Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Ugly American Report: Alex + Ada + Ryan Lee!

Alex + Ada
Image Comics
Scripts: Jonathan Luna & Sarah Vaughn
Art: Jonathan Luna

This week I'm going to walk you through what's going on in the Image book Alex + Ada, and why I think it's worthy of your attention.

My interest in the book stemmed from two sources. A) I don't always love what the Luna brothers do, but it's always pleasantly off the beaten path. B) I like all stories about losers banging robots.

The only problem with the "losers banging robots" schtick is that it always follows the same track. These stories are dressed up like science fiction, what with the mechanical woman and all. By the way, it's almost always a hapless human dude set up with a stunning female robot, rarely the other way around. Conventional wisdom says that women are too "emotional" to go in for the robotic cool indifference. Personally, I think a look at sales figures on the Rabbit vibrator speaks otherwise. But I'm digressing. The point is, these usually end up not being science fiction stories at all, but folk tales about social skills, relationships, and "soul".

The guy in these stories always have an interested flesh-and-blood woman lurking around in the background, and the man is just too oblivious too notice. At first the man is reticent to invest anything in the robot, but the script writers give her some sympathetic puppy dog moments, and the easy sex is just too good to pass up.

Inevitably, the robot dame completely loses her shit and starts killing everybody, starting with the rival meat woman. Then the loser finally gets some balls, dispatches with the psycho roboto-gina, and hooks up with the real girl. He finally realizes at the end that while there are advantages to a woman you can spray off with a hose when finished, what you really need is a woman with heart. There are tons of these things out there, but my all-time favorite is the new-fangled Outer Limits episode "Valerie 23", with Bill Sadler.

Imagine my surprise to find that while Alex + Ada knows the "loser bangs a robot" rules well, it carves itself a deeper path, and one built with some actual science fiction.

Alexander Wahl is the loser in question. It just wouldn't be a Luna brothers production without a healthy dose of sexual frustration and social awkwardness. I'm no licensed psychiatrist, but I have the distinct impression that neither of the Lunas ended up as King of the Prom in high school. Plus, we can smell our own.

Alex has been without his ex-girlfriend Claire for seven months when the story picks up. One gets the feeling that it was her idea, not his. He's sad, he's lonely, and he's not quite ready to get back on the horse.

Enter Betty-White-style inappropriate grandmother. She's enjoying the benefits of her own Tanaka X5 droid, and decides to drop the $800,000 and buy a girl robot for Alex on his birthday.

This is all pretty standard, and the story even includes Isabel, the obligatory "interested real girl" lurking in the background. All of the expected pieces are there, but then Alex + Ada starts separating itself with deeper thinking and world building.

A lot of care has gone into the technology background of the Alex + Ada set. You've got two major rivals in Prime and Nexaware. Alex actually has Prime wired into his head. He can give his house commands, and it obeys. He has a litttle hoverbot named Otto that brings him his coffee and cooks. He can think at his shower and specify the temp he wants. If another individual is also wired with Prime, the two can share an entire conversation without moving their lips - the thoughts simply transfer seamlessly. Kinda cool. Kinda creepy.

Nexaware is not doing as well as prime, because about a year before the story begins, there was an issue with the P-011 artificial intelligence program. Thirty four people died in a robot killing spree, and now robotic sentience has been outlawed. People are still using robots for all sorts of purposes, but there's a tension in the air. One of the characters is military, and lost a leg in battle. He claims he would have lost a lot more than that without robotic assistance. So it's complex. I like complex.

The devil, as always, is in the details, and the Luna/Vaughn tandem seem to get them all right. The tech is post-modern, but it all feels right. Ada needs 4,000 calories a day to run stay "full". One of the characters wonders if she poops. This is the first thing I would have wondered as well. Alex doesn't answer. Nothing's 100% efficient, so I think she does poop. But then, as a founding member of Chronic Insomnia, I sort of have to think that.

Alex activates Ada by pressing and holding her ear lobe, and then she delivers the most wonderful instructional speech. It's spot-on corporate PR-speak, but with a warm twist. I don't want to ruin it for you with specific spoilers, but the rules cover the usual Asimov territory and a few items Asimov missed that make perfect sense. Whichever writer has their fingerprints on that opening salvo from Ada - bravo!

