Unbound Reviews: Skin Horse

Skin Horse, print editionBy Shaenon K. Garrity and Jeffrey C. WellsCouscous Collective, $14.00

Skin Horse is laugh-out-loud funny, in the way that the Marx Brothers were funny: It starts with something that is just barely plausible and then piles up incongruities into a massive, complicated structure built entirely of crazy.

This print edition covers the first year or so of the webcomic, collecting the daily strips in an attractive square format that makes for easy reading. Skin Horse is one of those webcomics that tries to do two things at once—deliver a gag every day and also build up a larger storyline. It succeeds admirably at both, but the collected edition allows the reader to focus more on the longer story and less on individual punchlines.

Skin Horse is a government agency whose job is to provide social services to non-human sapients—animals, zombies, killer robots, and the like that have been endowed, usually in sinister ways, with human intelligence.

The agency is staffed by Unity, a scrappy zombie; Sweetheart, a talking dog; and Tip, the lone human, a psychologist who dresses like a woman. Being a psychologist, Tip likes to solve problems by talking things through and coming to a consensus, while Unity prefers more direct methods, such as tranquilizer darts. Sweetheart plays the role of grownup and mediator.

What makes this book so delightful is the creators' boundless imagination; it is filled with strange creatures, each with its own set of unexpected quirks. In one story arc, Tip goes to the basement of his building because silverfish have stolen his makeup. Apparently exposure to radiation caused the silverfish to become Italian, complete with a full-blown love of opera. Their only problem is that the centipedes keep eating them. The centipedes, in turn, are a monastic society of crafts-arthropods who make furniture and only wish to till the earth, but are prevented from doing so by the death-robots, who in turn are tortured by super-cute cobras… as Tip goes on through the basement he encounters one species after another, each living in a unique and hilarious society of its own. In lesser hands this would be tedious, but Wells and Garrity keep the laughs coming, tossing in some wry commentary on politics and society along the way.

This works because, unlikely as it seems, the dialogue and the interactions are grounded in reality. The main characters interact like any good ensemble cast. Their relationship is developed entirely naturally; they have disagreements, in-jokes, eye-rolling tolerance for each others’ quirks. No matter how crazy the details may be, every character, from a talking zombie head to a helicopter with a human brain, talks and acts in a convincing way. The dialogue and the story never seem contrived.

Garrity’s easygoing style is a good match for Wells’s crazy situations. Her animals are particularly well developed, and she endows each with a unique personality. Her winsome giant rat looks like a character out of Pogo. It’s not easy to draw animals naturally, and it’s even harder to draw a dog holding a latte or a super-cute cobra and make it convincing. Garrity pulls it off, with a simple, cartoony style that at its best (as in her rendering of a giant mutant rat) is reminiscent of the work of Walt Kelly.

Her one weakness, and it’s a serious one, is a tendency to crowd the panels with text. Much of the humor in Skin Horse is verbal, and the dialogue really sparkles, but it also takes up a lot of space on the page. Often the word balloons fill the entire top half of the panel, making it seem overly crowded. This, in turn, makes the comic hard to read; it has a claustrophobic feel.

The print edition is nicely produced and the cover is absolutely beautiful. However, the reproduction is not the best; all the lines have a jagged, poorly computerized look. This is an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise well produced book, but it’s really only obvious up close.

Sometimes one wonders whether it’s worth the trouble to produce a print edition of a webcomic. In this case, the answer is most definitely yes. This square volume, pleasingly designed yet dense with content, is a pleasure to read. The online version of Skin Horse is hosted on Webcomics Nation, which adheres to the centered-elements-floating-in-white-space school of design, with those nasty little social-networking icons placed distractingly under each strip—it’s particularly noticeable in the archives, because strip is black and white but the icons are in color, so the spaces between the strips are more active than they should be. (And yet, the forward and back buttons are placed at the end of the comments area, far, far away from the comic itself.) The book, on the other hand, is designed in an attractive square format with three strips per page; they fit neatly on the page with no extraneous elements to distract the eye.

Skin Horse is densely packed with story and dialogue, which makes it a bit of a slow read, but that’s OK because it’s so much fun. And now I’m caught up with the archives, the webcomic will be one of my regular stops from now on.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy.)

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