Jim Zubkavich isn't "oldest school webcomics" but he's awfully darn close. His debut webcomic, The Makeshift Miracle garnered instant notice online at the time. Ironically, despite the intentional use of limited colors in the comic, the coloring is one of the things I remember most about it. Zubkavich has also been a heck of a nice guy to comics, sharing his knowledge through tutorials, teaching and a column at ComixTalk.
I got a chance to do an interview with Jim this month looking back on The Makeshift Miracle and looking ahead to 2009.
Where are you located these days?
I've finally put down some roots and am living in a house in downtown Toronto, Ontario right on the subway line. When I started my webcomic I was living in Calgary, Alberta and then moved to the east coast in Halifax, Nova Scotia for work. Soon afterwards I moved back home to Ontario and have been here ever since.
How long have you been at UDON now? What's your job like there?
Unbelievably, I've been working at UDON for five years now. The time really has flown by. I started at the studio as a colorist and part-time illustrator and have worked my way up to a Project Manager position, still contributing art on some projects depending on the manpower required.
It's been an incredible roller coaster of projects, working on properties and with companies that I've always wanted to be involved with. Every week there are new projects and challenges as we juggle a heavy slate of creative services projects doing artwork for comics, video games, toys, magazines and other entertainment properties while at the same time publishing a small selection of comics and art books. In the midst of the schedule it feels very normal, but when I actually take a step back and see what we've accomplished it's kind of mind boggling. It`s an amazing place to be.
You've also done some teaching work – where at and what has that been like?
I'm actually still teaching classes part-time at Seneca, the largest college in Canada. I've toggled between teaching classes in Character Animation, Character Design, Background/Layout and even Animation History. Teaching is hard work but also very gratifying. The students in the Animation program at Seneca are very driven and that enthusiasm is quite infectious. Watching their skills grow as a direct result of the lessons I've taught or critique I've given is a wonderful experience. It's taught me a lot about communication and kept my core drawing skills well oiled.
I think it's been over 7 years since the debut of your webcomic The Makeshift Miracle. How well do you think the comic holds up now?
That's right. Makeshift started in September 2001. Looking back at it of course I can see the flaws but I'm still pretty pleased. It was a really important step for me as an artist, both in creatively creating something of my own and also seeing it through to completion, which can be really difficult when it's a personal project like that. My skills, from storytelling to drawing, have seen an upswing since then but the key elements in terms of the story and characters still mean something to me.
The types of stories people are telling on the web now are so much more involved. At the time I was so worried that if I delved in too much that I'd lose the webcomic audience, which seemed really heavily focused on newspaper-style gag strips at the time. Not having a joke-a-strip made it a harder sell and the kind of story where people tended to eat it up in segments rather than checking in every single update. So many more people are doing that now with their webcomics, so seeing that kind of storytelling blossom on the web is fantastic.
It's also been a couple of years since the print version of the comic was published by UDON in 2006. How was the book received and can you tell us about that experience?
Having a published book version is a total thrill. UDON is well known for their manga-styled titles and Makeshift was a bit of a departure for them as a publisher. Erik, my boss at UDON, was amazing about the whole thing, giving me incredible freedom to pick the format and see the whole thing through. I know I wouldn't have had that kind of control at another publisher. As far as comic book retailers and book stores were concerned, this was an original title by an unknown author, so we knew that sales weren't going to be gargantuan. Even still, we've sold a few thousand books bit-by-bit and are edging towards doing a second printing at some point.
Possibly the only downside of releasing that book in 2006, three years after the story wrapped up on the web, was that people who didn't know me or hadn't read it online assumed it was brand new and that it represented my skills "now". I'm still proud of it but it isn't really how I draw any more.
Do you have plans to do another comic at some point? What do you have planned for 2009?
I've had several false starts on another comic story. Lots of writing and drawing, but also a pile of other things getting in the way. I actually have a full graphic novel plotted out with 10 pages of finished art that I used as a pitch package for publishers and agents. The initial response was pretty good but with the current economic downturn whirling, original publishing has been hit hard so I'm unsure if it'll get picked up any time soon. If it takes too long to find a home for it I'll probably just start it up on the web and deliver it to an audience that way — a free story that people can follow along with.
I'm much more critical of my work than I was when I did Makeshift in 2001-2003. I think that mixed with a brutal work schedule has hamstrung me a bit. I need to get over my creative fears and dive back in to the pool again. It's been a blast working on projects for clients but I need to get back in touch with my own story impulses and use all the things I`ve learned to do something new.
I've kept in touch with quite a few webcomics people, still love seeing what every one is up to and am really happy that there are so many people making the web the focal point of their creativity. I've said this for the past couple of years, so hopefully I`m not a broken record, but next year I do hope to have a new original story underway for people to read.
On your original MM website you had some great tutorials on your work process. How has that process changed — what tools do you use now to make art and comics?
Well I do a lot more work in full colour now, unlike the single colour tones of Makeshift, which was both a mood maker and time saving device for me as I worked on pages in my spare time. I was intimidated by full colour when I started the webcomic but I've had a lot more practice with my colour mixing and digital painting since then. I also understand a lot more about prepping material for print, which is kind of handy.
The first 2/3 of Makeshift was drawn on paper and toned on the computer with a mouse. I didn`t even own a Wacom tablet until early 2003 and never really got comfortable with it until after the story wrapped up. Looking back, it amazes me that I worked that way, but since I was teaching myself Photoshop as I went along it was just the way the whole thing evolved.
Most of the tutorial stuff I covered is still relevant as core for people who are just getting their feet wet with Photoshop or drawing. I purposefully tried to make sure they were generic enough that they didn't instantly become obsolete once a new version of the software came out. In the end any of these applications are just tools. Good drawing and storytelling skills are the foundation, the rest is just efficiency and ease of use. Even more than the art, writing a good story that keeps people coming back is more powerful than flashy art. There's got to be something going on beyond the pretty pictures or else it becomes a hollow shell. Whatever I do next, I want to strike that balance.