I’m currently in a pub on Downtown Bloor Street in Toronto. 1950’s rockabilly music is playing in the background as I chat with comic writer and artist Jim Zub about the latest hardcover compilation of his work from Image Comics: Wayward.
For a comic that’s steeped in Japanese culture, mythology and characters, it’s somewhat of a weird setting. But weird works for Wayward. The comic, now released in 320 pages of hardcover deluxe glory, has been described as ‘Buffy meets Japan’, but take it from me, there’s a lot more to it than that. It presents not only an exciting adventure story in Japan, but an innovative and expertly managed one.
“That’s a full year – 320 pages in that deluxe right there,” Zub says, holding the book proudly.
I tell Zub that I think the level of authenticity and accuracy involved in the creation of this book lends itself to a captivating storyline that demands that the reader treat it with more respect than as simply an attempt at a North American manga.
“Thank you,” Jim Zub replies. “We’re really proud of it, obviously.”
Wayward is the tale of Rori Lane, a half-Japanese, half-Irish teenager who finds herself in the middle of a divorce. Leaving her Irish father to live with her Japanese mother, Rori discovers that her new home has an unexpected supernatural side to it. She discovers she has new, mysterious abilities and friends with similar unusual talents, Rori and her companions combine to form a group dedicated to opposing this supernatural danger wherever it may appear.
Zub’s history in working with Japanese animation studios like Udon and Capcom really comes into play here. Not only does he have real world background in living in the culture he is writing about, but he has access to years of storytelling from working in those venues. His co-creator, Steve Cummings, currently lives in Japan as a teacher and artist and raises his family there. Their life experiences combine in allowing them to create images and scenarios that are based on first-hand knowledge and experience with the culture.
“There’s one scene, in the beginning of Issue #6, where we have this new character, Ohara, come out of the shower, getting ready for school and she sees the mist on the mirror: the emblem of Japan, right? So she traces that on the mirror with her finger while she’s wrapped in her towel. Steve says to me ‘that wouldn’t happen’. And I’m like ‘why not?’ He answers ‘because Japanese people don’t take showers in the morning; that’s a North American thing. Japanese people take baths in the evening’. It’s like a really minor thing, right? But it just goes to show you how much cultural detail is in this book.”
Zub has nothing but the highest respect for Steve Cummings, the co-creator of Wayward. It’s clear that the working relationship between the two of them is quality-oriented and by paying attention to minor details, a rich and solid foundation emerges for the story to take shape. Even details like Rori’s Irish-Japanese background have a purpose.
“Steve, the co-creator, is amazing. He’s a machine; like a page a day. The detail in the backgrounds that he does – it’s careful linework. He’s been in the business longer than I have. There’s a big difference between using reference and being a slave to it and Steve strikes that perfect balance in that you can tell that these are real places and not traced photographs. One of the things I love working with Steve is that we both made a commitment to ground the book in real Tokyo. He’ll go out and take photos of neighbourhoods for reference. Or he’ll go online and find people who have actually done geographical surveys of the tunnels under Tokyo and include all that information in his art.”
When asked how Wayward came about, Zub refers back to one of his and Cummings’ first collaborative efforts.
“It was a mix of things. Steve worked at Udon. He lives in Yokohama, and he and I had worked on a bunch of projects together, pre-comics, and we got along well. We were doing a book to celebrate Udon’s 10th anniversary called Vent and every artist in the studio had done an illustration – sort of like a dream project. Steve did an illustration of this girl standing at the top of the stairs surrounded by all these cats. She’s holding this spiked bat with all of these Japanese drink machines behind her. It was so evocative, atmospheric and interesting. It was so cool I had to ask him about it. He said that it was something that he had in the back of his head, like a supernatural story set in Tokyo that he wanted to do. I said; ‘That would be so cool – I’d write that!’ He says to me ‘Cool, man! Let’s do it’. Within six months I launched Skullkickers and we stayed in touch. So early, 2013, he contacts me and says that he can’t get it out of his head that he wants to do his own thing. So we started bouncing ideas back and forth. I reminded him of the illustration he did a few years ago and I had this story about how we view mythology in the modern world but I thought it was going to be Euro-centric – all of a sudden, we found that the theme was broad enough to include the Japanese mythology. Steve wanted to do a supernatural story and I thought that the Japanese mythology would all fit.”
