By Jason Karlson
“All over folklore and mythology you find dragons, sea serpents and ghosts. Nessie, Mermaids, bigfoot, The chupacabra. Did you think people just made those up for fun?”
Shy college freshman Michelle Jocasta is away from home and out on her own for the first time. Quickly becoming fast friends with some unusual residents of her dorm, the unfeasibly tall and green haired Jim, the perpetually sullen Greg and bubbly roommate Merial. Settling into a routine of study, deadlines and essays it’s an encounter with a mysterious hooded figure that changes her life in more dramatic ways as she is thrust into a world she never knew existed, one which is hidden between the cracks of our world, or more often in plain sight. One filled with magic and danger, hidden cities, punk rock pegasuses and rockabilly wolves. With medallions and ‘super advanced magic’ the magical citizens of Skin Deep stay hidden amongst humans. Even within this strange world Michelle is still unique, discovering her ‘turning’ has revealed her to be the last of the sphinxes, a race that along with dragons were once believed to be extinct.
Visually wonderful and filled with fascinating characters and backdrops, Bing’s sense of wonder and love of mythology is clear in every panel as she populates her world with creatures and drawn from every corner of fantasy, and a wide rang of mythologies, reveling in the unique and the obscure. It shows an astounding amount of research and appreciation of the subject as Skin Deep has so far featured a whole bestiaries worth of mythical beasts ranging from well known ones; your dragons, satyrs and centaurs to the more esoteric such as totem animals of the Native American and African myths or harpies from classical Greek legends. Some such as the creepy yet lovable bugbear Alex, whom I was convinced had to be an original creation turns out to be a form of Hobgoblin from English myths, only slightly tweaked and expanded upon here. The rules of of her setting, with the medallions the characters wear allow characters to use midforms, a form anywhere between their real and illusionary forms which gives some truly imaginative and unique designs with a combination of features. Many often appear in human-ish forms like Jym, gangly green haired with a gryphon’s beak and paws.
One of the many joys of independent webcomics is witnessing an artist’s skills develop over time. Bing has been nothing more than exceptional over the comics nine year run. While the design of Skin Deep has always been strong as a new artist it’s first arc started out with charming but rough inks. The art style quickly became more refined and polished as she hit her third arc and found her own unique style with more defined lines and gorgeous intricate backgrounds. I liked Skin Deep from the very first page, but it was Exchanges where I fell in love with it. Set over a matter of a few days and taking three years for Bing to complete, Exchanges is a stunning achievement in terms of both art and storytelling. Breathtaking in it’s scope and vibrancy of the characters. As well as the more confident art, with her fluid cartoony style Bing really hits her stride in terms of storytelling and narrative, finding her own voice which giving each of her characters a distinct one of their own with the funny and witty dialogue. Set in Liverpool, an anxious Blanche ‘comes out’ to his long friend Tony , revealing that he is in fact, not gay, but a white stag and after the initial shock introduces him to his home, the Liverpool Avalaon.
Concealed within a crumbling Liverpool warehouse, a whole city and it’s inhabitants live away from the human world. Through the first part of the arc, like Tony, the reader is treated to a tour of the Avalon as the perspective drifts between groups of characters following them for a while until it lights upon something more interesting and picks up with that thread, weaving together many ongoing narratives happening in the same places and giving the places a sense of complexity and liveliness. The device of moving around the Avalon with characters crossing paths feels almost filmic and feels like a natural and flowing way to introduce the reader to such a huge number of characters in a matter of pages. The arc ultimately culminates in heartbreak, with recently stirred up feelings of rejection as Jim prepares to leave for America leaving his long time friend and ex-boyfriend Lorne behind in the Avalon. Lorne’s internal conflict is played out against the spectacular backdrop of a showy ‘fight scene’ between two of the Avalon’s colourful residents. Forbidden from fighting , they engage in a rythmic, no contact ballet. As a heartbroken Lorne looks across the combatants to a unfazed Jim before walking away. One page shows the fighters in a simplified, almost chibi form before the action explodes back in a flurry of detail and colour. The sense of pacing and pathos is masterful.
With two main casts and such a complicated lore heavy story Skin Deep could easily become claustrophobic and unwieldy but in her expert hands she uses this all as an advantage giving the world a wonderful fleshed out, lived in feel. The two main casts are only just meeting now as certain storylines begin to converge. It’s all the more satisfying for the time spent with these characters. After all the meticulous development, they feel like old friends and the groups finally meeting is a delight. The relationships between the characters are wonderful as Bing crafts a narrative in parts about friendship, family and acceptance. About being comfortable with yourself and finding your place in the world. With a gigantic cast, Skin Deep explores this from several different angles with the recently turned and reluctant Michelle wanting at first to return to normality, those who grew up within the Avalons and even those like Sam who appear ‘normal’ but crave the weird and wonderful life of those around him.
Skin Deep also has some deep and meticulous world building behind it, with a few hundred extra pages of material and lore, with it’s own wiki including a bestiary with details of the myriad of creatures included. Every detail has been thought out yet seems spontaneous and fresh. A particularly memorable example is the Liverpool Avalon’s resident medical practitioner, a peculiar mix of vet and doctor. Glimpsed only in extra material Bing has produced for her eager and inquisitive fans. Even with only two drawings his character is well defined, scared and world weary you instantly get a sense of the responsibility he carries, caring for the Avalon’s magical residents, very few of them alike. The humorous aside of him debating the merits of live gryphon birth vs egg birth, decked out in thick protective gloves all the while, gives us a glimpse into his character and the daily obstacles he faces. Having never appeared in the comics, it’s just another example of the level of detail and depth Bing strives for and lavishes upon her already layered and fascinating world. It’s a comic that rewards it readers and encourages engagement with the creator. With so much backstory and lore to delve into Skin Deep isn’t a quick read but is never less than engrossing, presenting a rich world you’ll find yourself wishing you could escape too.
