Bookshelf Reviews: The Skullkickers Kick Some Skulls, and Take Some Opas!!!

Words:  Jim Zub

Pencils:  Edwin Huang

Colors:  Misty Coats

Letters:  Marshall Dillon

Publisher:  Image Comics

Available:  Via Amazon or comiXology, in collected/treasury editions and single-issues

Price:  You can get the first arc from Jim Zub directly for free; the three Treasure Troves are available on comiXology for $24.99 apiece, while hard copies are available on Amazon for $25-35. The original floppies are still around at cons and LCS’s, and typically criminally underpriced.

As promised in yesterday’s EXCITING NEWS RELEASE, today we’re taking a gander at Andy’s bookshelf, specifically at the world’s favorite couple of bungling, beloved ne’er-do-wells, the Skullkickers!

Before Jim Zub was doing his best to single-handedly write both the Marvel Universe AND Wizards of the Coast (ok, I exaggerate…slightly)—before he was even Jim Zub—he was Jim Zubkavich, a guy relatively new to the comics field who’d helped his pal Chris Stevens (original artist; Edwin Huang took over with issue one) submit a couple shorts to Image Comics for the second and third volumes of their Popgun anthology. The first was titled “2 Coppers,” and featured a morally flexible and somewhat impulsive dwarf and his just as morally flexible but mildly less impulsive bald behemoth of a pal, in those early days referred to as “Shorty” and “Baldy” (it was only much later—like, issue 7 and into the second story arc later—that we learned their actual names, Rolf Copperhead and Rex Maraud. On a “wanted” poster).

And thus was legend born.

Described by Zub as his “love letter to Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons & Dragons, and swords and sorcery in general,” Skullkickers tracks the antics of the two aforementioned sellswords as they bash and bungle their way through the multiverse, gathering up a host of interesting friends and foes along the way. They fight fiendish necromancers, sail the seven seas, wrestle gorillas with horns, and confront a would-be world-dominating Cthulhu-like entity, with identity issues. With all the slapstick of the Three Stooges at their height set within the context of a well-fleshed medieval-like sword and sorcery world, the book frankly reads and looks a bit like a session at my group’s weekly gaming Table©…and that’s a very good thing.

From the get-go, Zub flexes his creative juices. As a reader, you get an immediate feel for his love of high fantasy as well as the chaos and hilarity of a tabletop RPG. But that in and of itself isn’t sufficient for a good comic, and thankfully, Zub has the chops as a writer to cover himself. His dialogue flows effortlessly, unencumbered by long diatribes or descriptions. He finds creative and typically humorous methods to convey plot points and issues his characters aren’t…well…savvy enough to present themselves—such as having props talk, in semi-iambic pentameter (and check out the lettering below as further example). He trusts his artist (and rightly so). He plays with story conventions, often turning them directly on their heads, and presents fast action that is at once entertaining and visceral, but also a storytelling technique unto its own, unique for each character. And he is never afraid to take chances, often with outstanding effect.

Par example: At some point in the second collection (not telling you which issue; read for yourself, True Believer!), Shorty bites it on the high seas, while Baldy and a new companion survive.  For the entire next book, the bottom panel of each page follows Shorty’s “story”: drifting in the ocean in the same pose, dead as a doornail as various and sundry sea creatures have their way with his clothing and gear.  Every.  Single.  Page.  It’s easily among the more inventive and hysterical character death bits I’ve ever seen.  And the later negotiation for his revival?  Pure comic genius.

Oh, and let’s not forget the archetypal tavern, the Gizzard. Which is every tavern in every fantasy setting and story, ever. Seriously.

Not too difficult to intuit that Jim Zub is a bit of a tough guy to draw for. I mean, dude has stuff going in every direction. Cripes, every plane of existence! And the reality is, as cool as his ideas were, without a talented and flexible art crew to interpret and portray his ideas, the thing is just a muddled mess. Thankfully, Edwin Huang and Misty Coats came along. Huang’s style is a perfect fit for the book: slightly cartoon-like and manga-infused, with enough realism to keep the target audience (us grown up nerd types) engaged and interested. His action and battle scenes are top notch, and he’s able to infuse the characters—really, not a likeable one among the bunch at a superficial glance—with enough fun and humanity to make them all lovable. Yes, even the ooky Cthulhu creature.

Ok, maybe not him.

Coats’ colors are the perfect accompaniment. She employs a full palette, ranging from bright and cheery pastoral village to seedy and dank dungeons to nausea-inducing outer planes. The hues and shades accentuate Huang’s fun lines and Zub’s at times goofy, at times metaphysical (but usually still goofy) tone perfectly.

