Shades of Gray is a story about a boy named Ten.  It follows his adventures while he’s a student at an Altair academy training to be a pilot.

By definition this is a sci-fi comic, but at it’s heart it’s really just a story about how it is to grow up and find your place in the universe.  Above all else, it’s about love.

 

FAQ

When does this comic update?

The comic is currently on a Tuesday/Friday update schedule.

 

None of the characters in this comic are human.  What are they exactly?

Aliens!  Nearly every person in this comic is a belongs to a species known as the kilm: a militaristic, desert-dwelling bunch of folks.  There are a few other species that pop up every once in a while, most notably the shimsa, who are akin to shape-shifting globs of putty, and the t’hyrma, who closely resemble large red velociraptors with butcher knives stuck on their hands.

 

 I’m having trouble telling the genders apart.  Help?

The kilm work a bit differently than humans in the case of secondary sexual characteristics  but they’re actually very easy to tell apart when you know what to look for.

  • Males (kilmi) tend to be shorter (3′ – 4′) and stockier on average.  They always have spurs on their elbows and six heat pits (the red dots) above their eyes.
  • Females (kilma) are usually taller (3’6″ – 4’6″) and leaner with more pronounced hips.  They have no spurs and only four heat pits above their eyes.

Or for your enjoyment, refer to this helpful sketch of two nigh-naked examples:

 

How does aging work for the kilm?

Semi-complicatedly.  There’s actually math involved.

The kilm age much slower than humans do.  The general rule is:

(kilm age) / 2.3 = (human age equivalent)

Though there is a little bit of wiggle room in there for things like mental maturity, especially during the “teenage” years.

Age groups break down like this:

  • 0 – 29 years = children (school starts at 14)
  • 30 – 39 years = teenagers (ears are notched at age 30, training starts at 35)
  • 40 + years = adults (they can live well into their 200′s)

If you want to get really complicated, their years are also shorter than ours, having 336 days to a year (and 20 hours to a day.)

It’s easier to just stick to the 2.3 rule though.

 

What’s the deal with the ear notches?

Ear notches aren’t something the kilm have naturally – they’re a form of body modification.  You’ll notice that whenever a kid is shown in the comics, their ears are whole and unaltered.  Once they turn 30 years old, their ears are cut (usually surgically so they don’t feel a thing).  It’s their culture’s way of saying “I’m no longer a child.”

There’s a variety of reasons a kilm might chose a particular kind of ear notch to wear for the rest of their life.  Some kilm are part of families that all have the same kind of notches and want to keep up the family tradition.  Others choose their notches in order to honor, emulate, or remember a special person in their lives.  Notches can also be chosen based on the meanings of each design, and can be a way for the kilm to express who they are as a person.  They can even be chosen for purely aesthetic reasons.  Finally, among the small subset of the population that still follow the old religions, they can be used to show devotion to a particular deity.

Here’s a sketch of the ten most common forms of ear notches, complete with their meanings below:

1.  Symbolizes fire, the sun, warmth, intelligence, invention, protection.  Sign of Sakar – God of light.

2.  Symbolizes the night, celestial bodies, secrets and hidden things, wit, trickery, stillness, the inner self.  Sign of Nox – God of darkness.

3.  Symbolizes travel, exploration, adventure, communication, male virility, energy. Sign of Sivri – God of air.

4.  Symbolizes young life and being young at heart, children, joy, laughter, beginnings.  Sign of Temhota – Goddess of birth.

5.  Symbolizes the desert, fertile soil, feminine love and sexuality, compassion, protection.  Sign of Neith – Goddess of life.

6.  Symbolizes hunting, war, solemnity, remembrance, all things lost, path-finding, guidance, oneness.  Sign of Vaga – Goddess of death.

7.  Symbolizes music, art, independence, change, adaptability.  Sign of Lilith – Goddess of water.

8.  Symbolizes bravery, boldness, perseverance.

9.  Symbolizes loyalty, protection.

10.  Symbolizes freedom, self-reliance.

 

What about other forms of body modification?

As you’ve probably noticed, it’s not at all unusual for kilm to further alter their bodies through tattoos or piercings, especially during their younger years.  It’s socially acceptable for both males and females to wear earrings, though it’s a lot more common for kilma to have pierced ears so they can wear decorative jewelry.  (In other words, you’ll see both sexes wearing everyday hoops or studs, but the fancy dangly earrings are reserved for the ladies.)

It’s important to understand that a kilm’s ears are one of the most sensitive and important parts of their body.  In addition to performing the functions you’d expect (focusing sound and helping to locate its origin), a kilm’s ears also gather information on the physical environment such as wind movement, temperature variations, etc, and help a great deal with temperature regulation.  Basically, lots of nerves, lots of capillaries – HIGHLY sensitive to touch.  They also happen to be the easiest and most noticeable way for kilm to express themselves with their bodies.

So, when a kilm decides they want to further modify their ears, it’s not something they do lightly.  They WANT the piercing.  They WANT the tattoo.  Piercings, of course, are easy, quick, and the pain is short-lived, which is why they’re so common.  Plus if they become unwanted the earring can just be left out and the hole will eventually close on its own.  Ear tattoos are very different.  Getting  one (without anesthetics) is a couple steps below excruciating, and the process takes some time.  It’s also much harder (and  equally painful) to get one removed.  As you can imagine, they’re not something that a lot of people have.

Of course, that’s just ear modifications.  Most other parts of a kilm’s body are much less sensitive and hold up well to tattooing.  Body tattoos are fairly common, with about 1/4 to 1/3 of the population having at least one.  Non-ear piercings, in contrast, are unusual.  Occasionally you’ll run across someone with a pierced nose, and even less often, a pierced lip or tongue.  Facial and body piercings are something that’s left to those who have a fascination with (or addiction to!) such things.  The vast majority favors simple ear piercings and/or body tattoos, if they get anything at all.

 

Where does this story take place?

99% of it takes place on the space station Altair 7309: an academy for training space-based fighter pilots and their supporting crews.

The station itself is made up of two residential rings, one garden ring, three smaller core rings, and several outlying structures (emergency docking & repair, dummy enemy vessels, bits of training courses, etc) that are towed along and used as needed.  The garden ring is the lifeline of the entire place.  It supplies most of the station’s food through gardens, orchards, and herds of animals, and using genetically enhanced plant life, handles most of the reclamation and cleaning of the air and water.  Altair 7309 is almost completely self-sufficient, but certain items that can’t be produced on board (specialty parts, new uniforms, medical supplies) are imported as needed.  The station is locked in the same orbital trajectory around their solar system’s star as their home planet, so the passage of time for both places is consistent, but they’re on different orbital planes so the station and the planet will never meet.

There are currently about 3,400 people living on-board Altair 7309.

Here’s the rough layout of what the station (minus outlying structures) looks like.  It’s ugly and not quite to scale, but gets the idea across:

The Altair academy itself is a mash up of military and civilian life.  The best way to think about it is as a stepping stone between the two.

When a kilm graduates from public school at the age of 35, they are required to serve on an Altair academy (or army base) for 5 years before they move on to a higher education, active military service, or join the work force.  The purpose of this is to  A) make sure that the entire population has at least some military training, and to B) identify the strengths and weaknesses of the individual, teach them things that will be useful later down the line, and generally start grooming them for actual service.  It’s like a junior college with a strong military twist.

In addition to mandatory boot camp-esque physical training, the academy has a range of classes intended to help its cadets become rounded and competent soldiers, and has a strong focus on training cadets for support roles as well as front line duty.  Available classes include subjects like communications, theory of space travel, applied theory of leadership, craft maintenance and repair, first aide, military operations and tactics, military physics and chemistry, enemy and ally languages, etc.  Altair academies especially hold to the line that the only thing better than a soldier that follows orders is a soldier that follows orders and is educated and clever enough to be a real sonuvabitch in combat.

While training may start off in a rather relaxed manner, things become stricter and more militaristic as cadets move up through the years.  The idea is to ease the cadets into things because while the staff may expect certain results, stressing their charges to death or mental breakdown aren’t on their to-do list.  It’s important to keep in mind that the cadets are very young (they don’t reach legal adulthood until some point in their 5th year), and are in a completely new environment that they are not allowed to leave for 5 whole years.  Some leeway and room for growth has to be given, and most of the staff (Don excluded) understand that.

