Always Human: A Comic of Life and Love Without Mods

I’ve learned to devour webcomics in the same way that geeks of another generation would dig into comic books and graphic novels (honestly, the only comics I ever read religiously as a kid were Calvin and Hobbes). That means reading a lot of El Goonish Shive and Gunnerkrigg Court, as well as some shorter, lesser-known works like Always Human.

I found this comic entirely by accident while browsing through Tumblr, but the moment I read the first page, I knew I couldn’t turn away from all this colorful, soulful, high-tech goodness.

In the far future, Sunati is a girl of the modern world who changes her appearances through “mods” on a regular basis. But that trend comes to a halt when she notices the same girl who never changes her look, and who can’t, in fact, use mods herself. Sunati makes an effort to get to know this girl, Austen, and better understand her condition. This leads to them becoming more than just friends, and from there, the adventure really takes off.

Our main characters are a nice blend of dorky and confident. Sunati Raval is our blue-haired Everyman, our protagonist and audience surrogate trying to better understand the world in which her new girlfriend lives. Austen Carran Avila is her newfound friend-turned-love interest, born with Egan’s Syndrome and working hard to finish her studies as a coder. They come from different backgrounds, but the heart and soul of Always Human is their gentle, probing conversations and excited trips through virtual and physical space.

The webcomic is unique as a multimedia platform. Never before have I seen a comic come with its own soundtrack, which is nicely ethereal and sci-fi in tone. It’s great to see artists on the Web do more with the medium, taking advantage of the freedom they have to engage their audiences in a story.

While the music was the first thing to draw me in, the illustrations kept me engaged. I’m a sucker for anything related to transhumanism, so seeing Sunati talk about applying mods to her appearance every month was right up my alley. And that’s to say nothing of the minimalist, retro-futurist scenery in the background. But, of course, the high-tech angle gets balanced out with plenty of cute designs, like little Luna the cat-bot.

I also love the premise of the world that walkingnorth created. It’s one thing where everyone enhances themselves with a thousand different mods or built-in apps, but it’s something else when you get to delve into the split between people who use mods and those who can’t (a.k.a. Austen) or won’t (a.k.a. the Naturalists). Most sci-fi stories of this nature will either come down as suspicious of new technology or dismissive of anyone who chooses to be “left behind.” Here, we get a nuanced view of both worlds, with all their ups and downs.

Rather fitting that our two leads come from both worlds, isn’t it?

I seriously enjoyed this comic and I hope to see some new updates soon. It’s one of the most genuinely pleasant reads I’ve had in a long time, and I’m happy to see content featuring two non-white, non-straight leads interacting for once (and since one of them is Latina, I can totally follow her whenever she dips into Spanish). If you’re looking for something well-designed and short to try, then you’ve got to start reading (and listening) to this webcomic when you get the chance.

Always Human is available for reading and listening on Webtoons.comNew pages are added every Saturday. You can also see more designs on the creator’s Tumblr page.

Image Credit: walkingnorth (creator). Always Human (webcomic).

My Top 5 Favorite Webcomics

Although I’m a kid of the Nineties, I never actually got into comic books like so many other geeks my age (though I still became a fan of Batman and the rest of the DC Universe through cartoons and movies).  For most of my childhood, the only comic I ever read consistently was Calvin and Hobbes.  But in my college years, I was introduced to webcomics, which I absorb with the same passion as other geeks might delve into traditional comics.

So here are my favorite webcomics to date.

5. Penny Arcade

penny arcade
“I Hope You Like Text.” April 10, 2006.  Art by Mike Krahulik. Copyright © 2006 by Penny Arcade.

As has been said before, Penny Arcade is the original webcomic.  The one so many others have tried to imitate in the hope of glimpsing a shadow of its Olympian triumph.  Written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik, PA delves into the world of their alter egos, Tycho and Gabe, as they discuss video games, pop culture, geekdom, and whatever else tickles their fancy.  What sets this franchise apart from other gamer comics is the partnership between Holkins and Krahulik, translating into a hilarious friendship between their characters, and giving us great dialogue with some highly evocative artwork.  I wasn’t a gamer when I started reading the comic, but after I became one, my love for it only deepened.

Penny Arcade updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

4. Darths & Droids

"No Dice."  December 20, 2007.  Copyright © 2007 by The Comic Irregulars.
“No Dice.” December 20, 2007. Copyright © 2007 by The Comic Irregulars.

Back when I was in college, I was introduced to another part of geek life: tabletop roleplaying games.  It started with the Star Wars RPG, and from there went into Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and Eclipse Phase.  With that kind of background, of course I’d be drawn to a comic like Darths & Droids, which takes stills from every Star Wars film and adds dialogue to turn an epic saga into an extended campaign between a very odd group of friends.  But truth be told, I love it for all the jabs it takes at Star Wars and RPGs in general.  And I really like the new ways it interprets characters like Qui-Gon Jinn and Anakin Skywalker.  Their take on Chancellor Valorum and General Grievous are so wonderfully over-the-top that it’s hard not to like them in spite of their original movie dialogue.  The writers for Darths & Droids know Star Wars and RPG mechanics inside and out, producing a very colorful but consistent tale.

