When I first heard about the romance webcomic 14 Nights, the concept immediately stood out to me. It was pitched as “about a guy who is afraid of sex,” which just seemed like a really original angle to take that, even with every variation or gimmick under the sun seemingly being employed in the genre, I can’t recall seeing in any romantic comedy movie. Guys always seem to be depicted as the go-getters, eager for sex no matter how unconventional the obstacles to it might be, so this approach seemed to suggest an unorthodox shift in dynamic. It piqued my interest enough to immediately give the comic a quick look, even though it should have gone to the back of my review queue. And what was supposed to be a quick look turned into me reading all 143 (at that point, it’s at 162 now) of the pages cartoonist Kristina Stipetic had accumulated in a single sitting.
If I thought the initial concept was unorthodox, in execution it’s even more so. This is a gay relationship, with one of our two main characters being an overweight Russian with a physical deformity (and, further playing against potential stereotypes, he’s the sexually forward one). These are not the characters that stories are typically told about, especially not romantic stories. But maybe they should be. This is a deeply touching, human story, made all the more credible in that the love story feels like it’s between two real, ordinary people, rather than between standardised, manufactured creations. The way the relationship between Nikita and Lucian develops is romantic while still being believable, with its ups and downs and both making their share of mistakes and miscommunications.
But about the sex part. Sex, or lack thereof, is indeed a big part of this story. As an aside, 14 Nights does contain a lot of gay sex and male nudity, so if you don’t think you can handle that, this might not be the story for you. Lucian, for reasons thus far not explained, just hates sex. He can’t make himself get aroused, and even masturbation is a chore. He says it has nothing to do with any past trauma, but the implication seems to be it stems from low self-worth, and him finding the thought of himself naked or engaged in any kind of intimate act disgusting. Much of the story is about being inside Lucian’s head as he tries to deal with this and overcome it, but this is Nikita’s story too. That’s a pet peeve of many lesser romance stories: that it’s really only one of the two characters that gets to have an arc, and the other one is just there to assist or impede them in their individual development. But here, while Nikita does take on the role of trying to bring Lucian out of his shell, we also get to experience his reaction to this problem of a boyfriend who doesn’t want to have sex with you. He has doubts about whether it’s even worth trying. He thinks at first that Lucian must be a freak. He has questions about himself, whether or not it’s him that’s not worth loving, and if that’s the problem. At times he’s understanding, but other times he’s frustrated. Both characters are fleshed out with their own flaws and foibles, while ultimately remaining likeable.
If there are any problems with the writing, they are minimal. One point I had been going to make was that there were quite a few grammar slips in Nikita’s dialogue. When another character mentions Nikita’s thick accent, it occurred to me that English was not his first language, and that the dialogue is an attempt to portray that broken English. In that case, it’s fine, but maybe it’s a note to watch out for such an ambiguity, and dunces like me misconstruing a deliberate mistake for a genuine one.
I mentioned that I soared through my reading of 14 Nights. But this could be a problem of sorts. As a single read (not yet complete, the story is ongoing), this was immersive and engaging. But as a webcomic, updated thrice-weekly, is there enough meat on the bone to bring people back? While the cumulative effect is very powerful, on a page-by-page basis the plot is a slow boil, with meandering conversations often taking several pages to get to the point. That was fine for me, I read them in a few minutes. But for someone following as it was released, that would have been a commitment of several weeks. And now that I’m caught up, I don’t know if I’ll be hooked to keep following at this pace. More likely, I’ll wait a while until another backlog of pages has built up, and read them all at once. And that makes me think that 14 Nights will have more success when it’s all collected in a single graphic novel.
On the plus side, one of the joys of seeing the narrative unfold on this page-by-page basis is, as an experiment, it’s remarkable how Kristina Stipetic’s art has evolved. I didn’t really notice it at first while reading. As you go through it all in a single sitting, it all just blends into one. But after catching up to page 162, then going back to page 1, it’s amazing to see how different the early stuff looks. It’s rougher, less detailed, more cartoonish. And while that cartoonish quality has been maintained throughout, the detail on the more recent stuff is much more advanced, with the backgrounds and settings becoming more like real places, and the layouts becoming more adventurous and dramatic. What we’re seeing here is an emerging voice in the comics world mastering their craft over the course of a single longform narrative.
This might not be the genre of comic you’d usually read, and you might think this won’t be your cup of tea. But I’m not the biggest sucker for romance stories, and 14 Nights has really drawn me in, and made me invested in its characters and their relationship. Give it a try. You might surprise yourself.
You can read the 14 Nights webcomic here.