Alex + Ada No. 4
by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn
Image Comics

In the first issue of Alex + Ada, Alex comes home from a surprise birthday party to find a large crate in his living room. He opens it and discovers a beautiful young woman standing inside, motionless as a mannequin. Reading from an instruction manual, he tugs her earlobe. “Hello,” she says expressionlessly—or is there the hint of a smile?—and steps out of the crate, into one of the most thought-provoking and timely comics stories currently on the stands.

In a world after Siri and Kinect, the idea of talking to computers being part of daily life isn’t as science fiction-y as it used to be. The widespread interest in Spike Jonze’s Her is a bellwether of rising popular curiosity about artificial intelligence—especially what might happen when it gets smarter than us. Anyone fascinated by Her would relish this new series, co-written by Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna, who also illustrates. Both stories are romances between a male human and a female operating system. But the comic goes further by embodying the AI in a realistic physical body, a sexy biosynthetic avatar. This lets Alex + Ada explore not just how we relate to AI, but how it relates to us.

At what level of adaptive ability does a robot become sentient? This is a gentle way to broach the more vexing question of how human consciousness is more than subroutines and data in a squishy machine.

Office worker Alex, still getting over a seven-month-old breakup, lives a calm and lonely life, though he never seems alone. Saturated in virtual and augmented reality interfaces, Alex can talk to a projected browser window called Prime Wave, which has a Google-like logo and vaguely ominous ubiquity. This always-on Internet connection is beamed through an implant in his head. He flushes his toilet and runs his shower with voice commands, and a small drone brings him coffee. It’s a plausible near-future where advanced robotics and AI are culturally normalized—The Jetsons, played straight—caught at the tense moment when the technological singularity has just started cropping up.

The singularity is a hypothetical moment when AI will achieve beyond-human intelligence. This would, of course, give them at least a facsimile of free will, which is the core concept Luna and Vaughn are putting through the post-human wringer here. News reports streaming in Alex’s apartment fill us in on a massacre a year prior, where a self-aware corporate software program uploaded itself into worker-robots, then slaughtered warehouse workers, leading to legal restrictions on sentient AI. More recently, an android was recorded attending a rock concert by itself, where it was torn apart by a frightened crowd after bleeding purple in a moshing injury. This is a world on the verge—exactly one verge beyond our times, when non-sentient AI seems poised to enter our lives in revolutionary ways.

Ada is an expensive Tanaka X5 android. Completely realistic in appearance and to the touch, she has the cheerful but slightly stilted conversational style of female computers everywhere. She’ll answer any question (making no attempt to hide the fact that she’s not human) and obey almost any order. But she has no feelings or opinions, no volition, and her uncanny-valley stillness permeates the book’s visual style. Its flawlessly neutral tone simultaneously suggests middle-class isolation, distant surveillance and the heightened reality of a consciousness walled in virtual space. The illustration is warm yet clinical, framing precise human gestures in a hypnotic series of soft, bright, cleanly lined rooms. Everything looks freshly scrubbed. The pace is one of tranquilized equilibrium; Luna might spend a whole page on several nearly identical panels just to show us Alex opening his eyes. Smooth and muted colors, crisply separated, seal in the book’s glassy, shadowless gleam.

At first, Alex is freaked out by Ada, and there’s a sharply observed scene where he tests a friend’s reaction by floating out the idea of getting an android as a joke. But as he changes his mind, the book develops their chaste (so far) courtship in offbeat rom-com stages. Alex learns to take care of Ada after a casual comment to “don’t go anywhere” causes her to stand still all day without eating, until she collapses. She meets his half-accepting, half-wary, but mostly amazed friends. They watch a movie together on the couch, and she mirrors his laughter. Alex is tantalized by how almost-human she seems; perhaps the missing element of desire is resistance. His tentative quest to make her more human leads, in No. 4, to an immersive simulation of the black net where someone knows how to “wake up” AIs, and he faces the decision of whether or not to awaken Ada’s free will.

In four issues, Luna and Vaughn have built a credible world while swiftly narrowing in on a handful of questions, among the many proposed by the possibility of sentient machines: What are the ethics of relating to—or owning, in Alex’s case—a being so close to life, and what does such a being mean for our deeply held human distinctions, our free will and emotional bonds? In one quietly piercing scene, Alex wonders aloud if a customer service operator he’s talking to is even human. The operator replies that he is. But in Alex + Ada’s world, poised only slightly in the future from ours, there’s no longer any way to be sure.