Madcap Life On A Stone Star With Jim Zub & Max Dunbar

by Hannah Means Shannon

Stone Star is a digital-first sci-fi comic with cosmic adventure built in by Jim Zub (Champions, Avengers: No Road Home, Rick and Morty vs Dungeons & Dragons) and Max Dunbar (Champions, Dungeons & Dragons), with colors by Espen Grundetjern, and letters by Marshall Dillon. Part of the comiXology Originals roll-out, the series consists of 5 issues, the first of which dropped as a “surprise” on fans, and the second of which arrives this week on the platform, available exclusively to subscribers of Prime Reading, Kindle Unlimited, and comiXology Unlimited, but also available for sale on comiXology and Kindle.

The tale focuses on a location, Stone Star, which is a mobile asteroid focused on galactic entertainment, where sports competitions breed celebrity. “Gladiators” fight for advancement there, but our main character is Dail, a teenage thief whose life is pulled into the orbit of the arena. Some of the goals of our creators on Stone Star are to bring back the high-energy aspect of space escapades, as well as creating a world that feels highly populated and “lived in” for readers.

I met up with Jim Zub and Max Dunbar at WonderCon a few weeks ago to chat about their new series and all the glorious comic and pulp traditions that may have informed their work on Stone Star.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Stone Star had a surprise announcement and release. For you, does the comic have any roots in the world of pulp magazines and paperback sci-fi?

Max Dunbar: Totally. I love the high adventure, adventure for adventure’s sake of pulp paperbacks. Flash Gordon, Star Wars-type stuff. I love the fun aspect of those. It’s a high-flying space-fantasy. It absolutely has its roots in that kind of stuff, both aesthetically and thematically.

HMS: I could see that in the preview artwork a little bit, I think. My high-brow then: is there cosmic Kirby influence on Stone Star?

Jim Zub: Oh, I love crazy cosmic stuff. I love that feeling that anything goes, in the design sense, and that you can go over the top with it. I loved seeing that in the Ragnarok movie, where they sort of went for broke with that craziness. Our ability to crank things up is there. One of the things I love about creator-owned book is to be able to say, “Max, what do you think is cool?” And then we can make it wild, with big, over-the-top designs to make the readers feel our excitement, too.

MD: The thing I love about Kirby is that it doesn’t have to make sense, necessarily. The machines that he creates, and his characters, have this primary quality that they are great to look at and super fun.

JZ: They are visually engaging.

MD: Yes. For the technology, and environments, and characters in Stone Star, I’m not worrying, thinking, “How would this work in the real world?” The arena itself is a giant asteroid with these huge jets. From a design standpoint, in terms of what I wanted to draw, the jets rotate to thrust forward, up, and down, but that’s purely aesthetic. I’m not worrying, thinking, “How does it not break apart? How does it enter the atmosphere?” It’s just not that type of comic in my mind. It’s more about the fantastical aspects.

HMS: Well, that way readers will be discovering little details in panels and having fun with that.

MD: Yes, I love that aspect of comics. There’s a scene in the second issue where Jim was kind enough to essentially give me a full page scene for a market, and I filled every corner of that market with weird stuff, and Espen colored every corner of what’s been picked up from the various planets they’ve visited.

JZ: And what I love is that I can then go back and look at that design, and say, “I really like that aspect. I’ll make that into something in the story in future”. A background thing becomes a foreground thing over time. Or you realize that what was essentially a minor character becomes a major character because you love the design. There’s a momentum that builds with collaboration. You need to open yourself up to surprises. You need to open yourself up to the spontaneity of creation. This is not about me writing this cold, hard, story and Max trying to be the art robot. This is collaborative, it’s jazz. We’re playing off of each other in a really fun way.

HMS: How do you generally work together in terms of process?

MD: Jim told me the broad concept of the comic before I saw any pages. He told me that there would be a young main character, an old trainer, a young woman, a bunch of gladiators who were monsters. He gave me some personality notes, like “an old, gruff trainer”. I basically took those and ran, working back and forth with Jim, getting his opinion and suggestions. We’re both big Tolkien fans, but we didn’t want to go too high fantasy. So I gave elfish ears to one of the characters, even while staying away from traditional fantasy tropes. And because Jim is an artist, too, he’s really great at communicating, so we have a great synergy.

The Dern character is a large robot, essentially, and Jim had some design elements in mind, for instance, which we went back and forth on.

HMS: People seem to either love or hate drawing robots. I’m guessing you’re in the “love” camp?

MD: I love drawing robots of a certain type. I draw Transformers comics, and I love them. Drawing them was extremely difficult, though, because they are very precise in their lines, with hard angles. In Stone Star, right from the beginning, I decided I would love not to have to use a ruler that much. I wanted all the machines to feel organic in some way, which contributes also to the space-fantasy aspect of it, I think. You see worn, used equipment, that doesn’t feel machine pressed. You might think that someone to a hammer to objects and sculpted them. The benefit is that things can be a little messier, and don’t have to be perfect.

HMS: I think in Star Wars films, one of the big focuses is to have a lived-in world where things are beaten up and messy, right?

MD: Totally. Exactly. It’s a lived-in future, and the Empire is clean lines and sharp angles. The characters who are intimidating are more severe looking. I definitely thought about that kind of thing. Dern has a lot of round edges, and not many jagged shapes, whereas Pierce, who is another robot character, has a face that’s essentially an axe-blade with a lot of sharp edges. I like to design characters so that you get a sense of their personality just by looking at them.

HMS: This story is high-energy, with a lot of crazy elements, but what are the grounding elements that kind of hold the story together?

MD: I think Jim did a really smart thing writing the first issue, since when you’re creating a first issue introducing a new universe, it’s very easy to overwhelm the reader with too much information. I’ve read quite a few comics where you’re coming into a new fantasy world, and it’s just exposition, history, and vocabulary, piled on top of you. I think that approach is a mistake. This comic is grounded because it starts really small, even though it’s a comic that could start in a very big way.

It starts with a main character showing what he does for a living in a localized environment as part of a massive ship. As the story grows, and you get more comfortable with the world, then we can really ramp it up because we already have a solid foundation with the reader.

HMS: I think that creators fall into that over-exposition approach in first issues with good intentions. They get stressed out, worrying they aren’t going to introduce the reader to the information that they will need, but they don’t know how to present it in a concise way.

MD: Yes, you get caught up in the history and the lore of, and you want to bring that to the reader, but the reader does not have to know as much as we do. We can reveal that over time, thankfully. Therefore, when we do get to presenting these big scenes, like gladiatorial combat, people will have enough context to understand them. Rather than showing big scenes off the bat, Jim is confident enough in the characters to let people get to know them, and hopefully fall in love with them, first. Therefore, the reader will care more about those characters and what happens to them during the crazy scenes.

HMS: There can be marketing pressure on creators to fit a lot of big scenes into a first issue, so it’s good to hear that you can do otherwise.

MD: ComiXology have been great to work with. They have never said, “Guys, you have to have huge scenes.” They trust me and they trust Jim to grab readers and hold them in a way that makes sense to the book. So far, I have nothing but great things to say about comiXology and I can’t recommend for creators to work with them enough.

Thanks to Jim Zub and Max Dunbar for chatting with me!

Stone Star #2 arrives on comiXology on Wednesday, April 24th!

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