And then, there’s the lettering. Oh, my goodness, the lettering! At the Pullbox, we do our best to offer decent shrift to the “unseen” folks involved in comics production—the colorists and the letterers, the “without whom’s.” The folks who tend to be forgotten in the conversation about comics, despite their roles being as important as any other in book production. Well, Marshall Dillon’s work on Skullkickers is a masterclass on what good and creative lettering can do for a book. Offering a bit of a nod to the Batman TV series of the ‘60’s, the sound effects throughout the book are very…well…VERY. Bright, stylized, fun, art in and of themselves—and their content is just hysterical. Zub and Dillon clearly had an absolute blast plotting and evolving the effects, which include your standard “Biff!s,” “Baff!s,” and “Boff!s,” but also feature such descriptive and authentic-sounding gems as “Complete Horrendous Brain Damage!” and “Misplaced Stab!”–and frankly, those are a couple of the less-fun examples. With as much going on as Skullkickers has, the lettering could have frankly been completely plain Jane, and still outstanding. As is, Dillon deserves an academy award (and holy cannoli, am I hoping they work such lettering into the upcoming animated series!).

Gawd, what a fun ride.

And I didn’t even mention some of the cool extras. Like a recipe for Skullkickers Stew and Dungeon Dumplings. RPG stat sheets for Shorty and Baldy. Word searches and paper dolls. The fun is ENDLESS!

At its core, Skullkickers is a great book, featuring fun and loveable (or in several instances, fun to despise) characters in some patently and painfully ridiculous settings and escapades and always eschewing convention (and occasionally, logic) for fun and story. What Skullkickers is beyond that, though, is a group of incredible creators, at the (for the most part) nascent phases of their comics careers. Creators not yet at the zenith of their skill (fer cripe’s sake, look at what any of them have done in the second half of the two-thousand-teens and so far this decade for evidence of that!), but rocketing their way toward it. Read and watch their growth, from “2 Copper Pieces” (for Zub and Dillon) and those first few pages of One Thousand Opas and a Dead Body (for Huang and Coats) through to the end of Infinite Icons of the Endless Epic, and you see the maturation and development of a group of folk having fun, doing what they were meant to do on this earth.

It’s a cool thing to see.

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t own up to having a bit of a personal connection to the book, and offer my own thanks.

Y’see, back in around 2013 or so, I’d been out of comics for a number of years, picking up the occasional trade at Barnes & Noble but otherwise clueless of the industry’s evolution since the halcyon days of my high school years, circa 1988 or so. Then one day, my bud Eric (EIC of this here herd of cats) said “Hey, Andy! Wanna go to a con? My photographer just bailed!” Well, this segued quickly to my first C2E2…where I passed by Jim Zub and Edwin Huang’s table, and their stack of Skullkickers books. I’d given up RPG gaming at about the same time as I gave up comics (at roughly the same time girls entered my life), but had always loved it, and fantasy storytelling of any sort. Curious, I picked one up.

At home that evening, my son heard me laughing, and asked what I was reading. At the time, said kiddo was a major enthusiast of Skyrim and the Elder Scrolls games and loved RPG’s in general, but hadn’t ever played a traditional tabletop RPG. Sensing an opportunity, I told him “Read this. This is what tabletop gaming is. Chaos, anarchy, fun and carnage. And ale.”

The rest, as they say, is history. We now both have our own copies of the Treasure Troves (signed by the aforementioned Zub and Huang), the boy’s got a goodly pile of his own comic and gaming books, and I’ve been running his gang of D&D miscreants for three years now. Our relationship, which was always solid, found a depth I’d never anticipated.

So, you know, thanks guys. I owe you one.

If’n you’re curious, you can find free digital copies of the first arc, One Thousand Opas and a Dead Body, on Skullkickers.com, or Jim Zub’s blog (Jimzub.com). You can find the entire series on comiXology and Amazon, with the really well-done Treasure Troves (seriously—all kinds of fun bonus material, copies of every cover, and gorgeous print quality) selling for anywhere from $25 to $35. Elsewise, you can generally find copies of the floppies at comic stores and cons for anywhere from a buck to several dollars, which should be felony-level burglarizing, if you ask me.

So—get yourself read up, in anticipation of what promises to be a seriously cool cartoon!

Score:  17/13 (Bonus points for the new animated series!)

Review by Andy Patch, Contributing Editor

(With an extra special thanks with super-special thank you sauce to Jim Zub, for providing us the digital files for the actual pages!!!)

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