Saturday, July 17, 2004

The Skull Man #1

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Kazuhiko Shimamoto, Shotaro Ishinomori, and Ray Yoshimoto
Published by Tokyopop

A mysterious anti-hero plays a ferocious game of cat-and-mouse with a long-legged rival in the first issue of the The Skull Man.

While seemingly a complete unknown amongst the comic book consumers of the Western World, readers in Japan are no stranger to Skull Man; a hero created by Shotaro Ishinomori in a 3 part special New Year's mini-series in Shonen Magazine over 30 years ago. The dark hero is most well known as being the inspiration for another of Ishinomori's more popular characters; Kamen Rider. Ishinomori approached Kazuhiko Shimamoto in the summer of '97, while both were working on Cyborg 009: The Battle of The Gods, in hopes of passing the torch to Shimamoto in the form of this new limited series.

Those who have no idea who the hell any of the people I just mentioned are, and are likewise ignorant of the American-obscure titles I just mentioned; it's okay, don't be scared. Read on, you're not alone. Those who have no idea who the hell any of the people I just mentioned are, and are likewise ignorant of the American-obscure titles I just mentioned, but you don't want to admit it because you're afraid someone will break down your door and take away your "Obscure Comic Knowledge" badge, and are presently scratching your chin and muttering something like, "Yes, the innovative Ishinomori, of course, Kamen Rider, oh, those were the days..." in order to keep up the facade; keep reading or else I'll call the fuzz. And, if any of you are genuinely well-read in the above-mentioned titles and are impressed with my knowledge of same; stop being impressed. I read it all in the comic. You bastards of Eastern obscurity.

In "How did The Skull Man come back to life?", a short text piece in the back of the issue in which Shimamoto explains how he came to work on this limited series, Shimamoto explains he wanted to render this comic "accessible to first-time readers, yet to be a continuation of the original." Well, being completely ignorant of Ishinomori's work other than the information the notes in The Skull Man #1 provide, I can't speak intelligently about Shimamoto's loyalty to the original concept. However as one of the first-time readers he mentions, it's clear that Shimamoto has given a story with a great deal of promise.

With little dialogue and completely absent of narration, Shimamoto tells us this first story mainly through a simple yet unique style of manga art. The most distinct quality of his art is his ability to give the story the grandiose feel of the metroplotian city comic, while at the same time drawing the reader's attention solely to the main characters. Perhaps my favorite part of this issue is a scene in which Skull Man (in civilian attire) follows a sexy assassin through packed crowds of city-dwellers. While each member of the city's masses is drawn distinct from one another, Shimamoto keeps all but Skull Man and his prey in a light grey (The Skull Man is a black-and-white comic, by the way), leaving the reader to enjoy the chemistry between to two rivals while preserving the urban feel.

Shimamoto claims he has stuck to Ishinomori's 70's design of Skull Man's costume for the most part, and while I've never seen the original design, it's easy to tell this was a good choice. With a big round silver helmet, cape, and a black outfit Skull Man probably stole from a morbid high school band leader, the Japanese anti-hero looks pretty damn silly. Somehow, though, this only adds to the sinister feel of his character. There's something wonderfully twisted about a bubble-headed hero smiling and gloating on a dark rooftop after he's ripped someone's throat out.

While the "less-is-more" technique with the scripting works for a little while, The Skull Man #1 could definitely use more dialogue and/or narration. Like much of what Marvel has been putting out lately, Skull Man breezes by too quickly, though at 35 pages it's much longer than most books Marvel releases. I would hope this particular style won't last past the first issue. Not only does it go by too quickly, but some more information about these characters is needed before the reader can really care about them. While there's nothing wrong with a healthy degree of intrigue, first-time readers like myself still have no idea about the intentions, motivations, or the abilities of this Skull Man.

Still, Skull Man seems promising. While there are some things, stylistically, which could have been improved in the first issue, I'm looking forward to the rest of the limited series and would recommend the first issue over a lot of what you'll find on the shelves these days.

--Mick Martin

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