Only Skin by Sean Ford

The subtitle to Only Skin is “New Tales of the Slow Apocalypse” and if that subtitle, the title, and the cover above doesn’t get across the idea of this book as haunting, I don’t know what will.

Ford’s simple, straightforward artwork aptly tells the story of a small town experiencing this slow apocalypse. People are disappearing. Sometimes they leave behind remains. They disappear while in the nearby woods, they disappear from their cars at a gas station. People are frightened and suspicious, but as much as they’re sure that something is in the woods, they can’t stay out of them. They have to go in and try to find it.

Cassie and her brother, Clay, come to town when they hear their estranged father is one of the disappeared. It doesn’t take long before they’re deeply involved in the mystery. Especially involved is Clay, who gets visited by a strange traditional-ghost-shaped ghost who may or may not be the key to it all.

As the story unfolds, there’s a frustrating tendency by Ford to keep everything at arm’s length. The reader is never more than a mere spectator, and is not allowed much insight into the characters other than what can be gleaned from their actions. In a setting where people are behaving less than rationally (for a variety of reasons) this makes most of them into little more than people who things happen to, which isn’t good for a horror story, especially an existential one. There are some attempts to build this kind of scaffolding on some of the characters, but by the end they still didn’t feel fleshed-out enough to me.

The ending, incidentally, is both troubling and tantalizing. There is a payoff — you do find out what is going on — but there are still questions remaining. Nevertheless, this is a case where what isn’t on the page is just as important as what is. I just wish some of it had been set up a little better. It’s difficult to say much more than that without giving anything away.

Ford’s artwork is spare and, in some ways, crude, but it’s effective for the book. There is a huge emptiness to everything, making the town seem even more isolated and doomed. In addition, everything seems sort of lost and quiet. It’s effective, though as I said, it possibly is too much so, making the proceedings a little too much muffled and distant.

Only Skin is Sean Ford’s first graphic novel, and though it could use some polishing, it’s an impressive debut. Sean Ford is definitely one to watch.

Only Skin is available at the Secret Acres webstore, Amazon, and is also solicited in this month’s Previews (page 326).

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