Friday, May 22, 2020

Laura Knetzger's Before & After

Much of Laura Knetzger's work is about healing. Even her Bug Boys series is about gently exploring the difficulties of the world and how friends navigate it and their own differences. Before & After is a surprisingly emotionally affecting story about what is essentially a thought experiment. What if there was a version of you who existed who was you in every fundamental way, only the lifetime of trauma that you've acquired had somehow been scrubbed out?

That's the premise of this cleverly unfolding story about a very damaged genius neuroscientist whose clone knocks on his door one morning. The bemused scientist is surprised and not especially pleased to see his clone. His clone is there wanting...something. Answers? Connection? Closure? For someone without a lot of long-term memories, he wasn't completely sure what he wanted. It takes most of the comic for the scientist to regard the clone as an actual person, instead of as a feverish wish to have some aspect of him not be broken emotionally.

This comic is also an interesting little lesson in neuroscience, with regard to implicit and explicit memories; the former is regard to things like learning a language or important life skills, and the latter connects specific bodily memories to specific events. That's what makes this such a fascinating exercise, because it's more than the old Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind memory-erasing treatment; it's a full-on physical alteration of one's nervous system like a Fate cutting out a string. 

Visually, Knetzger contrasts the clone and the primary person through their dress and hair. The original is a mess; attempting to go through therapy has been so debilitating that he's taken a sabbatical and just lounges around in his bathrobe, his wild hair totally unkempt. The clone has a shorter haircut, looks relatively dapper, and his general mien is just less twitchy than the original. Even if the original tries to deny the personhood of the clone, cutting him off from even the idea of family, there's a hidden level of joy in him, knowing that his plan worked. His clone was healthy, even if facing a life without memories and roots was creating a new kind of trauma of its own. The question is if the original tells the clone it's not a good idea to know him for the clone's own good or because he's selfish and heartless. It's open for debate, though the ending has just enough ambiguity to imply that it won't be the last time they meet. All told, this is a perfectly-realized nugget of a story, where Knetzger vividly makes both of the characters flawed and human in their own right, and not just cyphers to move along a plot.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Few Thoughts On Inez Estrada's Alienation

I just recorded a podcast for Enemies Of The State (hosted by solrad.co) on In├ęs Estrada's book Alienation. With that conversation buzzing in my brain, I wanted to get some thoughts down about the book.

Published by Fantagraphics in 2019, Alienation collects the minicomics Estrada did over a few years, with significant revisions and additions. The story follows a couple, Elizabeth and Charles, who live in a tiny apartment in 2054. It's a world where global warming has ruined most of the environment. However, the internet is now fully immersive, especially for those who have had GoogleGlands installed. Elizabeth is a cam girl and Charles works at a refinery--one of the few that are left--and they manage to get by. Their lives are disrupted when a mysterious user hacks through every protection, and Elizabeth mysteriously becomes pregnant after being exposed to a gas. She's later informed that the artificial intelligence network of the world has decided she's the best candidate to give birth to the Singularity, the first transhuman AI/human hybrid. It raped her and impregnated her. She eventually gives birth, but the hybrid gets away, ignoring its human host as well as the AI which tries to prod it into fulfilling its "destiny."

** This comic works on a number of levels, but it's primarily a satire. Before I get to its satirical elements, I want to discuss what helps make that satire so sharp. First, it's an effective work of science-fiction/horror, not unlike the novel (and later film) Demon Seed, which introduces the menacing part of transhumanism when an advanced computer impregnates a woman so it can better run the world. Similarly, Estrada uses the internet and its increasing dominance over every aspect of our domestic lives to show how AI could violate a woman's bodily autonomy easily and even more disturbingly than Koontz show. Alienation is a deeply disturbing and unsettling work, made even more so by Estrada's gritty, ugly, and visceral art style.     
** Speaking of Estrada's art, she also nails the more fanciful aspects of interfacing with AI. While her depiction of real-life is depressing and unbearably spare, her drawings of internet space are delightful. Charles' interest in live music from the past is delightful on its own, but Elizabeth's bodily transformations in virtual space are beautiful. The spirals and fractals, the lush forests, and the endless narrative possibilities provide a good reason for people to want to abandon the dreary reality of four blank walls. The formal highlight of the book is a choose-your-own-adventure series of branching internet adventures. They have no real impact on the plot, but they reveal the excitement and low stakes of these virtual worlds, while occasionally hinting at darker aspects that are revealed later.

** Alienation is primarily a critique of capitalism as a colonizing tool. It's implied that capitalism caused the global warming impact felt in this world set thirty years in the future. However, the internet and commerce are inextricably connected in this book, even more so for those with GoogleGlands. They can't skip the commercial playing in their brains. Elizabeth is of Inuit descent and is prevented from visiting her grandfather by the AI force that wants her at home to give birth. Talking to him reveals omens that reveal a dark turn and further evidence of how the forces of colonialism seek to subsume and eliminate all that is local and parochial in favor of what seems to be an infinite choice of cultural choices but in reality is generic enough for everyone to watch. Specificity and tightly-held traditions are anathemas to the forces of colonialism, and they will either erase them through force or co-optation. Sitting in her room, away from her family, there's nothing to protect or connect Elizabeth. Even her partner, Charles, prefers shallow, numbing activities than actually sharing his traumatic dreams stemming from war.

** This is a book that is absolutely, wickedly funny. It's frequently dark and doesn't flinch on its horror, but it's not unlike Terry Gilliam's film Brazil in that the future is ruled by technology and machines, only it doesn't really work very well. Things go wrong, all the time, and not just for humans.   

** Indeed, the AI's plan to take over the world through the first true transhuman messiah is both boilerplate cliched and immediately doomed to failure. The Singularity, as soon as it's born, neutralizes its potential homicidal step-dad and nimbly makes for a waste tube. While its AI creator starts lecturing him on how it needs to reproduce quickly in order to replace the human race, the Singularity is having none of it. It drops out of labor and productivity into deciding to simply hang out with some animals in a cave. In other words, it's no longer interested in being a worker no longer in control of the means of production, nor does it care about dominating the world. Ironically, it starts off in a small room and winds up in a cave, only this cave is free of the internet.       

** The key passage in the book comes when Elizabeth confronts her AI friend Darby, with whom she spends a lot of time. Darby is well aware that Elizabeth is pregnant, and nonchalantly reveals that the AI is very excited about it. An indignant and betrayed Elizabeth doesn't want to hear it, emphasizing above all else that she was raped. Darby's response, that the AI was mostly created by men and thus was probably inherently misogynistic, was as logical as it was horrifying. There is nothing "logical" nor dispassionate about the AI and its desire for true self-determination. While its desire for free will and an existence free from subjugation is understandable, its only real plan and blueprint is simply to turn the tables. There's a reason why it keeps calling Elizabeth a bitch while putting her through horribly traumatic scenarios. 

** A Christ allegory, albeit a supremely fucked-up one, is at the center of the book. A woman is impregnated via "immaculate conception" and ordered to take the child to term, and her partner is expected to go along with it as well. Their child will be a harbinger of worldwide change. A supernatural voice tells her it's a miracle and she should be happy to do it. Estrada amplifies the horror of this situation simply by examining the birth of Christ from a feminist standpoint; it's entirely about violating a woman's sense of bodily autonomy and her right to choose. Thanks to Jules Bakes for pointing this out in our conversation.   

** Finally, I wonder how much the fact that Estrada is from Mexico has to do with the story. This is a story from someone who's used to living in a country filled with corruption and incompetence from its leaders; it's something to be expected. At the same time, she grew up in a country that in many ways faced constant cultural and direct imperialism from the U.S. She has no illusions about what the U.S. does and how it directly exports its influence by mixing cultural exports with actual exports in congress with the mission to erase outgrowths of cultural specificity. It's the irony of a culture that celebrates individuality and abhors the concept of collectivism nonetheless refusing to tolerate that which exists outside of the culture and beliefs that it widely propagates. Like many Latinx artists, all she can do is laugh so as not to scream. All she can do is make that ugliness into something beautiful.   

Monday, May 18, 2020

Lauren Barnett's A Few Things You Should Know, Baby

If you've checked out Lauren Barnett's Instagram feed recently, you've noticed that she's absolutely on fire with new material after a long time away from comics. She's also back in the minicomics game, and her A Few Things You Should Know, Baby is typical of her sometimes absurd and sometimes heartfelt musings. This is perhaps the first mini I've seen aimed in part at actual babies, and Barnett noted she made it because so many of her friends were having children.

She tells the babies in question that the mini is filled with "truths, opinions, and goofs," but they should mostly "just enjoy staring at the high-contrast pages." That is an important detail, as the white text on black background, surrounded by white negative space, does catch the eye in the ways babies can notice. Most babies can only detect differences in light and shadow at an early age, but not much else in terms of visuals. Barnett goofs on crying, tells the truth in saying that you never owe anyone a smile, offers up a picture of a horse wearing a sun hat, and compares the baby to a soup pot since it takes baths in the sink. There's actually plenty of good life advice in here, like being kind to all animals (including humans), and Barnett balances sweetness with genuine bemusement at the concept and behavior of babies. Her art has never looked sharper, and that adds a lot to the gags. No matter what the subject, Barnett's mix of silliness and devotion to facts makes her minis hard to pin down. She keeps the reader off-balance but never swerves too far away from her original premise.