Now Is The Start: Skullkickers "1000 Opas and a Dead Body"

Critically acclaimed books are crawling through the comics industry like those little black scarab things in The Mummy (remember those? Ugh) and they’re now amassed into a giant swarm which look to be utterly impenetrable.
Until right now. Because every Friday I’ll be writing about an acclaimed title right here over in T’Vanguard, and I’ll be starting at the very beginning. I’m going to take on a number of books which you’ve been recommended for years, and read their first trade. Is it a good start? Is it worth picking up? What does it suggest about where the book headed after, and should you make what could be the first in a series of investments in the story?
That’s what I hope to be answering for you. Now Is The Start! NITS!
This week I’ll be reviewing the first trade of:

by Jim Zub, Edwin Huang, Misty Coats and Marshall Dillon. 

This is an Image series: the signature book for writer Jim Zub, who was one of the rising stars of 2013. A high-action fantasy with a focus on action-comedy, on the back of the first trade Gail Simone describes the series as ”rowdy” – and that strikes me as about right.

First published in 2012, the first storyline is collected as “1000 Opas and a Dead Body”.
The idea of Skullkickers is that it follows two slightly messy, unorthodox bounty hunters in a high-fantasy world of taverns, zombies, dwarves and magic potions. They’re unnamed, although one is a fierce argumentative ginger dwarf while the other is a big, hulking, methodical human person. Each issue has some kind of half-ridiculous fight scene, punctuated by unusually descriptive sound effects, along with double-dealing and comedic banter between the leads and whoever is being pedantic with them this time round.
This first trade takes a little time to get going, really. The creators need a little time invested before they start to both have a proper understanding of what kind of tone and pitch they’re going in with here. The series started as a throwaway short story in an Image anthology (with a different artist – Chris Stevens) and a much darker tone to it – as a result, this trade opens with a first issue that’s surprisingly bloody, which doesn’t suit Huang’s style.
Issue four of the series is where they start to hit a pace as a creative team, I would say. Issue 3 is where Zub decides what kind of story he wants to tell and where he wants to take it, while issue 4 is the issue where the pair use that to start firing on all cylinders. Until that point, the series struggles a little to establish an identity for itself, although not for the main characters.
You know those episodes of HBO TV shows where the characters are very well-used but the story meanders a little around them, and the only thing keeping your attention is how well acted and defined the characters are? That’s a little similar to the experience of the first few issues of Skullkickers. Zub quickly gets into the characters and makes the most of their unpredictable nature, but in the first few issues he hasn’t quite constructed the stories for them.

At the same time. Huang’s artwork needs a little time to improve. He immediately proves himself distinctive, and expressive –but his sequencing is a little difficult, especially in the first issue. There are a number of panels where he goes in too close to the characters, and his fight scenes are somewhat wonky. The first fight – which is, as I said, more violent than anything else in subsequent issues – goes in close on individual moves and attacks, but each time it does so the reader is disorientated away from an overall view of the fight. As a result, things are incoherent and difficult to follow, and his bulky artistic style is a hindrance to begin with.
What he does immediately get a handle on is the comedy. Skullkickers leans heavily on comedy to offset the violence and cover up some of the twists and betrayals offered by the plot, and Huang proves himself to be highly capable of sight gags and slapstick, in the first instance. Issue two has a scene where one of the Skullkickers slowly sidles away from a crowd who are distracted by a fire (which he sort of caused) which is brilliantly realised by Huang.
And as we reach issues three, four and five, Huang’s artwork only improves in style and presentation. You can also notice colourist Misty Coats improving on the series as it goes along, especially in the way she starts to handle the contrast between night and day. There’s a notable contrast between the scenes set at night (which is where most of the fights take place) and day (where the characters barter for their bounty following the prior night time fight). Coats quickly establishes a style for the series and sticks to it, helping to emphasise the fantastical nature of the setting, and so set this series up as a proper genre title.
The story is a series of silly surprises which wrap themselves up into a nice tight ball by the time issue #5 wraps. You get the definite sense that Zub has a hit-list of things he wants to get into the story early, so he can establish standard tropes of fantasy fiction before setting about subverting them with wild abandon. The more the series starts to lose sight of the narrative and goes off on an extended unexpected tangent, the more enjoyable it becomes.
Because as proved by the final issue here, Zub does have a plan for his story, and isn’t throwing things out there just to be weird or confusing. He has a storyline mapped out, and he does an excellent job of hiding the tight control he has over the narrative. This all feels a lot more chaotic than it is, and by the end of the arc Zub has proved that he can offer high-octane silliness without losing sight of his characters or story.
I thought this opening trade started off somewhat slowly, and a few of the comedy sequences flub lines or fail to land.

But by the time we reach issues three and four, something tangible starts to form out of this series, and things really start to get on track. I’d recommend the first trade of Skullkickers as a result. It’s a bit like a rollercoaster – you have to slowly build up to the top before they can send you pelting breathlessly down the track.

From what I’ve heard, Zub and Huang get more and more confident as the series continues on beyond this, and start taking a few risks – boosting the quality of their comic as they do so. So I’m interested to see what might be coming up next with Skullkickers. Although I wouldn’t personally think it a massive priority to buy the second trade, I’d almost certainly stop to have a look at the second trade if I ever saw it on display at my local comic shop.

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