Interview: PORTACIO Tells Twisted Toy Story in NON-HUMANS

 

What was your favorite toy as a child? Did you give it a personality as you played out your made-up stories during playtime? Now what if those toys came to life – not in a cheery Toy Story kind of way, but what if they were as human as you and I. And wanted to be treated as such. In a new four-issue series from Image titled Non-Humans, we’re finding that out.

Mixing one part Maximum Overdrive with one part True Blood, Non-Humans tells the story of a near-future Earth where all the toys, puppets and mannequins we considered simple property have personalities, lives, and emotions. Police detective Oliver Aimes is the center of this series, as he tries to live in this new era of civil rights while tracking down a ventriloquist puppet turned serial killer. Nothing is black-and-white in this world, with puppets, crash-test dummies and simple toys sporting personalities as diverse as the people who made them.

Scheduled to debut October 3, Non-Humans is a collaboration between writer Glen Brunswick and artist (and Image founder) Whilce Portacio. After spending the past few years doing major titles for Marvel, DC and Top Cow, Portacio’s returned to the company he co-founded back in 1992 and doing his first creator-owned project in over a decade. Newsarama talked with Brunswick and Portacio about this twisted-toy-story-come-to-life and Portacio’s healthy obsession with dark and twisted stories.

Newsarama: Non-Humans takes place in 2041 – what’s the world like then?

Glen Brunswick: It’s a world where millions of toys have sparked to life all over the globe, in every city. What’s truly cool is that they come from us – some of our mental DNA has mixed with an airborne contagion that causes their sentience. Many are filled with violence and anger. They strike out against the humans that gave them life. Consequently they need to be destroyed.

 

Others, those Non-Humans that are able to exist in society, struggle to find their place in a world that clearly fears, distrusts and devalues them. This is a world that has banned the Internet and video games. The Hollywood entertainment machine has been shut down. It is now illegal to engage in fantasy. The disease that creates the Non-Humans is most prevalent during adolescence. As a result the entire teenage populace is required by law to take drugs that prevent them from creating new Non-Humans. This is the only way to keep the N.H. population in check.

It’s a world of few haves and many have-nots. Humans live and socialize in huge structures that have taken over the cityscape while the Non-Human population has the run of the streets beneath the giant structures. The Non-Humans watch the humans up in their ivory towers with envy – longing to be a part of the society they remember from the human part inside them.

Nrama: Do these toys – these “Non-Humans” – have personalities like you and I?

Brunswick: Absolutely, the Non-Humans come from us – as such they have personalities every bit as diverse as you and me. They aren’t flesh and blood. They don’t require food to survive as they receive their nutrients directly from the sun, but each one of them is as individually unique as a member of the human race. And Whilce has absolutely killed on the designs – he brings the completely different character personalities to life in a uniquely visual way I never dreamed possible.

Nrama: Whilce, a project with high tech and dark subject matter seems right up your alley, Whilce. Nothing against you, but I don’t see you doing a historical period piece or a romantic comedy – can you tell us about what you like to draw most and what specifically you enjoyed most about drawing Non-Humans?

Whilce Portacio: Every scene it seems introduces a new idea/concept/character that has to be designed and make sense with what we've already built. So being the Art Director of this venture I get to make the choices of what direction we should go visually.

 

As an example when I had to draw a scene where the leader of the Non-Humans gave a speech I had so many option within my head as to what he would look like. He could be totally human-like to play the ideal of what Non-Humans could evolve into, but scare humans to bits...he could be a crazy mix of lots of various Non-Human subsets so that he could say he represents all of Non-Human society...he could be an obviously battered and abused Non-Human to represent what abuse Non-Humans have had to endure as a second class society, etc.

These choices are intoxicating to me, especially after years of developing the skill-set, like all the other founding members of Image, of drawing the first thing that comes to mind and making whatever it is cool. That is a great skill and has its fun element especially when a deadline is looming, but the chance to now make deliberate choices design-wise and try within the best of my abilities today, to make my design choices fit exactly within the ideas and concepts that Glen and I create in our heads is nirvana for a world builder like myself.

Nrama: Correct me if I’m wrong Whilce, but this is your first creator-owned project you’ve done since WetWorks – not counting your new character Fortress from Image United. You’ve been doing some big projects for Marvel recently, but what made you come in and partner with Glen for Non-Humans?

Portacio: Actually I had an Indie venture called Avalon Studios with Brian Haberlin in the late 90's where we published under Image called Stone (first issue 70,000) and some other titles with talent from a studio I was maintaining in the Philippines...but since then Non-Humans will be my first to date...

As a creative you always have tons of ideas and characters floating around in your head, you are constantly thinking. Now in today's climate with the constant comic book/movie tie-ins and the overall societal awareness of comics thru conventions like Comic-Con International: San Diego, for anyone with these creative creatures running around in their heads, especially now is the time to bring them to life.

