Alt-Life Review: Narrow Focus and Problematic Ideas

Josiane and a figure walk towards a glop of something in Alt-Life Page 8. Written by Thomas Cadène. Drawn by Joseph Falzon. Published by Le Lombard (Belgium), Europe Comics (English). 17 October, 2018


Thomas Cadène (Writer), Joseph Falzon (Artist)
Le Lombard (Belgium), Europe Comics (English)
17 October, 2018

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In the future, Josiane and René are the first subjects in a new virtual reality programme where almost anything is possible. Housed within giant eggs and monitored by disembodied voices, Josiane and René navigate their new reality but have very different reactions to this altered state of life.

Alt-Life Cover. Written by Thomas Cadène. Drawn by Joseph Falzon. Published by Le Lombard (Belgium), Europe Comics (English). 17 October, 2018

Whereas Josiane tries to push the limits of their world, René longs for the world left behind. René can’t deal with the fact that anything he wants he can now have. He wishes for the unpredictability of the ‘real’ world, but Josiane quickly finds a way to trick her mind into accepting the predictable nature of their life.

Being the only two people there, at least for a year, when the rest of humanity will begin trickling in, Josiane and René turn to each other when things become overwhelming. The two eventually begin to explore other aspects of their relationship, until it develops into something more than physical. But, in a world where your reality is limited only by your imagination, what bonds tie human beings to each other? When the rest of the population joins them, Josiane and René find themselves in a quandary—live in isolation or reunite with humanity? The answer is going to surprise them.

I was fascinated by the concept of Alt-Life. A virtual world where you can do anything? The storytelling possibilities were immense. Unfortunately, this story chooses to focus on one narrow aspect—sex. Alt-Life suffers greatly as a result.

The first part of the book is limited by its focus on Josiane and René, but even more so by the fact that the two of them only want to explore their fantasies. It is almost like an obsession for them, especially Josiane, who is shown doing little else. Whereas René at least tries to expand his knowledge and explore facsimiles of places in the real world, Josiane indulges every whim and fancy, not realising how it stunts her.

I wonder what writer Thomas Cadène was hoping to achieve with the way he writes the two distinct personalities of Josiane and René. Josiane appears to be the epitome of the Freudian Id, all natural, base desire. René exists between Ego and Superego, lost in logic and pragmatism, though occasionally indulging his fantasies.

One can hardly look past the genders of the characters, especially when they are so evenly divided. Does Alt-Life believe women are primeval beings, driven by their desires, eschewing higher purposes and knowledge, unlike their male counterparts, who have lofty ambitions? It is almost like we are meant to associate Josiane and René as the Eve and Adam of Alt-Life. This is such an outdated notion—the corrupt woman versus the saintly man—that I want to think this association was not intentional on Cadène’s part.

But, so many of the characters’ actions seem deliberate. Josiane is aggressive in her sexual exploration, and even tries to assault a virtual being early on in the book. René, on the other hand, always asks for consent but is still unable to act on his desires because he is too wrapped up in the idea that none of it is real.

What was the thinking behind this role reversal? In the real-world, men are far more likely to be aggressive and account for the bulk of perpetrators of assault but Alt-Life positions René, the symbolic man, as vulnerable, almost a victim. It’s an extremely disturbing take by the writer, especially considering the #MeToo movement that has encompassed the world over the past year.

There are concepts in this book that I wish had been explored instead of the practically perverse focus on sex. For instance, there is mention of how not everyone in the virtual world has as much memory as others. How does this work? How do people ‘earn’ in this world at all?

It is mentioned that the real world is dying of some kind of flu, and the people in it walk around encompassed in bubbles, but we are never given an inkling as to how this disease affected the entire planet. Clearly it isn’t something that one catches immediately from the atmosphere, because René talks about running in the cold when he was discovered for the programme.

A figure walks towards one of the central protagonists in Alt-Life Page 8. Written by Thomas Cadène. Drawn by Joseph Falzon. Published by Le Lombard (Belgium), Europe Comics (English). 17 October, 2018That was another thing I wondered about. How were Josiane and René chosen for this? They are considered pioneers but what makes them so? They appear to have no common factors. René has no family, whereas Josiane has a sister and mother. René believes he caught ‘their’ eye when he went to hospital after a skating fall but we are given no information about how and why Josiane was picked.

At some point, René tries to create his own universe and it doesn’t go well for him. How does he do it? And what is his purpose? We never find out but are treated to a few painfully stereotypical pages of dark-skinned ‘savages’ attacking their creator. Any point that this sequence hoped to make is negated by a dull conclusion that goes right back to square one.

The way Josiane is written is a problem. She feels like an afterthought, or worse, a conduit for the creators’ own fantasies. Some of the things and people Josiane fantasizes about make no sense and don’t seem attractive at all. It is almost like what a man thinks a woman should fantasize about. René’s, on the other hand, are typical pornographic fantasies, which shows a complete lack of imagination on the part of the creators.

The art is functional but it’s almost entirely limited to drawing human anatomy, which Joseph Falzon executes with precision, but with little imagination. The protagonists are boringly white. People of colour are few and far between, and one has to search very hard to find any body diversity that isn’t drawn as grotesque. At least Josiane’s fantasies have some variety in the kind of men she is interested in, but René’s are carbon copies of ‘perfect’ women with different coloured hair. Yawn.

Falzon only really gets to shine when he’s drawing non-humans and structures. His full pages of empty buildings are breathtakingly detailed, and the pages where René swims through an ocean packed with sea-life are gorgeous.

I was excited for this story, imagining something along the lines of The Island meets The Matrix. What we get instead is a deeply problematic story that fails to understand, or even analyse, human interaction beyond the lascivious kind. This is a hard pass from me.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir