The Gap between Panels / on the Right Way to Fall in Love with a Robot

Alex + Ava, conceived and illustrated by Jonathan Luna and scripted by Sarah Vaughan, is a sharp 15 issue sci-fi romance. Its length is somewhat unusual – sitting between a single trade-length ‘miniseries’ and a multi-year ‘ongoing’ of 50 issues or more. Luna set out to tell the story in only 12 or so issues, but found he needed a bit more room. Nonetheless, the book was embarked on with a very clear end in sight.

Chobits, the ‘seinen’ (for older men) manga by the all-female collective CLAMP, shares the same premise as Alex + Ava – but it shows every sign of being made up as it was being written. Not only is it overlong, but it gets increasingly aimless and confused. The resolution of the plot is therefore very unsatisfying. Moreover, the lack of planning ends up tainting the very interesting ideas that were being explored at the outset.

The central conceit of Chobitsis a world in which computers have a human shape and can weave themselves into the most intimate parts of our private lives. The robot our protagonist Hideki discovers comes in the form of a beautiful 16-year-old girl, who is utterly obedient to her new master’s wishes. The tension in the series comes from Hideki, a poor but noble student, being increasingly torn between romance with several pretty ladies and looking after his alluring new gadget.

Chobits

The worry at the heart of Chobits isn’t so much the puerile thought that some people might have sex with these things (although the book suggests that this is common practice). It’s the contention that slavish machines might provide a remedy for the fear of people with wills of their own. The danger is that we become cut off from humanity, with only androids in our orbit. Should we be concerned if otaku end up preferringvirtual girlfriends to real ones? Or should we welcome a future in which everyone can be in a relationship that caters to their every need?

Free will is the crux of the matter. While the women in Chobits fret that they will be unable to live up to the standards of beauty and obedience prospective lovers are now getting from their machines, Alex + Ava is more interested in what happens when these objects start to have minds of their own. As a result, Luna and Vaughan’s book ends up borrowing ideas and images from civil rights movements of the past, as well as contemporary struggles over race, sexuality and disability.

The android Chi may be more advanced than the other robots in Chobits, but there is never any indication that she has a choice of master or partner or lover. Indeed, the climax of the book revolves around a choice Hideki needs to make about Chi – her love is a given, her only goal is to find someone who will accept it. Alex, on the other hand, is dissatisfied with Ava’s lack of personality, and decides at the beginning of the book to ‘unlock’ her sentience. Ava then has to choose whether to keep the name Alex gave her, whether to stay with him, and whether to love him.

Alex and Ada

I suspect CLAMP wanted to make a similar radical “robots are people too” argument at the end of Chobits. But that objective was undermined by the need to keep Chi cute, docile and child-like – whether due to the strictures of the romance genre or fan-service I don’t know. The sloppiness of their plotting suggests to me that they didn’t have a firm handle on their story, and the possible meanings that it was generating.

All of which speaks to the value of having a clear end in sight for your story. That’s not to say that Alex + Ava’s final issue is perfect. The rapid zoom out and forward feels incongruous with the real-time and intimate pace of the rest of the book. But the point it makes is important – Alex and Ava have to suffer great injustice before they are reunited at the end. There is no question therefore that their love is genuine.

Luna’s fully digital artwork in Alex + Ava is rather austere, and has come under some criticism. It’s partly a result of necessity, since he is doing everything on his own, and so wouldn’t have time for detailed backgrounds, for example. I think one of the reasons he can turn it all around is his preference for repeating panels, with only minor alterations, and chains of word balloons, which makes his comics feel very ‘televisual’. His panels are always straight rectangles on black gutters, with bleeds only on splash pages – invariably cliffhangers at the end of an issue. That’s a very rigid way of doing comics, totally different from the speed and complexity of manga. I think it works, in that it sets a tone of manicured dissatisfaction that is entirely in keeping with the themes of the book. But it will be interesting to see if Luna sticks to his style, and the full control it allows him, or if he decides to loosen up, with or without the help of collaborators on the art side.

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