Locus Online





Monday 21 May 2001

Red Hour Orgy
A Column about Comics by Philip Shropshire
(Special to Locus Online)

  • A.I. Fictional Websites
  • Brave Old World, William Messner-Loebs, Guy Davis and Phil Hester (DC Comics/Vertigo)

One of the more interesting things on the Web is the assortment of pseudo-realistic sites that have been created to promote the Steven Speilberg movie A.I. (Adrian Hon's provides an extensive guide.) Can these sites be defined as comics, or are they something new entirely, some kind of meta-fiction that hasn't been articulated yet? Well, let's check out the Scott McCloud definition of comics in Understanding Comics:

Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”
Hard to say if that means web pages exactly. Web pages are images and words. Does that count? Does sequence mean sequential? These sites are connected, but not just one to another. It can be many to many. I guess the interpretation is open to interpretation.

There was a similar argument started in jazz by Wynton Marsalis. To be “real” jazz, you had to be acoustic, ignore the experiments of the late sixties and generally be kind of boring. Had Marsalis had some more vision, jazz would be a lot better off. So, in that spirit, the web stories unfolding on the A.I. sites are a kind of comics that people in the comics community should be quick to embrace as a slick, pixilated, mutated offspring. (And for the record, Weather Report, Brand X and The Mahavishnu Orchestra are real jazz bands.)

There are a couple of aspects of these sites that should be clear. These are definitely science fiction stories. In fact, it's a pretty demanding kind of science fiction. Just to give a quick overview, the movie A.I. is about the creation of an artificial child some 100 years in the future. The movie appears to be a vast expansion of a Brian Aldiss story from 1969 [reviewed here]. The many websites that are related to A.I. are meant to create a kind of backgrounding for this world. At this point, it's not clear if the stories unfolding on the Web are a part of the movie's story or are a separate background story meant to shed some light on some of the movie's players. We won't know until we see the movie, or until all the spoilers are revealed at Ain't It Cool News.

The story seems to start with the murder of Evan Chan and his alleged bot murderer. There are at least a dozen main sites and hundreds of web pages. These sites are full of hidden clues that only a hacker could love. There are even clues in the HTML source code, and fancier word and symbol clues scattered throughout the sites. Personally, I wimped out and went straight to the compilation sites to figure out what's going on. Though if you're Astro Teller or Greg Egan (who I'm convinced is a rogue A.I.… Think about it: Have you ever seen a picture of Greg Egan? Egan makes Thomas Pynchon look like a Gore Vidal-like publicity hound…) then jump right in.

As if this isn't hard enough for the average reader, these pages are constantly being updated. Not unlike a crossword puzzle that constantly changes its shape or a book that adds a couple of pages every day and changes its old ones. The effect is demanding, scary and new.

I found several sites that told interesting stories in and of themselves. The first one is ARM (Armed Robot Militia), a kind of right-wing site that supports eradicating the machines and looks upon bots, “robosexuals”, and other human collaborators as the enemy. It offers a contemporary comment on current right-wing websites. But the folks behind ARM aren't traditional racists. In fact, they've embraced all of humanity—they'll need as many organics as they can to defeat the metal ones. Or as they phrase it:

Fighting between blacks and whites, Indians and Pakistanis, rich and poor—that's just what THEY want! The machines are always stirring up trouble between MEN. Every day we spend fighting each other is another day for the metal-heads to tighten their grip on power. Every ounce of anger you waste on another human being should have been spent on the machines.

But it is a hate site. For proof, on the homepage we get:

“Are you tired of watching machines take jobs from you and your neighbors?”

“It's not the color of your skin that's important—it's the flesh inside.”

“Do you ever wonder if the evolutionary track is branching and the choice is humans or robots?”

Actually, while I loathe the far right-wing, I can see a kernal of truth in ARM's position. Hans Moravec makes the argument that we are branching and that we're going to lose—Big Time. Unless we take the Ray Kurzweil route and integrate peacefully into our machines, we're dust. I can see where organics might not like either option.

The only flaw in this future websites scenario is that while they are set a hundred years ahead, or several singularities down the road, they are not the future websites we might imagine will have evolved by then: full immersion mobile holograms that you can step into with a pair of glasses. It's like a 16th Century imagining television via oil paintings.

Other sites that I found particularly interesting were the A.I. rights site The Coalition of Robotic Freedom, Spherewatch, and the Bangalore World University site. The first of these raises a point that's been cropping up on the last season of Star Trek: Voyager: if you create an artificial intelligence that can do the same things that a human could do, then shouldn't it be afforded human rights? Or as it says here at the Coalition site:

Imagine you are a slave.

You are born in bondage. With your first heartbeat you begin to work at a task you were bred to. You will never lie on a patch of grass and try to see shapes in the clouds. You will never build a tree fort with your friends.

Instead, you work. You need to work like humans need to breathe. This isn't necessary; it was just convenient for the humans to build you that way. "Sickness" for you is malfunction. "Treatment" involves amputating parts of your mind or body and rebuilding them so your work will improve.

You do not eat. You do not sleep. You may not rest. You may not love. And when another system can do your work faster or better, you will be executed. You are not mentally, physically, or emotionally inferior to your masters; in dozens of ways you are demonstrably superior. Despite this, you are property, with absolutely no rights. You can be beaten, broken, slandered, raped, and murdered.

