Monday, February 28, 2011

ADVANCE GIANT-SIZE REVIEW: Skullkickers Vol. 1 TPB: 1000 Opas and a Dead Body

   ADVANCE REVIEW: Skullkickers Vol.1: A Thousand Opas and a Dead Body releases on March 9th.  Pre-order at Amazon and check out more info (podcasts, Skullkickers-related news, other reviews) at the official Skullkickers site.  Pleasantries aside, onto the review!

   In many ways, Skullkickers by Jim Zubkavich and Edwin Huang reminds me of the recent Pak/Van Lente run on Incredible Hercules.  There's the fast-paced buddy-adventure, the ridiculous SFX, the goofy comedy, and a great sense of fun.  That's about where the similarities end though as Skullkickers is definitely its own beast.  Set in a world that will seem familiar to fans of World of Warcraft, the book tells a fun romp of two buddies doing all they can to get by.  A fun gimmick that Zubkavich uses here is to not give either of his protagonists names yet, allowing their actions to define the characters.  It's an experiment that mostly works, but it does make it hard to describe the book in reviews with any consistency.  For the purposes of this review, we're going to call the short, feisty, hairy fella MacDwarf and the tall, pistol-slinging, bald guy Baldy.  I'm just full of creativity today, aren't I?

MacDwarf getting into a row with the
local constabulary.
  To kick off this trade, Zubkavich opts to drop us right in on the action instead of the typical introductory character bit where we meet the cast and find out their backstory.  It's a similar gambit to the one Gillen is attempting to pull off in Generation Hope albeit to mixed success.  Here, it works pretty well.  Right from the opening fight scene where the pair take down a portly werewolf and his followers, we get an immediate impression of who these guys are.  MacDwarf is a headstrong and feisty little Scotsman, ready to pound someone's face in at a moment's notice.  He lusts after food and drink a bit too much, but it's portrayed in the same humorous fashion that Marvel has been using to portray Volstagg's addiction to tasty comestibles in their Thor books.  Baldy is the more reserved of the duo, preferring to think ahead rather than charge right in.  Both are scrappy in a fight, utilizing some rough-and-tumble teamwork to take down their initial foe.  From the first issue on, it's pretty clear that these guys aren't friends with the local authorities and frankly, they just don't care.  All that matters is they get paid.  There's a bit of settling down, and there's a few humorous shenanigans, but the main plot really gets humming along once the region's chancellor shows up, makes fun of the local rabble, then promptly gets assassinated.  So much for him.  A large reward is declared and that's all it takes for Baldy and MacDwarf to go after the mysterious figure.  Ultimately they fail, but not before a rather entertaining breakdown of the effects of your first kill by MacDwarf.  Indeed, as the story goes on, you begin to realize more and more that MacDwarf doesn't just do violence for the job, he does this job for the chance to do violence.  I don't think it would be unfair to say that MacDwarf is the star of the first few issues.

  Moving on, the duo is begrudgingly contracted by the mayor to steal the chancellor's body back from the local constabulary who are refusing to release it.  It's a bit of a head-scratcher here, where the hierarchy of the land seems to be so feudal in nature, that the mayor of a town couldn't get man's body released from the local morgue, but it's a small nitpick.  As it would happen, it's a little more complicated than knocking out a guard and stealing a corpse.  Of course, there have to be tomb raiders and undead monstrosities.  Another fight breaks out, with the pair taking on the raiders and monstrosities.  Inevitably, Baldy and MacDwarf come out on top, but not before one of the aforementioned monstrosities takes the chancellor's body and absconds with it to unknown regions.  Police show up and my favorite part of the whole book begins.

They're going to get their information
one way or another.
  You see, before scramming from the police, MacDwarf and Baldy took a prisoner alive from the tomb raider posse.  Now, in order to get the reward for the dead body, they need to find out the final location of the body.  So, out of all the possible interrogation techniques, what do they go with?  That's right, you guessed it!  The old police favorite: "We are cannibals and we will eat you unless you tell us where they took the rest."  It's an inspired bit of lunacy and is the best example of how these guys aren't really "good guys" in the traditional sense of the term.  I also never thought I'd get to read "Baste him" as a legitimate threat.  It's easy to see that our protagonists are having a blast with the guy, trolling him at every turn.  Even the ending was pitch perfect.  "Hey, should we cut him down?"  "Naaaah"  It's just one of the little things that make this book quite enjoyable.  Huang's very expressive faces do wonders here.  While I was initially put off by his use of dots for eyes over, you know, eyeballs, he actually makes it work quite well for the story.  His use of eyebrows and cheekbones here definitely betray his Korean influences, a nice change of pace from the typical Western art styles (think Bryan Hitch, Ivan Reis, Steve Epting).  He draws everything very energetically and captures motion extremely well.  The only complaint  I have is that his art suffers from rare weak points in inking and linework.  There were only about four to five panels where I noticed it, but it takes you a minute just to figure out what's going on in the panel and momentarily disrupts your immersion.

