Review: Lose #4

Alex Hern reviews an unexpected "fashion issue" of Michael DeForge's comic.

Lose #4
Michael DeForge
Koyama Press.com, 44pp, CDN$8.00

When you buy a comic described as "the fashion issue", normally you know vaguely what to expect. If it's not actually stories about clothes, then it is stories involving fashionable people, stories about the world of fashion, or just lots of pictures of people looking good. With Michael DeForge, you can be certain that you won't get what you expect.

Lose #4 — the fashion issue — is lead by two stories. The first shows at a teenage boy's literal metamorphosis into a leather-and-studded punk; the second is an examination of the lives, fashions and mating habits of the Canadian royalty. Neither of them start, or finish, or do any of the in-between bit, quite like any other short story I've read before. I mean… look, the very first page of the book features a couple having sex as they watch a porn film featuring newspaper comic stalwarts Dilbert and Nancy. It doesn't get any more conventional from there.

The first of the stories, "Someone I Know" is most reminiscent of other works, particularly Charles Burns' coming-of-age classic Black Hole. David, a young film-school student, takes a girl to a new club, Grand Room, to show off. He realises his mistake when he gets in and sees the leather everywhere; Grand Room is a sex club. But when David wakes up the following morning, there's a metal stud poking out of his arm, and it won't come off.

The cover of Lose #4

"Someone I Know" is followed by the stranger still Canadian Royalty: Their Lifestyles and Fashions. Presented as an anthropological guide, DeForge explains the life of the Canadian royalty. Not, mind you, Queen Elizabeth and co. The Canadian royalty are, instead, a semi-human race with their own customs, physiology and, above all, fashions. "If a royal ever undresses, he or she is stripped of his or her title. A famous example of this is Princess Charlotte's public disrobement on national television."

The common thread between the two stories is the freedom they give DeForge to show off his wonderful sense of design. The studded, buckled and leathered outfits of Grand Room, and the ludicrously elaborate and malproportioned robes of the Canadian Royalty, are both things which you can get lost in, mentally mapping every seam, every change in texture, every safety pin and fold of fabric. For good reason, the Canadian royalty section in particular is broken up with galleries of the royals themselves — Margrave Blunder (1945-2001), Prince Theodore (1987-present), Viscountess Mary Pillow (1952-2009) and so on.

The names should give a hint as to the sort of humour DeForge employs. He has much time for silliness — not just the weirdness of the stories, but also things which would be more at home in a Python sketch. A character, handed an x-ray by his doctor, points out that it's actually an ink drawing. The doctor ignores him and carries on. The lives of the royals are ghoulish, but Princess Charlotte flopping on the floor after disrobing for the first time in her adult life has a dark edge to it.

But the best piece in the book is the one which is played far straighter. "The Sixties" is the beginning of something out of the Twilight Zone. A teenage girl narrates her perfectly normal life in a town where everything has a disease called stacyface. It only has one symptom: your face becomes Stacy's. It starts with typical DeForge weirdness, as she meets a deer in the forest with the same face as hers. But the sheer normalcy of so much of the rest of the story — the lack of the over-the-top oddities of the others — gives it a very different, and far more unsettling, feel.

It's still weird seeing, like, old man bodies with stacyface. Babies, too. Fuck this fucking town!

A page from Lose #4. Image: Koyama Press

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution