Mar 30, 2015

Alex + Ada Vol 1 by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn

Alex + Ada Vol 1 by Jonathan Luna and Sarah VaughnAlex + Ada Vol 1 by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn

Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn's Alex + Ada is a comics series about a 27-year-old man who receives a robot as a birthday present from his grandmother. Alex's grandmother does this because he's single: she's in a happy relationship with a robot herself, and cannot understand why not everyone would want the same. The world Alex inhabits is one with highly advanced Artificial Intelligence technology, but after a tragic incident a few years previously, AI is carefully regulated by a set of restrictive laws. Alex is told that robots like Ada, the X5 he receives, are like a person in every way, except that they lack sentience and the ability to make their own decisions — in short, not really like a person at all. Alex's discomfort with the power he has over Ada and with the restrictions placed on her personhood start the two on a journey that takes them to unexpected places.

I was intrigued by the premise of Alex + Ada, and after seeing multiple blogging friends speak highly of it, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. Jodie kindly agreed to come over to discuss it with me, so please bear with us as we talk robots, popular portrayals of AI from Her to I, Robot, gendered dynamics, equal rights, art, and more.

Ana: Alex + Ada Vol 1 does what a lot of opening volumes in a series do: it carefully sets the premise for the story it will go on to tell. I enjoyed reading it, but when I finished I really wished I had the second volume at hand: it ended just as things were starting to get truly interesting. I'll say that I liked what I saw, though, especially in terms of the questions the series seems to be willing to ask. I'll have plenty more to say about that, but before I go on, what did you think?

Jodie: I was drawn to Alex + Ada because of its gorgeous cover art (in fact, at some point, I'd like to talk about the difference in the cover art and the style used in the main comic). Then I read up on the premise and I had the same kind of suspicious reaction I had to the blurb for September Girls. Man gets female robot? The main building block of Alex + Ada made it sound like it could be really gross, but it could also be a comic that deconstructed gender relations and ownership… I wasn't sure which direction Alex + Ada was going to go in, so I asked Memory for some reassurance because I knew she would get my concerns.

Brief tangent: I find I have a real problem using marketing blurbs and traditional press reviews to work out whether stories are going to attempt critique common, troubling relationships or just punch me in the face. That's why I haven't tried out Her or Ruby Sparks yet. Maybe they work through hinky gender dynamics or maybe they just perpetuate them and call that approach a 'subtle critique'. Who can tell from their marketing materials?

Ana: (Ugh — don't even get me started on Ruby Sparks.)

Jodie: Anyway, Memory told me I could try this series out and I'm glad she did because, although Vol 1 doesn't quite dig into all the areas I wanted it to, it seems like the kind of smart series that could expand on its central issues. My hope is that Alex + Ada will bring in more intersectional politics and address the gendered and racial aspects of robot ownership more overtly as more issues of this comic are released.

Alex + Ada: Ada coming out of her box

Ana: I know what you mean — I'd probably have worried about the premise too if the recommendation hadn't come from people who know me well. And even then, sometimes what makes a story work as a critique or not is really personal and hard to put your finger on. It's not impossible or even unusual for smart people who care about the same things when it comes to media representation to fall into different camps when it comes to certain works. For example, you mentioned September GirlsSmuggler!Ana wrote a smart post about it that makes complete sense to me rationally, and yet the book didn't work for me in the same way it did for her. Examples like this are a reminder not to just casually align people who read media pieces differently than me with horrible ideas, which is something I think is pretty important.

It's interesting that you also mentioned Her, because part of what drew me to Alex + Ada was the hope that it might turn out to be Her done right. I watched that film last year, and while it did a surprisingly good job of avoiding some of the pitfalls I feared it would fall into (claiming anything "virtual" is bad and not actually real, or at least pales in comparison with face to face contact; denying the personhood of self-aware AIs like Samantha; poly-shaming; etc), its hyperindividualistic focus completely lost me. Her is a movie about a relationship between a man and the sentient OS he buys and legally owns, and yet never once, not for a second, does it pause to consider the implications of this. It exists in some sort of magical parallel reality where the dynamics of personal relationships are somehow not affected by sociopolitical power imbalances; where, say, the knowledge that Theodore could decide to erase Samantha on a whim with no legal consequences whatsoever somehow doesn't constrain her, or frighten her, or affect how their relationship unfolds in any noticeable way. It's a story about sentient beings working for humans around the clock for no pay where this is neither acknowledged nor addressed; where a romantic connection develops in this context and we’re asked to approach it exclusively in interpersonal terms that ignore structural issues of power, ownership, coercion and consent, as well as the dangerous blurring of professional and personal boundaries that underpins the whole thing. In sum, it's a story that leaves out far too much for me to be able to believe in it.

