Harbourmaster is an original science-fiction Web Comic by Melissa DeHaan, a.k.a. Wayward Martian (a.k.a. author of the Insecticomics), that draws on the concepts of Theodore Sturgeon. Two centuries into beginning their exploration of the galaxy, humanity encountered a stray Aquaan colony ship, the Aquaans being a much more advanced alien race. The Aquaans, however, decided to voluntarily slow down their advancement in favor of helping humanity acclimate to the needs of spacefaring society.
Harbourmaster focuses on the colony world of Tethys, the only known world to have its own landbound species, the entomorphs. The focus of the strip is on how Humans and Aquaans relate to each other. To quote the main site, "Harbourmaster has spaceships and genetic engineering and aliens, but mostly it's about evolution and love."
Harbourmaster can be found on the author's "Wayward Martian Graphics" website; the comic pages (along with other art) are also posted in the "Harbourmaster" folder of the author's DeviantArt gallery.
Harbourmaster contains examples of:
- Absent Aliens: Played with. Sapient life is very rare in the galaxy. The tsilok-Shilau were alone, and went extinct, millions of years ago, and the Qohathoth who came afterwards found their own loneliness unbearable—they apparently moved on in some fashion in a comparatively short time before humans became spacefarers, unable to wait for them. The Aquaan Generation Ship encounter was quite a surprise. Then again, considering that the Aquaans were created as unwitting pawns in Kema's scheme to guide humans into essentially becoming kinder, gentler Yogzarthu...Entomorphs, meanwhile, came to sapience comparatively recently, and have yet to find any need to go beyond hunting-gathering.
- Agent Scully: Richard Stevenson is impressively immune to evidence that he's not on Earth in 1953.
- All There in the Manual: It's a good idea to look at the DeviantArt postings, just to read Wayward's explanations of minutiae and other bits that the characters would have no reason to immediately speak of.
- Always Chaotic Evil: The Yogzarthu, although good luck telling them that. Chaotic Evil from a human or Aquaan viewpoint, yes. Ultimately averted with Kema's coterie. Even if Kema has trouble with being moral, it's because of unfamiliarity with concepts largely alien to the Yogzarthu, not any desire to stay amoral.
- Ambiguously Brown: Except on Veras, which is obsessed with maintaining all the semblances humanity had before the Unforgivable Years (and earlier than that), most humans are some shade of tan/brown/sepia. This is indeed the result of lineages mixing together during human spacefaring, although there are a few recognizable—and non-Veran—Asian and Caucasian archetypes. Emphasis on "few". Absolute similarity is interdicted not just by planetary genetic localization, but by the fact that a fair number of humans use Aquaan genetic engineering to alter their own semblances—the genetic version of cosmetic surgery.
- Anachronic Order: Most of the story is in time order, but quite a few chapters jump back in time to cover earlier events in the lives of the characters.
- Apologises a Lot: Tal even apologizes for laughing out loud.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: If Perius is anything to go by, this applies to a good chunk of the Monteblanc family—and why Tal and Anthemys are very happy to be away from them on Tethys. Further established during the Maison de Monteblanc arc with Tallifens and Bretnon.
- An Arm and a Leg: Mormo, during its attack on Tal, rips off and eats his left arm at the shoulder.
- Bilingual Bonus: After the first pages of "Pulp", when the story switches to the viewpoint of the Tethyns from that of Fish out of Temporal Water Richard Stevenson, the author shows the reader the actual French that Tal and Richard are using to communicate for a few pages. In the words of one fluent-in-French commenter:aahahahaha, oh man, I started at Richard's speech bubble
I had to reread it three times before getting it
I'm not criticising just deeply amused: you weren't kidding when you said he was supposed to be bad
- Blood Knight: Thunderfall in Nonsense. He's kind of upset that Partasah passed over him in favor of Reluctant Warriors for the Super Soldier treatment.
- Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": Some of Tethys's wildlife are similar enough to Earth-style life that they get Earth-ish names. A good example being the "wolf shark"—an orca-patterned shark-like fish that hunts in packs...and uses electrical pulses for both communication and attack.
- Clones Are People, Too: The conversation about Richard Stevenson's fate in "Pulp" seems based in this trope.