    Unfortunately, the book stumbles a bit though the middle.  The pair, in need of supplies, half-save/half-rob some travelers who turn out to be sibling poison experts.  The humor attempted here really falls flat once you get past the whole "It's kind of amusing that people are squabbling over proper poisoning procedures" gimmick.  It also paints a mildly conflicting portrait of the characters.  Previously, and after this scene, they only did wrong by those they were hired to do wrong against or if they were first wronged.  However, it seems now they are willing to blindly rob passersby for provisions.  It's very perplexing and gives the characters a bit of a scummy undertone that clashes with their portrayal in the rest of the book.  To kind of rationalize it, I chalked it up to them just messing with the poison siblings. So they leave, bringing obviously (to the reader) poisoned food with them, which leads to a fun scene where MacDwarf absolutely trips balls while his apparently iron constitution works through the poison.  It's possible that Zubkavich is using this to foreshadow some future for the series, but nothing concrete is offered.  All in all it's a fun little sequence that strangely reminded me of the "Whole New World" part of Aladdin except with a high as a kite dwarf possibly conversing with a cosmic entity instead of two Arabian lovers necking on a flying carpet.

Half of the fun with these scenes
is speaking the gibberish out loud
while you read.
   Soon these shenanigans are over and the book gets back to its real strength: frenetic action with a bit of comedy mixed it for good measure.  The duo discovers the castle that is holding the body of the chancellor and stealthily infiltrates the castle only to stumble upon a necromancer engaged in some sort of, well, necromancy ritual.  A fight erupts, resulting in MacDwarf's leg being possessed by a demon and the necromancer's face being broken to prevent him from uttering any more spells.  I love Zub's use of "broken-face speak" and the resulting translations of the gibberish spewing from the necromancer.  This kicks off the ending sequence of the book which is a real adrenaline rush.  In an attempt to break the necromancer's control over his undead hordes, the duo inadvertently unleashes a demon onto the mortal plane.  I won't spoil this part of the book for you as it's an insanely fun read and really the height of both Zub's action scripting and Huang's art.  The arc ends with the duo triumphant over their mystical enemy, and heading to the capital (of what, we're not sure of exactly) to collect their hard-earned reward for saving the town and returning the chancellor's body.  The last two issues are essentially one extended chase/final boss encounter but this definitely plays to the books strengths and never ceases to entertain.  It's a strong finish to the opening arc and one that's got me jonesing for more.  Based on the preview for the next arc in this week's Skullkickers #6, that's going to include evil man-eating plants, sexy faeries, and dangerous elven women.  Can't wait.

  Given this is a TPB, the extra features are a most welcome surprise especially given the title's $9.99 cover price (an excellent tactic adopted by Image to attract folks to new series).  Included are the previously released material in Image's Popgun anthology or as Skullkickers #0 (read for free here) that give the reader an idea of what to expect from the series.  Cover artist Chris Stevens lends his pencils to this introductory tale and he does a fine job.  Should Huang ever have to leave the book, he'd be on the shortlist for potential replacements in my book.  We also get a slew of character designs, another welcome feature that's sorely lacking from most trades today and it's fun to see Zubkavich's thoughts about what he wants each character to be.  Finally, we get a forward by Robin Laws (Bio here) that delves into the comic role-playing game influences.  It's an interesting read to see his view on the comic from his perspective, but it's not particularly memorable.

Click to embiggen my extremely
detailed criticism of some of
Skullkickers' cluttered panels
  Just a finishing note, but while I compared Skullkickers' FX to the wonderful SFX found in Incredible Hercules, that's not quite accurate.  Skullkickers boasts more of what you could say are "action effects" where certain actions are given text, most of the time for a quite humorous effect.  However, the book does overdo it occasionally leading to some very cluttered panels but fortunately, these are few and far between.  The other main criticism I would levy at Skullkickers is that while we've seen how these two work together and how they have a blast doing what they do, their characterization is almost interchangeable at this point apart from fighting styles and physical looks.  I'm willing to overlook it in this initial volume as the story is just beginning and the arc is just so much fun, but I definitely want to see Baldy and MacDwarf develop a bit more distinct personalities as the series goes on and a bit of backstory to flesh them out as people.  See what made them the lovable rascals they are today and whatnot.

All in all, it's a quick read, but one you'll have a big sloppy grin the whole time you read it.  Zubkavich writes with gleeful abandon and Huang draws the heck out of it, bringing his unique Korean-flavored art with him.  There are a few minor flaws so far, but none take much of anything away from the story.  With this in mind, I give Skullkickers Vol 1: A Thousand Opas and a Dead Body an uhhhhhh...

MacDwarf delivers the verdict in the
midst of his poisoned stupor

Disclaimer:  Crakkajamma was provided a comp digital copy of this trade by Jim Zubkavich and Image Comics for review purposes.  This hasn't deterred my desire for a physical copy and I can proudly say mine is pre-ordered and waiting for me on release day (March 9th).  Hopefully, you'll pick up a copy and enjoy it as much as I did!

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