At the rate technology is advancing, it seems inevitable that humans will one day be able to improve themselves with cybernetic enhancements. But this will also inevitably lead to a day when some people are augmented and other people are not. Such was the premise of Ari North’s webcomic, Almost Human, the first season of which is now available in both hardcover and paperback print editions. In the following email interview, North discusses what inspired and influenced this collection, and how its transition from digital to paper required some changes.
Author Image And Other Art: © Ari North 2020
Let’s start with the story. What is Always Human about, and when and where does it take place?
Always Human is set in 24th century Australia at a time when bioaugmentation (for fashion, health, and convenience) has become normal. Sunati Raval is a perfectly normal person, which means she changes her appearance constantly, selecting facial features and hair color the way we might select a scarf at a shop. Austen Carran Avila isn’t quite as normal, as she was born with an immune deficiency which prevents her from using the bioaugmentation technology that’s so common and helpful in the world she lives in. After a disastrous meet-cute, and an honest conversation, they begin a romantic relationship. The story follows the ups and downs of their relationship, as mutual crushing turns to genuine romance and understanding.
Where did you get the original idea for Always Human and how did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I’d been wanting to draw a webcomic for years, and had been trying to plan out a one-shot to practice my visual storytelling skills. Most of my favorite short comics are romances, so I thought I’d try that, too. I was noodling around with the idea of a girl crushing desperately on a friend, but not being sure if she should act on her feelings because she had a secret (perhaps she is a werewolf? a witch? an alien? a spy?).
Around this time, I saw that Webtoon was running a contest for sci-fi webcomics. Entering a contest with a deadline seemed like a great way to motivate myself to get started on my first webcomic. It was easy enough to make my developing one-shot into a sci-fi webcomic: the main character’s secret could be that she was a cyborg or a robot.
Then I thought about having to draw mechanical parts, and that did not feel like fun. So I switched over to the idea of bioaugmentation, which would hopefully involve drawing fewer straight lines. I decided it would be even more fun to draw if bioaugmentation wasn’t a secret but was so easily accessible that people casually used it for fashion. And what if instead of the main character having a secret, it was the love interest who had the secret, and the secret was that she couldn’t access this technology. The more I thought about this idea the more I fell in love with the setting and the characters and the story grew much longer than I’d initially planned.
It sounds like Always Human is a romantic sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
That sounds like an accurate description. There’s perhaps a bit of coming of age as well, as the characters reassess what is most important to them and learn to love themselves. But that’s something that shows up more in the second half of the webcomic.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Always Human? And I mean on this specific story, not on your writing style in general.
Greg Egan writes diamond-hard science fiction that fills me with awe and joy about how large the universe is, and makes me feel like my understanding of reality has changed. Schild’s Ladder is my favorite Greg Egan story. The topics it deals with are massive in scope and completely mild-blowing, and honestly the science is very dense and hurts my head, but in the best possible way. It’s been over a decade since I read it, and every now and then I’ll find myself thinking about how the book ended and catch my breath at the wonder of it all. His books inspire me so much that I named Austen’s immune condition after him (I apologize to Mr. Egan, there are probably nicer things I could have named after him).
I’m also inspired by Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, which dives into the intersection of bioaugmentation and fashion.
For character arcs, I’m very inspired by Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm trilogy, and the way she writes both character development and romance. She very carefully seeds her characters with flaws, and when they face their insecurities and realize that they do, actually, love themselves, the experience is overwhelmingly emotional. There are moments in her books that will stay with me forever and I tried to craft the character arcs in Always Human in the same way.
And finally, the writing and paneling in Always Human is very inspired by Umino Chica who combines narration, dialogue, and art together so that the reader is often experiencing all three at once. The layering of what the characters are doing, saying, and thinking is very emotionally powerful. I try to use visuals and words together the way she does.
How about non-literary influences; was Always Human influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
Does The Martian count?
Moving on to the art, who do you see as the big influences on the visuals, and especially the character designs?
So, the character designs…I first started thinking about Always Human after Legend Of Korra ended with Korra and Asami becoming a couple, and after Steven Universe revealed Ruby and Sapphire. There was a running joke in fandom spaces that fictional f/f couples should all have a blue lady and a red lady. I cheerfully decided to follow this pattern when designing Sunati and Austen.
I wanted the characters to change clothes regularly, and for them to have different styles based on their personalities, but I also wanted the clothes to feel consistent and help develop the setting. So I made a list of guidelines for futuristic clothing (large collars, lots of layers, random glowy bits, cut-outs, limited color schemes) and kept this list in mind when designing outfits (or at least, when designing outfits that weren’t intended to be “vintage”). The way I imagine futuristic fashion is definitely influenced by anime and manga, and owes a particular debt to the manga group CLAMP.
Speaking of which, the art has been described as being “anime-esque.” Are there any specific animes or mangas that you feel had a particularly big impact on the look of Always Human?
