Relationships between AI and humans have been a fascinating topic for most people, not just SFF and popular media fans. The idea of seeing artificial people like androids as family or friends or lovers is often explored in media like AI: Artificial Intelligence and Ex Machina. These stories explore the meaning of being human and what happens when an artificial creation shows empathy and compassion (which sometimes make that creation more human than its human counterparts). The webcomic Khepra is one such story, and Natasha Dancy talks about their process in constructing their wonderful and thought provoking ideas.
I usually don’t read the original draft of a webcomic, even if the creator still has it up online. But I love Khepra (and listed it in my March webcomic roundup), a story about a lone survivor named Cara and Ed, a medical droid, who eventually team up in a post-war world. The storytelling, characters, worldbuilding — all of it is impressive. Also, I love robots. So my curiosity has led me to read the original comic, titled Tethered. Noticing how the art style and story have changed drastically in Khepra, I wanted to ask the creator, Natasha Dancy, about their creative process and thoughts on AI in fictional media.
The Geekiary: It’s great to have you here! Let’s start with introducing yourself.
Natasha Dancy: Thank you for having me! Hmm… What to say… I’m just some dork who’s a bit of a loser for comics and storytelling, if you couldn’t tell! I have always had a passion and drive to tell stories ever since I was little; I guess in some ways it was escapism from being bullied as a kid. I would just hide in the library and read books and Asterix comics during lunch, and since then I knew I wanted to create my own worlds. I went onto studying Animation at University, which gave me more of an insight into how to structure my ideas and bring them to life. I hoped that I could tell my stories through animation… Perhaps one day I still might, but until then comics have been a great substitute for me!
TG: I’m interested in hearing about your creative process. Although Khrepa’s art style and story have changed since its original draft, the heart of Cara and Ed’s narrative remains. From my reading experience, it’s a story about reconciling with the past and confronting trauma. I personally love both versions, but I agree that Khrepa has a tighter structure. How has the story changed for you over time?
Dancy: When I originally wrote Tethered, I was still trying to find my feet as a writer. I had a lot of influence from other people who pushed my ideas into a direction that just wasn’t me. Back then I didn’t have the confidence to say no so I just went with it. I always wanted Tethered to be like how Khepra is now; that it had its light-hearted moments with touches of humor, but only got dark when it needed to be. Tethered unfortunately went down a really dark route, one which I couldn’t pull it back from. In the end that really bummed me out, so I took time away to think about what I could do.
When the pandemic hit and I had to work from home, that actually gave me some respite to consider the Tethered world again. I had a eureka moment about two months into lockdown and got back to writing! I honestly think rebooting it was the best thing I could have done. I looked back and could clearly see a lot of mistakes made within the story, I absolutely tore it apart, deleted TONS of scenes/chapters that weren’t necessary and rewrote it from the heart.
TG: Relationships between humans and AI intrigue me, and I admire the dynamics between Ed and Cara. In some AI media, like Robot & Frank, the human character is hesitant or resentful of the AI they encounter. This is obviously the case when Cara first encounters Ed. I’d like to know your thoughts on this and how you develop their relationship in the story.
Dancy: I honestly love writing scenes with Ed and Cara, their relationship has so many layers that I hope shows in the comic. Cara was extremely resentful towards Ed in the beginning, but mostly because of her association with droids. Unfortunately for Ed, he was initially a trigger for her, reminding Cara of painful times in her life and where it ultimately led to.
Since the war started, Cara and Ed didn’t interact much with other people and this took its toll on them both. Ed had little understanding of people and all he was exposed to was violence, so it was natural he would be wary, especially after the messages he received in the first couple of episodes told him to hide.
Cara on the other hand is a little more complicated, her trust in others has wavered severely due to her experiences. She finds it very difficult to connect to people, but Ed presented her with an alternative – he isn’t human. When they were both thrown into a traumatic situation together, this broke Cara down. She didn’t know what to do or where to turn because she was hurting, and if anyone reading this has experienced heartbreak then you know how difficult it is to escape that pain. However, when she accidentally cut herself Ed offered her a band-aid; that was a little slice of normality that she hadn’t experienced since before the war.