It feels like Luna and Vaughn have carefully considered most everything about artificial intelligence and humans interacting with technology, or at least enough to make it easy to accept the world they're handing you. I think there will be some personal growth for Alex, and I look forward to all of that. But it's the "bigger picture" elements that interest me even more.

The Alex + Ada world is futuristic, but they're still dealing with the same types of human-disconnect issues that we are. The culture is simultaneously too comfortable with burying itself in tech, and also slightly horrified by it. I mean, is there anybody under the age of 30 not looking at their phone right now? We're into it, deep.

But we're also starting to recognize the psychic costs of that, particularly when examining the lack of empathy exhibited on forums, Twitter, Facebook. We're a torn beast, wearing a public face obsessed with sensitivity, and trigger fingers primed for action like never before. It's dissonant, and tiring, and it seems to be getting worse, not better.

The problem Alex has with Ada is that she isn't human enough for him. She's cute, but she has no agency. Ada is quite quick to tell anybody that she doesn't and can't have opinions. She laughs when Alex laughs, because Alex is laughing. It's gratifying in short bursts to have somebody cave to your needs once in awhile, but unless you're Jeff Dahmer, eventually you want to see some evidence that the other person is engaged with life.

So Alex calls Tanaka and asks if anything can be done, and of course they try to up-sell him with a couple of extra skill packs. Not what he was looking for, but another fantastic example of how Luna and Vaughn always seem to get the devilish details right.

What really struck me about that scene was when Alex asks the Tanaka rep if they are in fact human. It was subtle, but to me powerful. Because these days we don't know. We don't know if the person on the other end of the phone is really human, or a recording, or a person just running a script, which isn't really a person at all. We don't know if Manti Teo has an actual girlfriend or a fictional construction. Do we really need to see an actual politician at a press conference when we can all perfectly replicate the same old bullshit that it is going to tele-prompter out of their mouths?

The machines are getting too enticing, and we're getting altogether too machiney and disconnected, and that's the kind of thing I'm interested in. Alex + Ada is all over that stuff, but not in a sledgehammer, preachy way. Which is exceedingly rare in comics these days. Comics do so love the sledgehammer.

I don't know, I could go on and on about this book. Alex + Ada is currently three issues into its run, and I've read each of the issues multiple times. I don't do that with many comics. You can't just race through it, either, or you'll miss the subtle stuff. There's a scene where Alex and Ada are watching TV together, and news footage of the Nexaware Massacre comes on screen. There's no captioning or dialogue outside of what the newscaster is saying. Alex is just watching Ada, who is absorbing all this quietly, without expression, eating her bowl of cereal.

Tell me that wouldn't make your balls shrink straight up into their natural orifice.

There are potential trouble spots. The pages are laid out very cinematically - many of the pages feature vertical layouts of widescreen shots that vary only slightly. Sometimes to string out an awkward silence, focus on facial expressions, sometimes to cinematically spell out action points.
To me, that's not using the medium to its full advantage. If you slow down and allow yourself time to absorb the effects, they do still function. But these cinematic techniques are better suited for film.

Some may find the pacing an issue. There is an awful lot of talking in Alex + Ada, and when people aren't talking, they are often staring at each other. If you really had your hopes on the "loser bangs a robot" angle, they are certainly taking the scenic route. Not only are they not banging after three issues, they haven't had a proper snog yet.

I don't mind the talking, because I'm pulling quite a bit of story out of it. You could do an Alex + Ada book club and have plenty to talk about, because there's a lot buried in context. But some of you don't want context, so be warned. This is not robotic fetish porn. This is about people and their relationship with technology, and the nature of human intimacy.

I've been impressed by Alex + Ada, and more importantly, I've been enjoying it as a story. I don't know exactly where Luna and Vaughn are headed with this, and that's a good thing. At the end of issue three, Alex is getting into deep caverns of the Prime-net looking for somebody to (illegally) help him give Ada some sentience. This just can't end well, can it? I honestly don't know, because the creators are playing the story with a little more sophistication and a little against type... but I eagerly anticipate finding out.

If your store is not carrying this - ask. I think Alex + Ada would work very well in trade form, and some of you favor that format anyway. I'm telling you, though, if you want to see the work completed, you need to support the monthly comics. You can wait for the trade on Avengers, because that's going to sell enough copies without you to subsidize the collection. If you want Alex + Ada to live, (and I'm telling you that you really do) they need those sales NOW. Let your retailer know that you'd like this in your pull or on the shelves, so that the publisher knows there is a market for the material.

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