Since its debut in 2010, Skullkickers has become one of Image’s most consistently entertaining titles. An action-fantasy buddy comedy featuring big bald guy Rex and his plucky dwarf companion Rolf, the series transforms into a grander effort with Skullkickers #14-15 (Image). Parts two and three of the “Six Shooter Of The Seven Seas” storyline, these two issues flash back to Rex’s past to reveal the secret of his golden gun. The only gun in the Skullkickers universe, the story of Rex’s weapon pulls this book in a completely different direction, one that opens up a variety of storytelling possibilities. (There are spoilers coming up, so if you want to be surprised, go buy the Skullkickers Volume 1: Treasure Trove hardcover and the last three issues, then come back here. Or you can start reading the series online.)
Writer Jim Zub begins #14 with an immediate curveball. After an opening splash page of Rex fighting a freshly hatched Thool (a Cthulhu stand-in), the action jumps to 1876 New Mexico, where we meet Rex Maraud: Wild West monster hunter. While hunting Thool, Rex falls under the god-monster’s mind control, and becomes Thool’s avatar of destruction. He’s given a weapon forged from his very soul, a golden gun he uses to take out Thool’s supernatural competition. Zub’s clever, irreverent writing results in one of the chillest interpretations of Cthulhu ever, and he turns the elder god into Rex’s wacky new partner. Sample dialogue: “While you’ve been mashing monsters, I’ve been making eggs. So many eggs, it’s crazy. I’m a hellspawn hen house in here, lemme tell ya.”
When Thool lays its eggs and begins sending them through vortexes into different worlds, Rex rebels against his master and is sent flying through dimensions into the fantasy world where Skullkickers has been previously set. This sudden introduction of multiple worlds opens up the possibility of the series exploring different genres while retaining its signature style and sense of humor. The idea of getting a sci-fi or superhero or romance issue of this book is exciting, and #14 and #15 show how easily the creative team is able to transition into telling a Western.
Edwin Huang’s manga-influenced visuals make an ideal match for Zub’s mix of action and comedy, and Skullkickers is unmatched when it comes to using sound effects to enhance the humor of a scene. A shootout against a god is a lot more fun when accented with sound effects like “SQUISHY KICK!” and “EVEN MORE OMINOUS PORTAL SOUNDS.” This book has gathered a devoted fan base in a short time, thanks to its mix of silliness and ultraviolence, but the developments in these past two issues show that the creative team is ready to make a good series even better.
Chip Kidd makes his comic-book writing debut with Batman: Death by Design (DC), and it makes sense that the two-time Eisner Award-winner for Best Publication Design would craft a story that puts style above substance. Taking inspiration from the demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 and the Manhattan crane collapses in 2008, Kidd’s architectural mystery about faulty building inspections and corrupt city employees is simply a vehicle for Dave Taylor’s Old Hollywood-inspired visuals. This is the black-and-white Batman film that was never made, a conceit that serves as the foundation for Taylor’s glamorous, primarily grayscale artwork. Grace Kelly even stars as Cyndia Syl, Bruce Wayne’s romantic foil who is trying to get him to stop the demolition of the old Wayne Central Station.
As the title would suggest, the selling point of this book is the design, and it’s quite a sleek package. The writing is less polished, and Kidd’s predictable mystery never really finds a strong emotional hook. The metaphor of the decrepit Wayne Central Station as Gotham is nothing groundbreaking, and the late-developing father theme would be stronger if it was present throughout the entire story. The story feels dated but that’s also entirely the point, with Taylor’s artwork emphasizing the period feel in the art-deco architecture and retro costume design. An early two-page spread of Batman gliding through the sweeping Gotham City skyline is an iconic shot that could be sold as a poster. If the story was as stirring as the visuals, Death by Design would be a must-buy.
The comic-book magazine format has proven successful for European comics and manga, but American comics have inexplicably shied away from that publishing model. Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Steve Niles are trying to change that with Creator-Owned Heroes #1 (Image), a new title that combines short stories featuring new characters, with interviews and behind-the-scenes features. The first issue features the debuts of new serialized stories by Gray, Palmiotti, and Niles, interviews with Neil Gaiman and cosplayer Juli Abene (it’s more interesting than it sounds), and short essays from the project’s creators outlining how COH came together and their future goals for the magazine. It’s a much fuller package than other $3.99 comics, and another bold example of how Image is changing the comic-book industry by giving creators complete creative freedom.
The format works, but how are the comics? Pretty damn cool. Steve Niles and Kevin Mellon’s “American Muscle” is a post-apocalyptic thriller starring a ragtag, muscle-car driving cast, living in a world where people are transforming into tumor-covered, mindless killers. It’s certainly unlike anything else on the stands, combining the vehicular thrills of films like Bullitt and The Fast And The Furious with the horror and ensemble cast of The Walking Dead. Niles does solid work setting up the premise and characters with a limited page count, sharing just enough information about the world to pique the readers’ interest without bogging them down with exposition. Kevin Mellon showed a talent for gritty hand-to-hand action on Image’s MMA drama Heart, and the wider scope of Niles’ story is challenging him as an artist and pushing him to new heights. Car chases are some of the hardest sequences to draw, but Mellon is able to create a sense of high-speed movement that increases the intensity of the script.
Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti reteam with their Jonah Hex collaborator Phil Noto for “Trigger Girl 6”, starring a similarly dangerous killer who is a whole lot hotter than old Jonah. Whereas “American Muscle” begins with dynamic action, “Trigger Girl 6” opens with ethereal intimacy, showing the white-haired title character naked in an underwater pod surrounded by fish. Gray and Palmiotti know how to work to Noto’s strengths, and the sensuality of the opening sequence is a strong contrast to the chaos that follows when Trigger Girl 6 is sent on her first mission. Sexy, silent, and deadly, Trigger Girl 6 is a complete mystery, but with Gray and Palmiotti’s track record, she has the potential to be the kind of complex female hero that comics could always use more of.
The cancellation of Secret Six was one of the big casualties of the New 52. While DC is publishing a Suicide Squad book, fans who have been looking for a fun title to fill that villainous superteam void would do better to check out Jeff Parker and Declan Shalvey’s Dark Avengers #175 (Marvel). A rebranding of Thunderbolts to take advantage of the general public knowing who the Avengers are now, this first issue of a new direction is a dense read. Parker catches readers up on the past three years of the title while continuing to expand the book’s scope, introducing a new cast of Thunderbolts to replace the ones that have been lost over the past year. The new recruits are Norman Osborn’s psychotic Dark Avengers, a group that includes the ill-conceived clone of Thor from Civil War, a six-armed Spider-Man named Ai Apaec, and a wannabe Scarlet Witch who goes by Toxie Doxie.
The dynamics of this title shift constantly, and Parker has established this series as one where the status quo is never such for long. The influx of psychopaths in this issue serves as a reminder that this book is about rehabilitating villains, and gives Luke Cage a whole new set of challenges as team leader. Focusing on Cage and Songbird has brought cohesion to the title as it rotates through different iterations of the team, but now Parker’s challenge comes from balancing a cast that is starting to get unwieldy in number. One benefit of having a huge cast of characters is that it gives Declan Shalvey more to draw. Shalvey is an incredibly versatile artist, equally adept at depicting the vicious horror of #175’s opening sequence and the superhero fisticuffs later in the issue. His creative partnership with Parker on Thunderbolts has only increased the quality of his art, and Dark Avengers is a great primer to their work that should send new readers seeking out back issues.
The spirit of Tiny Titans lives on in Superman Family Adventures #1 (DC), the new all-ages series by Art Baltazar and Franco that has essentially the exact same tone as their old book but a smaller cast and a different format. Instead of the comic-strip gag structure of Tiny Titans, Baltazar and Franco opt to tell a single narrative with jokes sprinkled throughout. There are less continuity shout-outs for the older readers, but that’s largely because the lack of obscure characters prevents the humor from getting too tangential. That doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable, telling a delightful story in which Lex Luthor accidentally gains Krypto’s superpowers when he attacks Metropolis. The mostly grown-up cast results in a more polished art style from Baltazar, who is still turning in the industry’s most adorable superhero comic art. Throw in a Tiny Titans cameo every few issues and Superman Family Adventures will be a complete package.
The morbid humor of Dead Like Me meets the repetitive romance of Groundhog Day in Grim Leaper #1 (Image), the latest release from prolific Image-writer Kurtis J. Wiebe. Subtitled “A love story to die for,” the miniseries follows a guy named Lou’s quest for romance as he dies over and over again. Ever since he was decapitated by a truck tire two months ago, Lou’s been cursed to wake up in a new body and keep getting killed. During a routine revival, Lou meets the similarly cursed Ella, beginning a comic courtship where the recurring punch line is the lovers’ deaths. It’s a clever twist on the romance genre, with Aluísio C. Santos’ clean, animated artwork lending a cheerful tone to the surprisingly grisly story. Like Wiebe’s Green Wake and Peter Panzerfaust, there’s a strong central concept that drives Grim Leaper, but this book has potential for real crossover appeal. A blend of horror and romantic comedy, it’s a story that could easily translate to the screen, but unlike Mind The Gap #1, Grim Leaper #1 doesn’t read like a TV pilot. It reads like the first issue of a great comic.
Back in the early ’80s, The New Teen Titans and Uncanny X-Men were the two most popular superhero comics. Both books are remarkably similar; writers Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont have similar plotting strengths and dialogue weaknesses, and both titles featured some of the best artwork from creators that became superstars in the industry. The New Teen Titans Omnibus Vol. 2 (DC) collects two years’ worth of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s seminal run, beginning with the introduction of Brother Blood and culminating in the New Teen Titans’ equivalent of “The Dark Phoenix Saga”: “The Judas Contract.” These issues are Wolfman and Perez at the height of their game, so it’s disappointing to see a complete lack of extras beyond reprinted introductions by Wolfman and Pérez. Marvel consistently outdoes DC when it comes to their omnibus collections, throwing in bonus content to justify the price tag. In 10 years, there will probably be an Absolute New Teen Titans that contains all that supplemental material, making this omnibus obsolete.