Webcomic Weekly: The Fantastical, Arabesque ‘Skal’ by Jennie Gyllblad

by Richard Bruton

The Skal webcomic is a beautifully realised fantasy, lush in both art and imagination, a tale of far-off Arabian-esque lands, where those fairy-tale looking markets hide an underworld of rogues and bandits, where the wrong turn might mean you could lose your purse or your life.

This is Jennie Gyllblad‘s Skal and you’re in for a grand adventure…

When you see Skal for the first time, it’s a wonderful experience, with Gyllblad’s lines, the watercolours, the various bits of mixed media, giving it much more of a ‘real’ feel than some flat colour webcomics out there. And from the very first page it’s clear that this ‘Arabian’ setting is very far from the Arabia we know and is a place of terrible danger.

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:

The piercing stare, the pain and anger from the indignity of having her mouth sewn shut writ large – this is Mushirah and Skal is her tale.

We follow her escape from her binding, from her prison, and learn of her past and why she was locked up. As Gyllblad says of her character…

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?”

As the story continues, we learn more of the mysterious Mushirah, the threat she faces, the secrets of her past coming to light, little by little. And as we do, the cast slowly grows, first the little young thief girl, then the protectors she hires to stand in between her and those in power looking for her.

Over the course of the three print books and the four complete chapters online, Gyllblad spins a tale of exotic worlds and grave threats. And, at every step of the way, we get to luxuriate in Gyllblad’s artwork, those lush watercolours, the detailed black and white seen in flashbacks and glimpses into the lives Mushirah touches with her powers. It’s quite obvious that Gyllblad’s world here is only really just beginning, with each new chapter bringing us more of something that’s slowly building into a real epic.

Throughout her work, Gyllblad has always delivered a sense of the exotic and an exploration of many different cultures. And, alongside that sense of exotism in much of her work, there’s always great character building, Gyllblad creating characters that may be in works of high fantasy but are also recognisably human, with no holding back from both the horrors and delights of everything human nature has to offer. You’ll also find Skal contains all of the complex sexuality, sensuality, and sex-positivity Gyllblad puts into all of her work, all interlaced here with the fantastical setting. But, as befits the rich complexity of the characters and the situations here, that sexuality is merely another part of the rich, multi-layered lives we’re experiencing on the pages here.

And of course, the very core of Skal is a tale of women and inequality, of the power they can hold and how it threatens and frightens those not used to seeing women hold power. It’s here right from the off, with the release of Mushirah from her prison, the shocking sight of a woman not only imprisoned but mutilated as well, her mouth stitched shut to prevent her using her powers. Gyllblad never particularly dwells on that facet of Skal, but it’s there all the way through, colouring all that you read.

Skal all began with Jennie Gyllblad‘s RPG gaming at university, where she was so obsessed with a couple of RPG characters on a Neverwinter Nights roleplaying server called Arelith that she gave them their own background story comics, which eventually turned into an ongoing webcomic that Gyllblad was convinced could be both weekly and fully-painted.

After a short while, Gyllblad regrouped, ditched the rules of once a week and gave what had become Skal an extensive re-write. Since then, she’s published it somewhat irregularly, before shifting it to Webtoons and re-serialising it from 2019 until now.

Chapters 1-4 ran until May 2020 and since then Gyllblad’s added four pages of chapter five – but hey, there’s been a bloody pandemic. But make no mistake, Skal will continue as it’s obviously a labour of love for the artist and it’s a wonderful webcomic for you to add to your webcomics reading list.

While Skal continues as a webcomic, Skal is also available in print, with three issues available through Jenni’s shop. You can find Skal the webcomic at Webtoons and the print version through Jennie’s shop

Jennie Gyllblad can be found at her website, Twitter, Patreon.

%d bloggers like this: