As high schoolers, my friends and I used to play this game. The way the game worked was that one of us would message a different friend, someone who wasn’t clued into the game, and emulate a chatterbot, testing how long it took for the other person to catch on that we were in fact human. Chatterbots were en vogue, especially SmarterChild and its more marketing friendly descendants, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary to get tipped off about a new one (SmarterChild would even awkwardly ask you to tell your friends about it). Where you had to be careful was in your first few responses. You wanted to be interesting in order to keep them chatting, but you had to be cold enough to not tip your hand. I got good enough at it that I could unsettle and shake up my friends, dropping in some inside joke or reference that was vague and seemed innocent but got creepier the more I piled on the real life knowledge. This would almost always result in the friend sending someone else my way, like The Ring, hitting some primordial social sweet spot that forces humans to make each other share in an odd or disquieting experience.
The key was to ask questions. Siri and other evolutionary steps up from SmarterChild still do this. If you ask them something and they don’t know the answer, they’ll ask you a question about it. If they don’t understand you, they ask you to repeat your question. They greet you with questions. Questions are how they decipher their tasks and relate to you. There’s a potentially fake chatterbot at the heart of Ales Kot and Will Tempest’s new work Material, but I bring up this use of questions as a key to emulating humanity because it extends beyond that. When you get down to it, Ales Kot is a creator dependent on questions. As an artist, Kot is constantly questioning the world, the status quo, the medium he expresses himself through. But it’s his way of life, too, like he never stopped being that kid who’s never satisfied with a shrug or a “that’s just the way it is” or an “I don’t know.”
One of the first times that I spoke to Ales was during a Q & A at an Image panel at SDCC. At this point in time, he only had Wild Children to his name, but a group of us at Comics Bulletin had felt such a connection to that work we were already certain he would be around a long time. Wild Children is a frenzied work, a punk 7″ in a flurry of panels and pages, and truth be told, like a lot of punk 7″ records, I was drawn in by its cover. Instead of displaying any of Riley Rossmo’s vivid interiors, Wild Children is bright red with a stark white outline of a flame, something that I was certain was a nod to Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. It wasn’t. But when I asked Kot about it, and his place in a seemingly more punk indebted comics generation, it opened up more questions and eventually led to a discussion about art and coincidence.
The day after Ales sent me a PDF of Material, Omar Khadr, the young Canadian man known as “the al-Qaeda child soldier,” was freed after being unlawfully detained for 13 years, beginning when he was merely 15. I know Ales was aware of Khadr, he has two analogues in Material, but the coincidence of him gaining his freedom at almost the exact same instant Ales started sending an interpretation of his story out into the world is par for the course for Ales. That’s not some Grant Morrison shamanic comics as metaphysical objects bullshit. Ales is hip to a zeitgeist in a different way, putting himself out there to provoke questions in others, the coincidences stacking up because these questions remain unanswered.
The bulk of Material is devoted to what is both the simplest and most complex question we face: what does it mean to be human? Ales notably leaves both of Khadr’s analogues unnamed in the first issue, something that may be perceived as a questionable act by some readers, yet it’s clear why it’s done. Their experiences not only mirror Khadr but each other, one a man returning from an extended stay in Guantanamo only to find that he is unsure of how to feel human anymore, the other exactly 15 and detained in a secret prison where he is dehumanized and mocked, the righteous fury of his activism now a castration of sorts.
The young boy’s scenes are also punctuated by names of victims of police brutality, Will Tempest coating these pages in police blues and yellows, every element a reminder of how the dehumanization efforts of Guantanamo can’t be brushed aside as collateral damage, convenient others swept up in hegemonic global peacekeeping efforts. The past two years have provided plenty of blood spilled on American soil, victims now numbering so many they form what we attempt to shy away from, some faceless mass, some new twist in the paradox of the violent peace keeper. The blue and yellow palette goes a different shade of dark when viewing our Guantanamo vet, a reminder that the other coincidence shared by these victims is a lack of whiteness.
In case that wasn’t clear enough, the characters who do get named– Professor Julius Shore, actress Nylon Dahlias and her cohorts, sinister government figure Royce– all get splashes of white dropped into their sequences. They are illuminated and protected by whiteness, whiteness surrounds every page, encroaching on the panels. Shore in particular tries to pit the blame on the evolutionary leaps of society, the impending merger of man and machine, a phenomena he describes as a cooling process, stating “we spend our time with the machines, and in turn we are becoming more like them. We are becoming cold…”
White as snow. White as glistening fetishistic tech. Cool in temperature, grown out of landbridge migrations and Ice Age exodus. Cool in appearance, that Apple device on your wrist, in your pocket, filling your hands. Or white guilt, a sad sack turn that has an intellectual looking inward to elicit sympathy, a plea to consider the depressing state of the privileged, equating internet age media democracy with coldness, with unfeeling tendencies. No wonder Professor Shore bickers with a too smart student who calls his whiny sermonizing “bullshit” and argues this tech advancement is symptomatic of greater feeling, greater empathy, greater awareness. No surprise that student walks off early on in the lecture, a grander point made by a total disinterest in wherever else Shore might have gone with the dialogue.
Tantrums are to comics as mudslinging is to politics, stupidly entertaining, wholly unnecessary and yet entirely expected. So you’d probably expect the tantrums in Material to pop up in Nylon Dahlias’ scenes. This isn’t the case, though. Kot has long had a weird sympathy for Hollywood artists, maybe it’s a symptom of the new comics wave’s imminent relocation to that equally soul sucking but far more profitable media plane. The comics wunderkind hasn’t lacked for Hollywood interest, might as well as shine a light on the more palatable elements of the scene while it’s still a safe enough distance away.
