As a comic book enthusiast, I rarely feel anything besides envy for the artists and writers. However, in the context of the movie Her, I am awash with a mixture of pity and excitement for the creative team behind Alex + Ada. I do not envy Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn the inconceivable burden of comparison with an award nominated, critically acclaimed film with a premise similar to their series, released in the middle of their first story arc. No combination of storytelling and artwork will be truly competitive against Joaquin Phoenix in a long steady shot or against Scarlet Johansson’s breathy voice.
Without significant spoilers, Her, from director Spike Jonze, tells the story of recently divorced Theodore who is reluctant to begin dating again. He is a lonely sort of melancholy fellow. He lives in a near future with a general aesthetic and thoughtful design that has been praised by film critics continuously for the last month. Without significant drama, Theodore downloads a new operating system for his… phone, computer, life, everything, with a cutting edge artificial intelligence marketed as unique for its ability to grow and learn after calibration to satisfy your unspoken needs. Theodore inspires his operating system, Samantha, and she returns the favor.
The premise of Alex + Ada is strikingly familiar, down to the vaguely gloomy protagonist, the slightly stiff postures in the artwork that emphasize the stilted interactions of the human characters, and the rising tension about legitimacy of human and artificial android interactions.
For me, the film, Her, shines brightest in its casual pacing and nearly neutral presentation of the near future. So often, science fiction tends towards action laced stories of rebellion against explicit corruption in order to emphasize humanist themes. Alex + Ada seems to fall somewhere in the middle of this scale I’ve proposed, halfway between Minority Report and Her, in a realm where measured pacing combines with actual details and descriptions of the how’s and why’s of the world.
By issue #4 of Alex + Ada, we have learned how users interface with cell phones and internet connections mentally, how little coffee robots whir about patiently, and how robotics legislation is required to constrain artificial intelligence. We know the rules for how androids get energy and interact with humans under normal conditions. There are hints of corrupt monopolistic technology corporations, descendents of Google and Microsoft perhaps. There are also quiet rumblings to suggest an androids rights movement with a looming sense of revolution on the horizon.
Approaching the end of issue 4, readers also realize that we haven’t been introduced to the real Ada yet. She’s been physically present, but, dissatisfied with her two dimensional personality, Alex is trying to provide her with true sentience. Towards that end he has sought the assistance of a Neo/Morpheus type who helps androids achieve sentience by violating the standard terms and conditions. Ada appears for the last page only, with a dramatic scream.
While similarity to a high benchmark can inspire unfavorable comparisons, it also creates an easy entry point for conversations about the comic itself, and could (ambitiously) bring new readers to the genre. Already, I consistently find myself recommending Alex + Ada to new readers, because the basic idea is familiar, the comic is easy to read, and an observant reader can witness some of the tricks of the trade in use. For example, Luna uses regular panel shapes that echo the monotonic world where Alex lives, and then uses visual repetition to suggest pacing in a straightforward and effective way.
Alex + Ada is crawling along slowly and isn't going to revolutionize the world of science fiction, but it's a well made book that makes for good discussion beyond 'who would you cast in the movie version?'