Science fiction is seldom just about technology. It’s about the impact of technology on humanity – the way in which it can improve our world. Or break it.
Artifice, a completed webcomic by writer Alex Woolfson and illustrator Winona Nelson, follows a slightly different route. It explores humanity’s impact on technology. The technology in this case is an advanced android soldier.
D3763, or Deacon as he is known throughout the story, is deployed to eliminate a settlement of scientists. However, he fails in his objective by letting one of the targets survive. At first, his reason for allowing Jeff Linnell to survive seems cold and self-serving. Over time, it becomes clear that he is studying Jeff, hoping to unlock the secret of what it means to be human.
As the story progresses, Deacon’s fascination with Jeff blooms into mutual infatuation and attraction and finally, love.
The story intercuts between an extended flashback exploring their relationship and Deacon’s session with Dr. Clarice Maven, the story’s main antagonist.
Dr. Maven is tasked with finding out what went wrong with Deacon, causing him to ignore his objective. Woolfson approaches their scenes together intelligently. Without ever resorting to crass overstatement, he manages to draw similarities between their session and conversion therapy. Conversion therapy (also called reparative therapy) is a discredited form of “therapy” aimed at changing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Like practitioners of this harmful pseudo-science, Dr. Maven is trying to change Deacon to fit an acceptable mould. In the comic, she is more than just a figure of medical authority. She is also a terrifying maternal figure who holds the very power of life and death over Deacon and his lover. To win his independence and autonomy, Deacon is forced to break away from her control. It’s an apt metaphor for the journey of many LGBT youth and their rejection of the obsolete values belonging to older generations.
Deacon makes a charismatic and intelligent protagonist. As an android, he is a fusion of physical perfection and clear-headed pragmatism. It makes all the more touching to see such a rational man capitulate to that most irrational of emotions – love.
I doubt I’m alone in finding Jeff a refreshing same-sex love interest. Unlike many people, I don’t harbor a deep dislike for the yaoi genre because I recognize it for what it is: fantasy. However, I do understand that many gay and bisexual men dismiss it as a way of dressing up stereotypical straight romance as gay love stories.
I believe many female writers feel uncomfortable with writing love stories in which men and women adhere to strict gender roles. By writing yaoi, they can include stereotypical hetero-normative roles by making both protagonists male. This is often done without awareness of the dynamics of real-life femme-butch couples (which deserve their place in fiction as much as masculine pairings.)
Since Woolfson’s site is titled Yaoi 911 , I approached Artifice with some trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that neither Deacon or Jeff fell into the stereotypical yaoi roles of uke and seme. While Deacon is undoubtedly the more physically intimidating of the two, the sensitive, long-haired and slender Jeff is strong-willed and highly capable in a different way.
Unlike Deacon, he has faced the prejudice that comes from growing up gay in a hostile environment. That speaks of a deep inner strength. He also plays a crucial role throughout the webcomic and in its finale.
Winona Nelson’s artwork is a visual treat, fill of subtle visual nuances. Her clean linework harkens back to the classic comics of the 70’s and 80’s. She proves to be as adept at depicting dynamic action scenes as tender, romantic ones. It’s a rare pleasure to see webcomics with artwork of a such a professional level.
Woolfson proves himself to be a highly competent writer as well as a highly talented one. There are many webcomic writers brimming with raw talent but few bring the same discipline and craft to their works as Woolfson. He understands how to structure and pace a compelling story without sacrificing any of the vital character interaction. His dialogue comes across as plausible, both when his characters are expressing emotion or describing the technology of their world.
He manages to deftly suggest a world run on advanced technology by weaving it into the story. Such technology is taken for granted in the world of Artifice much in the same way in which we take the internet for granted in ours. The action scenes are used sparingly to ensure maximum impact. The love scenes are tender and realistic, capturing all the awkwardness of first love.
If DC is looking to include more LGBT-savy writers in their stable, they’d be hard-pressed to find a more worthy addition.
Artifice is many things. It’s an allegorical tale about the challenges faced by LGBT youth. A science fiction yarn. A love story. A coming of age tale. Woolfson’s webcomic manages to span several genres and it does so successfully.
Like Deacon, Artifice is more than the sum of its parts.