Skeleton Key

Skeleton Key is the story of Tamsin, a disaffected teenager in a small Canadian town. She comes across a magic key that can open doors to other dimensions and winds up having to balance the concerns of everyday life with fantastic adventures. After one of her trips, Kitsune, an Oriental fox spirit who’s addicted to sugar, comes back to live with her, and they become best friends.

Beyond the Threshold is early work. It establishes the premise and characters with baroque, overly detailed art and lots of black. Due to the occasionally difficult art, I recommend this volume for completists only. It also isn’t really a complete story, leading into The Celestial Calendar.

Beyond the Threshold cover
Beyond the Threshold
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This second volume shows a lot of artistic growth, and it contains a huge variety of intriguing ideas: a mysterious pregnancy, a disease that turns people into quilts, a super-deformed (little body, big head manga-inspired art style) troupe of Chinese acrobats, a competition among mages, Oriental hockey-playing vampires, and a raccoon backpack that comes to life. With all this going on, it’s hard to keep track, at times, of the overall story.

The Celestial Calendar cover
The Celestial Calendar
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The series really begins to shine with Telling Tales, a collection of short stories revolving around everyday teenage life; the fantastic elements are still part of the story, but they’re no longer driving it. Instead, these five stories involve getting a new look, Valentine’s Day and high school crushes, taking a beach break, jealousy when male and female friends think about becoming more than friends, and moving out on your own. (The sixth story is a mostly wordless tale of Mr. Raccoon inspiring Japanese art prints.)

Cats & Dogs continues blending fantasy and teenage drama as the stories become longer and more thoughtful. The last half of the volume, “Homesick”, sums up the series to that point: Kitsune finds a place of her own while Tamsin interacts with a new potential love interest. Their friendship is foregrounded as Tamsin tries to help Kitty deal with missing her home in another dimension. Additionally, there’s a brief return to the wackiness of the earlier series as more fantasy elements are included in the wrapup.

Telling Tales cover
Telling Tales
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Roots, the collection of the later four-issue miniseries, is the best of the bunch. It was written as a single story, instead of a collection of tales, so it’s a more satisfying read. The book begins with a brief summary of the earlier series, so it’s a good starting point for new readers. It also contains a short story featuring Kitsune encountering children who think she’s a witch for living in a shack by herself.

Tamsin has to figure out where to apply to college: locally, so she can continue taking care of Kitty, or a good school farther away. The themes are more mature (foreshadowing Watson’s later pure slice-of-life work, Breakfast After Noon); Tamsin feels torn between her responsibilities to Kitty and her dreams for herself. They’re growing up, whether they want to or not, in an inspiring story about managing life changes.

Cats & Dogs cover
Cats & Dogs
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It’s astounding to watch Watson’s development as an artist. From the dark, cluttered early volumes, through a cartoony phase, he has simplified and strengthened his characters and layouts. It appears as though he had a fear of white space at the beginning, but the last volume, Roots, demonstrates a terrific balance of tones, whites, and blacks. The characters have become more distinctive in look and expression as they become less complicated in design.

The series is an amazing blend of fantasy, humor, adventure and slice-of-life teenage drama. There’s literally something here for everyone; most noticeably, the brilliant, realistic characters are the core of the appeal of the series. I was particularly impressed by the way he involves and foregrounds the reality of a teenage girl’s life (like being judged on looks or having to fight to join all-male groups). He even goes so far as to have the girls rescue a helpless male — who then has to deal with his resentment, as well as the way their friendships are changed as a result.

There are a variety of other related comics. The Skeleton Key Special collects short stories and minicomics. Along with providing an overview of Watson’s changing and growing art style (since it covers a span of over two years), it also includes pinups from such talents as Dan Brereton, Mark Crilley, Tim Levins, and Jim Mahfood. To see the characters in a color story, look for the Skeleton Key Missive Device. Slab-O-Concrete put out these minicomics that can be mailed like postcards.

The Skeleton Key/Sugar Kat Special teams up Tamsin and Kitsune with Sugar Kat, the most popular girl in the world, and her sister Rebecca. Since it’s written by Ian Carney and co-illustrated by Woodrow Phoenix (the team behind Where’s It At, Sugar Kat?), the feel of the story is closer to their material than to Skeleton Key, but it’s an amusing romp.

Kitsune makes another appearance in Kitsune Tales, a one-shot written by Woodrow Phoenix and drawn by Andi Watson. It’s an action story set in a far-off mythical land where Kitsune uses her fox spirit abilities to rescue kidnapped children from a tyrant monster.

4 Responses to “Skeleton Key”

  1. Johnny B Says:

    Here’s a hearty second for Skeleton Key. Fascinating and imaginative, and Watson’s art grows up before our eyes.

  2. More Slave Labor Digital Comics » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] particular interest to me is the pricing. The first volume of Andi Watson’s Skeleton Key is available at the bargain price of $1.69 — that’s six comic issues’ worth of […]

  3. Andi Watson’s 15 Love to Finally Be Published, Eight Years Later » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] 15 Love #1 (of 3) — a never-before-seen, giant-size story from acclaimed writer Andi Watson (Skeleton Key, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and artist Tommy Ohtsuka! Mill Collins is about to learn that life is […]

  4. Skeleton Key Color Special » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] in their own special issue. That’s a great thing for readers like me who fondly recall the Skeleton Key series and/or want anything Andi does. Actually, it’s a great thing for anyone who likes fun, […]




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