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THE LAST SKULL

Gritty? check. Dark? check. Worth reading? CHECK

By G.S. Williams, author of The Surprising Life and Death of Diggory Franklin

Jun 29, 2010: I grew up a comic book geek thanks to my Dad’s extensive collection. I get excited about superheroes, but I also have high standards because I’ve read so much. Superheroes in text form are interesting to me because you get to know the interior world of the characters in a different way than a visual comic—you also get to use your own imagination more.

"The Last Skull" has entirely gripping prose that lets you see everything in your imagination vividly. The narrative pulls you along at a break-neck pace, and the action is thrilling every step of the way. It’s gritty and realistic, and there are consequences for every action. The story has no wasted details, everything flows with the plot with necessity.

I read every chapter available in one big gulp back when it was still in Book 1, Origins. It was that enthralling. However, once I came up for air and shook off the tunnel vision of a well-written story, I realized that, while technically superb, the story had its flaws.

The narrative voice, first person from Sue, doesn’t read like a teenage girl. This can be explained somewhat by the fact that her parents were superheroes and trained her to take up the mantle, but still, she feels more like Batman in Year One or the Dark Knight Returns than a teen. However, that was in the original draft of the text, and Robert Rodgers has been making some improvements. I can safely say that throughout Book 2, Being the Hero, the story is incredible.

The story is also in its beginning "origin story" stages—and that’s sometimes the best and hardest part. I always like to see a hero(ine) develop, but it runs the risk of being derivative because every superhero story has an origin. The most obvious comparison on WFG is The Legion of Nothing, in that it has a multi-generational superhero mythology, an underground bunker of equipment, a teen narrator, and the realistic consequences of picking fights.

However, the author takes these standard cliche elements of superheroics and makes them his own, with an engaging story. As Sue/The Skull starts fighting crime and learning more about the world of "masks" the stakes get higher and higher. She makes powerful allies and powerful enemies.

The thing I like best about the story is Robert’s kinetic, vibrant creativity as a writer. Sure, the focused details of Sue’s origins are well done. Sure, the big battle scenes with teams of heroes and villains are epic. But what really impresses me is that the structure, dialogue and characterization of all the masks hints at an entire world and history crawling inside Robert’s authorial brain. The interconnections between characters hint at something as vast as the Marvel or DC universes, and the hints are mostly subtextual.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created most of the Marvel Universe in the first few years of the 1960s, and they’ve been elaborated upon by dozens of writers and artists since. The DC characters go back 80 years with even more creators. But Robert somehow manages to convey a cast and plot just as deep, and he’s one guy.

"The Last Skull" feels like the pinnacle of decades of writing, and makes me wish I could see all the stories in the back of Robert’s head that lead into it and spring from it. It’s a little awe-inspiring. Because of that creative energy, I don’t worry too much about the frantic pace of some scenes, because crisis could be frantic—everything happens FAST but it’s intense, not skipping details but more injecting adrenaline into them. If he had a few decades to sit down and work out the whole thing from the 1890s when the Skulls really began until now, that would be impressive and slightly better paced—but just knowing that all of that gets conveyed in this one story without needing more is a feat in itself.

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