It's clear from the start that Alex + Ada is willing to address at least some of the issues that Her ignores and to explore the notions of power, consent and ownership underpinning its premise. The first volume poses these questions, and I can't wait to see how future ones are going to attempt to answer them. I'm interested in what you said above about wanting future issues to dig deeper when it comes to the gendered or racial aspects of ownership, though — in the book, Alex's grandmother owns a male-coded X5 android like Ada, and we're given a glimpse of their relationship in a couple of panels. The male X5 is shown to be completely subservient, and although those panels are effective in some ways, particularly when it comes to expanding on Alex's discomfort with receiving Ada as a gift, I did start thinking about how the social expectations and responses surrounding male and female subservience are in fact very different. Would you like to discuss this in more detail?

Jodie: When a creator criticises the ownership of subservient, human shaped robots their work inevitably references the real historical, and current cultural, context of human beings who have been treated as chattels. In a film like I, Robot, where the robots all look alike and still resemble machines, the critique of robot ownership makes a general, subtextual point about the real world concept of slavery, but mostly concentrates on examining slavery from an SFF point of view. I, Robot is a look at the morality of owning a robot; it questions what makes a machine human rather than using the fictional robot slave force to make a detailed SFF critique of real world slavery.

In contrast, the robots in Alex + Ada physically resemble humans and are built with individual characteristics. So far we've met Ada, a female robot, and Franklin, a male black robot. As the creators have yet to state differently, we have to assume that even though Ada + Alex is set in a futuristic society its world has the same history and broadly the same present day social culture as ours. That means the characters know about slavery. They're aware that women used to be owned like goods. Their world is influenced by present day inequality, and they would feel skeeved out seeing a female robot owned by a man because of the gendered inequality of power within this relationship. And in a world like that, it seems odd that character's reaction to robot ownership isn't affected by a robot's physical presentation.

Alex + Ada: Ada meets Alex's friend

The thing that struck me right off is that Alex has female friends and they meet Ada, but none of them mention having any feelings about the fact that their male friend now owns a female presenting android. If a male friend of mine owned a female robot, and that robot was programmed to serve his every wish, we would have words so fast. And those words would include 'creepy', 'sexist' and 'fuckwit'. I'm generally very conflict averse, especially around men, but even just thinking about that scenario is making me want to use a LOUD VOICE.

We've only seen five issues of Alex + Ada so far and we don't know everything about its world, so its possible to think of reasons why Alex owning a female robot genuinely might not be an issue for Alex's female friends. Maybe this world has a very different approach to gender than ours does. Maybe, because Ada is an android, the women don't feel like her situation has anything to do with the gender dynamics of their world. Maybe their culture has normalised robot service so much that they don't even think about the gendered implications of a female presenting robot being asked to serve a man. Or maybe they don't feel comfortable bringing up their concerns around men. Arguing with you friends = exhausting.

These are all contextually plausible reasons why Em and Isabel don't talk to Alex about how creepy it is for a man to own a female presenting robot, and I think at least one of those reasons could potentially yield really interesting discussion. The problem is none of those reasons have been confirmed by the text. And as a feminist who knows how the world goes, I'm going to need Alex + Ada to introduce a plausible, textually visible reason for these women's silence. Otherwise, I'm going to end up assuming that the creators just didn't consider how gender plays into their overarching storyline and then I'm going to like Alex + Ada a little less.

Ana: Agreed — and although a part of me suspects they'll just go for the "robot ownership is dissociated from gender in this world" approach, I still hope we might be wrong and that Alex + Ada will surprise us. Your point about how our world's history of inequality and a robot's physically presentation inevitably affect how people respond to them is especially apt. In addition to Ada, I'm interested to see whether the story will explore Franklin's presentation as a black man and the legacy of slavery and racism in more than a subtextual way. How does Franklin himself feel about this, for example? He's clearly a knowlegeble robot rights activist, and there are all sorts of possibilities here for interesting stories about solidarity between separate and overlapping oppressed groups.