- Colony Drop: The Yogzarthu basically announced themselves by bombarding the planet Garden with a swarm of asteroids. Not meteors. Asteroids. The planet's still there, but the same can't be said for most of its life. They later did the same with Earth thinking that would demoralize humanity into truly easy pickings. They got the opposite effect.
- Common Tongue: At the time of the story, humans and Aquaans alike primarily speak a language called Standard.
- Cypher Language:
- Crosses over with Translation Convention on Page 2 of "Pulp", when Richard Stevenson wakes up and Zefonith tries to converse with him: Zefonith's dialogue is rendered as English written out in the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent the fact that Richard can't understand Standard.
- Page 20 of "Pulp" adds a second cypher, representing Richard speaking in incomprehensible English to Officer Lake; the letters are transformed versions of the usual Latin alphabet.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Nephos freaks out during a conversation about names when asked what "Caliga", his last name, means — because it's not actually a last name, it's the name of his tribe, and the planet his tribe lived on was wiped out during the war by Orbital Bombardment. (Javin goes to talk to him, in part because he's had to deal with similar trauma in his own life.)
- Deadly Decadent Court: Well, not quite "deadly", but Veras seems to run on feuds and machinations between the various major families.
- Deadpan Snarker: Zefonith.Zefonith: Of course. No one has ever cloned the memories of a body this old before. I will do it for science. I will do it for fame. And for money. Lots of money.
- Death-or-Glory Attack: The mechanism of the Last Hunt ritual of the entomorphs. A hunter who feels she's become too slow and/or weak to aid the hive will invite friends to take witness as she assails some predator that even a completely healthy and extremely adept hunter would be in a bind to kill. If the predator wins (the likely result, especially since leviathans are a legitimate option), she enjoyed a worthy end to a full life. If the hunter wins, her self-confidence is heavily revitalized with this evidence of still being competent, and she once again aids in feeding the colony.
- Defector from Decadence: Tal and Anthemys. Also Kema the Myriad.
- Depower: Thanks to the way Seisha's Healing Factor works, this is what happens to any Yogzarthu who takes a bite out of her. The end result is the Yogzarthu in question—like Mormo—being indefinitely trapped as a clone of her.
- Dirty Old Man: Javin is not above resorting to this to polish his reputation as the town's official "Public Nuisance".
- Dropping the Bombshell: Tal explains to Gilou why Anthemys' mother calls her "Marelle": it's because Marelle is their older sister whom Tallifens murdered before she turned five.
- It gets compunded later on; Falstoph reveals to Gilou that Tallifens killed his first son—Tal's heretofore unknown elder brother—for having too few Monteblanc traits.
- Ethical Slut: Aquaans are naturally polyamorous and uninhibited about sex, but central to Aquaan culture — more so than their language, even — is The Etiquette, which among other things regulates sexual behavior.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Perius may delight in being a villain, but he does not approve of Veras's habit of culling children that don't match their families' preferred phenotypes, nor of denying dead children a proper burial.
- The Face: Many people see this as Tal's actual role in the government of Port Tethys — and whether it is true or not, he's reasonably good at the public interaction parts of his job.
- Family Honor: A big deal to Verans, like the Monteblancs.
- Fantastic Racism: The denizens of Veras have an incredibly low opinion of Aquaans. Then again, their opinion of non-Veras humans isn't that much better.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel: The A-S drive on humanity's spaceships (and Aquaane ships, after the species met) allows this.
- Fish out of Temporal Water: In "Pulp: Prologue", Zefonith is hired to clone a frozen mountain climber with his memories. In "Pulp", we get to see Richard Stevenson, the aforementioned mountain climber, awaken.
- Gender Misdirection: A curious version of this involves pronouns referring to entomorphs. The entomorph language doesn't have gendered pronouns; pronouns refer instead to an entomorph's caste. Rather than mint new words for entomorph pronouns, humans just re-mapped their own pronouns for new entomorph-specific definitions. For example, "she" is mapped to a member of the entomorphs' hunter caste. So it's completely proper to refer to a male entomorph hunter with "she" and "her". Imagine the confusion if someone completely unfamiliar with this makes Tethys landfall.
- It is also confusing with the Aquaans themselves. Consider this page, and study carefully. The author admitted she struggled with whether to put a NSFW tag on this page and the ones that follow in that chapter. Why? Because while both characters portrayed are hermaphrodites, and they are not displaying any genitalia to the reader, the lighter-skinned Gilou prefers to identify by a female pronoun, and in several panels you can see "her" chest.
- Generation Ship: The history of the Aquaans only goes back as far as their life on one such vessel, prior to discovering humanity. Turns out everyone, human and Aquaan, only thinks it was a generation ship. Kema had created all the first Aquaans directly.
- Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: The Aquaans have a society strongly built on genetic adjustments, particularly on themselves. In fact, when the humans first encountered them, the Aquaans were built like skinks and crocodiles. They only took on their humanoid shapes to avoid freaking out humans.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: When a Qohathoth monument was discovered on Mars, some groups had a hard time believing and/or accepting that there could be sapients besides humans (read: they weren't unequivocally special). At least one group thought they could only be demons—and this group had some rather impressive weaponry.
- Gratuitous French: The Monteblancs, like most Veran families, have aristocratic pretensions; in their case, this includes fluency in French. This turns out to be unexpectedly useful in "Pulp", when Zefonith runs into a Language Barrier after resurrecting a twentieth-century mountain climber.
- Hermaphrodite: Although individual Aquaans have preferred pronouns, they're all genuine hermaphrodites.
- Humans Are Special: Gets deconstructed in the With More, With Less arc. The entomorphs are aware that humans cannot help but "let" the entomorphs be self-determinate. Not because of anything peculiar to the human psyche or the like, but just because humans are the ones with the far more potent weapons et al. That said, the entomorphs do like humans and a select few of their devices (mostly PDAs with their texting capability), but understand that however benevolent the giant might be, its moments of carelessness, while not malevolent, can easily be malign.
- Humans Through Alien Eyes: With More, With Less.
- I Want My Jetpack: Part of Richard Stevenson's skepticism about being a Fish out of Temporal Water is based on a belief that "[t]he future is supposed to be rocket ships and robots, not some primitive fishing village."
- In-Series Nickname:
- One of the running gags is Gilou calling Tal "Bloodless" — not because he is pale, but because "Monteblanc" sounds like Aquaan for "drained of blood".
- Clipper explains that she got her nickname from her timber officer job (her real name translates "Far Sight"), and later tells Tal that the entomorphs generally enjoy being nicknamed.
- Clipper also mentions that the entomorphs give nicknames to the humans and aquaans in their own language.Tal: ...er, what...?
Clipper: 'Smells Of Dead Leaves.'
Tal: Oh, thank you very much.
Clipper: You drink a lot of tea, we smell it on your breath. It's not a bad scent, as scents go.
- Innocently Insensitive: Fleurariel hits this obliquely when she repeats the Veran view that Aquaans don't have souls—right in front of Gilou. "Obliquely" because while Gilou doesn't take offense (she doesn't believe in souls to begin with), Tal does.
- Jerkass: Richard Stevenson.
- Just Think of the Potential: Anfre Sovi is all over this in the Disputed Territory arc in his attempts to get Tal to ignore the treaty with the entomorphs in favor of development that would de-backwater Tethys. He's just the latest in a bunch of would-be developers who can't believe the Tethyns are content with being a relative backwater.
- Kill and Replace: What Mormo plans to do with Tal in One Deal Was What We Made. Problem is, even without considering the Yogzarthu's poor understanding of Human and Aquaan mores, Mormo could have learned from Kema that Tal was about to leave for Veras anyway.
- Language Barrier: In "Pulp", Zefonith doesn't speak English and the resurrected American mountain climber Richard Stevenson doesn't speak Standard. They end up resorting to French, which Governor Tal speaks because of his aristocratic Veran upbringing and Richard speaks barely.
- Let Me Tell You a Story: Governor Tal uses the Yogzarthu as a metaphor to explain the motives behind the treaty to Anfre Sovi, who wants him to break it.
- Loners Are Freaks: Inverted with the Yogzarthu. If you're not a total loner, there's something wrong with you. Exhibit A: When Eigonshazar refers to itself and Aradneth as having a capability for cooperating with others, they only way the Yogzarthu language will let it phrase this as is "being mad".
