23 December 2004

Review: Secret Skull #1-4

Steve Niles' Secret Skull mini-series starts off strong, jumping from a quick dream sequence featuring a cemetery zombie attack in broad daylight to a Batman-like vigilante in a skull mask tracking a gang of thugs through the night, one of whom it somehow knows will kill an innocent girl the next day. Except he won't get the chance as the Secret Skull executes a violent pre-emptive strike, leaving the thug's head on a pike in an alley along with the sliced-and-diced corpses of his cohorts.

For the past two and a half years, the Secret Skull has been at work, targeting only scumbags and most cops don't seem to mind its work. Except for the grizzled, by-the-book, old-timer, Captain William Brooks: "When we allow a crazed murderer to become a hero, it is truly a sad day for the world."

At the end of the issue, when a group of zombies descends on the Brooks home "looking for the one who escaped the hand of death," the assumption - incorrect, of course - is that they're talking about the Captain.

Secret Skull is the first title under Niles' Meeednight Pulp imprint at IDW and his opening chapter, along with Chuck BB's crunchy artwork, admiraby apes the hard-boiled pulp genre while seamlessly working in the horror angle he's so well-known for. As the story moves on, and the truth about the Secret Skull becomes clearer, things shift a bit as the pulp takes a step into background and we get a glimpse of a larger world where the undead gather in the city's sewers to decide what to do about one of their own who is seemingly unaware that they've passed on and is jeopardizing the very existence of them all.

When confronted with the truth, and the possible solution to its dilemma, the Secret Skull leaps into action and the story's climax comes quickly, predictably even, though satisfying nevertheless.

Briskly-paced and solidly plotted (though padded a bit in the third issue with a virtually wordless, seven-page fight scene!?!) and, in typical IDW fashion, beautifully-packaged over its pricey four-issue run, Niles has crafted an engaging character and story that ultimately does justice to both the pulp and horror genres. Secret Skull manages to stand on its own while hinting at a larger story thanks to a couple of major plot threads left dangling - European ghouls? the biter? why was the Secret Skull a threat to the undead's future existence? - and the classic horror genre staple on the last page that absolutely screams sequel.

I'm looking forward to Secret Skull: Season 2.

Secret Skull #1-4 (IDW, $3.99/ea); Story by Steve Niles, Art by Chuck BB.

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