Plus Glen is an annoying stalker when he gets it in his head to work with you. Almost right away he and I hit it off as a team. He has an uncanny knack to condense ideas into their pure form which allows the both of us to really focus on what the concept should be primarily about. My specialty, having been an avid science fiction reader since childhood, is to take a spark of an idea and build a world around it. Populate it with everything it needs to survive. People, sub groups, inter-relationships, economy, technology, religion and politics...I could and have spent entire days just imagining what these worlds would really be like...

Nrama: Who are the main characters here – both the humans and the titular Non-Humans?

Brunswick: The opening arc follows police detective Oliver Aimes as he hunts for a Non-Human serial killer that happens to be a ventriloquist’s puppet who murdered his partner. Aimes also has repressed demons that fuel his constant hatred for Non-Humans.

 

His new partner, Eden, a beautiful too young female detective will test his patience at every turn – she is a huge proponent for Non-Humans civil rights. He is constantly dogged by Medic, an ex medical dummy, that is the first Non-Human detective on the force.

Aimes’ son, Todd, is dating Spice, a Non-Human that was a mannequin in a Victoria’s Secret store before she sparked to life. She lives in East L.A. with her two roomies – a Goth doll and a mechanical stuffed dog that has built herself into a full-size female robot from found disposable spare parts.

Aimes’ informant, Buddy-The-Bear, is a trash talking teddy bear who is also the local drug dealer in the hood. There are too many more to mention that help make up a huge full-blown cast of characters.

Nrama: This isn’t just straight-up horror – you’re dealing with the socio-political ramifications of if toys got sentience and reportedly looking into what rights they’d have as individuals. That’s some pretty heady material, Glen… how’d you develop that without it becoming cliché?

Brunswick: We’ve got really strong characters that follow a character-driven suspense thriller plot. The socio-political aspects are more a part of the window dressing that helps ground our far-out story within a realistic setting that helps you to relate to our characters. This is an entertainment, not a treatise on equal rights. It gives our underdog characters something to strive for – a better day – that hopefully will create reader empathy. Nothing about toys fighting for their God given rights feels cliché to me. Where exactly have we seen that before?

Nrama: And how does all this simmering tension between humans and Non-Humans rise to the surface in this story? Wha’ts the conflict?

Brunswick: Conflict? We got your conflict here! This thing is a tinderbox waiting to go off! There’s strife between Aimes and Eden as they walk a tightrope on the hunt of a dangerous killer who will take them out if they make even one mistake. Aimes’ son is dating a Non-Human against his wishes. The whole city is about to explode in a race riot if the Non-Human population can’t be placated. And a cadre of underworld Non-Human bad guys have their own devious agenda they’re about to unleash. Not to mention, Aimes has unknown enemies on the force that would love to bring him down.

Nrama: Whilce, one of your key strengths to me has always been your ability at world-building – not only drawing stories, but creating worlds, settings, designs and themes. You haven’t had the chance to do that much in your work-for-hire gigs, but Non-Humans seems like a real playground for you. Can you explain what all you’ve done to develop the world this series takes place in?

Portacio: Again, the main building blocks that Glen provides with his ideas need a foundation to really live. That means detail...so, not to give anything away, I have built into this world of ours, the religion of the Non-Humans as they see their world, how they form family units, their "birth" moment and process, etc. all in an effort to hopefully make it seem like these inanimate objects coming to life maybe might be sentient because they seem to have the trappings of sentience.

 

I've also built up the various layer and sub layers within Non-Humans society and how they deal with trying to incorporate themselves into human society. I've even introduced a sort of neurosis for a sub group of Non-Humans that so desire to be human-like that they alter their appearance to try to look more human. Because there is a natural subset of the Non-Humans that have an easier time existing with Humans, there is a secret society of Non-Humans. What their intent really is....we haven't decided.

On the human side I built the cars or tri-wheels the society utilizes, I've taken an oft-used cue from science fiction and our human society that is in the beginning stages of building huge cities within large massive building. This is to stand as a visual representation of society at this point in time where humans see themselves above the Non-Human's living at their feet below, in the shadow of these huge buildings.

 

There are many other facets of this world where we've thought out much, much more than the reader may ever see in an effort to make this book and its characters really exist...that is why the first issue is 29 pages, that is actually edited down from a page count well into the thirties. Hopefully we'll be able to add in all we edited out as the series goes beyond the first story arc.

Nrama: Turning this around to each of you for the final question, what favorite toy from your childhood would you be scared to see come to life and attack you – and why?

Portacio: Ahh this is an interesting variation of the toy question...well, these weren't my toys, but my mom loved and cherished her exquisite Japanese doll collection. She had these dolls that she kept in individual glass cases that I swear were real and moved. She kept her favorite two on the sides of our TV in our living room and as I am watching TV I could swear their tiny fingers moved and that they slightly changed positions. With my paranoia of them, if they came to life I could imagine and I have imagined all the things they probably would do to torture me....

Brunswick: This may not scare you, but it scares the crap out of me – I’m thinking my old Ken doll with the life-like hair. He’d probably want me to take him shopping on Rodeo Drive for Gucci or something. And if I refused, he’d run me over in Barbie’s pink Corvette. I can live with the humiliation of people knowing I owned a Ken doll, but dying underneath the wheels of a pink Corvette is more than I can bare.

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