February122012

The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal by E.K. Weaver

Oh man, I have been looking forward to reviewing this comic for some time.  I’m going to skip any formal introduction and simply say, in honor of Valentine’s Day I’m reviewing what I consider to be the best romance currently in webcomics:

The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal, by E.K. Weaver, is one of those special, all too rare comics that come along and show you what you’ve been missing in your life.  Whether its a good adventure, a new perspective, or a bit of introspection, TJ and Amal is a tour de force of storytelling with its beautiful artwork, poignant themes, and loveable characters.  This love story is honest, messy, and heartfelt, the humor buoyant and universal, and the struggles human and infinite.

Genre: Romance/Slice-of-Life/Drama/Comedy

Plot:  As the title states, TJ and Amal are our less than epic heroes thrust into close proximity who ultimately change each others’ lives forever.  The story begins in California with Amal Chakravarthy, an Indian-American med student, whose traditional and conservative family have effectively disowned him after he comes out to them.  Despite this conflict, he is desperate to attend his younger sister’s graduation in Providence, Rhode Island.

In a drunken stupor, Amal meets TJ, a mysterious, easy-going drifter with seemingly limitless funds and a sudden and urgent desire to travel cross-country.  TJ explains to a hungover Amal their arrangement, specifically: Amal drives, TJ pays.

Thus begins a whirlwind road trip that takes our unlikely heroes through the lush and varied landscape of the United States.  While the story focuses for a long time on their burgeoning friendship and shared interests, there is an attraction and tension between TJ and Amal that neither can ignore.  Not only that, but as the story progresses we begin to suspect TJ’s motives may not be as harmless as we thought.

Let me also mention that E.K. Weaver is a master of character.  TJ and Amal are fully three dimensional, complicated, and flawed.  Every character has a complex and detailed background, which only adds to the continued feeling that these are real people in our world that we could meet any day.  Amal is a great example of a believable character because he questions himself, he argues despite being wrong, he makes concessions and rationalizes bad behavior, and yet he is likeable because he is so very human, so fallible, that we see ourselves in him, and at times TJ as well with his laid back wisdom, love of classic rock, and desires to be unfettered and happy.

Warnings:  There is definitely a certain degree of swearing in this comic, as well as recreational drug use and alcoholism, though all uses of this are fairly tame and commonplace.  Naturally the comic is not work safe and does contain sex (spoilers: our boys get frisky!) but really the elements I would warn about are mentions and allusion to homophobia, severe drug addiction, and prostitution.  There hasn’t been any violence so far, though according to Ms. Weaver they do get into a fight at a Waffle House, so who knows!

Art:  The first thing that caught me about this comic was in fact the art, before I knew anything of the plot or the romance.  Ms. Weaver’s style is elegant and evocative.  The comic is largely in black and white, with a few full page color spreads in specific chapters.  Her technique is clean and pleasing, expertly inked but still drawn with the freedom of a pencil sketch.  Not only can Ms. Weaver capture a beautiful range of body types and expressions in this style, her illustrations of the North American landscape are breathtaking.

With a practiced hand Ms. Weaver can leave you giggling or leave you in tears.  Her style is reminiscent of Shinichiro Watanabe’s work in Cowboy Bebop, stylized yet somehow stunningly realistic in form and detail (she has cited Spike Spiegel as having a major influence on TJ’s design).  Her style is very cinematographic, capturing characters at interesting angles or in mid-gesture, adding to the overall feel that we are watching a moment captured in time.  Also these can prove to be hilarious:

Ms. Weaver’s biggest strength, I feel, is the deftness with which her drawings emote.  Her illustrations simply radiate with feeling and unspoken thoughts, desires, hopes; and it is with the subtlest beauty that she works in these sentimental silences into her narrative, nestled comfortably between hilarious hypothetical death matches and heartfelt confessions.

And you’re probably wondering about the sexy bits!  Now the sex is not as graphic as some other NSFW comics, but there is a fair share of nudity and junk-touching, all lovingly rendered and intimate.  Ms. Weaver creates this mood flawlessly, “zooming in” the focus so that the lover’s face or hand or body fills the whole panel, and suddenly you are flushed and frightened and there with them in that private space.  Her style is perfect for capturing the physicality and emotions wrapped up in sex , whether romantic or sensual or just plain silly, she transitions between them all flawlessly and with pizazz.

Final Recommendation:  Ok, can you tell I LOVE this comic yet?  The Less Than Epic Adventures TJ and Amal, despite being a mouthful, is worth every moment of your time because it accomplishes what so few romances cannot.  It tells a true and honest story about two people who go on a road trip and fall in love because they like each other.  Because despite their differences they care for each other and are attracted to each other and both need someone to be there and understand them, which is something that everyone can relate to.

Too often I see stories like this crowded by unnecessary complications or cowed by a lack of development in both character and plot.  TJ and Amal do neither of these things, and yet somehow Ms. Weaver’s story is accessible and not the slightest bit pretentious.  It should be brought up that Ms. Weaver has also managed to portray two very normal, realistic men in a same-sex relationship rather than relegating them to the stereotypes that so often plague both dramas and comedies alike.  TJ and Amal feel like real people because she treats them like real people.

The story itself is chock full of pop culture and music references, and many of the boys’ conversations revolve around these.  Even with all the dramatic elements, TJ and Amal’s interactions will always make you laugh and Ms. Weaver never misses a beat, her dialogue runs smooth as butter and witty as all get out.

In the end, looking over this review, I can already see I’ve said far more than I need to about this comic.  It is something that is not only worth reading, it is worth keeping close to your heart.  TJ and Amal, while still making mistakes and being general dumbasses at times, can teach you a lot of things, most importantly: its not what lies at the destination, but what you discover on the journey there.

The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal is currently 25 chapters long and updates every Tuesday and Thursday.

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