Darths & Droids updates every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

3. xkcd

xkcd#843 (see I can do humorous alt text, too!)
From “Misconceptions.” One panel sums up the POV of Randall Munroe.

Math and science can seem intimidating to the general public, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a little bit fun.  And since I was raised with a healthy respect for math and science, I get a lot of fun out of xkcd by former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe.  Yes, sometimes his comics are just a list of endless calculations or puns based on a high-level physics equation or make sense only if you understand Linux programming.  But there’s also a lot of heart and self-deprecation, and playful jabs at more well-known concepts.  And in some strips, Munroe’s comic gets personal and oddly touching, especially when it comes to romance and optimism.

xkcd updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  For additional reading, Munroe’s “What If?” segment updates every Tuesday.

2. Dresden Codak

dresden codak
“The Rising Sun.” July 1, 2008. Copyright © 2005-2011 by Aaron Diaz.

I’ve written a few articles and reviews on the subject of the Singularity and its expression in fiction.  But even while a webcomic like Dresden Codak goes into it, I find I can’t stay mad at it.  The story and artwork are just too damn good.  While the protagonist Kim is a devout Singularitarian, she’s also fallible, likable, and on a search for answers about her past and the dark world in which she lives.  Aaron Diaz takes dry science and breathes passion and color into it with amazing artwork, setting his characters against breathtaking landscapes and cities.

Dresden Codak updates on an approximately monthly basis.

1. Gunnerkrigg Court

"Treatise."  March 11, 2013.  Copyright © 2013 by Tom Siddell.
“Treatise 5.” March 11, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Siddell.

Most people I know are fans of the Harry Potter books.  But when it comes to the genre of Magical British Boarding School Fiction, I’ve always preferred a quirky but meaningful saga called Gunnerkrigg Court. Written and illustrated by Tom Siddell, the comic follows Antimony “Annie” Carver, a brilliant but aloof student who tries to fit in while having an absurd knack for befriending “etheric beings” and unraveling mysteries inside the Court.  The setting is a well thought-out blend of magic and technology, blending robots with nature spirits, or magic spells with engineering.  This theme carries over to Annie’s friendship with Kat.  These two dynamic heroines provide as much wit and feeling in their relationship as any other webcomic duo (a more lighthearted Tycho and Gabe, if you will).  The saga starts out small, but has become more intricate and wide-reaching of late, giving weight to every character’s action and dialogue.

Gunnerkrigg Court updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

I wanted to make this a Top 10 list, but these are about the only webcomics I truly follow with a passion.  I will, however, give an honorable mention to The Trenches, The Intrepid Girlbotand the Snowflame comic by Julie Sydor.  If you have any webcomics you’d like to recommend for review, let me know in the comments below.

And Then There Were Three: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

Copyright © 2012 by Penny Arcade and Zeboyd Games.

The third and most recent episode of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is a bit of an unusual follow-up to the first two installments.  For one thing, the story’s rather bizarre (and that’s saying something considering this series).  For another thing, the graphics are a bit… retro.

To get the story out of the way, there’s no player character in this game.  Instead you can control any of the main characters in the group, like Tycho, Gabe, Anne-Claire, and Jim the Skull.  You also get a new addition to the cast: Moira, Tycho’s ex-wife-turned-private-detective.  And with her addition, we get more focus on Tycho’s backstory, his family’s relations with the occult, and their obsession with the imminent end of the world.  Dr. Blood from Episode Two returns with a suitably larger role in the plot, being every bit the man of legend that the last game made him out to be.  On the whole, this is a much darker story than the previous episodes.

One thing I miss about the previous games is the way dialogue was handled.  A little bar would pop up from the bottom of the screen and you could see characters’ reactions and dialogue rendered in the same style as the Penny Arcade webcomic.  It made the games a real treat for me, having read just about every PA strip there is.  The dialogue system here is more of a classic style, which fits the visual element.

Copyright © 2012 by Penny Arcade and Zeboyd Games.

If you’ve ever played the early Final Fantasy games, then the gameplay should be familiar.  Zeboyd Games specializes in developing 8-bit and 16-bit-style video games like the kind that once made Nintendo such a powerhouse.  Movement and combat is two-dimensional, though the same fighting RPG  system is in place.

I have to admit that I didn’t really get much out of this game, though that’s not because I think’s it’s low-quality (far from it!).  Even though I grew up in the Nineties, I never really played any video games; my first serious game was playing Star Wars: Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy in the early 2000s.  I never really spent any time playing old-school games like Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, or Sonic the Hedgehog.  My game collection consists of more three-dimensional and immersive games like Portal, Jedi Academy, Republic Commando, and–naturally–Penny Arcade Adventures.

