I Heart Skull-Crusher is an underdog sports story - with a violent Mad Max twist

Art from I Heart Skullcrusher#1
(Image credit: BOOM! Studios)

The future looks pretty bleak in I Heart Skull-Crusher, the brilliant new post-apocalyptic comic from writer Josie Campbell and artist Alessio Zonno. Published by BOOM! Studios, the five-issue limited series is set in an arid world where water is the only valuable currency and the main form of entertainment is Screaming Pain Ball - a super-violent sport where contestants battle to the death.

Hoping to go Painball-pro is young orphan Trini who has a crush on superstar athlete Skull-Crusher. Her chance arrives unexpectedly when a nearby tournament is announced - but has Trini bitten off more than she can chew? 

With nods to Mad Max and a terrific, kinetic and manga-inspired art style, the series is big, crunchy fun. Newsarama sat down with Josie Campbell to find out more about I Heart Skull-Crusher, the influences that fed into it, and just what perils await young Trini...

Art from I Heart Skullcrusher #1

(Image credit: BOOM! Studios)

Newsarama: I've read I Heart Skull-Crusher #1 and it's wild fun! How would you sum up the story in a few sentences?

Josie Campbell: I Heart Skull-Crusher is the story of a girl with a simple dream… to compete in America's number one blood sport, Screaming Pain Ball, and impress her athletic idol and crush, Skull-Crusher! The five issues follow Trini, a Skull-Crusher super-fan and wannabe Screaming Pain Ball player. So when a giant SPB Tournament is announced, with first prize being a spot on Skull-Crusher's team, Trini takes off across the American Waste to put together a team of underdogs and win the tournament, no matter what!

Who is Trini and why is she so invested in Screaming Pain Ball?

Trini says she's doing all this to gain Skull-Crusher's attention and love! But playing Screaming Pain Ball is one of the only things Trini has ever been good at. She's not great at making friends, people in her hometown think she's crazy, and her parents are two skulls she talks to (not helping the crazy thing). But when she's on the Screaming Pain Ball field, she feels like she belongs, and that she's accepted by her teammates. It's that feeling of belonging, love, and friendship that she's really seeking.

Art from I Heart Skull-Crusher #1

(Image credit: BOOM! Studios)

What sort of obstacles is Trini facing in the series?

Oh man, Trini lives in a world that's basically nothing but obstacles. On the field she's dealing with other players trying to kill her. Off-field, she's dealing with feelings of doubt, her wayward and totally unprofessional team, and the fact that she's in a world where one wrong move means the end.

She's also dealing with the literal obstacles of living in a post-apocalyptic world. Along with surviving the arena, she has to deal with nuclear mutants, acid rain, lack of water, bandits, radiation traps, and team-building exercises. The last is definitely the worst.

And as the series goes on, she'll meet individuals who are against her because they HATE the fact that this poor nobody is competing against rich, connected professional teams. People like the Tyrant Overlords who control all that goes on within their arenas - and Queen Mob, Dread Ruler of the American Waste, who will take a special interest in Trini and her team...

Who are some of the characters that will help her along the way?

"Help" is a strong word, as the people who are helping her win are also some of her biggest obstacles: her teammates! Trini's team is basically the definition of rag-tag. She's kidnapped Coach Blood-Bone, a drunk and retired has-been who is only cooperating because she is holding his alcohol ransom. Heck, her first recruits are bandits who try to rob her! But as the series continues, and Trini builds her team, they'll start to care about Trini and her dreams despite their best intentions.

Art from I Heart Skull-Crusher #1

(Image credit: BOOM! Studios)

What was the genesis of this idea? 

I’m a huge fan of sports stories, from Slam Dunk to The Bad News Bears. Then during lockdown in 2020 I, for obvious reasons, started thinking about the apocalypse. But what captivated me most was how quickly we came to regard earth-shattering events as normal. Within months we transformed this apocalyptic pandemic into something mundane, and while we still feared for our lives, it became background noise to us being bored in our houses. Thinking about a world where the most outlandish, insane apocalyptic things were regarded as normal lead me to create I Heart Skull-Crusher, and the rules of Screaming Pain Ball. The story took off from there. 

How did you come to work with Alessio Zonno on the book?

Our wonderful editor Dafna actually knew Alessio from work he did on Power Rangers. When we were looking for an artist and co-creator for the series, she showed me his pages. It was like love at first sight; I adored his manga-style drawings, and I was over the moon about how he drew and laid out his action sequences. Then we got on the same email chain and realized we were both massive anime and manga nerds. We started sharing "FLCL" and "Akira" references to the point where I just started describing sequences as "hey you know the Ginyu Force? Like that!" and instantly we'd be on the same page. It has been a wonderful collaboration, and we're just getting started. It's like Alessio and I share the same brain - any reference I make, or idea I have, Alessio is already on top of it, making it a thousand times better.

Art from I Heart Skull-Crusher #1

(Image credit: BOOM! Studios)

What were some of your influences when you were coming up with this book?

I think someone called this "sports Furiosa" and they're not wrong! Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is a massive influence on the book, as is my favorite post-apocalyptic movie, Blood of Heroes. I also mentioned Bad News Bears, one of the greatest sports underdog stories in my opinion.

I don't think it'll shock anyone to know that sports manga and anime were huge influences! I mentioned Slam Dunk (one of my favorite series of all time) but we're also pulling references from all of our favorite manga and anime: the tournament-oriented Dragon Ball Z, FLCL, Prince of Tennis, Gurren Lagan, Desert Punk, etc. Basically I wanted to create a world as hardscrabble as Mad Max, with the heart of a rousing sports story, and the visual boldness of manga. The end result was I Heart Skull-Crusher!

Is the world of I Heart Skull-Crusher one that you'd like to revisit when this story is done? 

Absolutely - and in fact, I've got much more story planned after these first five issues that I'm dying to get to. I'd love to keep bringing this series and characters to readers, and I hope they enjoy reading the first issues as much as we enjoyed making them.

I Heart Skull-Crusher #1 is published by BOOM! Studios on March 13.

Looking for something to read before I Heart Skull-Crusher starts? Check out our list of the 10 best manga of 2023.

Will Salmon
Comics Editor

Will Salmon is the Comics Editor for GamesRadar/Newsarama. He has been writing about comics, film, TV, and music for more than 15 years, which is quite a long time if you stop and think about it. At Future he has previously launched scary movie magazine Horrorville, relaunched Comic Heroes, and has written for every issue of SFX magazine for over a decade. He sometimes feels very old, like Guy Pearce in Prometheus. His music writing has appeared in The Quietus, MOJO, Electronic Sound, Clash, and loads of other places and he runs the micro-label Modern Aviation, which puts out experimental music on cassette tape.