Community Spotlight - Skeleton Crew Comic

Popular comic artist Mike features in this Spotlight, telling us all the good stuff about Skeleton Crew!

Aside from being constantly put forward for the proverbial chopping block, the skeletons of Sea of Thieves have (had?) lives outside the game just like the rest of us, at least according to Skeleton Crew comic. This lighthearted series of webcomics has grown in popularity within the community since it debuted earlier this year, tacking life's greatest mystery: just what do skeletons get up to when players put down their blunderbusses and cutlasses and call it a night?

The comic's creator Mike has done an amazing job of exploring this through countless jokes and references, so we caught up with him to find out more about the comics' origins and how he creates them!

The latest in the Skeleton Crew comic chronicle - who else understands this reference?

[Q]: Can you tell us a little bit about what got you into gaming?

[A]: My dad is a lover of gadgets, and one of my earliest memories was playing on a knockoff 3-in-1 Pong console on a tiny black-and-white TV. He brought home a C64 one day (ostensibly for 'work') and that was the beginning of a life of gaming. Ghostbusters, Hunter Patrol, Purple Turtles... ah, memories. My twin brother and I have been gamers ever since – I prefer consoles, but he's a PC user first and foremost.

[Q]: Were you a Rare fan before Sea of Thieves?

[A]: I missed most of Rare's 8-bit era (we had an Amiga 500 rather than consoles, at least until the mid-'90s), but then I got a SNES and that hooked me on consoles. Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct really left an impression. When KI was released, my brother and I claimed half the roster each to play with and memorised all the combos. He can still kick my backside with Jago, more than 20 years on. The N64 era was a golden period for Rare games and defined my college years.

[Q]: Do you have any favourite Rare games?

[A]: Like a lot of people my age, I have a special place in my heart for GoldenEye. I was in college at the time and my friends and I skipped more than a few afternoon lectures after going home at lunchtime for "a couple of rounds". Banjo-Kazooie is also a personal favourite, which I've completed many times on various consoles. My daughter's learning to play that too, so I'm passing the Rare love on!

[Q]: What other games are you currently playing? Any favourites?

[A]: I don't have much spare time for games at the moment (other than Sea of Thieves, naturally), but I'm enjoying playing Pokémon Let's Go Pikachu! co-op on the Nintendo Switch with my five-year-old daughter. We make sure to carve out some time every week for that. She gets really into the battles and is picking up the strategy side of things too, which is wonderful to see.

[Q]: What was it that first drew you towards Sea of Thieves and its community?

[A]: Though I didn't try the Beta, I kept an eye on Sea of Thieves before launch thinking that it sounded like a nice change of pace from my previous staple, Overwatch. I picked it up on day one and was blown away by the art style – it's just so pretty, especially in 4K and HDR. I'd never played anything like it, and the moments of calm (punctuated with blind panic when a 'splodeyboy or Kraken emerges) make it the ideal way to unwind at the end of a long day. Being able to play co-operatively with my wife in the same room is a huge plus – I use the Xbox One X, while she plays on a Surface Book 2. Sea of Thieves is just our speed.

Judging by that smile, we reckon Mike's pirate probably has a great sense of humour too!

[Q]: The Skeleton Crew comic hasn't been going for that long but is already receiving a lot of love from the community. What made you want to start up the series, and pick the skeletons as your 'heroes'?

[A]: The first comic was based on a meandering thought after an encounter with an overzealous cannoneer skelly on Crook's Hollow. Our ship was nowhere near the island, but he insisted on using us for target practice anyway. I wondered what would happen if the skellies ever ran out of ammo... and what they got up to when no players were around.

Initially, I'd only planned to draw the first comic as a one-off but the reception it got on Reddit and the Sea of Thieves Forums was surprising. More ideas kept cropping up and after another couple of strips, I figured I'd stop fighting it and make Skeleton Crew a thing. The community has been so supportive of the strip; when people tell me they've started screaming "CARRLLLLL" at the cannoneers, it really makes my day.

[Q]: So far, the comics cover a range of in-jokes related to something happening inside or even outside the game, for example the release notes comic. How do you figure out which topic each strip will cover?

[A]: Most of the strips are based on things I've seen during a Voyage with my crew (like the beached Skelly Galleon), or ideas that have spun out of that. I just pick whichever one is funniest to me at the time and keep the others in reserve. I also watch the release notes and upcoming content announcements; if a gag suggests itself, I'll try to get a comic done as close to release as possible, while it's still relevant. The best jokes come from taking a relatively normal situation and just skewing it a little – seeing things from a different point of view or taking events to absurd conclusions. 

Some gaming webcomics end up pillorying the titles they reference, but Skeleton Crew is never mean-spirited towards its source material – that's a line I don't want to cross.

[Q]: What process do you go through when putting together a new comic? Take us through how you get from concept to publishing it online!

[A]: When I get an idea, it gets turned over in my head for a few days to explore different ways that the pacing and dialogue could work. The gag gets run past my wife who usually suggests changes that make it even better. 

