Note to readers: While this project is meant to be a comprehensive look at fifty years’ worth of Doonesbury comics, I also want to take the opportunity to write about other comics that grab my attention. Here, then, is my first attempt at reviewing a webcomic, one that I think is well worth checking out. I’d like to do more of this, and I’m always looking for cool new comics to read. If you are a comics creator, either web- or print-based, and you’d like someone to write a critical review of your work and maybe gain an eyeball or two in the process, drop a line to: email@example.com or DM me at @ReadDoonesbury.
Recently, one of my favourite webcomics, Leftover Soup, written and drawn by Tailsteak, wrapped up after a one-thousand-strip-long run. I’m not sure how I discovered the strip in the first place – I believe it may have been when Tailsteak wrote a guest strip for Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content – but something about the strip resonated with me from the get-go, and it became one of those webcomics where I would invariably find myself hitting “Refresh” on my browser when an update was due.
Leftover Soup was part slice-of-life comic focusing on the friendships/relationships/sex lives/work lives of a community of twenty- and thirty-somethings; part murder mystery; and part inside-jokes-about-roleplaying-games comic. I’m going to leave the murder mystery aside for the sake of avoiding spoiling a good story, and, not being a gamer, the RPG stuff didn’t really resonate with me. But, when he wasn’t making obscure jokes about dice rolls, Tailsteak’s explorations of questions facing us today, especially those having to do with gender, sexuality and alternative relationship models were thoughtful and thought-provoking. Tailsteak populated his strip with people who embrace a broad spectrum of approaches to creating relationships, from those who are monogamous for religious reasons to relationship anarchists who valorize sexual hedonism while maintaining core values of respect for their partners. Then he allowed these people to talk to each other in a considered and respectful manner in a way that advanced a simple but important argument: at a time when fundamental assumptions about sexuality, gender and relationships are increasingly being questioned, there are no “right” answers beyond being true to one’s own values and always prioritizing honesty, openness and care for the people one is involved with. In many ways, then, the underlying and unifying theme of Leftover Soup is the question of ethical conduct, both towards one’s self and to others.
Last fall, Tailsteak launched his new project, Forward. Going on four months in, we’re still spending a fair amount of time outlining the world in which the strip is set, a process that can take a frustratingly long time in the format of a once-a-week four-panel comic strip. Tailsteak’s strengths as a cartoonist, namely his strong, dynamic visuals, and his ability to craft dialogue that does the grunt work of world-describing with a natural sense of flow punctuated with sharp humour go a long way towards making the process of learning about this world downright enjoyable, instead of, as it often is speculative fiction, a process akin to reading a crappy history textbook. Clumsy exposition is the enemy of good science fiction – and even more so, in my experience, of fantasy writing.
Science fiction is as much a way to talk about the present in which it is written as it is to explore a future that doesn’t exist. On this count, Forward is, so far, delivering. There are a few themes that Tailsteak has focused on that speak to present-day social dynamics: the economic and social effects of advancing technology; isolation and alienation in an increasingly atomized society; the moral implications of the development of Artificial Intelligence; and the questioning and undoing of the categories and limitations we have built around gender, sex and sexuality.
Forward is set in 2167, the year when, if all goes according to plan, your faithful scribe will be celebrating his 200th birthday. Technology has made massive leaps, bringing about fundamental changes in economic structures. Most jobs are now performed by robots and computers, so “work” as we know it is largely unnecessary; people’s needs are instead met through some sort of universal basic income program. This, however, does not necessarily the paradise we may expect it to be. Our story begins with our lead character, a woman named Lee Caldavera, having a session with an AI therapist. Lee has all of her material needs met and enjoys access to unlimited entertainment, but she exudes a sense of ennui and alienation – both from herself and from the world around her. Unable to get out of the apartment and meet people, she stays home, immersed in her hardcore fandom for a fantasy-based TV series. While its pretty clear that Lee’s emotional struggles are particular to her, one theme I’m going to explore in this review is the question of how what we see in the tiny fragment of Forward’s world that Tailsteak has given us reflects broader social dynamics. One thing I’m really curious about, then, is the extent to which Lee’s unhappiness reflects a wider social phenomenon resulting from the fact that people no longer have jobs as a way to define themselves.
Another encounter with AI opens the door for further explorations of the social, economic and political dynamics of this post-work technotopia. The second AI we meet after Lee’s therapist is Zoa, an “autonomous nonspecified service provider” who responds to an open invitation for companionship and conversation that Lee posts on the suggestion of her shrink. Zoa’s interactions with Lee allow Tailsteak to pursue ideas about sex and gender that played out in Leftover Soup. Hands down, the most interesting character in Leftover Soup was Max, a pan-sexual relationship anarchist who was an evangelist for sexual freedom, challenging everyone she met to follow a sexual ethos in which exploration and fulfilment were closely tied to a strong culture of consent: “Do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody” was a bedrock rule that she strove to live by and get her friends and loved ones to embrace. Though Tailsteak has yet to show us the world outside Lee’s apartment, from her interactions with Zoa, it looks as though Forward is set in a world where the Maxes of our time – genderqueer people, polyamourous people, and other folks who are challenging patriarchal and heteronormative identity and relationship models – have won the battle for public morality. It seems to be the case that the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake has been largely de-stigmatized and the relationship between biological sex and gender norms has been pretty much blown up.
Lee is a woman, but she has a penis; the “nonspecified service” that Zoa is most eager to provide her is oral sex. Zoa has a self-described “fifth sense” for what Lee is “packing” and responds to Lee’s open call for companionship with the offer of a blowjob. While Zoa does point out that, “legally,” she’s a vending machine, indicating the possibility that the law still frowns upon the idea if commercialized sex, there seems to be nothing inherently shocking about her offer. Assuming that what goes on between Lee and Zoa is meant to be a window onto the larger world, Tailsteak is showing us a world where 150 years or so from now, it is, at least to some degree, socially acceptable for a woman with a penis to get sexual satisfaction via the services of a sexbot.
Yet if Forward depicts a world in which people have guaranteed access to a decent standard of living and are more able to express their gender and sexual identities free of socially-imposed moralistic restraints, there are ways in which this world is less progressive than one might hope for. In Questionable Content, AI and robots are fully accepted into human society as equals; they friends with the human characters, and the possibility of human-AI romantic relationships is at least strongly hinted at, if not (yet) portrayed as a fact.* In Forward, AI might fulfill fundamentally human roles, freeing us from wage slavery, but they do not enjoy the same rights as human beings. There are social, political and economic reasons behind Zoa’s offer to exchange a blowjob for money, reasons that are rooted in society’s refusal to see her as being fully a person. Lee may enjoy a guaranteed standard of living, but Zoa has to beg Lee to let her hook up to Lee’s state-supplied electricity supply and data stream. As Zoa reminds her potential client, “some of us aren’t legally people [and therefore] don’s receive basic income from the government or get our essential services covered.” Instead of reacting sympathetically to Zoa’s desperation, she gives Zoa a lecture on personal responsibility, much in the way a present-day conservative might lecture a poor person who had to choose between paying rent or paying for health care: “You should be budgeting your power usage more sensibly than that,” Lee says. Moreover, when Zoa informs Lee as to why she is unable to make ends meet – she must make enough money doing sex work and other odd jobs to cover her maintenance and insurance costs while paying fees to a corporation that has some unspecified power over her – Lee seems totally disinterested. This might be because Lee is a particularly insensitive person, or simply ignorant of the situation facing AI like Zoa, but I imagine that Lee’s insensitivity reflects typical attitudes towards people on the wrong side of the human/AI divide.AI might do all the heavy lifting for us, be entrusted with our deepest emotional issues and be available for our sexual pleasure, but they aren’t worthy of receiving the same rights and privileges as us.
I recently showed a writing student a Forward strip as a way to illustrate the maxim of “show, don’t tell.” In the first few months of Forward, Tailsteak has done a difficult thing very well: he has introduced a new world that has complex and compelling economic, political and social dynamics without letting a fun and funny narrative get bogged down with a boring history lecture. There’s a lot to chew on in what Tailsteak has given us so far; I’m looking forward to his continued slow reveal of this world, and, more importantly, to the stories he’s going to tell within it. Go read his comic.
*Admit it, you’ve shipped Bubbles and Faye.