Writing: Joseph Schmalke & Peter Goral, Art: Joseph Schmalke, Colors: Peter Goral, Letters: DC Hopkins, Edits: Shawn French, Design: Rich Woodall, Cover: Joseph Schmalke.
The Black Caravan imprint of Scout Comics has consistently put out titles that rock my world, especially in those that carry a macabre or horrific tone. This week I sat down with their newest release: Count Draco Knuckleduster #1. This title is full of sci-fi wonderfulness pulled straight from early pulp comics that revels in its retro aesthetic and bombastic adventure. However, I had a difficult time finding my footing in this title, with its constant barrage of sci-fi terms rooted in a universe I’m not familiar with. The plot itself is muddled, but can be deciphered by plowing through the heaps of exposition that seem to have context without ever actually addressing it (though a good bit of it seems derivative of Star Wars).
A continuation (of sorts) of Black Caravan’s Phantom Starkiller #1, this book follows the perspective of Count Draco Knuckleduster as he tracks down a girl with a heart of cryptocrystalline so that he may achieve eternal life...I think. As I said, this is all marred by backstory that I feel is just beyond my reach. Draco is a— get this—celestial sorcerer whose body is being maintained through machinery by his master. Through the origin of Count Draco we find out his master initially recruits him by promising him the secrets to beat Death. Yeah...he’s basically Darth Vader. Now, I can deal with this on a surface level, but as the story went on I found myself unable to separate the idea of Star Wars with this book, a plight that was worsened by the eventual laser sword battle that takes place in the latter half of the story. I worry that the previous (differently titled) entries in this universe may offer clarity in the areas I’m mentioning, but I also take issue with this idea. A book that offers itself as #1 should maintain that promise. This title wasn’t a true #1, as it felt that I was ill-equipped in terms of the lore permeating this narrative. I feel Count Draco Knuckleduster #1 failed in its responsibility to welcome new readers; however, please don’t assume I find this title terrible. Its merits will have me backtracking so that I may reread with renewed pleasure.
The color palette and Ben-Day dots harken back to the intrepid sci-fi pulps of the pre-Comics Code variety. Gaudy purples and yellows mix with darker hues to create an exoticism within every spaceship and on every new planet. The inclusion of magic in this title was a surprise as well. The idea strays very close to Jedi territory, but saves itself by relying more on traditional ideas of magic. Draco must drain the life from test subjects to conduct spells, and even has a grimoire (which I don’t think Obi-Wan Kenobi ever had). The character of Phantom Starkiller looks very much like Marvel’s Taskmaster and Skeletor had a love child (there, I said it. I’ve been waiting to write that sentence since I first saw him). This was irksome in the same vein as the rest of the derivative material, but the writing imbues a uniqueness to this universe that momentarily allowed me to quit my critiques and enjoy the story.
Schmalke and Goral’s writing comes from a fully fleshed out idea of what has happened and what will happen. As in, the lore of this universe is planned out. This is very apparent in the confidence of the prose. Schmalke’s art blends well with Goral’s colors to create that old zine feel. The teamwork is stellar here and warrants appreciation, I just wish I was the right person to do so.
Don’t let my negativity deter you. If old school sci-fi zines are your cup o’ tea, then saddle up and go purchase Phantom Starkiller #1 from Scout Comics, available August 11! Now, if you want my opinion, keep reading. . . ok, go pick up Schmalke’s The Electric Black Presents #1, a horror anthology that combines elements of EC’s Tales from the Crypt and Stephen King’s Needful Things. The Electric Black Presents is a wild ride that will satiate your desire for classic style comics horror and can also be picked up from your Local Comic Shop or Scout Comics.