Writer: Steve Niles
Artist: Chuck BB
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Plot: Secret Skull is the story of Samantha Brooks, a young woman bitten by a soulless ghoul and subsequently granted dreams of future murders. Donning a skull mask and equipped with an assortment of knives, sickles, and other deadly paraphernalia, she prevents these crimes by brutally murdering the murderers—and occasionally drinking all of their blood. In this penultimate chapter, the Secret Skull is confronted by Luther, the peaceful leader of the ghouls of the city, who informs Samantha that she is indeed dead. A grisly stab-fest ensues.
Comments: Since sparking the current “horror renaissance” in 2002 with Thirty Days of Night, Steve Niles has become IDW’s unofficial house horror-writer, with no fewer than five titles (including trades) available in November alone. In addition to Thirty Days’ vampires, Niles has tackled zombies (Remains), cursed towns (Aleister Arcane), legendary monsters (Hyde), and of course, corpse-eating ghouls (Lurkers). This last mini-series joins Secret Skull in inaugurating the “Meednight Pulp” series, in which Niles collaborates with a variety of artists with the stated intention of “bringing all the fun and action of the classic pulp adventures to a modern audience.” If by “modern audiences,” the copy writers at IDW mean those who like their comics both funny and soaked in blood, then Secret Skull certainly fits the bill.
What distinguishes this title from other horror books is the fun it has with the conventions of the superhero genre, specifically with Batman. Our first full-page look at the Skull displays a hideous caped crusader complete with a serial killer’s version of the utility belt. Throughout the mini-series, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and Alan Moore’s Rorschach are never far from the surface. But instead of the serious and complex examination that those characters represent, Niles’ Skull is an over-the-top vigilante who visits a brutal justice on evil-doers with methods that would make Bruce Wayne pale.
Secret Skull #3 brings Samantha face to face with the reality of her situation; namely, that she has been dead for two-and-a-half years. She does not take this news well: In a scene that brings to mind a member of the JLA trying to reign in Batman’s darker instincts, Luther pleads with the Skull, “You must accept your death,” to which she replies, “Not as long as I dream of innocents being murdered.” Coming to terms with one’s postmortem status receives a pop psychology turn later as a ghoul informs Samantha that “the first step is accepting your own death.” Zombie self-improvement is a horror sub-genre whose time has, apparently, come.
Samantha Brooks joins a growing list of Steve Niles’s strong female characters who range from the heroic (Thirty Days’ noble Stella Olemaun) to the less so (Remains’ vengeful Tori). The Secret Skull occupies an ambiguous moral zone in that she kills to prevent the murder of innocents while still clearly reveling in the brutality of her actions. Back in issue #1 she confessed that “[she’s] developed a certain affinity for the sound of a human scream.” At the height of the battle between the ghouls of the city and the Secret Skull in this week’s issue, she gleefully shrieks, “Come on you ugly-ass pussies! Who’s next?” This conflict between noble and base motivations, familiar to readers of superhero comics, receives a refreshing spin here.
The manic violence of this book is created with thin, twitchy energy by newcomer Chuck BB, who has described Secret Skull as being perfect for fans of “stabbing, skulls, comics, blood, and stabbing. ” Early in the issue, after threatening to tear Luther to pieces, the leader of an ambushing graveyard-full of ghouls asks if the Skull is going to do the same to all of them. The response is six pages of hilarious gore as the ghouls get impaled and dismembered by every blade in the Skull’s arsenal. The dynamic lines of BB’s figures are a stark contrast to other Niles collaborators such as Ben Templesmith, and the result is a fast-paced book whose most gruesome moments bring a grin to the reader’s face.
For those fans of superhero comics who are wary of the horror genre, Secret Skull represents a perfect point of entry. With Steve Niles slated to make a foray into DC territory with 2005’s Batman: Gotham County Line, Secret Skull is an encouraging sign that he has something fresh to offer the archetypal costumed crime fighter.
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