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Delivers on the Title by Page Two: Skullkickers #1 [Review]

I make no claims of being an expert on all matters both dungeon and dragon related, but I will proudly admit to having rolled a 20-sided die or two in my time. And one thing that’s been fairly consistent across all the fantasy role-playing games I’ve experienced in my life is certain amount of disconnect between the players and the setting. Because while the rulebooks seem to advocate the activities of for-profit cave exploration and kobold genocide are serious business, the players I gamed with always brought an approach full of smiles, in-jokes and full-bellied inappropriate laughter to go along with the magic missiles and the heads removed by our pole-arms of choice. And it’s that part of me that instantly connects with what’s going in in the premiere issue of “Skullkickers,” a new fantasy action comedy series at Image Comics written by Jim Zubkavich with pencils by Chris Stevens and Edwin Huang and colors by Misty Coats. The comic follows two mercenary adventurers in a fantasy world as their desire for a quick buck inadvertently draws them into a larger mystery of dark magic and political intrigue. As far as the first issue goes, it’s the two leads who set the book apart from the standard fantasy fare, establishing a tone of over-the-top action right from the start, and the energy Stevens and Huang convey through their art is impressive.

“Skullkickers” opens in a way that’s intentionally vague, giving readers a first impression of the characters and the world through action sequences rather than exposition. Little is revealed about the protagonists. Even their names aren’t presented. In his end notes Zubkavich remarks that this is similar to the classic “Man with No Name” of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and that was what the approach reminded me of as well. I’m not sure it works quite as well here, though. Clint Eastwood’s character usually had a convenient nickname there the other characters used even if the audience never knew his real name, and as he was often the sole protagonist there wasn’t as much of a need to distinguish him from anyone else. I think in my case not knowing these characters names put them at a distance for me, made them harder to form a quick initial connection with.

Of course there’s the fact that I’m annoyed about having to discuss them here in the review without the ease of calling them by name, and perhaps I’m not being entirely fair because of that inconvenience. In any case to make things easier going ahead I’ve given them my own temporary names. The human with enormous muscled forearms and a comparatively tiny bald head I will refer to as “Gunmuscle,” due to the fact that despite his tree trunk like limbs his preferred weapon is an entirely non-muscle powered six-shooter. It’s the only piece of advanced technology shown so far in an otherwise medieval/renaissance fantasy society. The dwarf with smaller but proportionally just as muscular arms and a braided red beard I was going to call “Drunkbeard,” but then realized that he’s only shown drinking about twice and opted to go with “Angrybeard” instead since he’s scowling and shouting in almost every panel like a miniature Brian Blessed.

Anyway, Gunmuscle and Angrybeard engage in typical adventuring tasks like killing monsters for money, seeking employment in taverns, and being in the middle of things when a visit to town by an important political official goes horribly wrong. There’s a good dynamic between the two of them, with Gunmuscle being a more genial calm voice of reason and Angrybeard going several steps past the normal stereotype of the drunken hot-headed dwarf and ending up a boisterous red-haired ball of compact impatient violence. They work well as a team, and I’m not only talking about the use of tactical dwarf-tossing.

What I wish was more on display in issue 1 was a better sense of the setting and what’s going on. Aside from Gunmuscle and Angrybeard the world of “Skullkickers” seems to be your standard run-of-the-mill fantasy world. Local authority figures are serious and mostly concerned with keeping people safe from monsters and paying mercenaries to see that this happens. More powerful political figures are of the suspicious mustached variety and may be using the heroes as pawns. And bad guys, in the limited ways they’re shown so far, are of the “Ra Ra Evil!” school of villainy, doing bad either for bad’s sake or to support some kind of as yet unknown arcane conspiracy. I’m not saying that everything about the mystery needs to be revealed in the first issue. But off the top of my head I can name a few recent books also published by Image (“Chew,” “Turf,” and “Morning Glories”) that all gave the reader an excellent introduction to their characters and setting in their first issues while still leaving many questions unanswered to hook readers in for more. In the case of “Skullkickers” I still don’t have a clear sense, from the first issue, of what kind of potential this series could have.

Now that being said there’s nothing here that definitely points to this being a bad series, either. The artwork’s gorgeous, and it’s nice to see it done in a colorful style with exaggerated characters. The interactions between Gunmuscle and Angrybeard are fun, and if their carefree attitude towards combat and monster fighting starts to be shared by other inhabitants of their setting, the world of “Skullkickers” could turn out to be a good place to visit over and over again.

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