When you begin to read Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy, it may seem familiar. A small boy is a witness to his parents’ deaths by a mugger on the street, after all. Soon though, the hero that comes from the shadows changes everything by brutally murdering the assailant and then leaving the boy behind. From the minds of Jeff Lemire and Tonci Zonjic is a new antihero story set in the world of Black Hammer.
As Lemire told us here at AIPT, this series is his “love letter to Frank Miller.” That’s an exciting prospect especially with a street-level hero such as Skulldigger. I dove into this book ready for a comic book experience like no other and I was thankfully quite satisfied with what I found. I’m not a Black Hammer expert by any means, but this was an easy book to get into. Told via some inspiring layout design and use of captions, the very first page reveals a boy loses his family via slices of moments. The boy’s eyes, the gun, the man’s eyes, and finally the carnage underneath. I immediately noticed the shirt the assailant was wearing is a mix of colors similar to the title on the cover and I realized the depth of character exploration is going to be excellent here. Soon we’re off to a Skulldigger introduction and he’s brutal in his violent approach. He practically isn’t a hero and more akin to the Punisher. The world is a scary place though and if it needs a hero like this–similar to Miller’s heroes–then so be it.
Soon the comic swings to an sanitized look at the boy as he awaits questioning from the police. His life is forever changed and his flat expression suggests he’s a new person entirely. As the story carries forward we meet a colorful (literally and figuratively) villain and a good cop who wants to get Skulldigger thrown in jail. The use of space with the panels continues to do great work — one page with a white background and panels growing smaller from left to right and the next a black background as the panels grow from large to small again. These long slivered panels convey a sense of approach and progression for the boy that’s hard to miss. The visual storytelling style via panel work is unmistakably interesting.
The art by Tonci Zonjic with letters by Steve Wands adds to the finality and almost clinical nature of the story. Close-ups of eyes, Skulldigger’s expressionless mask, and the use of space in panels help convey a coldness that this story is clearly conveying. There is no justice in a child losing their parents to a brutal murder and at the same time, there seems to be no justice in Skulldigger’s life either. How will a small boy who is most clearly still reeling from his parents’ deaths affect this hero and vice versa? It’s an interesting start that’ll be exciting to explore.
More than once I pondered the tropes in play in this story and how they didn’t quite feel rehashed, but almost so. There are a few at work here and I’m on the edge of my seat to see how they continue to evolve and change or how they might fall back to the stereotypes we’ve seen before.
As a first issue, I’m intrigued. This series offers a familiar story, but it’s how it is being told that makes it feel fresh and new. The visual storytelling simply by panel placement is unmistakable and I can’t wait to see how it continues to evolve and change the meaning of the story within its panels.