ADVANCE REVIEW! Skeleton Key Color Special will go on sale Wednesday, May 2, 2012.
Dark Horse is doing the world a favor by bringing back some of the best of the late-’90s black-and-white independent comics boom. First we saw the return of Milk and Cheese in the pages of Dark Horse Presents. And now Skeleton Key.
This is the first issue of Skeleton Key in over a decade, and the first issue in color. Skeleton Key, by British creator Andi Watson, saw its first issue back in 1995, published by Slave Labor Graphics who coincidentally published Milk and Cheese. For those not around back then, the mid-to-late ’90s was a good time for independent black-and-white comics. Along with the familiar titles the shelves where decorated with titles like Strange Attractors, Bone, Akiko and Strangers in Paradise, luring even the most hardcore fanboy away from mainstay superheroes. Skeleton Key ran for 30 issues in the regular series with a few odds and ends published along the way.
The story of Skeleton Key is about a Canadian high school girl Tamsin who finds a magical key that can unlock doors of reality. She teams up with Kitsune, a magical fox girl straight from Japanese mythology, and the two roam about alternate worlds having adventures. The titular Skeleton Key can take them anywhere, and they are eternally popping out in the most peculiar places.
I always loved Skeleton Key. It was lighthearted and fun, well drawn, and had a mirthful storytelling style that I hadn’t seen before. At the time Watson was lumped in with “manga influenced artists,” mainly because of the Kitsune, but his stories and art are unique and derivative of no one but Watson himself. It was the kind of comic that just made you feel better about the world after reading it, a dose of pure fantasy and sunshine.
Getting to read new Skeleton Key stories after so many years Is a pure delight. I was surprised at the art at first, because Watson’s style has changed dramatically. Skeleton Key was always loosely drawn, but now Tamsin has been devolved into a Charlie Brown-style round-headed kid that matches her Billy Batson eyes. In the age of slick, computer-assisted art Watson has gone the other way; he lets his artist’s marks show through and the comic has the feel of a refined sketch. But whatever the style Watson’s art is a joy and damn fun to look at.
This one-short from Dark Horse has the three short stories — Dead Can’t Dance, Room Service, and Lost Property — that originally appeared in Dark Horse Presents #5, 6, and 7. The only new material is a sketchbook from Watson that appears in the back. All three stories are brilliant, and everything I love about Skeleton Key is there.
And while I enjoyed seeing them collected, I have to say this issue would be a poor jumping-on point for new fans. A brief recap of the story and characters would have been appreciated, maybe something as simple as a splash page of Tamslin and Kitsune introducing themselves. Even though I read Skeleton Key before, it has been over ten years and I would have appreciated a refresher as well. I am glad to see a new issue of Skeleton Key on the stands, but it seems like this was a missed chance from Watson and Dark Horse.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.