Thanks to Tumblr and Deviantart, I have come across a ridiculous amount of pretty fantastic webcomics. Most of which, I must admit, are yaoi/boys’ love in nature. Some of them are really quite amazing, and I’ve been wanting to spotlight some of them here, to spread the word. Today we’re going to look at Artifice, a science fiction webcomic written by Alex Woolfson and drawn by Winona Nelson. Artifice follows the android Deacon, recently returned from a bloody mission where he disobeyed orders and even attacked members of a retrieval team. Considered to be malfunctioning and a danger to the company that made him, he is sent to talk to the psychiatrist Doctor Clarice Maven about his actions during his failed mission. It was during this mission that he met a human named Jeff, and the weeks they spent together waiting for retrieval had a major impact on Deacon’s view of both the world and himself.
This wonderfully written and beautifully drawn webcomic currently has a Kickstarter campaign going in order to raise money to publish a collection of the first part of the comic. Please check it out and spare a few dollars if you can! Just a $5 donation will get you a PDF of the book when it’s done. Donations are open through Monday, April 9, 2012.
By the way, Artifice wrapped up just recently (on March 31, 2012), and you can read it in its entirety for free online. But I can tell you, Winona’s art will look fantastic on the printed page. You’ll also get some nice bonuses ordering the book through the Kickstarter campaign.
ComicAttack: Hey, Alex! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.
Alex Woolfson: It’s very much my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
AW: Sure. I grew up in Vermont and I’ve always enjoyed writing. When I was a young kid and in my early teens, that was mostly short stories. But in my senior year, the drama department of my high school offered Seniors the opportunity to direct a play. The idea of directing actors telling a story that mattered to me was really appealing to me, so I wrote my first play and continued to write more plays throughout college.
After college, I found that the story ideas that appealed to me the most (action and sci-fi stories), could be better told through film, so I then focused on film scripts and learning to make films. (Which is what led me into my current day job of being a film/video editor.)
After I made my first short film (“Pitch”), I was hooked on visually storytelling but I realized that my ideas would be too expensive for me to make as films on my own and, with strong gay characters, were also unlikely to ever get funding from Hollywood. Luckily for me, I also had a passion for comics, so I decided to try my hand at that. In comics, you have an unlimited special effects budget. 😉 And now that I’ve had the experience of making comics, there’s no turning back.
CA: How about a quick summary of the themes in your current ongoing webcomic Artifice?
AW: I’d say Artifice is primarily about what it means to be a “person” and how love and connection to other people relate to that. But there are also themes of the individual vs. corporate/military power, isolation and the power of love.
AW: The very first germ of the idea came while I was watching Cameron’s Aliens (one of my favorite action movies and one that heavily influenced my ideas about good genre writing when I was a kid).
There’s a scene early on where someone calls the android Bishop a “synthetic”. Bishop corrects that person, letting him know that he prefers to be called an “artificial person.” Clearly, Cameron was riffing off the media attention that was being given to various groups—such as African-Americans and people with disabilities—who were asking to be referred to by names of their own choosing instead of by labels outsiders thrust on them.
About the same time I saw Aliens, I was just beginning to come out and there was a movement in the gay community to “reclaim hurtful words” and, in particular, to use the word “queer” as a way to self-identify. As someone who had always found the word “gay” a little wimpy-sounding, the more aggressive reclaiming of the word “queer” resonated with me.
So, when seeing this scene, my mind immediately started speculating what the next step of political evolution for the androids would be—what would they call themselves if they were no longer begging to be liked by the majority but, rather, decided they would prefer to be respected and maybe even feared instead?
I soon came up with an image in my head of an android responding to some abusive guards with the quip: “Actually, I prefer the term… inhuman.” And from that scene, the rest of Artifice was born.
CA: How did you meet Winona Nelson and decide on her as your artist?
AW: The pencil work for my very first comic “A Shot in the Dark”—a short magic school rescue story—had just been completed and I needed an inker/colorist. I put out postings on the Internet looking to hire someone for that and received hundreds of responses. But Winona’s portfolio was simply light years beyond anyone else’s work. I hired her, she exceeded my already very high expectations and we had a lot of fun doing making comics together.
Artifice was a story I felt was very special, but after seeing what Winona could do, I knew she’d be perfect for it.
CA: Why androids? Do you like exploring the idea of fully developed artificial life?
AW: I like the idea of exploring the lives of outcasts. Of those who are really just as human as you and I but who, for whatever reason, society sees as less than human. Certainly growing up gay—where I could clearly see the discrepancy between what society told me gay people were like and my own experience—informs my desire to tell this kind of story.
And androids who can rip people’s arms off are just cool.
CA: So about Doctor Maven. Can you talk a bit about her role and motivations, or would that be cheating? From my perspective, she’s all about the job and getting results for the company.
AW: I can certainly say you’re right in thinking that Dr. Maven wants to do a good job and especially wants others to think she is capable of great things. But she does have other motivations that made this more personal that I might like to explore in a future story.
