Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 50: Athena Wheatley

Let me list some of my favorite things for you. Time travel. Speculation regarding future technological developments. Wacky humor. Aliens. Speculation regarding future socio-political developments. Space travel. An appreciation of diversity and social justice. Cheese. If a comic contains any one of those things then it’s likely to catch my attention. To find all of those things woven together into an elegant tapestry, look no further than Athena Wheatley.

Athena Wheatley, or, Warp & Weft, is an adventure that plays out across time and space. The eponymous Athena invents a working time machine, which really is just asking for a world of trouble. The time machine sends her on a dangerous and exciting journey to the far future, where she meets aliens and robots and pirates and life-theater artists. Basically, Athena Wheatley contains all of the Best Things.

Note: Athena Wheatley is a story-based comic and should be read in order from the beginning. I’ll steer away from major plot revelations, but this post will contain some minor spoilers, mostly regarding the setup.

The future portrayed in Athena Wheatley is marvellous. Every page brims with things to look at, be they different species of aliens, strange and wonderful future technology, or devastating environmental damage to the fabric of the universe (more on that last one later). This comic is fantastical and funny, full of larger-than-life characters and amusing, if concerning, social developments. The attention to detail fills out the setting, making it breathe. There’s a great deal of absurdity in this comic, but it’s delightfully presented, and even the most ridiculous circumstances demand that the reader takes them quite seriously.

I love how they're using the emergency eyewash station to clean dishes.
Sometime in the next 7,000-odd years, humans in Athena Wheatley become assimilated into galactic society. Being human means being a member of a minority culture, largely displaced from their homeland, marginalized, and subject to simplistic stereotypes. Aliens have taken over Earth in much the same way that white man took over the Americas, moving in and demonstrating to the savage natives what it means to be civilized. At the time in which Athena arrives, the colonization of Earth is ancient history, contributing to the current political climate but not anyone’s idea of a pressing conflict. Resentment still lingers in some portion of the human population, but the rest of the galaxy has moved on. Earth’s a pretty quaint, backwater planet anyway, so it’s not like anyone’s too concerned about keeping it up to date.

Out of all the fantastical analogues for racial issues I’ve ever seen, Athena Wheatley contains possibly the most acute, and definitely the most entertaining.

The main thing everyone in the galaxy knows about Earth history is that humans invented cheese. Earth is the cheese center of the universe, and humans are typically thought of as cheesemakers and little else. And I must say, turning cheese into the defining feature of human stereotypes is absolutely perfect. I mean, I’m a human, and I do love cheese, but it’s not like that’s my entire identity, you know?

And that’s the way racism works. Individuals lose their distinction in the wash of their entire culture/race, and the culture as a whole loses its distinction to the exaggeration of one or two key features. Taking the whole of human development, the cultural variety of our species and the vast array of our accomplishments, and reducing it all to a joke about cheese, is one of the best pieces of satire I’ve encountered.

That kind of searing insight can be found throughout Athena Wheatley. The scale of the plot, however, is less attuned to grand social movements and more to the adventures and difficulties of a few individuals. Athena, along with a handful of friends, cohorts and antagonists, tend to run around following their own motivations, largely unconcerned with the greater machinations of society. The way history seems to work in this comic, weighty developments happen mainly through a confluence of individual (often short-sighted) concerns.

A handful of characters display awareness of their place in social progression, but their focus remains personal. Even staunch political activists take time to worry about the well-being of loved ones. For all that this comic maintains a level of concern for magnitudinous social developments, the story is very human (inasmuch as the word is applicable to a cast largely composed of robots and aliens).

Athena Wheatley features two interwoven stories that progress simultaneously. While Athena the Victorian-era lady tromps about in future spacefaring times, a counterpart in the much farther future attempts to prevent universal catastrophe. A connection exists between the two, and one will fall asleep only to dream of the other, but it’s not clear exactly how they are linked. Events in one era may lay the foundation for events later on, or they may be occurring in parallel timelines (when time travel is involved shit like that can happen), or there may be some grander design at work.

There are mysteries here to resolve, and I’m guessing that figuring out precisely how the two stories are connected will dovetail with figuring out how to save the universe and where the damage came from in the first place. This is one of those fascinating situations where the characters know more than the reader about some things, while the reader knows more than the characters about others, so the audience gets to try to solve puzzles at the same time the characters do. The audience just happens to be working on different puzzles.

There is one plot aspect with a wider scope than individual actions and motivations, and its influence is present throughout Athena Wheatley. Sentient activities, whether alien, human, or a combination thereof, have caused catastrophic damage to the universe. In one era the damage is an annoyance, only posing a real threat in a few isolated areas. In the other era, however, that damage has placed all life in imminent danger of destruction.

While that sounds like a heavy-handed allegory for current environmental concerns, there’s no preachy message about what we should be doing to save the world/the universe/ourselves. The people in the comic have a problem that they’re trying to solve, and even if it is analogous to problems we in the real world are trying to solve, Athena Wheatley never devolves into a heavy-handed moral about sustainable fuel. Rather, it seems an example of the way that things may change, but the challenges we face are just new versions of the same ones that have been with us all along. New and exciting technology will always risk unexpected consequences, and there will always be a new catastrophe to survive.

Though the characters in Athena Wheatley live very different lives from ours, there’s still much about their circumstances that makes it easy to relate.

Like many stories, Athena Wheatley contains mysteries that I want to see resolved. The journey is so enjoyable, though, that I’m in no hurry to skip ahead and have my questions answered. Presenting a mystery as compelling without making it frustrating is a difficult and commendable accomplishment.

So many things come together in a fine and delicate balance to make this comic what it is. Sweeping events and individual actions, humor and gravity, respect and irreverance. There’s a lot going on, and I’m always eager to find out what comes next.

Athena Wheatley is written and drawn by Sylvan Migdal, and updates on Wednesdays. I recommend it to readers who like to make fun of the future just as much as future people probably enjoy making fun of us.

You may notice a warning on the website that says “Sometimes NSFW.” That’s a caveat that I would never have considered applying to Athena Wheatley, though I can understand why Migdal would want to play it safe by including it. Athena Wheatley is a comic where sometimes people are naked, and body parts are rendered in no particular detail, usually unaccompanied by sexual suggestivity. I doubt the occasional nudity would offend the sensitivities of anyone who is unaffected by any of the rest of the content, but I will leave that judgement up to the individual reader.

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