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The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal by E. K. Weaver, tjandamal.com and Iron Circus Comics – Very Mature Readers (please don’t show this to your kids)
It could – and has – been argued that the purpose of media like film, television and literature should be to give a voice to the unheard and to give society an insight into a perspective people hadn’t considered. The media doesn’t always follow through on this front, and the representation of minorities is a topic that comes up every year without fail. Comics have been especially slow to change. This is, in part, the remnants of the self-censorship that publishers put their companies under for the majority of the twentieth century, but also the rather toxic and exclusionary version of nerd culture that is particularly associated with comic book fans. In mainstream comics, a gay character is still newsworthy.
On the other side of that spectrum are webcomics. Webcomic writers do not rely on their projected sales like a comics publishing company does, nor is there any job ladder for them to climb in order to get their stories out there, which means that webcomics are a hotbed for the kind of stories you only wish most media would tell. In particular, the LGBT+ community has a lot of representation in webcomics – not all of it good. Popular trends like the boy love (or BL) genre are extremely dominant and very problematic, mainly existing to appeal to the heterosexual female audience. However, that doesn’t detract from some of the extraordinary gems to be found online, completely for free (for us poor souls trying to read some good comics on a student budget).
The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal is without a doubt one of those gems. Amal’s whole life is turned around in one day after he breaks off his arranged marriage and comes out as gay to his deeply conservative parents. Disowned by his family, with his sister Sangeet’s graduation in a week, Amal somehow finds himself abandoning his medicine degree and embarking on a 3000 mile road trip from California to Rhode Island with a complete stranger – the laid-back, seemingly simple TJ – paying for it all. As their journey goes on the pair slowly discover each other through a series of inconsequential, meaningful capers, dingy motel rooms and classic American roadside cafes.
There are a lot of genres this comic could be parcelled into – the American road trip, romance, the Bildungsroman. Yet reading it, it is impossible to dismiss it as “just another love story”. Their relationship is constructed subtly and painstakingly over the course of 500 pages of beautifully expressive art – drawn so skilfully that you could read the whole thing without any words and still understand their emotions and character development with just as much clarity. In fact, whole chapters and sequences in it are completely wordless.
There is not much more that can be said about this story without completely spoiling it, but suffice to say it is a true masterpiece that everyone should read. Unlike many webcomics which have been forgotten in the depths of the internet, TJ and Amal has actually managed to achieve some quite impressive commercial success as well, having garnered much critical acclaim and with a second printing of its kick-starter funded printed omnibus edition in full swing. Lots of creators who get their work published then delete their work online, or block it behind a paywall, but E. K. Weaver has left the original available for free online. I have read it all three times now, and I am eternally grateful.