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December 13, 2011

Op-Ed: Violently Young: Writing Skullkickers


With each issue of Skullkickers, the action-comedy fantasy comic series I write and cocreated, I skirt a very thin edge. Skullkickers is an unabashedly violent adventure series with minimal morals but lots of goofy bloodletting and high jinks. It’s also rated for readers age 12+. You can imaginge those two elements—content and age rating—sometimes have a hard time seeing eye to eye. Why did we put together a series like that and how do we maintain a balance between black-hearted humor and young-adult-friendly material?

First off, as much as parents would love for every story a young adult reads to be filled with uplifting, kind-hearted tales of the highest moral fortitude, that’s not what those teens actually want to read. The whole concept of “young adult” should have most of its emphasis on adult. Young adults want to be considered adults without the “young” part attached. They want to discover and understand the adult world and what it means to be in it. Their parents may not want that for them yet, but they do and they’re smart enough to get that content by hook or by crook.
Skullkickers, in that context, is a fantasy comic that young adults actually want to read. It’s humorous and fast-paced. The main characters, a burly human warrior armed with a six-shooter pistol and a pint-sized axe-wielding dwarf, break rules, cause trouble, and are selfish far more than they’re helpful or friendly. They gleefully stomp on standard story heroism and defy story expectations. They’re rebellious and a bit stupid. Readers get to enjoy watching them bulldoze through problems and also chuckle when they miss the obvious. As a young adult, it has wish-fulfillment written all over it.
In terms of the violence, Skullkickers pushes a more cartoonish approach to keep its rating intact. There’s blood and hacked limbs, but it’s purposefully over the top - so ludicrous that readers laugh rather than feel genuine disgust. A vibrant color palette and exaggerated expressions make it feel more like an animated cartoon than an R-rated gore-fest. Sometimes we push things right to that limit, but we’ve been able to teeter on that edge without falling over so far.

The other trait that keeps us solidly grounded with a teen rating is a strange facet of North American culture. Sexual content of any kind gets vaulted to an adult rating, while violence is treated far more nonchalantly. Essays could be written on this subject but, in short, killing is okay but biological reproduction is a no-no. Simple but true. Skullkickers keeps its focus solidly on mercenary monster mashing and our rating is secure.
A couple months after our first issue came out, I was attending a comic convention in New York when a 15-year-old boy rushed our table and loudly announced that “Skullkickers is the greatest comic ever!” While his mother’s eyes rolled in embarrassment I knew, then and there, that we were doing it right. Tapping into the same energy and intensity I had at that age is exactly what the series is all about.