Having read about the delay in getting this game made and having to change from Hothead Games to Zeboyd Games as a developer, I can appreciate the change in gameplay, but it just doesn’t have the same spirit as the first two did for me.  I could argue that the series has been hit with trilogy syndrome and the third game naturally fails, but that’s not the case.  It’s simply not my taste, though I daresay a lot of people can find a lot to love about it.

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 is available for purchase and download through Steam.

Bibliography: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3.  Designed by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.  Developed by Zeboyd Games.  Release date: June 25, 2012.

Even More Startling Developments: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two

Copyright © 2008 by Penny Arcade and Hothead Games.

After like their first game, the creative minds behind Penny Arcade came up with a satisfying sequel in On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode Two.  Chills, thrills, and overkills galore.

For the most part, this game does very well at following up on the story of the previous game, filling in the gaps on the nature of the Four Gods, the tragic history of the Brahe Family, and how the player character from the first game is coping with the ongoing loss of his house.  There’s a lot more character development for Tycho, since Gabe is intentionally one-dimensional and fun-loving (though he gets a nice moment with a robot monkey named Mr. Tails).  And there’s ultimately a deeper mythology being established, especially when Tycho and the chief villain get into the strange relationship between dark magic and machines.

Copyright © 2008 by Penny Arcade and Hothead Games.

As far as actual gameplay goes, it’s mostly on par with that of Episode One.  One nice feature is that you can import your character from the first game, allowing him or her to continue leveling up and developing new attacks as you progress.  By the final battle, Tycho, Gabe, and I had all hit the maximum at Level 30 and were bashing through our opponents with patient and persistent attacks.  But it almost doesn’t matter when you come up against Fruit Fucker Prime, the final boss, whose gargantuan stature is almost nigh-impossible to comprehend, let alone take down.  It mostly becomes an endurance contest until help can arrive, though if you’ve learned to be patient in building up your special and team-up attacks, you can ultimately triumph.

By far, my favorite part of the game–and it’s definitely one of the more creative and challenging parts–is a mini-game, wherein you’re dosed with mind-altering drugs at an insane asylum and get help from PA characters Twisp and Catsby to rewire your own brain through a puzzle of interlinking pathways.  It’s unusual and daunting, but it’s a problem-solving delight set to a great piece of original music titled “A Madman and his Violin.”

I enjoyed this game about as much as I did the first one, though I know it’s not over yet.  Stay tuned for my review of the third game, in which we take a blast to the past and reacquaint ourselves with MIDI-style music.

On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two is available for purchase and download through Steam.  A recording of my favorite track, “A Madman and His Violin,” is available for listening on YouTube courtesy of the user Verothix.

Bibliography: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two.  Designed by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.  Developed by Hothead Games.  Release date: October 29, 2008.

Strange Happenings And Stranger Companions: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One

Copyright © 2008 by Penny Arcade and Hothead Games.

Strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to be a gamer to enjoy the long-celebrated webcomic Penny Arcade for its irreverent humor, cartoonish illustration, and brilliant dialogue.  By that same logic, it’s also not necessary to be a veteran gamer to enjoy the first of the video game series Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.

Episode One of this series is a dark comedy dieselpunk RPG featuring our two heroes, Gabe and Tycho, and the player’s own customizable character.  Through 3D-style gaming (based on the same format as the Final Fantasy games) and 2D-style dialogue inserts (in a lovely homage to the webcomic), you take up arms against an army of Fruit Fucker robots, hobos, clowns, and sinister mimes.  And in the final boss battle, you get to take on Cthulhu.  With a pair of fists, a machine gun, and a rake.

Copyright © 2008 by Penny Arcade and Hothead Games.

By far, this is one of the most challenging and rewarding gaming experiences I’ve ever had.  It’s a testament to Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik that they’re experienced enough to design their own game, while also daring enough to make fighting hobos and orange-raping robots into a serious proposition.  I will say that I did have some trouble getting used to the RPG style of combat, but that’s mostly due to my unfamiliarity with RPG video games.  I also tried hard to collect as many robot parts as I could to keep upgrading my team’s weapons, and for whatever reason, the Fruit Fucker fights seemed less available around the second half of the game, which was when I needed them the most.

All in all, I love this game on the same level as I love the Portal games.  I won’t just purchase and play anything.  I want my experience to be a challenge as well as witty and entertaining, and this game succeeds on both levels.

Stay tuned for my reviews of the next two episodes of On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (God, how I love writing out that title).

On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One is available for purchase and download through Steam.

Bibliography: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One.  Developed by Hothead Games.  Designed by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.  Release date: May 21, 2008.