In the totalitarian world of Unnatural, the humanoid animal citizens have a responsibility to propagate their species by entering a monogamous relationship with, and only with, a member of the opposite-sex of their own animal species. Anything else is, well, unnatural, and punishable, first by rehabilitation and, on a second offense, by death. If a citizen hasn’t found a mate by the age of twenty-five, the government matching program called ReaLove steps in and matchmakes for them. When pig-girl Leslie, who is haunted by explicit cross-species dreams of a wolf, enters the program, a massive reproductive-focused conspiracy about gods and power is uncovered. Sort of.
The conspiracy part is weird and overly complicated. There’s technology (surveillance cameras and genetic matchmaking apps), there’s theology (a wolf-god called The Albino, which itself is not great), and there are, fortunately, moments when a character is too tired to hear a full explanation so the author can drag out the tension. Also, don’t get attached to anybody around Leslie. The body count here is high.
Although the book is marketed as romance, erotic romance, and erotica, and I didn’t see any of those descriptions as accurate; I would call it some sort of dystopian fantasy suspense. Unnatural is a twelve-part story arc, available for sale in three volumes in the U.S. – Unnatural Vol. 1: The Awakening, Unnatural Vol 2: The Hunt, and Unnatural Vol 3: Rebirth. To write this review, I read the first two before I got burned out, and by the end of Volume 2, I couldn’t even tell you who Leslie’s romantic interest is supposed to be. There’s The Albino, who is basically a psychotic murderous spirit, and there’s another albino wolf named Khal, who has the advantage of being alive but the disadvantage of having zero interactions with Leslie that indicate any kind of personal or sexual interest. I assume she’s supposed to end up with one of them, but only because of the marketing. As far as erotica – well, by the end of Volume 2, nobody’s even had sex. It seems like the ‘erotica’ component is based on the fact that there are a lot of nipples.
And damn, are there a lot of nipples. Mirka Andolfo, the artist/illustrator, did a lot of work for D.C. comics before this (including Harley Quinn), and the legacy of how male-oriented superhero comics show female bodies is strong here. I appreciate that Leslie is lush and curvy, but she’s drawn in a way that feels prurient and exploitative. Her breasts – the human two, not the pig six, by the way – explode out of the top of every outfit. She arches her back, straddles furniture, is artfully draped by sliding-off sheer sheets… it’s as if every minute of her day is secretly doubling as a pin-up shoot. This is most evident at the end of each edition, when we see ‘variant covers’ drawn by different artists. I had been so inundated with these hyper-sexualized depictions of the heroine that it was kind of a shock to contrast Andolfo’s drawings with those of other artists (one of the best? The drawing by Stjepan Sejic, whose Sunstone I loved and DIK’d here).
The art is problematic in another way. This story is about humanoid animals engaging in sexual activity with each other, and that may be a non-starter for a lot of people. For me, the problem was not the animal-human hybrid concept itself, but the fact that the hybridization was not consistent. With the exception of her flopped-over ears and miniscule corkscrew tail, Leslie looks human – even her pig nose is well within the depictions of human noses in graphic novel form. Her anatomy is human, and her skin looks like typical pinkish-peach Caucasian skin. But the wolf she dreams of is – basically just a wolf. He is completely covered in white fur, has clawed paw-hands (Leslie does not have trotters), has a wolf face and wolf skull – the only thing human about him is that he stands on his back legs and occasionally wears pants. Instead of equally non-human fantastical characters, what we end up with looks like bestiality.
What is good about this book? Well, the setting is intriguing, and I appreciate the core message – that love across any kind of difference is acceptable, and that those who try to control it are evil. Also, while I don’t like the obsession with Leslie’s anatomy, everything else about the art is very strong. The layouts are energetic and varied, the color is terrific, and everything from line work to facial expressions is professional and polished, which isn’t easy to do with animal-adapted facial features. I also think I might not have been so put off if I hadn’t been promised genres I didn’t get.
As I mentioned, I stopped after Volume 2, because nothing I disliked could be fixed by buying and pushing myself through the final volume. I did think I should be transparent with you about it, though.