CA: Considering that Deacon is a killing machine, I find it odd when he reacts with surprise or fear to Dr. Maven’s angry outbursts. He goads her a bit, too (he’s just a little arrogant at times). Is he reacting to something in his programming, or is she just that terrifying?
AW: Maven is just that terrifying.
(And, of course, we discover later Deacon has his own reasons for wanting to show fear in those moments…)
CA: Does Deacon’s name stand for something? Or is that just the model’s designation?
AW: There are meanings with the word “Deacon” that I liked. “Servant” being one of them. But it’s also a play off the Aliens‘ movie convention of naming each of their androids after a letter of the alphabet “Ash, Bishop, Call…”
CA: I found it interesting that in the world of Artifice, being homosexual is a genetic quirk, a shift in a chromosome. It suggests that 1) it’s not a choice for Jeff, and 2) that it makes him somehow abnormal in his world on a genetic level. Could you explain this decision and maybe elaborate on how that science fits into your world?
AW: This was much discussed in the comments and what I tried to make clear there is that there are a number of things that influences one’s sexual preference in my world—most of the time it would be the result of a complex interplay of genetics and environment—but that this particular genetic configuration almost guaranteed a sexual/romantic interest in males for other males.
So yes, it definitely never felt like a choice for Jeff—which mirrors the experience of most gay men I know when they talk about their sexuality, so that certainly informed that choice here. I, of course, wouldn’t use the “abnormal” for his genetics—that word has a pejorative tone—any more than I would use the word “abnormal” for left-handed folks. It is unusual, it’s something in his file that could be revealed to others and that revelation could make ignorant people treat him very badly. That’s what mostly informed my decision here to make his sexual orientation almost entirely genetically based.
Also, doing so helped to highlight that science had advanced to the point where that level of accurate genetic knowledge about a person was trivial to determine and reveal.
CA: Deacon is remarkably emotive for a machine designed to kill and perform missions too dangerous for humans. Is that part of the initial design, or does the AI grow into such things on its own?
AW: The ability to experience emotions is something that was part of his design from the beginning. But the question in Deacon’s case is whether through something special about him and through his experiences with Jeff, he is uniquely able to feel emotion and connection to other. That’s something I might explore more later.
AW: Yes, he has tactile sensations which are thousands of times more acute than what you or I could experience. He would say that he can experience pain, but that it might not be the same way we would experience it. He could certainly function in a military capacity far better than a human could after experiencing similar trauma.
And as far as I know, Deacon doesn’t eat. Or at least doesn’t get much energy through food calories. In the comic, he gets his energy though the Energy Distribution Network on Da Vinci Four. He could probably eat food to keep up appearances on covert missions, though.
If you’re referring to what he says in Panel 2 on page 62, he was just using inclusive language. Only Jeff needed the “edible rations”.
CA: Do you have a favorite page or scene? I like when Deacon asks Jeff if he finds him attractive, and, unsatisfied with the answer Jeff gives him, starts stripping off his clothes to prove a point. Deacon just looks so innocent.
AW: Yes, that scene was a lot of fun to write—and even more fun to get art for!
As for a favorite scene, it’s a bit like asking which of my children is my favorite. But there are moments, I particularly enjoy: the “not really” that Deacon says at the bottom of page 25, the unzipping on page 41, pretty much all of Maven on page 67…
CA: On pages 38 and 42 (and some others), there are framed photos on the desk in the room Jeff and Deacon are in. Are these photos of Jeff’s mother? Where is she?
AW: Yes, those are photos of Jeff’s mother. On page 25, Jeff says “She died seven months ago. Lung cancer.” so I assume her body or ashes are buried somewhere on Da Vinci Four.
CA: I must confess a rising suspicion that Deacon arranged with Jeff back at the lab, a way for Jeff to override him if he was ever ordered to harm him. I know you won’t confirm or deny that, so I, and everyone else, will just have to wait patiently. Or impatiently, I guess. [Note: These questions were written before those events were revealed. This has indeed been answered!]
AW: Now that Artifice is finished, I think you have an answer for that. 😉
CA: What other comics have you worked on/are you working on?
AW: Now that Artifice is finished, I’ve launched my next webcomic, a multi-chapter superhero yaoi story called The Young Protectors featuring art by DC/Marvel penciler Adam DeKraker and colorist 2011 Harvey Award Nominee Veronica Gandini. Like Artifice, it will update every Saturday. You can start reading it here:
CA: You currently have a Kickstarter campaign going for Artifice. Would you talk a little about what will be included in this book, along with the unique extras you are offering for your backers?
AW: Sure. In addition to the complete story, the book will include special features such as creator commentary, a section about the making of Artifice and also a collection of the best humorous responses I made in the Comments section of the site while using the voice of the evil Noneco corporation.
Other special rewards include Artifice art prints and an additional 5-10 page Artifice comic that shows what our heroes are up to after the events of the webcomic and will be available as a PDF download for backers.
CA: Thank you, Alex!