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by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, published by Image Comics
It’s been twelve issues since Alex first opened the box that Ada arrived in. The relentlessly low-affect Alex + Ada continues to be a slow, delicious love story. Creators Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn have released some of their story’s tension by granting this man and robot tentative couple status. But we are still drawn along by this book’s realism, its attention to detail, and its larger look at civil rights and liberalism.
The story begins with just Alex, a lonely young man who receives a non-sentient robot companion as a birthday gift from his grandmother. He’s responsible for her safety and upkeep. She does his bidding, aims to please, and is incapable of having her own opinions. When he laughs during a movie, she laughs. When she plays video games with him, she lets him win. Even though it’s a time of societal backlash against artificial intelligence, Alex can’t stop thinking about his robot’s potential to be a real, thinking person. His wondering leads him to a cheap motel room, where he pays a “freedroid” to illegally unlock Ada’s sentience. When Ada wakes up to her own free will, she joins Alex in their love story.
In the first issue we see the loneliness of Alex in his mental instructions to his home electronics and his car, and this emptiness permeates the whole book. Luna takes middle-class suburban blandness to an extreme in his illustrations. The only relief from beige, tan, and brown comes from the black gutters around the panels, the white word balloons, and the occasional hint of glowing, artificial LED blue. Sometimes a shirt or a bedspread is a brownish-red or mossy green, but nothing pops. Luna’s lines are also plain and rectangular. Interiors are austere and undecorated, just smaller rectangles inside larger rectangles. Beds are made, closets are neat, and surfaces are bare. It’s as if the robot help and high-tech living have sanitized everything to the point where human lives don’t feel lived-in anymore.
Against this backdrop of sameness and simplicity, we can catch the smallest movements and shifts of attention. The characters in Alex + Ada are as understated as the rooms they live in. They are not bad-looking people, but they have plain faces with plain eyes and plain mouths. Female faces are treated no differently from the men’s—they are just naked, unexaggerated, unadorned faces. It primes us to get involved with the love story because our sense of these characters sneaks up on us, until we realize suddenly that we find their plain faces to be very beautiful.
Luna’s art and Vaughn’s dialogue both establish a deceptively slow pace. Panels slip past where very little happens, like the pages of a flipbook torn out and laid end to end. But things do happen in these panels—hand gestures, eye movement, mouth movements, shifts of the head. People think and watch, and time passes. It’s a courtship of micro-expressions and tiny cues.
When Ada wakes up as a freedroid and starts using her body and mind to process sensations, we experience everything with her. This book’s deadpan makes happiness more vivid when it comes, but the clamped-down sadness is also vivid. When anyone feels bad in Alex + Ada, you feel how dismal it is to be a grown-up sometimes, with your sadness all quiet and under wraps. And if anyone ever does scream or yell in this book, you really sit up and take notice.
When Ada starts to notice her attraction to Alex, we feel like we’re watching a baby working to take her first steps. When she secretly tries to study up on romance from books and shows, it is adorable and so hopeful. And then when Alex freaks out on her right after their first kiss, you feel the sting of rejection. But you also understand why Alex is freaking out. This is a rare love story that gives equal weight to both sides. It is truly about the relationship itself—it’s Alex plus Ada.
Of course, Alex + Ada is not just a love story, and that’s part of why it’s such a good love story. Both Alex and Ada become outlaws once she becomes sentient. Robots are stopped and searched by law enforcement, killed by mobs, and forced into hiding. This is a story about a changing society, civil rights, fear, alienation and what it means to be alive and human. In short, it is a story about us now. We might not have sentient robots yet, but the themes in Alex + Ada echo the things we are dealing with and have dealt with for hundreds of years. People as chattel, people as less than human, people as machines. Everything from slavery in the United States 150 years ago, to the need to remind people—still, today, in 2015—that black lives matter. On another axis, there are issues with womanhood and the implied threat to human womanhood in a patriarchal system, with the availability of submissive androids that look and feel human. And there are also echoes of the existing slavery of trafficked women and children in this and other countries. At the heart of this story is the fundamental idea that everyone who can have access to consciousness, desire, individuality, and free will—this idea of “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness”—should at least have that chance, even if being human is still going to be a shit show.
The relationship issues of Alex + Ada feel as familiar and real as the robot rights movement does. It turns out that not being ready for a relationship with a robot looks exactly like not being ready for a relationship with a human. After Alex gets scared and Ada leaves, someone asks him, “Do you want to see her because you care about her more than you thought? Or is it just to be reassured you’re a good guy?” And that’s why this love story is so good and will continue to be good, even though we are 12 issues in and these two have already circled each other, kissed for the first time, pulled apart, reunited, and become a couple. Happy endings depend entirely on where the storyteller decides to say “The End.” Even though the robot already has her human and the boy already has his freedroid, Alex and Ada are still taking it one day at a time, one foot in front of the other.