The tables slowly start to turn when the very thing that Cara resented Ed for eventually becomes a comfort. The fact that he is a droid makes her feel safe knowing that he won’t hurt her. The fact that he is kind and shows humanity helps her to heal because someone is actually caring for her. In turn, Ed is beginning to see many admiring qualities in Cara and looks up to her, he has seen enough devastation in the world to want to preserve what little good it has left.
When telling a story, it is always important to give characters obstacles to overcome to help develop and strengthen their relationships. Like any relationship, be it written or in reality, they need to have their struggles to appreciate how strong they can truly be.
TG: Ed doesn’t have a visibly human appearance, and yet his humor and endearing personality make him a memorable character. Some readers and creators recoil at the thought of an AI that acts (or looks) “too human.” However, we’re seeing more humanoid AI (in appearance or personality) in the media today, from Wall-E to Chappie, challenging what it means to be human. Have you always imagined Ed (appearance and or personality) the way he’s designed now, or have there been changes?
Dancy: I personally love the moral conflict of whether it is right or wrong for AI to look or act human, and it is because of that that I made Ed the way he is. This has been the case since the Tethered days, so there hasn’t been too much change in that aspect. There are certain dynamics that have changed along with the story, but what has stuck is that I really want to make readers question what they think should or shouldn’t be. In a sense I have made this comic very human, including the decisions that characters make because of their own guilt, frustrations, wants or desires. This in turn will present many flaws and personal dilemmas that they will need to either overcome or accept. I will be developing this a lot more later in the comic, too, so I shan’t give away too much here!
TG: What are your favorite movies/TV shows/books, etc. about AI (or other interests)? Anything that has inspired Khepra?
Dancy: Oh blimey, now you’ve gone and done it. Okay, let’s start with movies: I would say definitely Short Circuit and Batteries not Included. I loved those when I was a kid and watched the VHS tapes to death. Terminator was one as well, especially the second one. I just loved the relationship between John Connor and the Terminator, and totally cried at the end when he did a thumbs up! 2001: A Space Odyssey is another. Hal 9000 is amazing, I always felt sad for him and wished he had a happier ending. I also love Blade Runner, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Wall-E, Chappie and Alien. Almost anything with androids/synths in it! I would definitely say all these movies helped motivate me to create a sci-fi story.
As for TV shows, I love The Expanse, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Samurai Jack, and Band of Brothers. This is a very diverse selection, but all of them have helped to influence me one way or another. Character dynamics, world building, story arcs and gripping plot really thrive in all of these. I also watch a lot of WW2 and history documentaries, which have very much influenced my take on writing about war and why I give minor characters personality no matter what side they are on. Honestly, my heart has broken so many times after reading or listening to true stories from war times. No matter what side you are on there is pain, frustrations, laughter and LIFE. I don’t want to shy away from how cruel it is in my story either.
The books that have influenced me are actually two war books, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I won’t give too much away about them, but it very much shows you both sides of the line during wartime, and the hardships soldiers and civilians go through to survive. Both books had me crying….URRRGGHHH!
The Last of Us is so raw for me, what really got me about this game is how it made you question SO MUCH at the end! Your choices, and your beliefs throughout the whole playthrough. Despite the horrors in it, they actually make parts of it quite beautiful and touching, and I loved that.
As for Fallout, I can’t say enough about how much I flicking love that game! It has been a massive influence on my story writing, and especially world building. The creators have put so much into it, from product design (like Nukacola) to diaries that random survivors or pre-war civilians had left behind. It made me fall in love with post-apocalyptic stories all over again and helped to fuel a lot of ideas for Tethered and Khepra!
TG: Aside from Khepra, are you working or planning anything else?
Dancy: My husband Shane and I actually have a few things planned. We want to wait until I finish Khepra however, but we are very excited about a couple of ideas we have. They aren’t sci-fi though, so it’s going to be a change! Unfortunately, there isn’t anything else about them I can really mention yet, so everyone is going to have to wait a couple of years, I’m afraid!
Webcomics that Natasha Dancy Recommends:
For more great webcomic recommendations, check out our Wednesday Webcomics archives!
Author: Brahidaliz Martinez
Brahidaliz (pronounced Bra-da-leez) is a 2019 graduate of American University’s MFA in creative writing program. Their cross-genre chapbook, Coquí’s Song, is forthcoming (2023) from Mason Jar Press.
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