- Mad Artist: Falstoph. To make memorials to the "defective" children the Monteblancs culled, he acquires the remains of other poor families' deceased children, claiming to be giving them proper burial, only to use the bones as the memorials' raw materials. Even more unnervingly, he was able to get Marelle's remains before they could be disposed of, and memorialized her.
- Noble Bigot: Ever since he set foot on Tethys, Tal's been throwing everything he's got at progressing from this (and the influence of his snooty upper-class family) to just plain Noble. He's still good at torturing himself whenever he finds himself partaking of even a little of his old ways and/or thought patterns, though.Tal: I'm still rotten. The herring barrel always smells of herring.
Gilou: Mm. Less so than I remember.
- Odd Friendship: When Partasah died, Gilou tried to force Tal to abdicate in her favor. Instead, she ended up being hired as his assistant ... only to discover herself beginning to like him.
- Older Than They Look: Even with genetic engineering increasing the lifespans of anyone who takes it, Seisha Dree takes it to unmatchable heights. The Healing Factor from her genetic modifications is so powerful that she ages extremely slowly. If at all.
- Overly Long Name: Bretnon Falstoph Perius Tallifens Monteblanc LVII. He never uses the whole thing except to poke fun at his aristocratic past. In every other instance, "Tal Monteblanc" or "Tal" are quite sufficient.
- Painting the Medium: Whenever non-human/Aquaan speech and language are rendered, a different speech bubble type and font are used. Entomorphs, for instance, get speech bubbles like irregular polygons and letters like single scratch mark collections. Yogzarthu get beige, irregularly scalloped speech bubbles with handwritten-like font that connects the tails and stems of letters at various intervals (it's supposed to reflect the fluid qualities of the thought patterns of creatures for whom Voluntary Shapeshifting is second nature).
- Paralyzing Fear of Sexuality: Tal is deeply uncomfortable with sexuality and physical intimacy, to the point that he can't even offer a perfectly chaste comforting hug.
- The Paranoiac: Kema. It's terrified both of how humans will react to the current connection between the rogue Yogzarthu and the Thalassa...and distrustful of even its own coterie's ability to keep itself constrained.
- Play-Along Prisoner: On Page 2 of "Pulp", Richard Stevenson grabs Zefonith by the wrist to drag him out to be ejected from the ship as a stowaway. The author notes on the DeviantArt post of the page that "yes, Zefonith could break his hold easily."
- Please Put Some Clothes On:
- One of the early arcs has a tourist woman incensed at her entomorph guide's "nudity"—as in, she isn't wearing anything like pants, skirt, etc. Despite the fact that entomorphs are insects, not mammals, and should look armored to humans, as Tal notes. Twinkletoes putting on an ad-hoc skirt mollifies the woman, sure enough. Although one wonders how she'd react when she learns that entomorphs, like dragonflies, have their genitalia bound to the tips of their tails (which aren't covered).
- That said, Tal, having grown up on straitlaced Veras, is rather unaccustomed to coping with naked humans or Aquaans.
- Precursors: The Qohathoth. Their motivation? Loneliness. The reason they terraformed so many planets was that they wanted to at least make sure that succeeding sapient species wouldn't suffer the same torment.
- Right-Hand Cat: Perius has several such cats. Unusually for the idea, the cats are very affectionate. Being a cat lover is probably the only good thing about him.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: After their defeat, the Yogzarthu were sealed into a pocket dimension.
- Shout-Out: The title page for "Pulp" has Gilou, wearing a classic men's suit, holding a lollipop in her fingers, presenting the story about to be told in the style and language of ... The Twilight Zone (1959).
- Shrouded in Myth: Earth seems to have suffered this somewhat. Meanwhile, memories of earlier human culture have become muddled enough that the Cthulhu Mythos is now thought to have been an actual (although defunct) religion. Hence planets and geological features getting names like Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and Shub-Niggurath.
- Single-Biome Planet: Tethys is essentially an Ocean Planet, although given the emphasis on the creatures above sea level, we haven't yet had much cause to look at all the pelagic biomes there might be.
