When Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn came up with the idea for Alex + Ada, they probably had no idea how big it would get. It got picked up by Image, and although planned for only 12 issues it was extended to 15 in order for the story to have a fulfilling end. It was a great entry by Sarah Vaughn into comics, and helped solidify Jonathan as a comic book creator. We got together with them on the eve of the final chapter of their story to discuss robotics and the future.
Graphic Policy: There are obviously a lot of themes in this series, so let’s discuss some of them! Probably the deepest theme in this series is that of love, and what it means to different people. At the same time it is also denied to certain people as well. Where did you find inspiration for this?
Jonathan Luna: We wanted to tell a sci-fi romance, so naturally, love is going to be the biggest theme. But with the backdrop of prejudice, it also becomes about acceptance. Personally, I lean towards drama, sci-fi, and fantasy. I like to show amazing things and inject them with emotion. I knew Sarah loved working with drama as well, so I brought this concept to her. But it was she who mainly brought in the prejudice aspect.
Sarah Vaughn: The idea of prejudice came when we knew we needed Ada to be sentient and that sentience wasn’t magically created, it was an accomplishment achieved by humans. It just seemed to me the world wouldn’t welcome a new group of beings with their own thoughts and desires. There was something important in exploring that.
GP: Alex both judges and is judged for his love of Ada, as he looks critically towards his grandmother but also develops feelings for Ada. Do you think it is human nature to be critical of things that others do that we ourselves are comfortable with?
SV: That’s definitely an aspect of it. Alex is certainly weirded out by his Grandma having an android in the beginning of the story. But though they’re in similar situations, Alex has a different view point. He chooses to unlock Ada, while Katherine never unlocks Daniel. So the judgment is layered.
GP: There are a couple of evocative covers in the series. On the cover for issue #1 we see Ada is what could be construed as a bridal veil (though it is just packaging from her box.) Do you think that if love was possible for a robot that they would seek out marriage?
JL: I think that a robot could sincerely love only if it were sentient. That said, marriage is a cultural practice. A robot would want to seek out marriage if it were either programmed to, drawn to it on its own, or persuaded to. We did use the marriage theme with issue #1’s cover, but it was more symbolic. It wasn’t necessarily going to happen in the story.
GP: Another evocative cover was that for issue #7 where Ada is shown to be removing her outer face to show her true emotion underneath. While it is not the intent of the cover, it does raise the idea of interchangeable appearance of one’s lovers. At other times in the series you highlight that love is more about the “soul” than the outer appearance, but do you think in this scenario that people would try to swap out robots for the same personality but different appearance?
SV: I absolutely think people would consider this. I also think the complexities grow when you weigh if the people looking into this were humans with non-sentient robots, humans wanting their sentient partners to change, or sentient robots considering for themselves.
GP: Another theme is that of awareness, in that there are those with the potential for self aware artificial intelligence but that it is denied to them. This is obviously another big issue, especially as it pertains to the denial of certain scientific principles in society (evolution, climate change). Did this help form the outlook of the series?
SV: We definitely discussed the difference between being sentient and sentient-capable, and the moral and legal ramifications of that debate. At what point does sentience begin? If you are able to “flip the switch”, or once you actually do? We didn’t necessarily want to answer that question, though I’m pretty firm in my own opinion.
JL: It’s interesting. When is a robot considered a person? This was one of the few big things Sarah and I weren’t on the same page on. The whole debate makes me think of abortion. But yeah, ultimately, it isn’t our job to answer questions–it’s to ask them.
SV: And that’s one of the things I really enjoyed about working with Jon on Alex + Ada. There were a couple robot and A.I. topics that we completely disagreed on. Like long arguments, some where we even had to take breaks. I could imagine people in the future having these very same disagreements, only they’re not theoretical, they’re legitimate current events. And that really excited me.
GP: Yet another theme is the intrusion of the outside world into people’s personal lives, a common enough theme in a lot of culture due to the increasing police powers of the state (for instance with Snowden). Do you think that with more technology in the future that we will have less privacy?
JL: Sure, it’s possible that we’ll have less privacy in the future. But I’m a bit optimistic with this. I feel that as our population grows and society advances, we become more vocal, capable, and powerful. So, if the powers that be tried to take our privacy away, we simply wouldn’t let them. Again, I’m an optimist. For all I know, the robots will take over and make us their slaves.
GP: Would the dynamic of the series have changed if Alex was the robot and Ada was the human?
SV: No. The relationship dynamics might be a little different. It’s a domino effect. A straight cis-female human has a different societal experience and history, and that would naturally affect the interactions and scenes with a male-created android. But the main story points would have stayed the same.
JL: I agree. But I do wonder how well the series would’ve done if it were the other way around. I’d love to know.
GP: On a similar note, the default gender for robots seems to almost always be male, but Ada is of course a female. Do you think that robots are by nature genderized as masculine? Would a robot have to “learn” to be feminine?
JL: I definitely think that robots are typically genderized as male, in terms of perception and physicality. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that those robots act masculine. This kind of goes back to the “marriage” thing–a robot would have to be programmed or learn to be masculine, feminine, or even both, or neither.
SV: I agree with Jon. Otto has always been male for me. It’s definitely my default. But that’s my perception as a human, and one I’ve been thinking about during the creation of this book. But masculinity and femininity are very different from being male or female. It can be an energy and a stereotype. So if a program is created to be feminine, it’s because a creator has added their own perceptions of what femininity is into the programming, or a user is perceiving a program’s actions to be feminine. If a program “learns” to be feminine, it first needs to learn what femininity is, and how to perceive it. And so the question of what is feminine and what is masculine comes into play. It becomes far more complicated.
GP: The future world in Alex and Ada seems to be possible as an outcome of our progress but also potentially it could be seen as a dystopia. Do you see it as one or the other? Or both at the same time?
SV: Humans are messy. We can be horrible, and we can be wonderful. I can so easily see us destroying ourselves, but I also have hope we’ll figure out a way to make things work.
JL: I see it as both, too. Technology is advancing, which is great. But those advancements are new opportunities for challenging the way we think. And sometimes the way we think can be terrifying.
GP: Issue #15 is going to be the last of the series. What should we expect to see? Will we see these characters again?
JL: The reader should expect to see what happens after the incident on the beach in issue #14, the consequences of Alex and Ada’s actions. And I don’t think we’re going to see these characters again, after #15. It’s a sad thought. Sarah and I miss them already. But all stories should have an ending.