Webcomic Weekly: Jennie Gyllblad’s Skal
I looked at Jennie Gyllblad‘s artwork a year ago where I described her art as “a lovely steampunky thing and well worth a look….“. After which I added her name to an embarrassingly huge list of comics and artists to read more of / write more about. A YEAR AGO. I’m just rubbish sometimes. I know. I know.
Anyway… lets forgive and forget eh? I’m here now, so lets talk a little about Gyllblad and specifically about her webcomic Skal, a fantasy based tale set in a lushly illustrated Arabian-inspired desert world (I’ll leave discussion of her other webcomic Jenspiration for another time, as it does deserve talking about separately).
Gyllblad’s time as artist is pretty much taken up by combining work that pays the bills and the recently completed & Kickstarter funded sci-fi fantasy Elysia written by Serena Obhrai. This does mean that Skal is a labour of love, and as is the way, has rather fallen by the wayside at times when Gyllblad simply hasn’t had the time to lavish the required attention on it. This is a shame, it really is, and hopefully, setting up a Patreon page will allow her to increase the pace of production.
Skal certainly looks rather gorgeous and is a comic that’s full of promise, but alongside all that promise is a problem familiar to many making or following comics online – there’s just not enough to read yet to really say much about it. This problem is merely exacerbated by the deliberately slow pace of the prologue and what’s done of chapter one thus far. There’s some great potential here certainly, and it’s something I’d love to come back to at a later date, but right now, reviewing it seems a little premature.
Better perhaps to think of this as a first look at something starting out. We’ll get to actually looking at the book in a moment, but first I wanted to ask Gyllblad a few questions…
Richard Bruton: How did the idea for Skal come about. Would it be safe to assume, looking at some of your work thus far with its obvious Steampunk stylings that the (Steampunky) Arabian stylings and settings come from a love of both the imagery of the place and the romance and adventure of traditional folk-tales?
Jennie Gyllblad: The very first version of Skal was created while I was still at University, doing my degree in Illustration. Roleplaying games have always been a favourite escapist-drug of mine, be it Pen & Paper or computer RPGs, so it was no surprise that a lot of my limited free time was spent on a Neverwinter Nights roleplaying server called Arelith.
I created two main characters that I played and developed for well over a year. In fact, I became so invested (*coughObsessedcough*) that I began to do little quick background-story comics for them. These short comics became longer… And soon I found myself writing a whole script… Which turned into a wholly overambitious ongoing webcomic where I promised a fully painted page per week without much planning… BIG MISTAKE.
After almost painting myself into a wall, I decided to re-do the entire comic, but without the silly self-imposed one-page-per-week-or-else rule and with a serious re-write. Which is where we are now!
I have always loved the aesthetic of the exotic, the colourful and the layered! Different cultures with their customs, beliefs and trinkets fascinate me. I think this probably shows in my general fantasy and steampunk work. Stealing the looks of different cultures and twisting it into my own creation is what makes me the happiest Jen alive. And yes, although one probably would describe me as a generally happy, pacifistic person, I hold a special kind of love and attraction for stories featuring horror, violence, inequalities, struggles and stress.
So, Skal is a very character driven story, originally based on two characters that I created for a fantasy roleplaying game. Considering the type of stories I like to tell, I think it’s safe to assume these two characters aren’t going to have an easy time.
Richard: As much as I enjoyed looking at Skal, my big problem is that there’s simply not enough there to really get the measure of it. The problem merely exacerbated by the slow pacing. Not necessarily a criticism, merely the unfortunate side-effect of online page-by-page serialisation. Is this something you would agree with?
Jennie: Yes, completely. This is the inherent problem of doing a page-by-page ongoing webcomic. No matter how fast I churn out the pages, the flow will still be broken when the reader hits the point where they need to wait for an update. Just imagine your favourite graphic novel, cut up and then handed to you, one page at a time, sometimes with a three week gap in between. It isn’t ideal, but it’s also the best thing I can do considering my situation (No publisher and using the Patreon model).
There are several ways to tackle this. Some of my readers say that they wait until a few pages have been released, and then read them all in one go. This does allow you to get into a bit of a rhythm, before the wall is hit. Other readers will simply wait until a chapter is complete and then read it. And others would even go so far as to wait until it is out in print. Skal IS a webcomic for sure, but my love for physical books still supersedes my love for completely web-based work, so I am ‘restricted’ by the book format. I can’t play around with that too much. My preferred way to read is to have a printed book, and that is where Skal is ultimately headed. It will always be free to read online, but arguably, the best reading experience will be had with a physical copy of it in the future. Patreon helps me get there!
Richard: I’ve read a little of the trouble with getting Skal pages done, trying to fit telling a tale into limited time when the majority of your working life is spent chasing paying work. Skal is obviously a project very close to your heart, but do you envision any way to speed up production, or possibly change the publication model to allow the reader access to the work in more ‘readable’ chunks?
Jennie: So when I previously said that it wasn’t ideal, but still the best thing I could do, this is what I meant: The current publication model allows the reader the absolute maximum access that would ever be possible. Pages are released as they are completed. The option is then there for the reader to read the story page-by-page, or section-by-section, or chapter-by-chapter. Basically, releasing Skal in this manner allows the reader to select the form which is most “readable” for them without being restricted to standard publication model conventions (like I would be if I had a publisher for example).