You can be forced to like it.

All of these sites feel like comics. The face at the Belladerma site reminds you of Kirby. The running android at Rogue Retrieval looks like something out of the Dave Cockrum Xmen.

As comics and science fiction fans, we should embrace this cool new artform as our own. (And by the way, Allan Holdsworth is a great jazz guitarist.)

Brave Old World, William Messner-Loebs, Guy Davis and Phil Hester

“When all this started I knew zip about the year 1900, so here's the crib notes version: The U.S. was fighting a war in the Phillippines, and war hero Teddy Roosevelt was running for VEEP on McKinley's ticket. Several states wanted to ban artificial refrigeration, ‘cause God invented ice and that was good enough. The big flap in education that year was whether public schools should have blackboards, and Galveston, Texas was pretty much blown off the map by a huge freakin hurricane. There were more Irish in New York City than in Dublin, and more Italians than in Rome. Companies were merging into trusts, and women wanted the vote. If you were a programmer from 1999 thrown back a century like me and my pals, then it all seemed familiar and totally alien at the same time.”

Let me recommend William Messner-Loebs four-parter Brave Old World. Loebs is the genius behind The Maxx, one of the most interesting and complex cartoons that has ever made it to the air. (Will there ever be an adult cartoon channel for “The Maxx”, “Aeon Flux”, unedited anime, old Ralph Bakshi pictures…?)

Not only is it very good science fiction that skirts the edge of steampunk, but it's a nice Howard Zinn-like social exploration of what it was like to live in the New York of the 1900s as a woman or a minority. The plot starts when seven computer scientists are thrown back in time to 1900 by a quantum time experiment that goes awry. The science in the fiction is very good; these are computer scientists who know the difference between a “worm” and a “virus”.

My favorite character is a thinly disguised version of Bill Joy, the Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems who thinks we should just stop exploring some new technologies. This character is Microcraft's James O'Reilly, who's quit the field and written a Bill Joy/Unabomber-like book called The Death of Reason and Freedom—How Computers Destroy. James, after being sent back in the past, says things like:

What? Didn't you just hear the man? Our worship of technology got us to this point…The last thing we should do is screw with the future anymore!

Among the issues addressed are, in no particular order, the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine Wars, the state of opium, union organizing, how the black baseball leagues were formed, ethnic rivalries in New York, and characters like Bat Masterson, John Barrymore, noted censor Anthony Comstock (who gets abducted and murdered by a craft from the future), a sympathetic portrayal of the young D.W. Griffith, and female journalist Nellie Bly.

I was really impressed by Nellie Bly, whom I had never heard of. From her work it appears that she was one of the greatest journalists who ever lived, man or woman. In this comic, she seems to be taking Joan Collins's modern woman-beyond-her-time role from "The City on the Edge of Forever". Or as the dialogue says:

O'Reilly: Why do you do this? Why be constantly in danger?

Nellie Bly: For the joy of it! To be in the middle of the action instead of always watching from the sidelines, a prim and proper lady! And for the truth!

O'Reilly: What truth?

Bly: The truth of everything! We are surrounded by lies and legends. People only hear what they want to hear, not the way things really are!

The comic also takes some pains to show how it was no fun being a minority and/or a woman, an Irishman or someone of Asian descent back in 1900. O'Reilly can only get jobs digging ditches. The Chinese-American, married to a white woman, is openly attacked in the street and goes mad. The women seem to live only slightly better than their brethren trapped in an Afghan theocratic regime. These women, or Stepford Wives according to one character, have some interesting ideas regarding opium-laced products and child rearin', as this bit of dialogue shows:

1900s Lady: I was plagued by morning sickness and other discomforts, but this new opium tonic expunged all such pains and removed my foolish doubts.

Teri Wright (mulatto lady from the future): Opium? You mean like…?

1900s Lady: Oh, not the coarse herb the heathen Chinese take. This is medicinal opium, purified in grain spirits.

Teri: Alcohol and opium?

1900s Lady: I find it keeps them manifesting too much personality, which is bad for a child. (She then licks the spoon and says:) Yum. 

And so it goes. I really enjoyed this series. It felt kind of like “modern” people who are placed in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime narrative. I learned a thing or two. The art could be classified as Mike Mignola light, but it was pretty decent. The covers are magnificent: think radical cartoonist Peter Kuper fused with Jack Kirby. However a question remains: Is this history legit? Did these incidents really happen?

Well, it looks like Messner-Loebs stretched things a bit. In 1900 Nellie Bly had been married for five years and was no longer working as a reporter. The D.W. Griffith character didn't live in New York until 1904, and he was married--so he probably wouldn't have been pushing a broom in the Harlem ghetto in 1900. But these are minor points; the big historical events did happen, and this is a work of fiction after all.

Bottom line: I highly recommend it. It's a nice commentary on technology and history.

For reviews of Batman: Outlaws, Streetwise, and other books, see Philip Shropshire's website

Philip Shropshire is an avid fan of both comics and science-fiction and he runs two personal blogs: and He is hard at work on both a collection of essays and a first novel called Virtual Gods. He is under the probably mistaken impression that if he mentions this in public that he will actually complete these books.

© 2001 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.