By Sean Ford
272 pages, black and white
Published by Secret Acres
It’s easy to tell a suspense or horror story if you have distinct, identifiable, gruesome monsters jumping out of the shadows at every turn. Sean Ford’s Only Skin doesn’t take that easy route, instead building its nightmares through a combination of an iconic ghost design, and the terror of what we didn’t see. And in doing so, Ford’s debut graphic novel becomes a genuinely scary adventure for reader and character alike.
Ford opens up Only Skin with a tried-and-true setup; a brother and sister returning to a town after an eight year absence, to find their missing father and in doing so getting pulled into the recent series of vanishings in the isolated area. Cassie and Clay are both familiar faces to the townspeople as well as outsiders; it gives them a reason to get filled in on the recent events, while still being somewhat acclimated already to this small, close-knit town. From there, Only Skin begins to quietly grow; a simple missing-persons case is revealed to be much larger, with suspicions over a foresting deal, mutilated animals, and sightings of a ghost all being added into the mix. Ford’s got a strong sense of pacing for his story; it never feels like too much is being thrown at the reader, with each new addition instead coming just when you think you have a strong grasp on what’s happening in this little town.
Only Skin relies in no small part on the interactions of its characters, and I think that Ford understands this all too well. Watching Cassie and Clay either meet or reacquaint themselves with the new people in the town is a careful process. Ford doesn’t rely on large blocks of expository text, but lets explanations and flashbacks occur organically. By the time you understand the significance of the other missing people beyond Cassie’s father, we’re deep into Only Skin and a lot of the anger and previous encounters snap firmly into place. Most of the characters of Only Skin are sketched in broad strokes that still give us a strong feel for them as people and how they connect and relate to everyone else. Only Chris the gas station worker feels not explored well enough; with his regular moments of falling asleep and his eerie comments on how all of his dreams are coming true, his purpose in the climax of Only Skin feels strangely muted and out of place. It’s a minor issue, though, in a book where everyone else feels quite real.
Ford’s art in Only Skin is handsome; careful placed lines that shift from thin to thick, and provide a clean, uncluttered look to each person’s face and their surroundings. The two parts of the art for Only Skin that particularly stuck out for me, though, were the ghost and the landscape of the town and its surroundings. The ghost at a glance feels laughable, akin to the ghost outfits that the Peanuts characters wore in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! or the enemies in Pac-Man. It’s a disarming look, one that is slightly humorous and danger-deflating. As Only Skin progresses, though, the ghost becomes increasingly menacing while never changing its appearance. It’s an impressive feat on Ford’s part; something that looks so cute ends up being disturbing. The look of the small town is also in many ways just as important to Only Skin as its characters; Ford brings across that overall sense of isolation that is so critical to the story being told here. You truly get the sense that there’s nothing for miles, that the forest around the town is both a never-ending expanse as well as a dangerous barrier. By the time we get to see what lies beyond the forest thanks to Rachel’s story, we’ve gotten such a feel for the forest stretching on forever that its reveal is slightly surprising and also exuding an instant "this is a bad place" feel. It’s a nice trick, and helps make Only Skin as strong as it is.
I was pleasantly surprised and enthralled by Only Skin; I hadn’t read its mini-comic serialization up until now, which let me feel that much more surprised and startled by its series of events. Secret Acres has done a great job of finding and bringing into the spotlight various small press creators, and Ford and Only Skin are no exception. With an oversized presentation and a smooth cover stock, it’s a beautiful book to have on your shelf. Highly recommended.