Between Skin Deep, cosplay construction, contributions to anthologies and the inking of the excellent Eth’s Skin, Kory found time via email to talk about creatures, world building and her comic.
Jason Karlson: So, Why did you start writing/drawing Skin Deep?
Kory Bing: I had been working with the Skin Deep world and characters for years before I actually started drawing and posting it. It was something I started playing with during High School and by the time I finally started drawing it, it had become something I couldn’t NOT draw. Does that make sense?
JK: The architecture in your comics seems very solid, real and drawn with beautiful intricacy, Are the buildings and locations based on real life locations, imagination or combination of both?
Gosh, thank you! A lot of the buildings are based on real places. The Springfield Avalon is inside a theater-turned-radio station in Springfield, Missouri, and the Liverpool Avalon is inside a real abandoned warehouse in Liverpool. I don’t like stating its name directly, I think it is fun if people have to sleuth that out themselves. Michelle’s mother’s house is a house from my hometown that I’ve always liked, and the inside of that house is the inside of my Grandmother’s house. World building is something I really love, and the comic came directly out of years of building this world and wanting to share it.
Most of the places are either based on real locations or take details from real buildings. Most of the Liverpool Avalon’s buildings have elements from real buildings, mostly because I find it is easier to make convincing looking buildings if I use reference. There’s a lot of fun little details that are easy to overlook if you’re drawing by memory! I get to draw all my favorite parts of places. I love architecture, but I’ve never considered myself very good at drawing buildings, so Skin Deep is kind of my chance to get better at that. Since moving to Portland, Oregon, I’ve thought up of places that could be good Avalons, but whether they’ll show up in the comic or not I haven’t quite decided yet!
I intentionally set Michelle’s part of the story in rural Missouri because that is where I grew up and I could never find stories set in such a place. I thought it would be a lot of fun to show off my neck of the woods. The purpose of the Liverpool cast was to give a different perspective from Michelle’s, so instead of a rural environment full of people who don’t know what they’re doing, it’s an urban environment full of people who live in the mythical community to the point where they find it blasé.
JK: While I love the first arc, the second, “Exchanges” is simply stunning in terms of artwork. There is a huge change in the artwork between the first two arcs, Does this just come from the plain fact of drawing so much to update the comic once a week?
KB: Completely. Nothing forces you to improve quite like needing to have a comic page done every week. Most of Orientations was done on twice-a-week updates and I was experimenting a lot to figure out how to make comics, which I’m sure is the reason for the dramatic art shift. It wasn’t intentional!
KB: It’s incredibly important. I doubt Skin Deep would even be a thing if it weren’t for Sfé’s help and contributions. Back when I was still toying with the idea, he would ask me a lot of world building questions that would help me think about different aspects of the world I hadn’t thought of before, and talking about how various characters would react and interact really helped me flesh out the world. Over the years he created characters to live in the world and I loved them enough that they became pretty interconnected with the story I was creating.
JK: Are there any other creatures from mythology that you would love to use in Skin Deep, but don’t think you would be able too? If so, how come?
KB: Jeeze. Basically any creature that hasn’t already been in the comic. There are SO many good creatures out there to pull inspiration from, I can’t even start naming them
JK: Reading the comic a few elements reminded me of parts of X-men comics, with characters representing gay/trans issues and narratives (having multiple forms etc) is this an aim or am I inferring to much into it?
KB: The main “moral” of Skin Deep, I suppose, is that the idea of what is ‘normal’ is completely subjective, and to embrace that and try to understand that rather than being afraid of it. The allegory to those issues are intentional, although it’s also important for stories to actually include those issues and narratives without turning to allegory. I don’t want to imply that minorities are “mythical creatures” while the majority is “normal humans” and that sort of storytelling can be very problematic. In that regard, Skin Deep hasn’t done a great job of being diverse, and it’s something that I would like to improve on.
KB: The mythical community in Skin Deep likes to believe that being close-minded about sexuality is a strictly human problem and they have much more to worry about, but there are issues sometimes, especially with individuals who were raised outside of the mythical community.
JK: Which musicians do you yourself suspect of being a bugbear? What’s your evidence!
KB: Tom Waits. The Residents. Thom Yorke. Man Man. Primus. My evidence is “I want them to be and it’s my world so I can make it so!”
JK: There doesn’t seem to be any black and white easy answers in Skin Deep, and it’s fully fleshed out. For instance Michelle and Sam, one character wanting to “go back to normal” and run away from this world and the other desperate to join it…Did you set out to show the wildly differing views and reactions to this secret world rather than just one side?
KB: I don’t want there to be any easy black and white answers in Skin Deep because there aren’t any easy black and white answers in the real world. Perspective is an important element of Skin Deep, and I want to show that individuals are varied, and personal experience differs wildly from one person to another. What one person wants won’t be what another person wants, and to be able to empathize with people who want different things than you want is an important part of living in the world.
We know only two things for certain of Jason Karlson; that he was born on the wagon of a traveling show to Latverian parents, and that tales of his origins are wholly fictional. His writing style is pithy and insightful, with hints of oak and red berry, finished with earthy tones and somber notes. If he were to describe himself in a single word it would likely be self deprecating. He occasionally tweets over at @marfedfolf