Skin & Earth #1 is the first part of musician Lights’ latest multimedia project. Paired with a concept album coming out this fall, the comic introduces us to a post-apocalyptic world in which the rich get richer and the poor are left to rot in the ruins of a city on the wrong side of a wall. The first of six issues was released this week, and each issue is meant to be accompanied by a song from the upcoming album.
Lights is no stranger to comics. When she debuted in 2008, she created a comic book bio to introduce herself to the world. She called herself Captain Lights and sold the bio comic, which she wrote and illustrated herself, as merch on her tour. That spun into a 19-part animated video series with MTV. Skin & Earth is different though; it’s a whole new character and environment unconnected to her previous work.
Enaia Jin is the main character in Skin & Earth. We meet her in a classroom at Tempest University, shunned by the other classmates. There’s literally a circle of unclaimed seats around her. We quickly learn that her kind is unwelcome in the Pink Sector, so much so that she’s forced to wear a mask to keep her from contaminating the inhabitants of this rich, healthy, clean part of town. Even the border guard is surprised she was able to get a student visa; they don’t normally let folks come in from the Red Sector unless it’s to work.
En isn’t sick, though. She lives in the ruins of a once-great city, and the Earth is plenty toxic from Tempest’s industrial works (yes, that Tempest — the corporation runs the university, the mines, and the drug dealers, along with everything else) but the Red Sector is still livable. Barely. En, funded by her deceased parents’ wealth, wanted to go to school to study geology and see if she could turn the environment around, rescue it from utter destruction. But it’s hard to manage school when you’re spurned by all your classmates and the cute boy you spent all summer with isn’t returning your calls.
The premise is interesting, if not unique. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are a dime a dozen these days. While En has a special name (“Your name in En Jin? Like… Engine?” the border guard asks her), it’s unclear throughout the whole issue what makes her special, apart from the sheer luck of having enough money to buy her way into university. The world-building is primarily done in En’s internal narration, and the dialogue is pretty awkward at times. In that scene with the border guard, he hits on her while simultaneously insulting her parents, and all En says in response is, “Well, they’re dead, so…”
The second half of the issue flashes back to two weeks before, on the last day that En saw her summer fling, a mysterious guy named Priest. In this part, the writing is a bit stronger; Lights excels at showing the awkardness and bravado of teenagers. Priest, shirtless, tells En that she’s wrong, shoves a cigarette in her mouth when she’s not looking, and then laughs when she coughs. We all knew a jerk like that in high school, who could get away with it because he was pretty.
The art is competent, but not excellent. In particular, faces really fail to express the range of emotions we’ve come to expect from comic book art, and the noses are just downright bad. The splash pages are a little better, situating those human figures in the wider environment, but I want my post-apocalyptic wastelands to look a little more… weird. The Pink District backgrounds are better. The university is all ’70s Brutalist architecture, while the houses are modernist concrete and glass boxes that rich people would definitely think is the height of fashion.
The art is uninspiring, the writing is sub-par, and the moments that do work are the ones that are most focused on the young characters. It feels like a comic made by a teenager. Ultimately, by the end of the issue it’s still unclear what the central conflict is supposed to be. That might be okay for an album, but comics work better with a little more plot. It’s an interesting project, but Skin & Earth fails in the execution.