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Skinny Panda by Phil Cho, reviewed by Matt Trepal

The first thing a reader notices about Phil Cho’s Skinny Panda is that it’s about a skinny panda. That may seem self-evident, but in the webcomic business, where success or failure may depend solely upon whether or not the title of a strip is sufficiently catchy to impel a potential reader to click on a link, it is unusual to find one that presents itself so literally. But Cho has been producing Skinny Panda since 1999, however, long before many others in the webcomic world, so perhaps the reason he doesn’t resort to the standard "gimmicks" is that he never had to.

From the very beginning, the reader is introduced to the title character, who is exactly what was promised, a skinny panda. Soon afterwards, the rest of the cast is introduced: Flower, Gopher, Robokitty, the Crow Brothers, and Penelope, and only the latter, a precocious young girl who has run away from her rich, vacuous, and pretentious parents, is not exactly what her name describes.

The influence of Bloom County on the art and writing of Skinny Panda is apparent throughout, particularly in the character of Gopher, who is most reminiscent of Portnoy the woodchuck; but to Cho’s credit he has produced more than a mere copy of that classic. Unlike Bloom County, where cynicism and hyperbole always steamrollered the gentle idealism that was its bedrock, Cho never allows Skinny Panda’s gentleness to be overcome by the crudity that surrounds it.

Rather than a continuous storyline, Skinny Panda is much more like print comic strips which will have stories that only last a week or so, or even stand-alone strips that have no relation to those that come before or after it except for the characters. Interestingly enough, however, this lack of continuity only serves to reinforce the strip, since by not concentrating on long, involved plotlines more attention can be focused on the development of the characters in many diverse situations.

Cho’s artwork is detailed yet open, in that what he chooses do draw is drawn in careful detail. His sparse use of backgrounds serves to reinforce this, focusing the reader’s attention on the characters and their interaction, but when he chooses to include scenery, Cho shows that he is quite capable, indeed. Like the story discontinuity, this austerity serves to reinforce the strip’s underlying peaceful and peaceable tone.

The writing for Skinny Panda, as mentioned previously, maintains a gentle, almost philosophical tone. The story "Hey, Ten Bucks!" is an example of this, particularly the last strip, where good (or at least good nature) triumphs. Which is not to say that Cho cannot produce some excellent comic weirdness, too. "Spin the Cheese" is one of these, a story so offbeat that the reader can’t help but laugh.

And as a counterpoint to Skinny Panda and the others, Cho includes stick figure strips at irregular intervals, in what appear to be necessary outlets for material that he cannot include in the regular run of Skinny Panda. Strips such as "Technophilia" or "Cupid, Go Do Your Stuff" are laugh-out-loud funny in a way that the other strips are not, and cannot be.

As a webcomic experience, Skinny Panda travels a different path than many others. Less manic and more thoughtful than most, it is a unique strip well worth the trip down the Panda trail less taken.

Matt Trepal is a staff contributor for Comixpedia. More Details.