- The Social Darwinist: The entire Yogzarthu species, full-tilt. That's why they attempted to destroy humanity, but also why humans could defeat them—Yogzarthu really only act individually, teamwork hampered by an innate drive to dominate and/or destroy the weaker/unfit (read: every other creature). Humans don't quite have that problem.Jendolyn: A cougar can take down a wolf...but wolves hunt in packs.
- It's worth noting that their big hint that humans were hopelessly unfit was that they went to the trouble of terraforming. To a Yogzarthu, that's cheating—you don't get to use advanced mentality to come up with shortcuts. Either your body can already happily endure whatever Death World it might run across, or the Yogzarthu who noticed you will cull you ahead of schedule.
- Standard Time Units: Both averted and played straight. Days and years are measured by a particular world's rotation and orbit, while minutes and hours are standard across all of known space.
- Starfish Language: Entomorph language consists not just of vocalizations (which already use mandibles, rather than vocal cords), but pheromone releases. Therefore, they use PDAs to communicate with humans. Although they love PDAs for more than just that (they can more easily communicate over long distances, for one).
- Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: While humanity for the most part understands that the Qohathoth were just these, there's still a tendency to fetishize them as just short of demigods. The main exception to that is the Listeners, who deify the Qohathoth.
- Super Soldier: When fighting the Yogzarthu, many humans were bioengineered into these. Cleverly, the Aquaan responsible for selecting who to enhance (Thalassa Partasah) specifically chose Reluctant Warriors. In fact, Jendolyn hates films with lots of crime and violence; she'd prefer her entertainment to not remind her of the criminal problems Tethys occasionally suffers. (Her non-soldier girlfriend, on the other hand...)
- Theme Naming: Yogzarthu don't just choose their own names, but also attach epithets. And epithets that don't suggest multiplicity in some fashion (Flock, Sundry, Plentiful, Legion, etc.) are all but non-existent.
- Translation Convention: The language the main characters speak — Standard — is not English, nor mutually comprehensible with English. (Hence the confusion that results when Zefonith finishes reviving Richard Stevenson.) What gets translated how varies from scene to scene.
- Übermensch: Alu sees herself as this, with a teeming dose of Above Good and Evil. She also sees it as the destiny of the Aquaans.
- Under the Mistletoe: The non-canon 2013 Christmas bonus strip and the non-canon 2016 Christmas bonus strip.
- The Unpronounceable: Iahutta, Aradneth, Sihuatl, and so on are just the best approximations that vocal cords can come up with for Yogzarthu names. The reason is that Yogzarthu names are actually all just one syllable each—with all the consonant phonemes in question. A sneeze would be more accurate, but still completely distant. Having modular voice boxes is how the Yogzarthu themselves can pull it off.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: The Yogzarthu. And as this page shows, it's the result of Alu becoming "unlocked".
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Played with. Technically, Hurmiz has already earned the respect of Kema, its progenitor. But Hurmiz also wants its parental love—rather difficult when Kema's still struggling to internalize the concept. As a result, it's envious, though not grudging, towards Gilou, who has caused it to begin questioning the fallout of such things as accelerating Partasah's aging to force him to make a choice about the Tethyn Yogzarthu.
- Wham Episode: And Earthly Things Be Done. There's a contingent of Yogzarthu under the Sons of Tiamat, they're headed by the same Kema the Myriad that Sihuatl's taking notes from, Kema accelerated Partasah's aging to force him to make a choice about his connection with the Yogzarthu, and those Yogzarthu are currently keeping Alu contained.
- One Deal is What We Made. In addition to Tal getting waylaid by Mormo, Kema reveals that it created the Aquaans.
- What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: After two thousand years and counting, Kema's still trying to figure out love and other aspects of what Humans and Aquaans would call morality. It certainly wants to have them, but the concepts are still rather slippery. Its spawn Hurmiz has a much better grasp of the idea, at least where familial love is concerned, and among other Yogzarthu, Eigonshazar and Aradneth genuinely care about each other, even if their language will only let them name it "madness".
- Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: When Tal's grandfather says he's sure the family will be in good hands when Tal returns to Veras, Tal immediately clutches himself in shame and assumes he'd done something horrible. He'd demanded a clean break from the family for Anthemys in return for information that would completely destroy an aristocrat who'd sponsored piracy, illegal (on Veras) genetic engineering, and raising a clone as a sex slave.