This is, hopefully, the last #1 issue of “Skullkickers” ever. I’m getting kind of tired of explaining in each successive review how there’s a running gag of renaming and renumbering each new issue as an industry-parody-slash-sales-gimmick. I think we’ll be okay, though, since this issue wraps up the “Eighty Eyes on an Evil Island” story arc that began with the first of five #1 issues in a row.
To say the story wraps up unexpectedly is an understatement. For four issues, creators Jim Zub and Edwin Huang presented a fun, light-hearted adventure story that pays homage to the tropes of pulp fantasy literature and games. “Dark Skullkickers Dark” reveals that perhaps all those homages and little nods were more than just fun, and actually have meaning in the world of the comic. (The Kickerverse? If that catches on, you heard it here first, folks.)
The whole issue takes place in a tavern at the heart of a mountain, which we usefully learn is actually an archetype of every fantasy tavern, a sort of Platonic ideal of the ale-serving, brawl-hosting common room of an inn that appears in nearly all fantasy tales. The suggestion is that the characters themselves– the hard-drinking dwarf, the wise elf, the stoic fighter– are also no more than expressions of fantasy archetypes, and the comic itself just a remix of every fantasy story we’ve read or played before. Which is all absolutely true, but to have it expressed outright in the comic is a bit jarring. It’s not at the level of Animal Man meeting Grant Morrison, but it’s still a left turn into somewhat serious territory for a comic that was previously very silly.
The end of the “Evil Island” story arc is also a bit jarring. The various plot threads — Rex’s ape army, the spawn of Thool — seem to have just been dropped by the last page, and it’s not clear if they’ll be picked back up again. The apes in particular just kind of disappear at one point and don’t show up again. Hopefully Zub has a plan in mind to make the pieces fit together later, but that’s not the impression the issue gives.
Huang’s art is fantastic as usual, as are the colors, but there is the sense that just a little less attention has been paid to detail than usual. The credits show more inkers and colorists than usual, so it’s possible there was a bit of a rush job art-wise on this issue. The tavern does feature a number of background cameos from famous comic, book, and anime characters, making for a fun spotting game and reinforcing the whole archetype theme.
Overall, the issue isn’t quite as tight as what Zub and Huang usually produce. Ending story arcs can be tricky, and I think Zub is a smart enough writer that there’s probably more going on here than there seems, but it’s hard not to feel a bit let down by what reads as an anticlimax. There are still the trademark descriptive sound effects, and some funny bits with the drunken dwarf, so it’s not all serious meta-narrative. And even if the art isn’t up to Huang’s regular standards, those standards are quite high and the art is still great. With any luck, the next issue will be both a return to form and a non-#1.