In his nearly 20-year career in comics, cartoonist Andi Watson has worked in a wide variety of genres, for a wide range of publishers and with a wide array of formats. But through all his slice of life indie work, colorful kids comics and even mainstream work for hire gigs, one thing has remained a constant in Watson's output: "Skeleton Key."
Originally launched as an ongoing indie series from Slave Labor Graphics' Amaze Ink label in 1995, "Skeleton Key" weaves the adventures of a Canadian schoolgirl, her Japanese fox spirit best friend and their living raccoon backpack as they make their way through strange, magical worlds with the use of a skeleton key that can open any door to any location. As his first ongoing series, the comic put Watson on the map of many readers and morphed over the years both stylistically and in terms of format, coming out as a monthly comic, a mini series, specials and one-shots and now as an occasional string of short stories.
This week, Dark Horse publishes the "Skeleton Key Color Special" which presents three recent tales from "Dark Horse Presents" where the girls encounter dancing corpses, hotel ghosts and hidden museums. CBR News spoke with Watson about the history and legacy of the strip including how its variations have served to reflect the different eras of his career, why he's returned to both "Skeleton Key" and its all-ages roots and what he's got in store for the future of the comic as well as other projects like his UK kids series "Gum Girl."
CBR News: "Skeleton Key's" setup is a simple one: Tamsin and Kitsune are best friends. The former has a magic skeleton key that can take them practically anywhere, the latter is a Japanese fox spirit with a sweet tooth. They also have a living raccoon backpack. What is it about these characters and this world-hopping idea that keeps you coming back to them, and what has had the most influence on the style and substance of their most recent adventures?
Andi Watson: I like the characters and I have a good grasp of who they are after working with them for so long. It didn't take too long for me to get back "into character" with them again, and their friendship is a fun thing to write. I like the innocence of the characters and think that's the approach that works best for them. I did do an SK graphic novel called "Roots" which is kind of their end story where they both grow up a bit. There's a bittersweet quality to that, but really, they're best placed in fun adventure stories.
The world-hopping background is great for stories. I can jump in at any point in any genre and in any time period and play around. It's a really flexible premise that doesn't require a load of info-dump back-story before kicking off the narrative. In that way, they're perfect for the self-contained short story format that I worked with in "Dark Horse Presents." My new series that has just come out, "Gum Girl," was actually a big influence on the way I approached the SK stories. The Gum Girl books are made up of three self-contained stories of twenty pages each, so I'd had a lot of practice of fitting exciting, action-packed adventures within a tight space.
The original ongoing "Skeleton Key" series lasted 30 issues and was a major turning point in your career in more ways than one. It was your first long-form comic story, your first ongoing series, the first comic where you stuck to an established style -- looking back now, what about the original run had the biggest impact on how you make comics as a whole?
I'm not sure everyone would agree I stuck to the same style throughout the run! I developed considerably over the 30 issues. I learned a lot while creating the book. I discovered that I respond well to a deadline and developed the discipline of getting work in on time. I handled the covers and design and all aspects of the comic. I also mixed up multi-part stories with one-offs and "jumping-on" points. It's tricky with an ongoing book. I always wanted to leave the door open for new readers without slowing things down for regulars. Looking back, I had a really great time. It was my comics apprenticeship as I'd only made four or so comics in my entire life up until then. I was drawing everyday and loving it. The market was reasonably stable, or stable enough for SK to come out regularly, and I really enjoyed having a monthly book out. I'm possibly viewing it through rose-tinted specs, but the market for indie floppies has changed drastically. It's a shame the format has suffered in the migration to graphic novels.
As you mentioned, when the ongoing series came to an end you returned to "Skeleton Key" with a four-part miniseries that was a little different from the previous tales. By that time, the fantasy adventure aspects of the book had receded almost totally to the background as you focused on the personal stories of the girls and their friends and prepared Tammy to go off to college. It's easy to see this mini -- both in terms of its "slice of life" storytelling and its cartooning -- as a bridge to later projects like "Slow News Day," "Dumped" and "Paris." At that time, were you trying to have your final say with "Skeleton Key" before moving into different creative territory?
Yes, it was definitely a bridge. I'd been having fun with the fantasy aspects of SK but the longer the series continued the more I became interested in the character relationships. I suppose it's clear I was eager to do more of the "slice of life" stuff that I went on to in "Breakfast After Noon" and the like. I took SK into the "Roots" miniseries -- any further and it would have been a very different book. I feel like SK is always there for the fun fantasy stories with strong characters, but if I wanted to do more "real life" stuff, then I was better off starting afresh with new material.
I may have missed a short at some point, but the first time I recall seeing the "Skeleton Key" characters back in action was a short that ran in "Glister" -- the kids series you published through Image. What was it then that made you want to tell more stories with Tammy and Kitty? In what ways did that first story back propel you forward with the characters?
From a purely mercenary point of view, the SK short in "Glister" was an attempt to get readers to pick up my new series. But there was also the feeling that I was delving back into the pot of faery tales and folklore that had first inspired SK. "Glister" was much more influenced by classic children's literature and the folklore of the British Isles, so it had a distinct flavor of its own, but I was acknowledging that I was getting back into fantasy. It was also fun to draw Tam and Kit in the Glister style -- using a pen, a looser style and having fun with texture. I was also hand lettering. It was great to see the SK characters with my own lettering, rather than a font.
