I’ve been on quite the webcomics binge lately (reccing another webcomic for this column, you say? Shocking), but I can’t help it that the internet is so good at recommending well-written, diverse webcomics to me through Tumblr! Today’s web crush is White Noise, a complex fantastical webcomic about families and found families, the aftermath of tragedy, and prejudice.
White Noise launches you right into its story without taking the time to explain much of the worldbuilding, letting you figure things out as the story slowly unfolds. So it takes the reader a little while to figure out that in White Noise, there are many different worlds as per the multiverse theory — many different worlds exist next to each other, touching and overlapping as necessary. These worlds are filled with humans, monsters, and spirits — humans are our own self-explanatory humans, monsters are those creatures that we think of as mythological (pookas, kitsune, and the like), while spirits are ghosts and other unexplained phenomena. Humans and monsters can interbreed to produce mixed-species children.
Our protagonists are Hawk and Liya, two half-siblings who were separated from each other before the story began. Hawk, who is half-human, half-monster, is on a world called Ardh, on a series of islands known as the Symphony Archipelago, where he lived with his half-siblings Liya and Emry until they were attacked by slavers. Emry died in the attack, and Hawk saw his sister dragged away by people he believed to be slavers. Now he’s on a journey to find her. Meanwhile, Liya finds herself in Aetheri, a world inhabited by monsters. However, it doesn’t take her long to figure out that these monsters aren’t responsible for her predicament at all: they aren’t slavers but rather royal Aetherian forces who themselves were fighting against slavers. Upon coming across Emry, Liya, and Hawk, they assumed the others were dead and took Liya to safety. Liya, too, believes her brothers are both dead, and now has to figure out how to survive in a new world all alone.
To me, the most fascinating thing about this webcomic is how it deals with prejudice. Symphony Archipelago is a mostly-human place, and in it, monsters like Hawk, and any humans who run with them, like Liya, are discriminated against. Hawk was constantly targeted due to his monster heritage, and the fatal attack that killed Emry was carried out by humans, not monsters. As Hawk continues on his journey to find his sister, he falls in with other monsters also seeking refuge and the group of them eventually end up running to a different town in a narrative very reminiscent of today’s refugee stories in the real world.
Though Liya is human, she’s also magical, so she’s brought to the Aetherian palace to train as a healer. Her mentor, Helly, is a sentient tree, and most of the people she meets are monsters. Despite Liya’s own half-monster brother, she was always taught that monsters were bad and were out to hunt, kill, and eat people, particularly the monsters from Aetheri, so adjusting to life in the palace is something else. The Aetherian people themselves, led by their Cynn Numair (who is definitely named after the Tamora Pierce character), are at the forefront of the slave battle; however, many of them are against the Cynn’s actions because they don’t see the point in involving themselves in another war they believe is not related to them. Centuries ago, Aetheri instigated a great war and in so doing, killed millions of planets and their inhabitants. Now most Aetherians want nothing to do with wars or immigrants and actively try to shut out outsiders, including those like Liya, and do their best to force her to leave.
While White Noise deals with fantasy prejudice on several different levels, it thankfully doesn’t neglect our real-world prejudices in the process. Both Hawk and Liya meet people of different genders and sexual orientations, and the webcomic discusses the idea of gender identity in depth, particularly as it relates to monsters, some of whom don’t have “typical” human bodies. Liya’s new friend Yoshi teaches her that it doesn’t make sense for Helly to use either he or she pronouns, because nir is a tree, and Hawk learns that while his new friend Teige is a pooka and can shapeshift, that doesn’t mean that he can shift his body to that of a cis person’s. However, the comic doesn’t do as great a job with race. Characters of color exist throughout the comic, but the comic doesn’t go into any detail at all about different races or different cultures, should they exist. In fact, you have to read the extras just to figure out that Hawk gets his skin color from his father, who was Indian; though it’s clear that Hawk is one of our main characters of color, the effects of his ethnicity on his character are never mentioned in the comic.
Nevertheless, White Noise is doing a fantastic job with the already numerous issues it’s covering (and to be honest, if I stopped reading webcomics just because of racial missteps, I wouldn’t be able to have a single web crush for this column ever again). I especially love how author/artist Adrien Lee’s art style has developed through the years; it’s gone from sketchy to a practically professional polished, and I love the colors he uses when we get to Liya doing magic or Hawk and the gang fighting off slavers. You can find White Noise here on its website, and if you like it, you can also learn more about the complex worldbuilding on its Tumblr, follow the author on Twitter, or support him on Patreon.