You wake up at five in the morning, even though you set your alarm for six, feeling fully refreshed. Your body has decided to gift you an extra hour in your day, and the universe wrapped that gift with a big ol’ bow in the shape of a sunrise. You look out your window, holding a stiff cup o’ joe and think, damn, this is as good as mornings get. Sometimes the universe bequeaths you a hug, and there’s little you can do but hug back.
Valerie Halla’s Portside Stories is a lot like that cosmic hug. Everything about it breathes warmth. The plot, centering around best friends Alex and Nat and their adventures in gender fluidity, takes place on the intimate scale. Transitioning between genders is as much of an internal conflict—and initially, a literal dissonance—as an external one, and Portside Stories’s inaugural chapter concerns itself with the former, a struggle with the ambivalence lurking within. There are secrets revealed, hearts broken, and bras panickedly removed during Nat and Alex’s respective, four-years-separated comings out (coming outs?).
Focusing on the conflict seems to be missing the point entirely, however. It even feels wrong to call it a “conflict” or “struggle” since acceptance feels like a forgone conclusion, in large part due to the gentle arsenal of Halla’s artistic talent. Photographed in muted blues, pinks, and purples accented with gorgeous golden-hour bursts of sunlight, the comic’s titular city of Portside appears to be caught in the eye of a sunset cyclone. Even the finer details ramp up the mood of quiet romance, like how each character’s oblong slightly-left-of-anime eyes stretch to match their emotions.
Halla possesses a unique mastery over the visible spectrum, modulating perfectly to associate colors with certain moods. By coupling deeper purples and gleaming sunbursts with revelatory moments, even silent frames and empty rooms can attain the same heightened tension when applied the same palette. Halla develops a distinct emotional vocabulary through visual motif, a tool that’s remarkably effective and deceptively difficult to establish without seeming obvious or forced.
That said, would you believe that Portside Stories is Halla’s first ever comic? Like, ever ever? In four months and thirty strips, the webcomic has achieved a casual familiarity with its setting, mood, and subjects that could take most works, even in veteran hands, months to cement. This ease translates, at least partially, from real life: Halla, a trans artist, said on her tumblr that she started the comic to “fill a void… I want stories about people like me, and I don’t want to wait for other people to write them.” It’s a heady task, but headiness ain’t her game: “I want to create the comic I want to read — a happy, silly, sweet, romancy comic about gender-nonconforming folks.”
That positivity carries over in spades. When Nat get heartbroken or Alex vents her frustrations, you can always feel the wind at their backs. They will be okay. Everything will be okay. There will always be more hugs.