because he’s like doing phenomenal work. And in this case, because of the things that you [Jim] in particular wanted to see on the page, lettering-wise, there’s a ton of character behind it as well. So hopefully, people will take notice of it and be like, wow, that’s a big art style in itself. And part of the art is Marshall’s lettering.
SAMANTHA: Awesome! So, do you guys have any kind of final thoughts on the future of STONE STAR?
MAX: I just hope that people really enjoy it. Yeah. And that people who want a larger-than-life adventure fantasy, just a fun comic book with a lot of action and art, you give it a look. And if they’ve got Amazon Prime, or Kindle Unlimited, I believe it’s called, they can come to check it out for no risk, and I hope they stick with it, enjoy it, but at the very least they can take a look at it.
JIM: I feel like I’m a kid because I made this big crazy kooky sandbox for creatures and aliens and I’m going to bring all the toys and so it’s going to get wild! Yeah, it’s good man. And Max is, his enthusiasm for it all, makes me feel like I’m 10 years old every time I sit down to work on it!
Thanks to Jim and Max for taking time out of their very busy con to talk, and also to Samantha Maybe for bringing the interview to us.