Jodie: It would be fantastic if Alex + Ada had Franklin talk about his racial presentation in conjunction with his identity as a robot. And on a related note, it would also be fascinating to hear if prejudices affect the way companies design robots, what this workforce of robot creators looks like (are there chromatic creators for instance) and if a robot's appearance is customised by the person who orders them. This first volume has set Franklin up in a way that encourages the reader to wonder about his backstory so I've hopeful that he'll be a recurring character and Alex + Ada will go beyond the subtextual and openly explore the way his intersectional identity influences his politics and Degrees of Freedom.

Ana: Another thing that is clear from the start is that Alex + Ada is on the side of "yes, sentient AIs are human and should have civil rights", which I was glad to see because more and more I want stories that go beyond merely posing that question. Although there are plenty of exceptions to this, I've read/watched a lot of stories where AIs are primarily portrayed as evil or threatening, and I'm more interested in the narrative tradition Alex + Ada falls into: one where the central concern is to explore othering, oppression, and the fight for equal rights, which as you say above can resonate both explicitly and subtextually.

However, the fact that Alex + Ada as a narrative has resolved the question of whether robots should have rights from the very start doesn't mean the same is true of the world it's set in. As I said in my introduction, this is a world where there are very strict laws regulating robot manufacturing and ownership, and where an independent robot found enjoying herself at a music gig is murdered and dismembered by the crowd. This is a world where fear runs rampant, and where robots have been othered to such an extent that the urgent conversations that need to be had aren't even on the table.

Alex + Ada: Degrees of Freedom

But of course this isn't to say that this is a world where attitudes are uniform. Alex's discomfort with Ada's circumstances leads him to Degrees of Freedom, an underground resistance organisation that frees robots from the software that impairs decision-making and supports them as they begin to lead independent lives. It was great to see that Degrees of Freedom was primarily robot-led: it was a space where humans could support robots as they fought for equality, but so far at least Alex + Ada seems to be staying away from troubling the-privileged-rescue-the-oppressed narratives. What did you think of how Degrees of Freedom was portrayed, and of the series' approach to robot rights in general?

Jodie: I think it's great to see a resistance movement led by the robots because it avoids making the story all about how an outside saviour (Alex) helps Ada to get free.

I was also glad to see Franklin, a robot and a black character, portrayed as a knowledgeable freedom fighter because that visually reminds readers that real life civil rights movements are led by groups who are oppressed. Allies from powerful societal groups have a place in political change but to credit all change to these allies erases the truth of history. I haven't read this comics yet, but I saw someone say they liked that Bitch Planet makes the prison guards white women because, even though it's a sci-fi comic about a space prison, it acknowledges the way white women have oppressed black women. I think having Franklin be involved in freeing robots means Alex + Ada attempts to remind its readers of the real history of civil rights. The creators could do more with that idea and it would be cool to see the intersection between race and gender brought into the story (chromatic female resistance fighters for the win) but it's a solid start.

Ana: Such a good point about visual reminders (and as a side note, I absolutely can't wait for the first TPB of Bitch Planet to come out). Speaking of visual cues, you mentioned above that you wanted to talk a bit about the difference between the cover art and the style on the inside — I look forward to hearing what you have to say about this.

Jodie: First, let me rhapsodise about the cover image for the collected volume. This cover packs a lot of information and emotion into a deceptively simple image. Ada's face is covered by a plastic wrap veil covered in industrial symbols and she's dressed all in white. Alex is dressed in office clothes and is gazing sadly at Ada. The veil in particular gives the scene a wedding vibe, and this is furthered by the fact that the two characters are standing separated and drawn in profile. And Alex's expression indicates that this is not 'the happiest day of his life'. His gaze rests on Ada's veiled eyes and from that the reader extrapolates that the 'wedding' veil (the symbol that Ada has been sold & is now kept in the dark) raises concerns for Alex. So, even though the concept of Alex + Ada worried me initially, the cover gave me context about the comic's approach to the robot girlfriend concept. This cover reassured me that Alex + Ada could be my kind of story.

And its a very intelligent cover in terms of physical shelf Marketing. Imagine you're in a typical crowded, brightly coloured comic section and you see this cover face out. It grabs you because it's such a quietly powerful and restrained image, right down to the use of colour. Smart.

