Review: Always Human by walkingnorth

Always Human by walkingnorth

This is a story about nanobots, genetic engineering, and two girls falling in love. No matter how technology changes us, we’ll always be human. — [X]

I swear I’m not pretending this month’s theme is Whatever Yash Wants. It’s just that I’m in a bit of a reading slump, and also a writing slump, and all I’m doing is reading webcomics, because they’re the only things keeping me from losing my soul to cover letters.

Always Human* by walkingnorth is one of the webcomics that I’ve been re-reading to keep myself happy. I’ve been following walkingnorth’s work since I came across her fantastic Legend fanart, so watching her develop her webcomic, this world, and these characters has been pretty exciting for me. The fact that it’s doing so well is an awesome bonus.

The little synopsis doesn’t say much about the story–or it says just enough–so here’s the low-down: in some distant future, where humans can use modifications (“mods”) to alter their bodies and minds, Sunati keeps running into a girl at the station, one whose physical features remain unchanged day after day. Sunati is intrigued by what she thinks a show of bravery, and harbours something of a crush on the strange girl. Obviously, Austen is a real person and not at all the mysterious figure that Sunati has made up in her head, which makes this meet-cute an unusual starting point for an unusual relationship.

One of the things I really enjoy about Always Human is how, even for a webcomic, it really favours images over words as a way of story-telling. So much of Sunati and Austen’s relationship (and relationship troubles) show in the way the background changes or the small quirk of an eyebrow. Now, webcomics–unlike print publications that have different release dates for different places–can be accessible for anyone with internet access. Thus, they can benefit from webcomics that don’t have that much of a language barrier. Instead of going completely wordless like the lovely 150 Days, I think Always Human strikes a happy medium and does a great job of telling a story that can be read by people whose first language isn’t English. It also helps that walkingnorth’s art style has such depth and so many tiny details that you could get lost in them. Catching up on weekly updates of Always Human is an experience in and of itself. Unlike updates where my eyes automatically race through the dialogue, Always Human forces me to slow down and savour the small things.

*At this point, it should be noted that every page comes with its own mood music, either setting the background up for us or setting up the mood. It’s a fun treat, though if you’re reading this in a library, you may want to mute your speakers! (Take it from someone who knows, library patrons can side-eye you until who crawl into the bathroom to hide.)

Despite the focus on illustration, the writing is pretty good. The dialogues are simple and funny, sometimes the kind of funny that comes from awkwardness and sometimes the kind of funny that comes from being adorable. Between Sunati and Austen and their friends, we get the best of both. There’s also the way walkingnorth gradually builds the world with each new page, sometimes each new panel–the exposition is some of the best I’ve seen, webcomic or otherwise. It never burdens you with details, but it also leaves you wanting more. Personally, I’m very interested to learn more about humans in this world and the way they use mods. (I have a lot of questions about mental illness and maybe even physical disabilities in this world, and I’m sure walkingnorth–who has, thus far, not shied away from tackling issues like it–will explore in the future.)

Of course, the world could be the most interesting fictional place I’ve ever read, but if isn’t accompanied by characters that are fun and real, I can’t be bothered. Walkingnorth does, however, deliver on this front. Aside from Sunati and Austen and their not inconsiderable flaws and quirks (definitely the reason we keep clicking “next”), even the minor characters are incredibly interesting and have such personality that sometimes you wish the comics were all about them. Rae, Sunati’s childhood friend, is one of my favourites. Rae is canonically asexual–one of the few such characters in … well, damn, almost any genre and/or medium. And have I mentioned I love her? This extra that walkingnorth did for Valentine’s Day should show you why:

More recently, we’ve been introduced to Austen’s sibling, Yasel, who is non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns. Yasel is pretty conniving, except you could never hate them for it because they’re just so adorable. How adorable you ask? Adorable to extinguish all fires of annoyance and make you temporarily forget they were anything but angelic.

Always Human by Walkingnorth (Yasel)

Always Human by Walkingnorth (Yasel 2)

Basically, walkingnorth is great at writing characters and I don’t even care if this ends up with a sprawling, high fantasy type cast–I would love each and every one of the characters.

Just as how the images:words ratio makes the reading of Always Human a more universal experience, it also draws in a range of age groups. Aside from the swearing in Spanish that Austen often resorts to, I’d say that anyone above the age of twelve or thirteen can melt into the story quite easily. (At least, judging by what I’ve read so far. I am not sure how long the story arc is and honestly, anything could change in the future.)

Always Human is definitely something to pick up if you’re in the mood for great art, sweet characters, and the kind of LGBTQIA+ representation that doesn’t make you hate the world. Definitely check it out!

PS: Stay tuned for an interview with walkingnorth! It should go up tomorrow! 🙂