Friday, June 26, 2015

Webcomic Review: Skin Deep

There are only a handful of webcomics that I tried out nearly six years ago when I got into the medium that I'm still following now, both due to me becoming bored of them and due to the comics actually finishing. Skin Deep is one of those rare titles although I remember that not because I had an immediate, deep connection with it (although the characters are also college freshman!) but because I remember getting a pop-up malware ad on the site and panicking quite throughly in my freshman dorm room (I think I went so far as to take the battery out of my laptop to make sure nothing was going in the background). Fortunately this didn't color my experience reading the comic or make me resentful, but I am glad that these days the majority of ads I see on webcomics are ads for other comics which are 100% less likely to give me malware.

Skin Deep by Kory Bing

Now, part of the reason that this comic has actually been running for over six years is that it has a rather large cast but I hesitate to call it an ensemble-cast style comic. The comic has started to put more characters in the spotlight role in the past few years but we have yet to see a character from one of these "side" stories appear as a main character again in another comic, Michelle seems to be pretty firmly holding onto the "lead character" position and this current arc seems to prove that all of the stories will eventually lead back to her. Michelle is a pretty typical main character made up of a lot of traits that remind me slightly more of young adult novels than comics, even though as a college freshman she would be on the older side for those books. Regardless, Michelle leaves for college, makes some new friends through her roommate, and then promptly turns into a Grecian-style sphinx and finds out that her new friends are also connected to this strange, "all myths are true" world of creatures and monsters. She is completely unhappy about changing species with all of it's new challenges and she's also dismayed to find out that sphinxes haven't been seen for centuries so she's attracting even more of the attention she just doesn't want to have.

That line about Michelle shape-shifting probably raised a few eyebrows and made people wonder "is this a furry or anthro comic?" and my honest answer is that I'm not sure since I'm not sure what classifies a comic as such. From my point of view, it's a comic with a huge range of magical creatures in it, drawn by an artist with a lot of creativity and skill in designing them (some are created by SfĂ© R Monster of Eth's Skin) and I don't come across many stories these days (in comic form, in novels, in anime etc) that have a lot of creatures in them so it's a treat since I like those stories! I'm not sure why so many people have such suspicious views of furry/anthro stories in the first place so I'm not sure what to say to alleviate those fears, except maybe by reassuring everyone it's not porn but somehow I don't think that's the issue. 

In any case, after that first major reveal Michelle's problems only seem to multiply as she discovers that sphinxes are incredibly rare, to the point that they are considered extinct, demons are after her, and that her long-dead father seems to be mixed up in this mess as well so her often-grouchy behavior is immensely understandable. I do want to applaud the comic for having Michelle admit all of this to her mom very early on, family presence something that's rare in fantasy and young-adult-goes-to-college, there have been a lot of different families involved in the comic so far and seeing the grounding they provide in an otherwise fantastical setting has really made the series work for me. Bing also manages to capture very natural sounding dialogue very well and make each character's frustration, exasperation, and joy sound distinctly different through speech along, although hopefully the characters won't be so crabby for the entire run.

While I am a big fan of the comic, especially with it's last few chapters, there is a rather obvious problem with it and that is that the comic is eleven years old and is still in it's "beginning" stages. I could be wrong and the story could be in a middle arc by now but, given how Michelle still doesn't have a grasp on her new world yet and is left more confused and panicky by it I think we have a ways to go. Part of the reason it seems to be moving so slow (I think) is because it has so many side stories which aren't special updates but rather are part of the normal update schedule. Looking back through the series I can see how everything ties in a bit better (like that the Halloween story had to happen for the "Dogpatch" one) but it feels like these stories build character relationships well while half-ignoring the plot and yet, this feels like a plot driven comic. As I said in the beginning, I view Michelle as the "lead" in this story and her story starts out very much as a plot-driven, "X has happened so I need to do Y" sort of tale and perhaps another reader views this totally differently and doesn't have this problem at all! I do however and think this is a good example of how you can have a great comic but that it's hampered a bit by updating only once a week. Due to this broken-up nature of stories this is a comic where you can theoretically come back every now and then and easily catch up in chunks, and I'll admit that I'm not worried about Bing dropping the comic anytime soon given just how long and consistent her schedule has been. But, having a story where the pacing doesn't match the updates is a flaw, just like say having a middle grade series that takes so long that the readers aren't in middle school anymore is also a problem.

Given the eleven year runtime of this comic, and it's not showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon, I do need to warn new readers that there is a dramatic art shift from the very basic paneling and shading of the first few comics to the bombastic colors and improved flow of more recent ones (plus a change in page size AND in medium from partially-traditional to all-digital). With that in mind, and I know that the combination of the original art and semi-stilted writing can be a bit tough to get through (it really does get better even part of the way through "Orientations" on both fronts), if you're interested in the series but finding the early bits hard I would actually stop and try out another, later story to see if that can grab your attention instead before going back to the beginning. "Handshakes" is a three chapter long story that works pretty well in this capacity and has a character who may eventually become a second "lead" character since there are almost as many mysteries in Tony's life as there are with Michelle's. You may be able to jump in at an even later story for some crazy reason, "Dogpatch" is your best bet there, but otherwise I would say stick to those two for starting the story and that the rest is best read in order of publication. Bing has also published several volumes of the main storyline in print and ebook form as well so any potential reader is all set to dive right in! 

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