Imagine a world filled with technological wonder. A world where technology allows you to change the way you look instantaneously. Imagine being able to turn your hair blue, change your skin completely in seconds, or even shape your body any way you want. This is the world found in ALWAYS HUMAN, a webcomic created by web artist walkingnorth, or Ari.

Sunati Raval, a young VR designer, lives in a world that uses a technology called modifications, or “mods,” to update her look. One day Sunati notices a beautiful girl named Austen who doesn’t appear to be using any mods at all. Austen quickly captivates her. Soon enough, Sunati finds the confidence to approach her, beginning an adorable and beautiful romance.

ALWAYS HUMAN
Sunati (Left) and Austen (Right). Image courtesy of ALWAYS HUMAN.

Luscious Art

I was immediately captivated by the first installment of this webcomic. The author’s unique art style is what really captured me. Each page is filled with vibrant, warm colors that catch the reader’s eye, presenting a kaleidoscope of hues and shades. The author presents post-modern visions of futuristic urban Australia, bringing a stunning new world to life. And the character designs are incredible. Each character truly looks like an individual, presenting their own unique style to the world. Whether altered through mods like Sunati or with their own natural beauty like Austin, every character is absolutely gorgeous. The modifications will also steal your breath with their creative eccentricity, ranging from hair color to cat eyes to multihued skin.

ALWAYS HUMAN
Image courtesy of ALWAYS HUMAN.

Amazing Diversity in ALWAYS HUMAN

In addition to a central LGBTQIA+ romance, the webcomic displays an incredible range of diversity. The two central female characters are queer women of color. Sunati is a mixed woman of primarily South Asian descent, identifying as Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, Korean, Nepalese, Malaysian, and Australian. Austen is Chilean Australian. In addition to them, the cast includes more intersectional representation. For example, Sunati’s best friend Rae is an aromantic asexual Black woman. Austen’s family even includes her two dads and gender-fluid sibling, Yael, who uses they/them pronouns.

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Addressing Ableism

ALWAYS HUMAN also presents a fascinating discussion on disability and ableism. In the webcomic, Austen has a condition known as Egan’s Syndrome. This syndrome is an immune condition that causes Austen’s body to reject the nanobots that make modifications possible. Unlike Sunati, Austen cannot use mods to physically alter her appearance. Because of this, Austen’s appearance draws an uncomfortable amount of attention in public. This is due to the “normality” of modification in their world. In addition, Austen’s body is more vulnerable to certain diseases, such as cancer, which sometimes requires her to stay in hospitals for extended periods of time for additional treatment.

Sunati’s initial attraction to Austen is partially caused by her Egan’s Syndrome, as she was drawn to Austen’s unusual physical appearance. Within the early course of the comic, Sunati often thinks of Austen as “inspiring” or “brave” for living with Egan’s Syndrome. However, Austen later points out how Sunati’s mode of thinking unintentionally “others” her.

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In Episode 27, Austen says, “Sometimes it feels like you only admire the things that make me different, the things I do because I can’t use mods. It’s like you’re so inspired by the way I live with Egan’s Syndrome that you ignore the rest of me.”

Deconstruction of “Inspiration Porn”

Austen points out Sunati’s ableist attitude, describing how, by putting Austen on an “inspirational” pedestal, Sunati reduces her depth as a human being. By calling her “brave” Sunati erases Austen’s human insecurities and flaws in living with conditions she did not choose to have.

In this sense, the author touches upon a trope called “inspiration porn,” in which able-bodied individuals wrongly romanticize disability. The trope consists of calling people with disabilities “inspirational” for simply existing. As the author illustrates, this action reduces their humanity to one aspect of their identity.

For those living with autoimmune diseases and/or other invisible disabilities, living with a disability is an everyday reality. Sometimes it requires assistive technologies, like hearing aids, prosthesis, medication, or adapting one’s environment. But disability does not equal “inspiration,” and it does not equal simplification of one’s humanity in which people with disabilities are called “inspiring” simply for existing.

Body Image

The author also created a compelling arc focusing specifically on body image and eating disorders. Because of her Egan’s Syndrome, Austen is unable to change her body as easily as others. Consequently, Austen develops an unhealthy fixation on keeping thin. Austen periodically goes to the gym, while maintaining a strict calorie-controlled diet. While for some people this works, Austen does it to the point of hating her diet and becoming aggressive if she breaks her own food rules.

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In one episode, Austen confesses her reasons to Sunati why she works so hard to maintain her weight, saying, “When I look in the mirror I want to see a body I can be happy with. I want to see a person who looks pretty.” Though ALWAYS HUMAN is set in the future, Austen’s sentiments echo many people’s feelings today. Many of us live with dissatisfaction concerning our physical appearance. Because of Western Society’s obsession with body image, we often have distorted perceptions of what constitutes “beauty.” In another episode, the author reveals Austen’s insecurities go back to her childhood. As a child, Austen looked at a character in a storybook and heartbreakingly said, “Why did everyone call her beauty. [She] doesn’t look beautiful. She looks like me.”

Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are serious issues that don’t have enough representation within our media. Disability and mental health disorders are a part of everyday reality in our world. It’s nice to see an author discuss those things in science fiction as well.

Verdict

ALWAYS HUMAN
Image courtesy of ALWAYS HUMAN.

On the author’s page, Ari states, “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.” That’s a statement I completely agree with. ALWAYS HUMAN illustrates that no matter what time you are from, what technology exists, what type of bodies we have, or who we love, all of us are essentially always human. If you are looking for a webcomic with gorgeous art, diverse representation, and an adorable queer love story, look no further than ALWAYS HUMAN.

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