When the idea has solidified, I open Clip Studio Paint on the iPad and set up the comic from a handy layout template. I fill the dialogue in first, so I know how much space there is for the art. I do layouts with a thick brush so I don't get bogged down in the details, focusing on staging and posing to make sure the strip flows clearly. Loose layouts also allow for spontaneity in the inking, which keeps things interesting. I change the layouts to blue lines and ink on a separate layer.

When the line art is done, I add the colours on another layer. Backgrounds come next – the Sea of Thieves art style lends itself to some lovely vistas, and some elements can be shared across panels (although I try to avoid copy-and-pasting too much, as it stands out a mile and just feels lazy). The final step is any special effects, like lighting, glowing eyes, fire or waves. When the strip's done it gets imported into a special Affinity Designer file, which resizes the artwork into the different layouts for social media, Reddit and the Skeleton Crew website.

It takes about five to seven hours to make a strip from start to finish, and the vast majority of that time is spent using the iPad.

And here's that release notes comic we mentioned. Meta.

[Q]: Any hints you could give us about what's planned for upcoming instalments? Where do you want to take the comic series in the long term?

[A]: When a new comic goes up, I always get comments like "you should do a comic about x", "oh, what about y, do something about that!", and some of the suggestions are so good! There are a few I plan on using but I'm still refining the ideas. I want to revisit Bob, the one-armed skeleton mentioned in the first strip, but not until there's a gag that justifies it. Generally, I don't plan too far ahead, and often an idea I'm working on gets bumped to a later strip when I think of a better – or more timely – joke. The comic with the skeletons chasing the pirate off the island was the second strip that was scripted, but the seventh one drawn.

Long-term I'd love to do a print collection, but that requires at least a hundred comics... which, at my current fortnightly update schedule, will take about three years. Get your pre-orders in now, folks!

[Q]: Are you much of an artist outside your Skeleton Crew comic work?

[A]: I'm what you'd call a lapsed artist. I desperately wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up and drew every day, at least until I reached university. I worked on newspaper-style comic strips (the same format as Skeleton Crew) as well as longer comic book stories. When I began a full-time job and started a family, I stopped having as much time to spend scribbling, but thanks to the skellies I'm finding my way back to it. I'm writing an all-ages graphic novel at the moment – it's kind of like Tintin meets Hellboy - so that's going to be my next comic project (alongside Skeleton Crew, which I hope to keep going for a good while yet).

I guess I still want to be a cartoonist when I grow up.

[Q]: If you had to pick one Sea of Thieves character to base a new webcomic series on, who would it be and why?

[A]: Seeing Briggsy's story through the Tall Tales made me want to see some more of her exploits when she was younger, back when she was mortal. Overconfident, inexperienced, in way over her head – lots of potential there. Or maybe a short run of Gold Hoarder comics, showing his softer side. I can picture him being a dedicated bonsai gardener.

[Q]: Thinking back, are there any standout moments for you in Sea of Thieves since you started playing it?

[A]: Finally beating Briggsy on our third attempt. Dropping the Gold Hoarder after hours of dodging traps and frantic crowd control, desperately searching for food in every last barrel in the vault. Winning our first ship-to-ship battle. Nabbing a Reaper's Chest from some poor unsuspecting souls who had no idea where to turn it in. Any PVP encounter where I come out alive on the other side (I am really bad at PVP). Every session brings a new standout moment, which is why it's my favourite game. 

Still hunting that Shrouded Ghost, though.

[Q]: What are your favourite new additions to the game since the Anniversary Update launched?

[A]: Definitely Tall Tales – they got my wife and one of my oldest friends interested in the game, and now we try and get a couple of Brigantine sessions in a week. Most of the time it's just Message in a Bottle quests and Reaper's Chests, but we enjoy sharing the experience, even if that experience routinely devolves into upending virtual buckets of sick on each other.

Mike, like the professional he is, enjoys spending time getting to really understand the subjects of his work.

[Q]: What is your greatest achievement in a game, Sea of Thieves or otherwise?

[A]: Finally getting 100% in Blast Corps on the N64! The Pac-Man levels were a swine.

[Q]: If you had to choose a pirate and ship name, what would they be?

[A]: I'd be Bosun Bobbin Seaward of the Sudden Narwhal. There aren't enough sudden narwhals in this world.

[Q]: What kind of other hobbies do you enjoy outside of gaming?

[A]: Writing and drawing are becoming bigger parts of my free time again, and at weekends I enjoy getting outdoors with my family. I also try to program my own games from time to time, and I do a lot of freelance design and development stuff. When it all gets too much I veg out on the sofa with my wife and watch rubbish on Netflix.

[Q]: Share a fun fact about yourself. Anything is fair game!

[A]: I am the inventor of the Underwater Shower (for sweaty divers).

And that concludes this latest Community Spotlight! Thank you kindly for taking the time to chat to us, Mike. With Sea of Thieves constantly evolving and changing, we're sure there'll be plenty more material for Skeleton Crew comic to continue its comedic crusade, and we can't wait to see what's next!

That’s us for now, but you can catch up on our previous Community Spotlight articles in case you missed any. We’ll be back again soon to catch up with another member of the community, so until then, keep up to date on all the good stuff via our social and community channels.