Sunday, May 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #147: Skeleton Key (5 vols) by Andi Watson

I have a weakness for stories that don't go the way the creator expects them to. It's not always easy to tell -- you generally only get to experience something when it's been finalized and all of the rough edges and false starts sanded off -- but sometimes the bones of the original plan can be seen. It's more common in serialized stories, obviously -- TV or comics or similar things, where episodes have to be released before the whole thing is done.

Andi Watson's early series Skeleton Key, I think, went in a very different direction than he expected. And it's fun because of that, on top of the usual joys of seeing a young creator get better and smarter on almost every single page and just telling good stories along the way.

Skeleton Key ran monthly for thirty issues from 1995 through 1998, and then came back for a four-issue miniseries, Skeleton Key: Roots, in 1999. The whole series was collected in five volumes -- Beyond the Threshold, The Celestial Calendar, Telling Tales, Cats & Dogs, and Roots. (Watson has since come back to the same world for a few short stories, but even that was close to a decade ago.) I think I discovered the series somewhere in the middle, and had all of the collections before my 2011 flood. And, since I've been re-buying and re-reading Andi Watson books for the last few years, eventually I got all five collections and re-read the whole thing.

Watson was clearly finding his way in the early pages -- this was only his second big comics work, after Samurai Jam. In fact, he radically changes his lettering style in the middle of the fourth story page, which I find endearing: not bothering to re-do anything, just changing and doing full steam ahead.

Beyond the Threshold opens with Tamsin Mary Cates, a grumpy teen goth stuck in the dull provincial town of Garfield, Alberta, Canada, among jocks and snow and not much else. Preparing for the town's Day of the Dead parade -- do Canadian prairie towns have Mexican celebrations that much? never mind; Watson needs it for the premise -- she wanders into the kind of strange little shop that we all know from a million other stories. It has unique and odd things, and she finds just what she needs: a skeleton costume and matching large ornate key. And when she returns later, the shop was never there in the first place.

She goes to the parade, though not necessarily the one in Garfield, and gets back safely. But she also brought someone back from what she thought was a dream later that night: the young fox spirit Kitsune, on the run from magicians who want her liver. It turns out the key can open doorways to other worlds -- out of any door, anywhere -- but only by some people, and only when they're wearing the suit. By the end of the first book, three nasty magicians have teamed up to get the key away from them and kidnapped a school friend of Tamsin's as a first step. And so the two girls set off to rescue him, through one of those doors.

Celestial Calendar follows immediately from that moment: it's a twelve-part story themed to the Chinese calendar. But each installment doesn't take a month, and the girls make it back to their own world at about the mid-point. In retrospect, here's where we really see Watson's plans being abandoned and a more organic idea for Skeleton Key coming forward. The first half of Celestial Calendar is a view of what Skeleton Key might have been: adventures across strange worlds with quirky characters, serious enough to have real danger but essentially light-hearted.

Instead, Tamsin and Kitsune rescue their friend, defuse the conflict with the magicians, and get back to Garfield. They won't leave the mundane world again, and the key itself basically disappears from the story at that point. From here on out, Skeleton Key is the story of two friends, mixed in with a measure of high school drama. There are still some minor supernatural elements, but they tend to be humorous, like Tamsin's raccoon backpack, which a magician brought to life.

The aftermath of rescuing that boy in Celestial Calendar becomes important later: he finds out about it and is mad that they didn't tell him he was kidnapped into a fantasy world. And that speaks to the core of the back half of Skeleton Key, focused on personal relationships: tentative romances for both Tamsin and Kitsune, Tamsin's protectiveness of Kitsune, Tamsin's parents growing annoyance with the girl who is living in their house and eating all their food, and the question of Tamsin's plans after she graduates high school.

Skeleton Key is one of the very rare cases of a story that radically de-escalated as it went on. It would have been very easy to have the girls get into supernatural scrapes on one world after another -- maybe returning home in between adventures, maybe not -- learning more, getting paraphernalia and allies and friends and a complicated history. But Watson instead pulled them back to the real world, using Kitsune's magical origins as just another way a new friend can appear suddenly in a life and transform it.

That's the opposite of the usual choice, and it's worth celebrating: serialized stories don't have to keep getting bigger. There doesn't need to be a new Dark Lord; the world doesn't have to be saved; people are enough for a story.

Skeleton Key signposted the entirely domestic stories Watson would do in the early aughts -- a great string of individual graphic novels about people, all stories with beginnings and ends and real heart. This is where he wrote his way into that mode, and seeing again how he did it is still a lot of fun.

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