I’ve been becoming more and more obsessed with Webtoon comics lately, so it’s exciting to see a comic that originated on that platform getting a print release. Hopefully this becomes a trend, as I have a number of favourites which I’d love to be able to own a physical copy of!
Written and illustrated by Ari North, Always Human is a beautiful and inclusive sci-fi romance about a, somewhat, awkward young lady who falls for a woman living with a rare disability and the difficulties that they face as they try to build a supportive and honest relationship.
Sunati first notices Austen because she doesn’t use any fashion mods – a technology that uses nanobots to alter someone’s physical appearance – and she’s struck by the other woman’s courage. Since nearly everyone uses mods to appear more beautiful or to give themselves exotic and fantastical features, she thinks that Austen must have a lot of self-confidence and finds herself drawn to her strength. When she gets an opportunity to speak to her, however, she discovers that Austen isn’t forgoing mods by choice; she has a condition, known as Egan’s Syndrome, which causes her immune system to reject nanobots. This means that Austen can’t use fashion mods or any of the various other mods that people use to improve their physical or mental capabilities, something that causes her a lot of difficulties in her daily life. This revelation only serves to deepen Sunati’s admiration for her and she impulsively asks Austen out on a date. Although she agrees to go out with her, Austen is a bit suspicious of Sunati’s interest, fearing that it’s more fueled by curiosity about her condition then by genuine feelings for her. Can Sunati convince her of her sincerity? Or will their budding relationship crumble once things start to get difficult?
The art in this book is absolutely gorgeous! It’s bright and colourful, with minimalistic water-colour backgrounds and adorable, but still futuristic looking, character designs. North’s vision of the future is warm and welcoming and I was pleasantly surprised by how technology positive the comic was. Stories that warn against becoming too reliant on technology or pushing scientific advancements too far, are so common that I’m starting to find them trite. Rather than decrying how Sunati and the other characters in the comic use technology to alter themselves, fashion mods are presented as something fun that gives people the freedom to better express their identities. Other kinds of mods help to make life more convenient and pleasant and there are even ones that prevent terrible illnesses, such as cancer. Advancements in technology have caused changes to society, and there are some people who prefer to live life more naturally, but, overall, improvements to technology have helped to make everyday life better for the average person and it was refreshing to read such a hopeful take on the future.
These advances don’t benefit everyone, unfortunately, and Austen not only has to cope with people constantly staring at her because of how ordinary she looks, she also struggles with her University course work because she can’t make use of the memory or focus enhancing mods that all of her peers can use. She’s managed to find ways to compensate for some of these disadvantages, but most of the time Austen simply needs to work twice as hard as everyone else in order to keep up. And even that isn’t always enough. The stress and frustration of her situation can sometimes get to her, but Austen is determined to continue pursuing her dreams, no matter how hard it is for her, something that Sunati greatly respects about her. But the way that Sunati marvels at the strength Austen shows while coping with Egan’s Syndrome soon becomes a source of conflict between them.
The more Sunati praises her, the more Austen feels like Sunati is putting her up on a pedestal. After all, Austen isn’t living without mods by choice and she doesn’t feel brave for doing what she has to do. Sunati didn’t mean to, but she was putting a lot of pressure on Austen by viewing her as inspirational and she wasn’t really seeing her as a complete person with faults, just like anyone else. This leads to some very emotional, but necessary, conversations between the two of them and, thankfully, Sunati is open to listening and to working to do better. I enjoyed how direct Austen is and the emphasis that Always Human puts on the importance of open and mature communication in a relationship.
I found Always Human to be a very sweet and gentle romance that offers a thoughtful look at some of the issues that someone living with a disability can face and a deft portrayal of healthy communication. This is a simply lovely book that’s perfect for both teens and adults. I think it would appeal to fans of yuri manga and to anyone in the mood for a feel-good LGBTQ+ romance.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10
For more information on this title, visit Little Bee Books’ website.
What did you think of this graphic novel? What webtoons would you most like to see get a print release? Let me know in the comments!