Like I said, the later issues of "Skeleton Key" became more about character drama as the girls grew older, but the current crop of stories rely on the simpler kind of kidlit fantasy set-up. What makes "Skeleton Key" work for you now as that kind of comic? Do these adventures fit into a specific place within the timeline of the original work, and is connecting the two a story you're interested in telling at some point?
I'm not hung up on a strict timeline with SK. In fact, I prefer the idea that these stories exist on their own without having to fit into any chronology. It's more about using fun ideas than worrying about continuity. The way SK works with the world-hopping lends itself to free-standing flights of fancy.
The special that's out this week reprints a number of stories that were recently in "Dark Horse Presents." You've done work with Dark Horse dating back to your days writing the early "Buffy" comics, but what was it that got the ball rolling on you doing new "Skeleton Key" stuff for the anthology?
It was Brendan the editor who remembered SK fondly from his youth and asked me if I'd like to contribute to "DHP." I was really happy to and it was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with Tam and Kit and Mr. R. It's weird to think people have grown up reading SK!
Looking at the specific stories on hand in the one-shot, we've got the girls meeting a zombie-raising New Wave band, a hotel ghost and the denizens of a weird dimension museum. What were the inspirations for these specific stories? At this point, do you look for story hooks or visual ideas to build adventures for Kitty and Tammy?
Ideally, I need both. I can start from either end, have something interesting come up in the sketchbook, or note down a scrap of dialogue. It has to be a fun idea and also be enjoyable to draw. Once I had the idea of the dancing dead along with the New Necromantics I knew I had lots of juicy stuff to work with. The museum story was definitely one that grew out of the notebook. I liked the idea, the challenge then was to make it visually interesting.
Recently, you've been making a lot of new kids comics for the UK book market, from new editions of "Glister" to the new "Gum Girl" work, and your style has grown into a more colorful, playful kind of cartooning that fans saw with projects like "Love Fights." Overall, what's been the biggest guiding factor in your making this material for this audience and in that market?
I've been making comics for all-ages since SK, but it was after having a kid of my own and reading lots of children's lit that got me into making comics for school-age kids. It's great to make books that my daughter can read and get her feedback on stories. I tend to work at the kitchen table, so there are no secrets about what I'm working on, who're the villains and what problems Grace (Gum Girl) is facing at school. We both get to sit and draw at the table after school.
The art style really mirrors the tone and content of the stories. "Gum Girl" is all about fun and action with lots of shiny surfaces. There are no sharp edges, the colors are bright, there's very little use of solid black and I use ben-day style dots to give it a retro comic-book feel. If it was a "gritty" book, then I'd use a completely different approach.
Of course, you've also got the regular webcomic "Princess At Midnight" serializing as part of the new "Saturday Morning Webtoons" collective. What do projects like that and these "Skeleton Key" stories offer you that you don't get from doing full-on graphic novels?
The SK stories are fun because they are short. Eight pages of comics is long enough to tell a decent story. Much shorter, and there's not a lot of room to maneuver. A full-on graphic novel is maybe a year's work? It's a lot more involved and requires a huge investment in time and energy.
"Princess at Midnight" at www.saturdaymorningwebtoons.com is great because we update every Saturday, so again, it's not a huge workload while I meet deadlines. I have fifty pages of new "PaM" stuff in a draw that has never been seen, so I thought SMW would be a great venue for it. I get to apply the color lessons I've learned in "Gum Girl" in a Mary Blair kind of way with "PaM." Also, it's really nice to be part of a loose group of people doing good work. It's not just a lonely toil at the kitchen table everyday.
I've got to say I was totally surprised when I heard Marvel was publishing your manga-esque romance comic "15-Love" last year after years of it being on the shelf. Between that and "Skeleton Key," it seems you've had a few opportunities of late to return to earlier work at least as a reader. What's that been like?
Yeah, I don't think anyone was more surprised than me when I got the e-mail about "15-Love." I don't know why that was resurrected. Maybe an intern found the CD stuck to the bottom of their mug of cappuccino, or something? That was weird. SK was a really happy experience. I'm touched that readers are still as fond of the characters as I am.
Ultimately, what are your long term plans for "Skeleton Key?" Is there the potential that you'll return to doing a more in depth story with Tammy and Kitty, or are you planning to stick to more shorts in the future?
It's possible I'll do more shorts or even something longer. It's really down to the publishing opportunities and venues that are available. If this one-shot does well and there's a genuine appetite for more then it'd be nice to revisit Tam and Kit. In the meantime "Gum Girl" book 1, "Catastrophe Calling," has just come out. Book 2, "The Tentacles of Doom," is due this August. I'm currently working on "Gum Girl" book 3 which will be out in 2013 with book 4. After that I have a bunch of ideas for books that I hope I'll find homes for.
Watson's "Skeleton Key Color Special" is on sale this week from Dark Horse Comics.