The actual publishing of Wayward was a little less direct. Zub recalled the decision-making process that would eventually see the comic find its home at Image Comics. Though it was clearly a great working concept that had the attention of publishers, it was initially a trying process to decide from where to launch the comic.
“I wasn’t sure where we were going to publish it. Even though I had Skullkickers at Image – Image had gotten such a great reputation with titles like Saga and all these huge titles – but I wasn’t a big name creator. So while they weren’t displeased Skullkickers, it’s not like I was a heavy hitter, you know what I mean? I held off on pitching it to them. I pitched it to other publishers and everyone liked it. This was a thing … like, this was a THING (chuckle)! I told Steve that all these publishers wanted a piece of this and we started getting contract offers.”
It was Jim’s conversation with Charles Soule (DC Comics’ Superman/Wonder Woman and Swamp Thing) that would seal the decision. When the two discussed the project, Soule asked if he had pitched it to Image. When Zub stated that he didn’t think he “had any pull over there,” Soule promptly asked “did you try?” Zub replied that he hadn’t which prompted Soule to declare, “Then get off your ass and try that.”
Zub made the call and within 15 minutes, Image publisher Eric Stephenson called him back and said yes. It was the fastest that Zub had ever heard of a response to a pitch.
Wayward is clearly a success. But it’s a success that’s built upon a solid foundation of project management, applying business practises to artistic vision as well as diligent attention to detail. This year, Zub has worked fourteen comic conventions which demonstrates the level of effort he is willing to put into his work. This, in combination with his relationship at Image Comics, is a clear secret of his success.
“Having a project management background at Udon really helped me. I knew how much lead-in time we’d need, how long it would take to do colours and what have you. Image will support you, but I feel really free there and it’s where I want to do all my creator-owned stuff.”
The commitment to marketing the book the right way is also clear in our conversation. As stated before, this is not a manga, but at the same time Zub has to pay attention to the similar elements in both mediums.
“We were really nervous about marketing the book. We avoided using the term ‘manga’ – because we wanted to say ‘American comic takes place in Japan’. We didn’t want to say that we’re doing a manga. Manga is a weird, loaded term – it’s Japanese for comics, but it’s got such connotations over here in North America in the way that they’re drawn and paced. Obviously Steve has Japanese influence in his artwork, but he’s not doing storytelling elements and we don’t pace it like a manga. It takes place in Japan and it uses the same cultural and historical reference materials so there will be similarities but that’s because manga uses a lot of Japanese mythological elements as well.”
Manga can be very diluted in that it can treat Japanese mythology very casually. This isn’t present in Wayward. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Not only is the material accurate, but there’s also a major sum of respect paid to the mythology. The level of research is astounding and every 22 page issue not only tells an authentic adventure story but is reinforced by an essay on Japanese folklore, culture or history by Zack Davisson, a noted scholar and translator of Japanese culture and fiction. All of these are included in the deluxe hardcover and it’s this dimension of respect that elevates Zub’s and Cummings’ work to something beyond mere manga: it is a serious appreciation of a rich and detailed mythology that is unfamiliar to non-Japanese readers.
It’s a fair statement to say that Wayward is somewhat of a teaching text. It actually teaches North American readers about Japanese mythology and weird stuff but does so in a setting that is both acceptable and welcome. More importantly to note though, it’s a book that talks about collaboration and success. It’s an example of artistic vision combining with a sense of diligence and organization in telling a truly entertaining story.
Most importantly, it’s the type of comic that can find itself at home in any setting; even listening to 1950’s rockabilly music.