I also think the cover art is gorgeous. I particularly like the use of the block colour background. The shade of blue pops against the few colours used for the two characters: black, white, pink and grey. The artist left this huge swathe of space between and around the two characters which, for me, creates this sense of unresolved tension by leaving a physical space as yet uncrossed. The blue also works to outline the two characters and quickly draw attention to the details of the figures and their stillness. Cue me falling hard for this art style.

The art of the panels inside does clever things with colour as well, but the style is very different from that of the cover and the covers of the individual issues. I think I'm responding to a difference in shading and maybe the tools used to produced both different styles (with the caveat that I don't know anything about art production). The human bodies in the panel art feels flat to me, while the figures on the various covers feel more three dimensional. At the same time, the figures in the panels have more exaggerated facial lines while the figures on the covers often have smoother faces with less defined expression lines.

Alex + Ada: Ada becoming sentient

Also, in Issue 1 the panels in Alex + Ada feel kind of claustrophobic and crowded compared with the big cover spreads. I know that's partly down to the difference in size between the covers and individual panels, and that the comic wants its artwork to express how small Alex's life is and how much he needs something to break him out of his boxes - there's nothing wrong with the panel artwork. I was just a bit jarred to see how different it was to the cover artwork. I guess because I was coming to Alex + Ada off the back of the first collected edition of The Wicked + The Divine, which is very good at bringing that sense of expanse to its panels, the artwork of Alex + Ada often felt a little cramped in comparison.

Ana: This is great — I'm not the best at visual analysis, so it's really interesting to see you articulate what the art is doing and how it affected you. I think the art style on the inside worked better for me than it did for you, but I agree that the cover particularly stands out.

Lastly, one thing we haven't seen so far is a romantic relationship develop between Alex and Ada, though I do suspect the story might be heading that way. If it does, I really hope they'll handle it slowly and very carefully, because as we discussed above there are all sorts of potential and actual power differentials between the two central characters. Even with Ada regaining her ability to make independent decisions at the end of issue five, she's still in an extremely vulnerable position. Her mere existence as an independent robot is illicit, Alex still legally owns her, etc. I feel weird about the two entering a relationship before Ada has started to find her footing in the world, and I do hope this won't be glossed over. Is there anything you hope we will — or won't — see in volume two?

Jodie: There really hasn't been much to hint that Alex & Ada are going to end up in a romantic relationship, but like you I think the series is heading there. So much media follows the 'boy meets girl = romance every time' that we're automatically suspicious! Like you, I want to see any romantic relationship deal with the issue of ownership up front.

I'm also worried about how they're going to handle the relationship between Isabel and Alex. We haven't seen much of Isabel but their meeting at the party makes me believe she's into Alex:

Alex + Ada: Isabel - I feel like it's been forever. We need to catch up. A lot has happened. Alex - Yeah? Isabel - Well, a lot with nothing to show for it. The last guy didn't plan out. Alex - I thought that was going well? Isabel - It was going fine..
Alex + Ada: Isabel - But when you and Claire broke up, it got me thinking about what I actually wanted. How is Claire? I know you guys tried to stay friends.
Alex + Ada: Alex - I haven't heard from her since she moved out. Isabel - Good. I mean, not good if that's bad. But she may have done you a favour. Distance always helps with getting over someone. You know, if you ever need to talk I'm always...

To a lot of readers this is such a minute interaction it would barely code as romantic interest but I grew up in the 90s when British soaps and dramas were starting to write more coming out stories into their shows. You watch enough TV drama featuring two guys who smile lightly and lock eyes for five seconds, then eventually go on to make out thirty episodes later and you get pretty good at picking up on media's romance vibes. Anyway, it would be cool if Isabel and Alex hooked up, but I don't want Isabel & Ada to end up in some kind of mean romantic competition. And I don't want Ada to end up being sacrificed so Alex can enter into a human romantic relationship. I can't stand when creators kill ladies off to remove "barriers" to an OTP's romantic pairing. It's 2015, we don't have to keep rewriting David Copperfield.

Ana: Yeah, I read that exchange at the party the same way — thought it hadn't occurred to me that this might mean Isabel and Ada would be set up as rivals, or that Ada might be sacrificed. Please don't go there, writers!