I wanted Always Human to feel a lot like a shoujo manga. In addition to the manga and mangaka I’ve already listed, I think Takaya Natsuki’s Fruits Basket, Tanemura Arina’s Full Moon O Sagashite, and Shiina Karuho’s Kimini Ni Todoke were particularly big influences on how I try to convey emotion through art, using sparkly eyes and lots of close-up panels.
Did anything come up when you were drawing Always Human that prompted you to change something about the story?
This is something that mostly happened before I started drawing, rather than during. But while developing the idea I did think a lot about what sort of art I enjoy, and about my (many!) artistic weaknesses. I knew I wasn’t very good at built environment, so the architecture in Always Human became shiny and minimalistic. I loved drawing night skies so I gave Sunati a passion for space. I wanted an excuse to get the characters out of city streets and into parks or the bush, so I gave Austen a love for nature. I realized that if the characters went on a VR date I could draw literally anything I wanted, so I slotted that into the story.
Now, as you mentioned, Always Human was originally published as a webcomic. How, if at all, is the version in this collection different, and what prompted those changes?
The webcomic was drawn to be viewed in a scrolling format, with lots of space between panels. The print version has to tell the same story but with panels slotted into pages, within a limited page count. So small changes had to be made, mostly to the art and occasionally to the text, not to change the story, but to keep it the same.
To give an example, scrolling comics often use long thin panels for emphasis, because these panels will be larger than the screen they’re viewed on, and scrolling down them will take time, creating impact. These panels serve a similar storytelling purpose as a double-page spread in a printed comic book, and so some of the long, thin webcomic panels were redrawn as double-page spreads to have the same impact in the printed version of the comic.
There are a few other changes, mostly updating some of the older, wobbly art, and toning down some of the language in the book to fit YA guidelines, which is a concern for a printed book but not for a webcomic.
You said earlier that this volume of Always Human is just the first half of a webcomic. Do you know when the second volume will be out?
Unfortunately, there’s nothing to share about book 2 yet.
Some people might be inclined to wait until the other book comes out before reading either, and some may then read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait?
Always Human wasn’t intended be read all in one go, so I wouldn’t recommend waiting. The webcomic was serialized on webtoons in two distinct seasons, with a break in between. The story wasn’t arbitrarily cut in half; book 1 will end where season 1 of the webcomic ended, with what I like to think of as a triumphant and heartwarming climax.
Earlier I asked if Always Human had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting Always Human into a movie, show, or game?
There hasn’t been interest, but I do think it would be very interesting to give the characters voices and to be able to tell the story in a format where the pacing is controlled by the storyteller (rather than the reader) so that background music can be incorporated into the story in the most effective way. I composed music tracks for most chapters of the webcomic, and while I think they do a lot for the atmosphere, since different people read at different speeds, the music isn’t as powerful as it could be because it couldn’t be written to swell or fade away at exactly the right moments. So I guess I’d be most excited by either a movie or a TV show, because it would allow music to become a key element of the storytelling.
It’s hard for me to picture Always Human as a game, mostly because romantic games typically engage the player by allowing choices where the story splits off and takes different paths. This interactivity is one of the greatest strengths of video game storytelling, and I’d love to tell a story with choices one day. But I can’t imagine any of the Always Human characters making different choices or the story going in any other direction, so I think Always Human would make for a very boring game.
If Always Human was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like them to cast as Sunati and Austen and why them? Also, would you want it to be animated or live action?
In my wildest dreams, I’d wish for an animated version of the story. I conceived of Always Human as an illustrated story, and it’s hard to visualize the characters as real people. The thought of a live-action adaptation makes me a bit nervous, because I’ve imagined 24th Century Australia as mostly multiracial, and I can think of a few live-action sci-fi adaptations that haven’t cast multiracial societies very well, which breaks verisimilitude.
That said, the TV version of The Expanse is incredibly well cast. The casting adds to and reinforces the world-building, which is incredible. So while I don’t have a dream cast for Always Human, anyone involved in the casting for The Expanse would be part of my dream team.
Finally, if someone enjoys Always Human, what graphic novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
I’m going to make three recommendations, because this is a tough question.
Bloom Into You by Nakatani Nio is a manga about two high school girls navigating a romantic relationship while figuring out who they are, what they actually want out of this relationship and how they feel about romantic love in general. It’s gorgeously drawn, with complicated leads who slowly learn to love themselves.
Space Boy by Stephen McCranie is a webcomic that began life on Webtoon and now exists in printed form. It’s a science-fiction story about a high school girl adapting to life on Earth after growing up in a mining colony (while slowly uncovering world-changing secrets). This version of future Earth is so well crafted that I can easily imagine living there, and the characters deal with their emotions in painfully believable ways. It’s an incredible read.
Heartstopper by Alice Oseman is another webcomic that also exists in printed form. It’s a sweet, gentle story about two high school boys who become friends and, eventually, boyfriends, while struggling with social expectations, and figuring out how (and if) to let family and friends know about their relationship. This is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt romances I’ve read, and the art is expressive and atmospheric.