The Sci-Fi Comic Book That Portrays Gay Romance as Completely Normal

Artifice is a well-written, cleverly plotted action-romance with two likable, appealing leads who both happen to be men.
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AMW Comics

The sci-fi android romance comic Artifice is arresting—but not because it features gay protagonists. Rather, it's arresting because, reading it, you suddenly realize the extent to which gay protagonists are normal.

"Normal," in this context, means a couple of things. Most straightforwardly (if that's the right word here), writer Alex Woolfson and artist Winona Nelson are working in the yaoi comics genre. Yaoi—also referred to as boys' love or BL—is a Japanese comics (manga) genre written mostly by women, for women, which focuses on romance between gay men. The genre is popular with a small but avid fanbase in the United States—and Woolfson has courted that audience explicitly. Artifice, published in book form this month, first appeared as a webcomic on Woolfson's website, which is called Yaoi911.

Admittedly, Nelson's art is looks much more like mainstream Western comics illustration than like manga. But Woolfson's story is very much in the yaoi tradition. In the west, the strongest traditions of gay comics have been confessional (like Fun Home) or pornographic (like Tom of Finland). Woolfson, on the other hand, tells a story about an android assassin (Deacon) who falls in love with a young man (Jeff) his corporate owners want him to kill. Much of the comic involves Deacon talking to a therapist (Dr. Clarice Maven) whose job is to try to get him to work out his issues so he can return to being a good corporate solider The gay romance, in other words, is a trope, to be mixed in gleefully with other tropes—android assassins! malevolent analysts!—in the interest of pleasurable genre frisson. Gayness, in this context, is "normal" in the sense that it is conventional. It's a story element that you use just as you would use, say, heterosexual romance—because genre readers want genre pleasures, and this is one of the genre pleasures they want.

The gay romance in Artifice is, though, also normal in the sense that it is normalizing. That is, it makes it clear just how closely science fiction tropes map onto, or even, arguably, borrow from, gay experience. Woolfson isn't coy about connecting Deacon's feelings as an android with Jeff's feelings as a gay man in a future world where most homosexual children are identified and aborted in the womb. Both understand, as Deacon suggests, the loneliness of being different.

This parallel is almost over-obvious. So over-obvious, in fact, that it starts to creep out of the pages of Artifice, and into all that other science-fiction that supposedly isn't gay, but...well. Other android stories are, of course, the first place to look, from the intense relationship between Frankenstein and his unnatural, tormented, loveless monster/child/other self; to Blade Runner's virtually normal replicants clutching the photos of their half-forgotten (estranged?) families, to the nude, Tom-of-Finland muscled Schwarzenegger as Terminator.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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