As for speeding up production… This is why Patreon is fantastic! That platform makes it all very simple. The more patrons support me, the more I can do per month. Depending on how much guaranteed income I have for Skal, I can adjust my schedule accordingly and not fill my time with other commissions.
Patreon is the only reason I am able to even do Skal! And what a FANTASTIC platform it is!
Richard: As for art, how do you make Skal, is it watercolour and then scanned to finish on computer?
Jennie: Each page has been redrawn at least 3 times. So I will start with a rough sketch, then use my lightbox to do a tidier sketch. I follow up by lightboxing that sketch onto the watercolour paper, and then ink those pencil lines. Finally add the watercolour (and various mix-media) on top! The only thing I do on the computer is some basic colour correction when the scanner messes up, and the lettering.
Richard: What projects aside from Skal are coming up from you?
Jennie: My current comic projects include: Clockwork Watch: Tick Tock 2 (Steampunk story set in the Clockwork Watch universe), Clockwork Watch: Countenance (The final book in the Clockwork Watch trilogy!), Myths of Steam, Issue 1! (Steampunk Norse Mythology. Yes, you heard it right!)
I am also working on stand-alone illustrations in a story: The Problems of Violet Strange by Anna Katharine Green, Lynn Blackwood – It’s about time we had more illustrations in regular novels!
Richard: Standard finish – we always like to ask these questions – what’s the last thing that really made you go wow in comics, and what three webcomics would you suggest to the readers (in addition to Skal obviously)?
Jennie: Last thing to make me go wow in comics: Saga! ‘Am I shitting? It feels like I’m shitting!’ I shall say no more. Read it.
Three Webcomics: Some people are crazily talented and use the browsers scrolling ability to the MAX. Emily Carroll’s webcomics are simply stunning (http://www.emcarroll.com) and Paul Duffield’s ongoing story The Firelight Isle is inspirational (http://www.firelightisle.com). Can I add the absolute insanity of The Oatmeal to this list? http://theoatmeal.com/ Because whenever I need my brain to just chill out and enjoy some random madness, that is the place I go to!
Richard: Thanks to Jennie for taking the time to answer those. Now, what about having a look at Skal?……
The prologue drops us straight into a world full of beautiful buildings where domes and minarets bask in the moonlight against a deep blue, star-filled Arabian sky.
But beyond those sumptuous buildings, beyond the initial visions of romantic stories and high fantasy, there’s something darker and far nastier here, as we turn the pages and view a woman, dressed in beautiful and vividly colourful clothes of ornate finery that merely serve to make her situation seem all the more desperate:
Rescue comes in the shape of another beautifully robed figure, whilst the horror of what’s been done to this woman slowly unfolds in flashback, Gyllblad switching from lush watercolour to detailed black and white pencil work.
The woman was/is accused of witchcraft, the universal accusation thrown at woman by men who don’t like what they hear, and the method to silence her ‘visions’ is hideous, Gyllblad’s silent page perfect at evoking the horror:
You can feel the pain and the profound anger just through her stare, fixed and determined, Gyllblad’s imagery capturing so much. Words completely unnecessary. Escape follows release, pained and bloodied, stitches removed, an element of magic in the escape marking the end of the prologue.
When I first looked through the pages of Skal I was in too much of a rush (a common fault, and one I never really seem to learn from), and the work seemed simply too lightweight, too little happening. A second, slower reading proved invaluable. Yes, it still feels slight, but dallying a while allows the imagery to evoke a mood, the cumulative effect of the pages far greater than the individual impact. By the end of the prologue second time around I was eager to see where Gyllblad was taking this, keen to discover who this woman is, why her words were feared so much.
The story as it continues will follow this woman, Mushirah, and learn more of her history, of why she’s ended up on the run, who she’s running from and why she’s so feared. This comes from Gyllblad’s ‘About’ page on the Skal site:
The Monastery feared Mushirah. They feared her so much that they threw her in a prison cell, stitched her mouth shut and set her execution date. Bundled into a caravan by an unknown ally, we follow her journey to the big city that could become her sanctuary, chased by Monastic mercenaries who will stop at nothing to carry out her death sentence.’
Mushirah did not mean to see the one thing that could get her killed. But for a Diviner, on the receiving end of uncontrolled visions, it has never been a question of choice. From the development of her gift as young girl to her secluded, monastic life behind high walls, Mushirah has been the slave of prophecy. Now, forced to flee for divining events she was never meant to witness, Mushirah’s rigid perception of the world and her place in it must drastically alter. But when you have grown up seeing a world that runs exactly to prophecy, indifferent and unforgiving… Where a person’s fate is decided the moment they are born… What would it take to change your mind?
Chapter 1 has a mere six pages online thus far, so there’s very little to tell, we set off with Mushirah and from the very first page it’s suddenly clear that this ‘Arabian’ setting is very far from the Arabia we know, this is an Arabian-esque desert land where giant lizards pull exotic caravans towards a city where we’re about to meet abother cast member. I shall leave you the final page online of Chapter 1 to date…
As I said right at the start, Skal has enormous potential, a beautifully realised fantasy, lush in both art and imagination. But the main thing holding it back is a financial need, and that need is depriving us of more pages.