Last week Almost a damn month ago I talked about “fantasy soup”, a grab-bag of a genre that combines various genre tropes and wild imagination to create something truly weird. I also talked about how that genre as we knew it in the Webcomic Wild West of 1999-2005 has all but died out, a product of an environment, ideally suited to it, that has simply ceased to be.
Skeptical is an oddity among oddities: a fantasy soup not created in the primordial cauldron of the Aughties. It started in 2011, making it a latecomer to the second wave of webcomics, or perhaps an early indicator of the third. It tells the story of two very different teen boys who find each other, set in a world that, on the surface, looks very much like ours. Also one of them is a weird teleporting skeleton monster with a mouth in his stomach, and the other can shoot lasers from his chest like an overgrown Care Bear. I did say they were different.
Chip is the aforementioned skeleboy who travels to the human world from Skull People Land (SPL for short) to escape his abusive and violent older brother, Louie. While homeless in a playground, he meets Ellis, a human who is intrigued by his odd appearance. Quick to befriend the strange boy, Ellis misunderstands the gravity of Chip’s situation until Louie tracks them both down.
Skeptical is about family and abuse, bullying and homophobia, friendship and loyalty, but it’s presented as a cute, colorful comic about two boys and their relationship. Its tonal breadth is honestly impressive, and it handles the dark moments as skillfully as the light ones.
And its tone isn’t the only thing that’s all over the map. Between the skull people and their neon-colored acid-raining otherworld, Ellis’s family’s laser powers, the dragons, the shadow monsters, the witches, and the limbo snake who lives between life and death, it’s hard to think of an idea that might be off the table. But Skeptical’s wide, wild world still seems deliberate and bounded, not an improvised joyride where the author doesn’t seem to know what’s coming next, like some older fantasy soups I could mention. It feels finite in a good way, the way that reassures the reader that yes, the author DOES have a plan and an ending in mind.
Most of the Old Guard fantasy soups, even better-executed ones like Fans!, told stories about their set pieces: they didn’t just feature monsters and superpowers, they were about those things, as in their core narrative questions were things like “Can the gang stop Satan?” or “What are the sociopolitical implications of first contact with psychic alien rectangles?” or “Will this character ever transform back to their birth-assigned sex?” But Skeptical isn’t about dragons and teleportation and skeletal rave goths; it uses those things to find new ways of examining old questions, like “Can you reconcile with someone without forgiving them?” or “How do you balance the sacrifices your family has made for you with your own need for agency?” or “What does bullying and abuse do to a teen’s psyche?”
To be clear, we don’t see much of the bullying that Ellis endures at his snooty private school, only a scene of him coming home early, still wearing his gym clothes and fighting tears. But we do see his asshole older brother Noah’s constant homophobia towards him, and the way that this torment drives Ellis to distance himself from anything gay – including his own feelings. It’s uncomfortable and it’s real.
And of course, Chip has his own problems with his own older brother, who uh… tries to murder anyone close to him, including Ellis Clark and his siblings. It’s not an idle threat, either; Louie is known for using his special portal mouth to “eat” people, a convenient way to kill someone and dispose of the body in one go. Between that, his Mafioso appearance, and Izzy’s story about the “Missing Body Murders” 3 years prior, I’m guessing that Louie is some kind of supernatural contract killer, though that has yet to be explored.
But despite all this, neither Louie nor Noah is a villain in this story. They’re absolutely portrayed as horrible people, but they’re still just… people. Noah gets excited about telling stories; Louie has friends who miss him when he’s gone; Noah risks his life to protect his siblings; Louie hates himself, maybe more than we hate him. They’re not redeeming qualities, but they are humanizing, and that makes for a much more interesting story.
Redemption isn’t out of the question, though. After the Clarks defeat Louie, nearly killing him, Chip moves into Ellis’s room and Louie, back in Skull People Land, starts reflecting on the error of his ways. Gripped by guilt over his actions, he seeks to make amends with Chip – however impossible that might be. And Chip, remarkably, decides to give him that second chance.
I won’t give any more away, but I’d be remiss if I ended my review without talking about Skeptical’s striking art style, a hard-aliased callback to another ubiquity of the 00s: oekaki. In those days, a popular form of digital art was in-browser Java drawing applets on oekaki (Japanese for “to draw a picture”, roughly) bulletin boards. Lacking features like anti-aliasing, oekaki applets tend to give art a distinctive pixelated look, like it was paintstakingly drawn in MS Paint. The popularity of oekaki has waned dramatically over the last ten years with the increase in artist access to more powerful tools, meaning that pixely look is now a bit of an… artifact. No, I’m not sorry. Shelby has experimented with other styles in the past and has currently shifted to an atmospheric painterly style, but the oekaki linework is still the comic’s signature in my heart.
So is Skeptical a love letter to the old days of webcomics? I can’t say for sure that it’s intentional, but I can say that I was so convinced I remembered reading it in 2007 that I had to fact-check the 2011 start date with Shelby. And even if it’s not one of the Old Guard, it’s on track to have the same kind of longevity as comics like Zebra Girl; its description says that the story is only on Year One (of Three) meaning it could be 18 years old by the time it finishes.
Skeptical is a big story about big questions in small moments, and one that never gets trapped in its own trappings. While characters ask “What is Chip?” the story itself ponders instead “Who is Chip?” Real issues are handled through fantastical plot devices with remarkable delicateness, and it’s honestly one of the most interesting examinations of abuse and accountability that I can think of – even if the abuser in question is a skeleton man from another dimension.
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