Another reason why I'd like Alex and Ada's relationship follow a different path is the fact that Alex's grandmother got her for him because she couldn't imagine her grandson leading a happy and fulfilled life outside of heteronormative coupling. It would be nice if the narrative proved her wrong, either by showing Alex be happy on his own or by reminding readers that other kinds of emotional attachment are important and rewarding too. I'm a big fan of romance, but in this particular case seeing Alex and Ada become BFFs instead would make me really happy.

Jodie: I found Alex + Ada much more leisurely and slow building than other comics series I've read recently. It opens by dedicating two or three pages of panels to Alex getting up and going to work. And by the end of Vol 1 it feels like the character's journeys are just beginning; a feeling emphasised by that clever final panel. How amazing to finish Vol 1 with an image that traditionally finishes an entire story (the couple walking off into the sunset where the reader cannot follow) and locks its future off from the consumer. Here Luna and Vaughn use this image to underline how much more story there is yet to come; to almost justify the slow build pace of the entire volume. It's this slower pace that convinces me Alex + Ada has a lot that it wants to explore and that it's going to go to some fascinating places in future volumes. I think the writers have played that cliffhanger ending very well because even though I'm not in love with the art, and that's usually a big deal breaker for me, I know I want to read at least the next volume.

Vol 2 of Alex + Ada is out now. Do you think you'll be reading on?

Ana: Yes, I want to read on too. Though I remain wary about how the story will go in some respects, I really did enjoy volume one overall, and I'm hopeful they'll expand on the worldbuilding and continue to address all the interesting questions about power the story's premise raises.

Do let me know what you think of the second volume when you pick it up!

They read it too: In the Forest of Stories, Girls Read Comics, Capricious Reader, Stuff as Dreams Are Made On, Estella's Revenge, you?

13 comments:

  1. Okay, you've simultaneously made me want to go grab this off my dresser and read it immediately and made me want to leave it languish there a bit longer until I have volume 2 in my possession as well! I enjoyed reading this discussion so much (so much I even put off watching the season finale of The Walking Dead to read this first--do you have any idea how much that's saying?!! :P ).

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    1. Aw, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. I have volume two now and will hopefully read it very soon!

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  2. Eek! So happy you've read this!!! You've raised some interesting questions. Now you need Volume 2 because I just can't say anything more.

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  3. This is fascinating! What a great discussion. I'm on through issue #13 and it's fascinating but I don't think they've gone as far as they can with the gender and power issues. Not sure if they will, but it's a rollicking good story at this point still!

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    1. Fingers crossed, though I'm bracing myself for potential disappointment because I wish books would go further like 80% of the time :P Still, this was really fun to read and discuss.

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  4. What an interesting discussion, certainly made me think about it and where it might go next a little more. I need to get hold of vol 2!

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    1. I have it now - really excited to read it.

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  5. >>Brief tangent: I find I have a real problem using marketing blurbs and traditional press reviews to work out whether stories are going to attempt critique common, troubling relationships or just punch me in the face.

    Meeee toooooooo. This is why I didn't read Paper Towns for the longest time, because I thought it was an example of the whole manic pixie dream girl thing, and not a deconstruction of it.

    Love this joint review! Y'all are both such smart and interesting bloggers, it's awesome when you get together to talk about gender and power and racial dynamics in the books you're reading.

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    1. The same thing happened to me & I still have yet to read that book.

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    2. Paper Towns is my favourite John Green novel and kind of like The Virgin Suicides for me. I completely accept that others may read them differently but they worked brilliantly for me.

      And awww, glad you enjoyed reading this <3

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  6. Such a great conversation. I love how deep you go.

    I've heard the series will end with #15, so I'm wondering if Vaughn and Luna will have the space they'd need to explore some of the issues you've raised here. It'd be nice if ALEX + ADA was just the first story in a sequence; a look at these two characters in particular alongside an introduction of the basic premise and the rules that govern this world, to be followed by further series that explore different aspects of it all. The series seems really popular, so I'm sure there'd be interest in follow-ups.

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    1. Oh no, I didn't realise the series was going to be short lived. That definitely affects how much they'll be able to tackle, but I'd also really, really love to see more stories set in this world. It's so rich and so full of potential. A series about Franklin would make me especially happy.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.