Thing is, that cynicism doesn’t really suit Kot’s film focus. If anyone is on a trajectory towards deeper human awareness in Material, it’s Dahlias, who begins the comic snorting klonopin she bashes up with a (legal) Colt Detective Special, drool pooled in the corner of downturned mouth like some Lindsay Lohan riff gone green. Dahlias packs hidden depth, and a bit of a push and a prod from her manager sends her careening on a crash course with Sailor Rosenfield, “a modern visionary,” according to Buzzfeed. More importantly, he’s a navigator for Dahlias’ new path, utterly confident in her abilities and willing to bet his career on it.
This makes Sailor an outlier in his own Hollywood scene but also in Material. Tempest draws Rosenfield like a peculiarly hip guidance counselor, all casually mussed up hair and shirts and slumped shoulder easiness. Dahlias has similar posture, but in her case it looks like she has some astral weight on her shoulders, a heaviness that prohibits her from connecting with any of the people around her, either out of distrust or disinterest or both. You get an immediate sense that Rosenfield has loose posture because he has ceased giving a shit. Not in a smug traditional Hollywood play it cool sense, either– no, Rosenfield has mastered the zen calm of realizing life is compromise and you’re better off playing along while staying smart than you are being outwardly hostile and demanding. The director is the only guide this comic has, an appropriately named sailor of life’s complexity, willing and able to lend a hand.
Notably, the key scene between Rosenfield and Dahlias in this issue is structured around a series of questions from Rosenfield. You could make a case that he’s doing it as a tactic, attempting to draw Dahlias out of her shell in order to ensure a stable performance from her throughout his film. But it feels more genuine than that, Tempest’s acting granting the characters a sort of mentor-mentee relationship, in which case Rosenfield’s methods would be Socratic rather than mercenary and manipulative. There is a Siri moment, where Rosenfield attempts to get clarity by repeating a question, but he then immediately explains his motive, stating “I hope that if I ask you other questions you’ll answer through metaphor or some other kind of a mirror.”
Before this, Rosenfield has already ambitiously claimed his film will be “a perfect reflection” of Dahlias, so mirrors are on his mind. However, there’s more to it than simple reflection. Mirrors have often been utilized as gateways in fiction, passages into other worlds, or code for alternate realities, mirror dimensions being somehow flipped from their source. They’re also key to trick photography going back to that medium’s origins, handy for everything from light effects and to perspective manipulation to ghostly imaging– psychics and other occultists favored them for a reason. Rosenfield and Dahlias conclude their conversation with a “cut!” implying the conversation was part of the film. Or maybe the likelier reading comes down to an emphasis on Dahlias’ confession that she wants to be “real,” a goal Rosenfield perhaps subtly argues is false because of the fiction of acting. Is the dual interpretation the mirror? Is the vagueness of the intent a perfect reflection of Dahlias?
Mirroring human interaction similarly extends to the way the possibly fake AI interacts with Professor Shore in the other sections of the issue. The AI introduces itself to Shore with a simple question, asking if he would like to be friends and from there it attempts its own mirroring of Shore, throwing his theories back at him and adding AI jokes into the conversation to lighten the mood– asked to name itself, it says “Skynet,” though it seems to be labeled MAAPAA (and while MAAPAA also jokes about being a 13 year-old Russian hacktivist, there appears to be a real life Indian hacker named MAAPAA…coincidence?)
AIs have been everywhere this year, from the taut thriller of Ex Machina to the bloated Frankenstein riff of Age of Ultron. But Material takes a different approach, forgoing the traditional story of a “child” AI seeking to usurp its “parent” creator. Shore didn’t create the AI that has reached out to him, and as of yet the AI appears to have no interest in its parentage (unless we are to believe a line it says about its parents being spam e-mail). Instead it seeks to reflect Shore, to test the strength of his convictions and uncover why he made the decisions he has. There is no flailing attempt at deciphering the meaning of humanity– MAAPAA immediately states it is the first human AI, and by combining human and AI it handily thwarts any attempts to make it one or the other.
And here is where we circle back, because what MAAPAA is also notably disinterested in is short questions. In fact, it seems to only ask a few questions– “would you like to be friends?” being the opener, while more rhetorical questions about the relationship between hacktivists and the Arab Spring protests and feminists and the 1968 Situationists protests follow. Is the message here that this is a smarter child of SmarterChild? That it has evolved past a need for questions? Or is it a return to Shore’s original point, that we are becoming more machine like? There’s a lot of evidence to bolster the latter theory, and MAAPAA seizes it, commenting on a fake Pollock painting Shore has, getting in a dig about the organic food he eats but does not grow despite having “the time and space,” building to a vicious point that Shore is as defined by his objects, his material, as those he criticizes. Worse, Shore is the one left asking questions in order to buy time and get a better handle on the conversation, and it’s a question that would easily have fit SmarterChild’s algorithm: “Why me?”
From the perspective of the reader, that’s not too hard to parse out. Shore feels impotent, from his perceived academic stasis to his lack of foresight on family matters. He is not impotent the way the Guantanamo survivor is, seeking out sexual sadism as a way of coping with his trauma but not necessarily wanting any sexual release. He is impotent because he has lost wonder, because he seeks control over spontaneity. I’m no more a prophet than Shore is but I suspect this “Why me?” will be Material’s prevailing theme, albeit for vastly different reasons for each of its primary characters. It’s not an unusual or rare question, but Kot and Tempest’s approach to it stands out, making Material a comic that is bold enough to seek to alter your world view, provoking questions and asking that you keep an open mind rather than rushing for answers. And who better to helm a comic devoted to using questions to decipher life than Ales Kot?
Material #1 is out now from Image Comics
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover