Always Human

by walkingnorth

Cover image

Publisher: LINE WEBTOON
Copyright: 2015-2017
Format: Online graphic novel
Pages: 336

This is an on-line work, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing.

Always Human is a graphic novel published on the LINE WEBTOON platform. It was originally published in weekly updates and is now complete in two "seasons." It is readable for free, starting with episode one. The pages metadata in the sidebar is therefore a bit of a lie: it's my guess on how many pages this would be if it were published as a traditional graphic novel (four times the number of episodes), provided as a rough guide of how long it might take to read (and because I have a bunch of annual reading metadata that I base on page count, even if I have to make up the concept of pages).

Always Human is set in a 24th century world in which body modifications for medical, cosmetic, and entertainment purposes are ubiquitous. What this story refers to as "mods" are nanobots that encompass everything from hair and skin color changes through protection from radiation to allow interplanetary travel to anti-cancer treatments. Most of them can be trivially applied with no discomfort, and they've largely taken over the fashion industry (and just about everything else). The people of this world spend as little time thinking about their underlying mechanics as we spend thinking about synthetic fabrics.

This is why Sunati is so struck by the young woman she sees at the train station. Sunati first noticed her four months ago, and she's not changed anything about herself since: not her hair, her eye color, her skin color, or any of the other things Sunati (and nearly everyone else) change regularly. To Sunati, it's a striking image of self-confidence and increases her desire to find an excuse to say hello. When the mystery woman sneezes one day, she sees her opportunity: offer her a hay-fever mod that she carries with her!

Alas for Sunati's initial approach, Austen isn't simply brave or quirky. She has Egan's Syndrome, an auto-immune problem that makes it impossible to use mods. Sunati wasn't expecting her kind offer to be met with frustrated tears. In typical Sunati form, she spends a bunch of time trying to understand what happened, overthinking it, hoping to see Austen again, and freezing when she does. Lucky for Sunati, typical Austen form is to approach her directly and apologize, leading to an explanatory conversation and a trial date.

Always Human is Sunati and Austen's story: their gentle and occasionally bumbling romance, Sunati's indecisiveness and tendency to talk herself out of communicating, and Austen's determined, relentless, and occasionally sharp-edged insistence on defining herself. It's not the sort of story that has wars, murder mysteries, or grand conspiracies; the external plot drivers are more mundane concerns like choice of majors, meeting your girlfriend's parents, and complicated job offers. It's also, delightfully, not the sort of story that creates dramatic tension by occasionally turning the characters into blithering idiots.

Sunati and Austen are by no means perfect. Both of them do hurt each other without intending to, both of them have blind spots, and both of them occasionally struggle with making emergencies out of things that don't need to be emergencies. But once those problems surface, they deal with them with love and care and some surprisingly good advice. My first reading was nervous. I wasn't sure I could trust walkingnorth not to do something stupid to the relationship for drama; that's so common in fiction. I can reassure you that this is a place where you can trust the author.

This is also a story about disability, and there I don't have the background to provide the same reassurance with much confidence. However, at least from my perspective, Always Human reliably treats Austen as a person first, weaves her disability into her choices and beliefs without making it the cause of everything in her life, and tackles head-on some of the complexities of social perception of disabilities and the bad tendency to turn people into Inspirational Disabled Role Model. It felt to me like it struck a good balance.

This is also a society that's far more open about human diversity in romantic relationships, although there I think it says more about where we currently are as a society than what the 24th century will "actually" be like. The lesbian relationship at the heart of the story goes essentially unremarked; we're now at a place where that can happen without making it a plot element, at least for authors and audiences below a certain age range. The (absolutely wonderful) asexual and non-binary characters in the supporting cast, and the one polyamorous relationship, are treated with thoughtful care, but still have to be remarked on by the characters.

I think this says less about walkingnorth as a writer than it does about managing the expectations of the reader. Those ideas are still unfamiliar enough that, unless the author is very skilled, they have to choose between dragging the viciousness of current politics into the story (which would be massively out of place here) or approaching the topic with an earnestness that feels a bit like an after-school special. walkingnorth does the latter and errs on the side of being a little too didactic, but does it with a gentle sense of openness that fits the quiet and supportive mood of the whole story. It feels like a necessary phase that we have to go through between no representation at all and the possibility of unremarked representation, which we're approaching for gay and lesbian relationships.

You can tell from this review that I mostly care about the story rather than the art (and am not much of an art reviewer), but this is a graphic novel, so I'll try to say a few things about it. The art seemed clearly anime- or manga-inspired to me: large eyes as the default, use of manga conventions for some facial expressions, and occasional nods towards a chibi style for particularly emotional scenes. The color palette has a lot of soft pastels that fit the emotionally gentle and careful mood. The focus is on human figures and shows a lot of subtlety of facial expressions, but you won't get as much in the way of awe-inspiring 24th century backgrounds. For the story that walkingnorth is telling, the art worked extremely well for me.

The author also composed music for each episode. I'm not reviewing it because, to be honest, I didn't enable it. Reading, even graphic novels, isn't that sort of multimedia experience for me. If, however, you like that sort of thing, I have been told by several other people that it's quite good and fits the mood of the story.

That brings up another caution: technology. A nice thing about books, and to a lesser extent traditionally-published graphic novels, is that whether you can read it doesn't depend on your technological choices. This is a web publishing platform, and while apparently it's a good one that offers some nice benefits for the author (and the author is paid for their work directly), it relies on a bunch of JavaScript magic (as one might expect from the soundtrack). I had to fiddle with uMatrix to get it to work and still occasionally saw confusing delays in the background loading some of the images that make up an episode. People with more persnickety ad and JavaScript blockers have reported having trouble getting it to display at all. And, of course, one has to hope that the company won't lose interest or go out of business, causing Always Human to disappear. I'd love to buy a graphic novel on regular paper at some point in the future, although given the importance of the soundtrack to the author (and possible contracts with the web publishing company), I don't know if that will be possible.

This is a quiet, slow, and reassuring story full of gentle and honest people who are trying to be nice to each other while navigating all the tiny conflicts that still arise in life. It wasn't something I was looking for or even knew I would enjoy, and turned out to be exactly what I wanted to read when I found it. I devoured it over the course of a couple of days, and am now eagerly awaiting the author's next work (Aerial Magic). It is unapologetically cute and adorable, but that covers a solid backbone of real relationship insight. Highly recommended; it's one of the best things I've read this year.

Many thanks to James Nicoll for writing a review of this and drawing it to my attention.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-05-11

Last modified and spun 2018-05-12