[Review] Artifice

One of the small tragedies of my teenage life was my unfortunate addiction to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series. I have a number of excuses for this. For one, I was reading it in translation, and unlike MZB herself, her German translators could actually string together a grammatically correct sentence. Most importantly, though, I found the books addictive because some of the characters were “people like me”, where in this particular context I mean LGBT people.
Growing up in the 1990s in a small town in the Austrian mountains and working out that I was bisexual was an… interesting experience. For a start, Austria’s a bit Catholic. Some of the key social issues at the time were whether people who divorced and remarried would be allowed to receive Communion in church (file under “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”), and who the President would take to the Opernball now that he was divorced (file under “Hello magazine”). This was very much not a world in which people like me existed, so I turned to badly written science fiction as my last resort.
Things are better in 2012 in the UK, but not hugely better. The BBC’s own research identifies significant opportunities for improving the portrayal of LGBT people in the media. While things are steadily improving, we’re still essentially in single story territory. More often than not, we still talk about the gay character, rather than the character who has a full life and just happens to be gay. More often than not, the story is about coming out rather than anything else – and while showcasing a range of coming out stories is still hugely important, so is getting beyond that point and showcasing diverse and authentic characters for whom sexual orientation is only one facet of their life.
This is where Alex Woolfson’s Artifice comes in. Artifice bills itself as a “gay sci-fi webcomic” – a label I originally struggled with because I’m not too fond of pigeon holes, but which seems to get the title the kind of exposure and audience it needs. Set in a distant future where a mysterious corporation makes “artificial persons” – androids far stronger and smarter than humans but visually indistinguishable from them – it follows the story of android Deacon as he ends up stranded on a mission in the company of gay teenager Jeff.
As the story’s wonderful antagonist, Deacon’s “shrink” Dr Maven, tries to figure out what went wrong with the corporation’s asset to make him kill several members of the recovery team and assault a guard, Artifice helps us explore what it is to be human. This is of course precisely the kind of question good science fiction should ask, and Alex Woolfson does this well. The comic owes a lot to science fiction’s classics – from Dick to Asimov – but adds its own unique touches. Alex is a skilled storyteller, and artist Winona Nelson is great particularly at capturing facial expressions and body language – both absolutely crucial to a story as character-driven as this.
I found Artifice fairly recently so was lucky enough to have a huge chunk of the comic to read in one go before having to obsessively reload the page every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Yet once I got to the weekly update schedule, obsessively refresh I did as the pace of the story speeded up to what looked increasingly like it was going to be a tragic ending. I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to say that page 83 of Artifice is perhaps the single most satisfying page in webcomics. The bottom line is that Alex and Winona have told a story that is intelligent, compassionate, good science fiction which happens to have characters which happen to be gay.
Something else which drew me to Artifice was its funding model. Readers of my writing on digital rights will know that I have an interest in alternative funding models for art. Alex combined an ad-supported model and weekly publishing schedule with a “tip jar”. Hitting a donation target of $250 would generate a bonus page in a given week, thus giving readers more of the story faster. It speaks volumes for the quality of Artifice and the kind of community Alex has created with his tireless engagement with fans that for the last six months or so it has pretty much been running on a twice-a-week update schedule as fans have donated $250 every week.
Now that the story of Deacon and Jeff is told, Alex is working on a project to produce a printed version of Artifice. A Kickstarter campaign is already well funded, but any additional money raised will go towards making an even better finished product and generating bonus Artifice content such as poster prints and mini comics – all of which is to be encouraged. After all, with more Artifice in our lives, fewer kids will be forced to read Marion Zimmer Bradley as their last resort.

2 thoughts on “[Review] Artifice

  1. Peter Emuss

    Thanks for the webcomic recommendation; going to read as we speak.
    I remember when I was a kid that the only idea that I had that gay even existed was the Police Academy films with the ‘hilarious’ Blue Oyster running joke. Even with growing up in England, a nominally less religious country, I still didn’t get to see any sympathetic LGBT characters in media until I was well into my late teens and watching season 4 of Buffy. And, entertainingly, I didn’t even realise they *were* gay until the hints and allusions were exchanged for it blatantly being stated.

  2. Peter Emuss

    54 pages into Artifice and I’ve already gone to the KickStarter to pledge $5 for the PDF and the bonus stories. Depending on how the rest of the story plays out, that’ll possibly go up to the $30 required for the book.
    Was a bit dubious from the first page with the labelling of “gay sci-fi webcomic” and it being hosted on a site called yaoi, but you were right, the story itself is definitely worth the time.


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