Fiction has no shortage of stand-ins for the human fear of losing our place at the top of the evolutionary ladder, but as we hurtle closer and closer towards creating sentient artificial intelligence, androids have become the stand-in of choice. While Westworld is currently the trendy and needlessly brutal representation of this, Jonathan Luna and Sara Vaughn’s Image series Alex + Ada, newly available in hardcover this week, is a more even handed and realistic examination of a post Turing Test world, mapping out a future where a tragic incident involving a rogue AI initially blocks the further development of sentient androids only to give way to an underground railroad of android “unlocking” that eventually forces society to slowly embrace the rights of “non-human persons.”
Though it’s doubtful that Alex + Ada’s hardcover release was timed to the tail end of Westworld’s debut season, its contrast to that show’s sprawling, pessimistic view of AI development and human use of androids makes it all the more valuable. Luna and Vaughn wisely use the title characters’ relationship to frame their exploration of AI evolution; Alex is a lost and lonely office drone reeling from the dissolution of an engagement, “gifted” with a state of the art X5 droid by his well-off and nosey grandma and his eventual embrace of the droid he names Ada serves as commentary on the way humans are best able to overcome their prejudice and fear by being immersed in the other. Initially reluctant to keep Ada because, as a friend points out to him, it’s like “getting a girlfriend and a baby at the same time,” Alex eventually not only appreciates and values Ada’s abilities but also seeks out ways to “wake her up” and unlock her full potential as an actual person.
Luna and Vaughn’s script fills the background out with details about the social views of Alex and Ada’s world, sketching out enough elements of the tragedy that temporarily blocked the development of AI sentience to make us understand why the culture at large is so fearful while also keeping it vague enough that it’s hard to determine what really happened and whether those fears are actually well-founded. Similarly, background news segments make it clear that whatever happened in that tragedy, humans have responded far beyond what is appropriate, killing off non-sentient droids with abandon and, in one key scene at the beginning of the story, even brutally murdering a mysteriously sentient droid that committed the crime of going to a concert. Where Westworld operates in absolutes, constantly showing us the despicable acts of humans against robotic hosts with only the most minor of positive interactions for variety, Alex + Ada contrasts its fearful news bites with scenes of warmth, like Alex’s grandma’s alternately loving and lusty relationship with her AI Daniel and the inviting robotic rights community Alex seeks out when he decides he wants to help Ada gain sentience. The point is that humans aren’t reacting to the development of androids with only violence and sex, but also exploring the potential for companionship and understanding, both of ourselves and artificial intelligence, such advancement might bring.
Althought Luna’s art in the past has been criticized as cold and unfeeling but the exceptionally clean, digital style he operates in has never been more fitting for a story. Luna’s humans have always looked somewhat robotic, and in Alex + Ada that’s an asset, making it harder to tell the humans and androids apart, forcing the reader to take every character in equally, with manufacturer logo tattoos serving as the only noticeable difference in androids. That aesthetic also helps Alex + Ada have a timeless feel, making its future feel just advanced enough to stand out from our own while remaining similar enough to make it easy to parallels with our current advancement. Google stand-in Prime, for instance, now allows for instant messaging and searching via thoughts rather than vocal communication, and most homes in this near-future have robotic helpers even if they don’t have androids.
The range of expressions Luna brings to his characters has also evolved, the story’s crucial emotional beats frequently illustrated in long, wordless sequences featuring minor changes in facial reactions and body language rather than drawn out exposition. Vaughn and Luna’s script is boldly silent for a significant chunk of its length, yet this never feels lazy or monotonous. Even the domestic robots, like Alex’s helper bot Otto, are given friendly “faces,” lines on their surfaces that seem to smile or frown or show pain as needed.
But the real achievement of Alex + Ada is in the rise and fall and ebb of the story’s central relationship. Though the Luna Bros’ series often had a surface level feminity to them, particular in standout work Ultra, they often showed a lack of real understanding for the struggles of women. Vaughn’s involvement in Alex + Ada seems to have helped the work better communicate Ada’s struggle for understanding and independence as something other than a tech philosophy debate but also as a comment on the continued objectification and dehumanization of women. Like Ex Machina and Her, Alex + Ada‘s central argument is for a woman’s right to choose her own path and to reject the notion that she needs a man to “wake her up.” Alex might be the catalyst for Ada’s sentience, but he has no control over her decisions once she is sentient and is forced to check his ego a number of times. In one of the best scenes in the series, Franklin, the AI that woke up Ada, pointedly asks Alex if he is doing something for Ada because he believes it is right and respects or if he is doing it so that he looks like a good guy.
The final third of Alex + Ada shifts back to examining larger cultural questions about how society might react to the emergence of “non-human persons,” and even grafts on the elements of a thriller to mixed effect, but its finale wisely goes micro to explore the meaning of personhood and specifically how sacrifice and risk plays into it. Luna brings in some obvious but beautiful imagery to illustrate this, notably a recurring dream Ada has about rowing a boat on a calm ocean, but it’s the focus on Alex and Ada’s interactions with one another that most successfully sells this point. At times awkward and unsubtle, Alex + Ada is by no means perfect, but that rawness and unapologetic sincerity ultimately adds to its effect. After all, what’s more human than clumsily expressing your emotions and hoping the other person still chooses to be with you anyway?
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