Get your thinking caps on, Webcomics Wednesday fans, because this week’s selection will set your neurons firing. Blue Delliquanti’s O Human Star opens with a mysterious, wordless sequence: A burly man stumbles down an industrial street, and when he arrives home, it’s clear there’s been some kind of trouble. A table has been knocked over. Papers are strewn all over the floor. The man is alone, but there’s breakfast—unfinished—set for two, and a note taped to his pillow. Most troublesome, however, is the fact that he’s leaving a dribbling trail of blood behind him. His collapse on the bed seems awfully final, but he wakes up in a bright, tidy room with a clean set of clothes laid out for him.
When the man emerges from the building, he finds himself nowhere near that industrial street. Rather, he’s in the middle of field beneath a highway overpass packed with flying cars, facing the skyline of a futuristic city. Even odder: there’s a pair of robots waiting to greet him. What could possibly be going on? One of those robots helpfully sheds some light on the situation.
Mr. Sterling—Alastair—was a brilliant robotics engineer when he was alive, and his technological advances directly led to the innovations allowing his identity to be copied and placed in a synthetic body. It’s just taken 16 years to execute it properly. Tantalizingly unspooling details, Delliquanti gradually reveals key pieces of Al’s past, especially his fraught relationship—both professional and romantic—with his former partner, Brendan.
In the 16 years since Al died, ambitious Brendan has been very busy, both running the company they started together and attempting to find away to bring Al back, in a fashion. One of his attempts involved a synthetic being imbued with Al’s consciousness, but that consciousness isn’t quite the match he was hoping. The robot, Sulla, is a bubbly, talkative (and flying) teen who chose to exist in a girl’s body. And while Al is initially thrown off by his would-be clone, he’s ultimately too charmed by the girl to be bothered.
But there are still so many questions: Brendan insists he wasn’t responsible for bringing Al back, so who is? What blew up their relationship so many years ago? How did they usher in an age of sentient machines? All the while, Delliquanti explores fascinating ontological questions: is there a difference between robot Al and human Al? What’s the nature of consciousness at all?
Sulla in particular explores many of these questions—she’s concerned with passing not only as a human, but as a girl. When she meets Titus, a teen whose own gender is more complicated than simply boy or girl, those questions of gender identity and artificial intelligence are tied together in thought-provoking ways. All those swirling elements are a lot to manage, but Delliquanti handles them deftly, signaling flashbacks and emotional moments with slick color changes and pointed expressions. Her robot designs are pretty stellar, too.
For all of the pointed conversations about consciousness, identity, gender, and even women working in tech fields, Delliquanti keeps the story tidily focused on the characters and their relationships, especially the lead-up to that opening scene and the provenance of Al’s synthetic body. The masterful balance of plot, character, and thought-provoking questions is a winning one, and while Delliquanti only updates once a week (on Mondays) that patience will be richly rewarded.