Webcomic Review: Harbourmaster
Melissa DeHaan (Wayward)
Non-binary character(s), ace-spec character
Full disclosure: I love this comic. I've been reading it for years. In fact, after reading probably a few hundred webcomics and then losing touch with most of them, this is one of the few I've stuck with.
The tagline for the author's website is, “Come for the seafood, stay for the meandering space drama,” and it’s pretty accurate. The universe is well-built, from the alien’s biology to plant and animal life, but where it really shines is in portraying the day-to-day life of two families of planetary bureaucrats with entirely different politics, histories, and even species.
The story centers around Tal, the governor in charge of the only colony on a planet called Tethys, a planet shared between three species: the indigenous, insectoid Entomorphs; a race of space-farers called Aquaans; and humans. Tal’s job is to oversee the city and to make sure the human-and-Aquaan settlement doesn’t encroach on the Entomorphs’ claim to their planet.
Twenty years into Tal's governorship, his predecessor's estranged child, Thalassa Gilou, arrives to try to take over the position of governor.
In the end, Gilou takes on the eponymous role of Harbourmaster, Tal’s second-in-command.
An Aquaan and the child of the former (now deceased) governor, Gilou is nonbinary, non-monogamous, and pansexual, and comes from a nonbinary, non-monogamous, pansexual species. Tal is quite probably asexual, definitely touch-averse, and raised in a strict patriarchy which believes that the Aquaans as a species, as well as the genetic modifications they can perform, are immoral.
Gilou keeps Tal on his toes, challenges him to be a better person…
…and hides a secret agenda of her own.
As they get to know each other better, though, they are able to speak honestly about a variety of subjects, and Tal is able to learn a lot from Gilou.
Including stuff like this.
Tal is anxious and easily embarrassed. He’s plagued by guilt and self-deprecation, despite having had the majority of his adult life to work through in a supportive environment. He spends a fair amount of his time wrestling with his own privilege, in ways occasionally as cringeworthy as they are true to life.
Luckily, Gilou, though younger than Tal, was raised in the very supportive environment Tal is still adjusting to after decades. She's been encouraged by her family and culture to speak plainly and take no bullshit, but also to be both patient and compassionate.
Over the course of the series, they get to know each other better, starting as wary adversaries and becoming acquaintances and eventually even close friends. Their constant, thoughtful negotiation of boundaries doesn’t stop them from caring about each other a great deal.
Besides the asexual protagonist and the pan, nonbinary deuteragonist who takes up just about as much screen time (and who the comic is named after), it’s worth mentioning that the cast has a wide variety of LGBT+ characters, even without counting the Aquaans.
The worldbuilding is great for lovers of queer theory, sociology, biology (especially marine biology and herpetology), philosophy, and sci-fi and speculative fiction in general. It’s balanced out with a diverse and well-rounded cast of characters, some of which occasionally take over the narrative from the protagonists.
Overall, the comic is a heartwarming account of a pair of people who start out distrustful and wary of each other, and become fast friends who help each other and aim to make the world a better place.
It's a story that grants space: in the art, in the pacing, in the world and the story themselves. People have time to grow and develop, to grieve and to strike a sort of equilibrium. They have their worse impulses, but they have the time to recognize them and devise alternatives. They have lives. Breathlessness is a common technique to maintain a reader's interest, but in this comic it is balanced with a sense of the passage of time.
Harbourmaster is about many things, but to me one of the biggest themes that stands out is that of peace. The characters struggle to find it, protect it, and recover it. It’s about how much work that takes, and all the beauty that can blossom, with time and patience, in the space it provides.
Most of the story is light-hearted and philosophical by turns, but it can and does touch on darker subjects, like compulsory heterosexuality, war crimes, rape, grooming, homophobia, and misogyny. There is also the occasional burst of physical violence, the more striking for being unexpected (and starkly different from most of the rest of the story’s tone).
The last few chapters of the second volume are particularly poignant, with Tal and Gilou’s relationship developing in the knowledge that they’ll soon be spending some time apart. Those are some of my favorite chapters…except for the ones at the start of Volume III, which is when everything changes.
It’s a bit of a slow read in places, for a webcomic—the author manages to fit a lot of text the speech bubbles, while keeping things readable. There aren’t many moments of action, especially early on, but the leisurely pace and low stakes of most of the beats of the story makes the high-tension scenes feel that much more dramatic by comparison.
It also seriously bears rereading, as there’s foreshadowing virtually from the first page that only comes to bear much later. Even on my fourth or fifth reread to write this review, I've put together a little more of where the story might end up going. I am buckling my metaphorical seatbelt. Things could get very bad for all involved—worse even than they are already...
I can’t wait to see what happens.
The comic can be found on the creator Wayward's website (you can find the Archive page here, or the link to the first page here), or on their DeviantArt here, if you have one of those. I enjoy reading it on DeviantArt because there's a bit more commentary, but when it comes to reading back through the archive, the website is the more convenient option.