June252012

Skin Deep by Kory Bing

Peppered across the internet are a handful of special comics that make the unique and challenging decision to portray stories using non-human (or mostly non-human) characters and worlds.  In my internet travels I’ve affectionately dubbed these gems as “creature comics”.

Skin Deep by Kory Bing is a creature comic of impressive proportion.  Not only does Ms. Bing introduce a monstrous cast (both in size and appearance), she also manages to fuse an entirely fantastical world quite seamlessly with our own.  American folklore, ancient mythology, theology and a splash of Britpop all collide in the world of Skin Deep, where the monsters and myths that pervade human history are not only real, they also listen to The Beatles and wear graphic tees.

Genre:  Comedy/Slice-of-Life/Mystery/Supernatural/Fantasy

Plot:  Skin Deep is, primarily, the story of college freshman Michelle Jocasta and her new set of chums: Merial, Greg, and Jim.  Brought together perhaps by coincidence or design, Michelle’s world is forever changed when she discovers that not only are her new friends actually living, breathing mythical beasts in human disguise, but that she is also one herself!  After a chance encounter with a mysterious hooded figure, Michelle finds a medallion that, according to her friends, can both reveal and conceal her true form, that of a Sphynx, a magical race that has supposedly been extinct for centuries.

Michelle’s life gets more complicated when her newfound identity attracts the attentions of some demons, an angel, and a local bloodthirsty folk-monster to name a few, not to mention the strange and disturbing mystery surrounding Michelle’s long dead father.

Skin Deep is one of those comics with a premise that ought to be cumbersome and convoluted, and yet is executed so well that it leaves me speechless as to how Kory Bing has managed to include so much worldbuilding and character depth within an already complex plot.  While the comic does get off to a rocky start, the first few pages really do show Bing trying to find her voice, the action picks up quickly and we are thrown headfirst into a world that Ms. Bing has obviously spent much time and effort into developing.

One of the first things we learn about is the entire secret society of MYTHOLOGICAL BEASTS living in various locations (called Avalons) all over the world, which acts as a narrative doorway into the second story arc and prequel of the comic which takes place with an entirely different set of characters and separate storyline (with exception of the hilarious and charming Jim Finn, who has become something of a mascot for the comic).

Bing’s writing style eventually fleshes out during the first story arc, and by the time we get to Exchanges (the aforementioned prequel), the dialogue blossoms and takes on a life of its own, each character’s voice is communicated extremely well and Bing’s irreverent and distinct sense of humor shines throughout.  It should also be noted that Bing’s research and thoroughness truly shows in the literal menagerie of creatures that span the comic’s cast, their lives and relationships so well fleshed out that Bing has had to compile what information she can’t fit into the comic into a gargantuan encyclopedia of a wiki.

Warnings:  There’s some minor swearing in Skin Deep, as well as some brief forays into homophobia and heterosexism (the characters at whom this is directed pretty much laugh it off).  The action sequences are not particularly graphic or violent, and there are only minor amounts of blood.  While there are some frightening concepts (demons, monsters, etc.) there’s nothing particularly nightmare inducing in this comic from my perspective (unless relationship drama gives you nightmares, in which case OH NO WATCH OUT)

Art:  Perhaps my favorite thing about reading this comic from the beginning is witnessing Ms. Bing’s mesmerizing growth as an artist.  While the comic has always possessed a strong design sense and a good grasp of color and action, we can see a definite improvement between the art at the beginning of Orientations (the first story arc) and that features in Exchanges and the new chapter, Homecoming.

Ms. Bing’s style starts out with heavy outlines, and a distinct watercolor texture.  While the creature designs are detailed, items like clothing and environments are left somewhat simple and unobtrusive.  And while this older style doesn’t detract from the story, the later evolution of Ms. Bing’s art definitely better suits the intricacies and depth of the world she’s created for us.  In a short amount of time her heavy inks become more streamlined and subtle, her use of proportion and anatomy become substantially more realistic, and her backgrounds blossom with detail and beauty.

The later art sets a wonderful and extremely engrossing tone, which is why I highly urge everyone to read through all of the comic, especially now that it is updating regularly again after a hiatus.  Bing’s art is fantastically individual and stunningly creative, lending itself to the strange designs and distinctly animal features of it’s characters.

Final Recommendation:  Skin Deep is a multi-layered narrative, with a lot to cover and even more supplementary material waiting for those interested.  If you’re looking for a quick easy read you won’t necessarily find it here, but be assured Skin Deep will never bore you.  The story is jam-packed with loveable characters and fascinating creatures, all wrapped around a story that, at it’s core, is about family, love, acceptance, and friendship.  Skin Deep and other creature comics might be an unusual niche for webcomics readers, but it’s one that I heartily invite everyone to meet, and, if you enjoy this comic as much as I do maybe also stick around for tea and biscuits.

Skin Deep is currently around 300 pages, with 2 completed arcs, several short stories, and a current arc that updates every Monday.

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