Writer: Peter Goral
Artist: Joseph Schmalke
Letterer: DC Hopkins
Publisher: Scout Comics
WHAT IS IT?
A space opera told through a series of one-shots populated by mystical, mummified cyborgs, wise-cracking, skeletal assassins, and a nice, hefty dose of nostalgia that follows a chase for an all-powerful stone at the heart of a young girl that, in the wrong hands, could very well spell the end of all reality.
Think Star Wars with its tongue planted firmly in-cheek.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Count Draco: Knuckleduster stars the titular Count as he seeks to harness the power of the cryptocrystalline, a stone that has vague, yet weighty, abilities that can be utilized to conquer all of the known galaxy and unlock immortality. The Count is not a good man, however, and he will go to any lengths necessary to claim his prize, facing the likes of his former assassin, Phantom Starkiller, murdering innocents at the local cantina, and dropping undead shock troops from low orbit.
All to eventually attempt to rip the stone from a young girl’s heart. Wholesome stuff.
Goral has an ear for operatic dialogue that doesn’t choke on its own cheese. These are obviously larger-than-life characters that don’t speak like normal people, but they never come across as unbearable to listen to. Their words are simply elevated.
Schmalke’s illustrations and design go a long way to sell the nature of the book. It’s nothing fancy or eye-popping, but it looks like it was taken directly from the 1970s and dropped into the laps of a modern-day audience.
The colors are vivid while appearing soaked into the page, a characteristic trait of the older newsprint comics of the Bronze Age. There are even Ben Day dots to evoke the old four-color process.
Hopkin’s letters do exactly what they need to do, conveying emotion and volume in a silent medium. The onomatopoeias pop, the balloons never obscure the art, and unique characters even have their own balloon shapes. It’s refreshing to see lettering that can be utilitarian without being lifeless.
The characters all have great designs that pay homage to icons of the age being evoked. Count Draco is literally a mummy cyborg magician and you never forget that fact because the design never gets away from the character. No frills, just storytelling.
It’s fun to see a book like this go all-in on the aesthetic of the Bronze Age without trying to be a deconstruction of it. It’s happy to exist as a sort of lost relic and, while it’s not particularly deep or inspired, it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be. It’s a fun throwback piece.
It’s always a treat to see a villain headline a story, and not just an anti-hero. Count Draco is an honest-to-god despot with no altruistic bone in his decrepit body. He has only one goal: to live forever. It’s exciting to see just what he’s willing to do to accomplish that goal.
The page-to-page panel layout isn’t dynamic at all, which sounds like a bad thing on the surface but allows clean, precise storytelling without any sort of frills to potentially confuse readers. There’s a reason Kirby worked on a six-panel grid, and that kind of commitment is on display here.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
The flashback to the Count’s origin is right in the middle of the book and really derails the pacing of the entire narrative. Since this is such a nostalgic piece, it might have served the story better to front-load that information over two pages so that the story can just start and never slow down.
The onomatopoeias are usually implemented well enough, however there are a few instances where the tongue-in-cheek approach to tone bled into the lettering. “Snap,” “Crackle,” and “Pop” might be cute, but when used in succession like that, it sends eyes rolling.
The Star Wars inspiration is almost obnoxiously present. Laser swords, dark lords making promises of power, a helmet that’s just this far removed from Vader’s…it all gets to be a bit much without having anything of substance to back it up or subvert.
It feels like a lot of context is missing from this issue, though that doesn’t exactly mean it’s hard to follow. But, events clearly happened before the story started, and a quick glance reveals that a separate one-shot, Phantom Starkiller #1 was published beforehand.
Using one-shots to tell an ongoing narrative isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be incredibly apparent what order these books are happening in. Even a small editorial note to read Phantom Starkiller before Count Draco would’ve gone a long way.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
Count Draco: Knuckleduster is a light, fun, nostalgic romp into a world where the Bronze Age of Comics never ended. It boasts well-designed characters, warm colors, and a premise that, while familiar to a large degree, never feels boring.
The world this book shows us is one inhabited by a host of characters that pique interest even in this jaded Millennial. I mean, what isn’t cool about cyborg mummies that do magic and fight skeleton assassins with laser swords? Not to mention the undead shock troops with jetpacks, young girls with robot arms, and alien planets that make this world feel lived in, however slight that may be.
This isn’t a book that’s going to change how we see comics. It’s not even an inspired take on science fiction. But it is a book that’s going for an incredibly specific aesthetic and it hits every single note with aplomb. Granted, this may not be enough for people who find comics before 1986 unreadable or those who have had enough of Star Wars, thank you very much, but I think there’s merit to making comics that you yourself would want to read, regardless of if there’s an audience for it. I think it’s rad as hell that Goral, Schmalke, and Hopkins just want to make a cool Star Wars pastiche as if the '70s never died.
I only wished they had explained what that whole “Knuckleduster” thing was about.
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