 

In some panels, there’s a strange language/alphabet shown.  What is it?  What does it sound like?

That (most of the time, anyway) is Kahmin, the kilm’s native language.  It’s phonetic, and everything is spelled exactly as it sounds, without double or silent letters.

In Kahmin, the letter C exists as either CH, K, or S. The letter Q is made by combining K and W. The letter Y is made by the EE vowel (though the “Y” sound itself, as in “yes” doesn’t exist in their language.)  Nor does the letter B.
J’s are almost always soft, like the French “j’ai.”  The exceptions mostly revolve around local accents.  For example, the J’s in Jajij’s name are all soft.  The J in Jael’s name is hard though, and is pronounced exactly like the English word “jail.”  G’s are always hard, as in the “guh” sound in “gutter.”

The Kahmin alphabet is made up of 31 letters: 20 consonants and 11 vowels, as seen below:

It’s important to note that when Kahmin words get translated into the English alphabet, I clean them up a bit to make them easier to read or simply for aesthetic reasons.  For example…

A straight translation of Trini’s name would be “Kahr’ Trihn Sehl Kaayn.”  Way too messy.  “Kar’ Trin Sel Kain” is much easier to read and just looks better.

Sometimes I’ll leave letters untranslated, just so the phonetics will be right.  For example, the word “Ch’kavee” retains a double EE at the end to help people sound it out as “Ch-kAH-vEE” instead of “Ch-kAYve” or something else unintended.

The other languages/alphabets used in the comic (T’hyrian in Ten and Kiva’s language class, Standard Galic (a universal language) on signs around the academy) are mostly just for show.  Kahmin’s the only one that has an actual structure and translatable words.

 

How do their numbers work?

The kilm rely largely on either base-10 or base-6 math, depending on the situation.

number system 2

The base-10 system is a relatively recent adaption the kilm made to accommodate the numeric preferences of the alien species they interact with.  In areas like space stations or cities where populations are highly mixed, it’s often the only numeric system used.

The Tar base-6 system is a throwback to a time before the kilm made alien contact.  It’s several thousand years old, and though it is still used in rural settings it’s becoming less and less common as the base-10 system gains popularity.  The Desert Tribes are the only kilm to use the old Tar system exclusively.  In the Tar base-6 system, zero isn’t considered a proper number.  Originally a blank space was used to indicate a count of nil, but that could be confusing at times, so eventually a symbol was added to indicate that “yes, this was counted, but there was nothing.”  The nil symbol is only used to indicate a lack of an actual number.

 

Why isn’t the site’s address the name of the comic?

Two reasons, actually.

  1. “Shades of Gray” is a pretty common name for things.  It’s already in use for another website, so if I wanted to use the comic’s name for the website address I would have had to add things onto it and it would have gotten too long and ridiculous.  Short and easy to remember is much better.
  2. Shades of Gray and Ixion are hosted under the same domain so I wanted to use something that would make sense for both of them.  (Kahmith is the name of the kilm’s home world.)

 

Who’s behind this thing and how’d it get going?

My name is Christine Dufour.  I’m the writer/artist of this comic.  Though I have a degree in science, art has always been a major hobby of mine.  I draw comics because story-telling is also something I really enjoy.  Killing two birds with one stone and whatnot.

Long story short about the comic itself…

Shades of Gray officially went live on the internet back in 2006, but the first characters started off in 2004 as doodles in the margins of my notebooks.  Originally there were only four main characters (Ten, Kesh, Vit, and Lith).  The first story I wrote for them was about bounty hunters, conspiracies, cyborgs and it was… terrible.  Just god-awful.  After the brief intermission of an even worse story, I decided to revive the original characters, completely change pretty much everything about them aside from their personality traits, and slap them into an entirely different plot.  Additional characters and minor details sort of fell in place after that.

A lot of my inspiration for the comic comes from movies, music, and other comics, but my two biggest influences have been the comic Cerebus by Dave Sim and the sci-fi show Farscape.  Definitely worth checking out if you’re looking to get into something new.