Review by: Ed Allen
It’s been a very long time coming but finally the concluding chapter of Glen Brunswick and Wilce Portacio’s Non-Humans has arrived! Some of you might have seen my review of the first issue in the series, way back in October 2012, where I was very pleased with what I found and was looking forward to seeing how it progressed. Sadly the 4 issue miniseries has suffered from a cripplingly slow release schedule, taking the best part of a year to complete and surely losing readers along the way as a result.
Non-Humans is set in a dystopian near-future Earth, where the first manned mission to Mars has unknowingly brought back an alien virus that permanently infects all of humanity, creating a new form of ‘Non Human’ (or ‘NH’) life in inanimate toys and mannequins through the imagination of children. Social chaos ensues, with the human population taking drastic and oppressive steps to limit the rapid growth of this new species, while the NH population clamours for equal rights and societal acceptance. The story revolves around Detective Aimes and his estranged son Todd as they try to make sense of their place in their world; Aimes is on the hunt for a mentally disturbed NH terrorist while Todd is illegally refusing his imagination-suppressant drugs and shacking up with a Victoria’s Secret mannequin. Any more detail than that and I’d run the risk of spoiling the twists for you! To be honest, there’s little chance of new readers picking up Non-Humans #4 without reading the prior issues and being able to enjoy it as the creators have intended; at this point the various plot threads are all coming to a climax and as it’s the final part of a tightly plotted miniseries there’s virtually no time left for world building or explanatory exposition.
Wilce Portacio’s art could be a deal breaker for some readers and the comic’s main attraction for others. As a key figure in what’s popularly known as “the 90’s Image style” of comic book art that’s routinely (and often unfairly) mocked amongst online comics communities, Portacio’s jagged and busy line work is very much “of a time” yet in my opinion his art has rarely been as conducive to a story’s atmosphere as it is in Nonhumans. His dynamic, forceful page layouts in the action and horror-esque sequences are particularly effective, sometimes reminiscent of Totleben’s layouts in the Alan Moore Swamp Thing run, while his character designs and scene setting are a fusion of today’s world and the kind of worn-down, grungy technology you’d expect in a 1980’s/1990’s dystopian sci-fi film or comic. Unfortunately the actual quality of the line work has varied wildly throughout the series. I think it would be fair to say that there’s plenty of panels and pages where Portacio’s art looks extremely rough and rushed and considering how long it has taken for these issues to come out there’s no valid excuse for this. There are sequences in issue #4 where it’s clear he’s really thrown everything he’s got into the page, where it’s gritty, grimey, menacing and punctuated with powerfully emotive moments (and this is praise from a reviewer who normally doesn’t get along with Portacio’s style), yet often Portacio lets himself down immediately after with a misshapen face or some unclear storytelling. Regardless of the inconsistent ink work, Rachel Rosenberg invariably delivers these darkly muted, moody colors that perfectly compliment Portacio’s line and the tone of Brunswick’s writing.
Non-Humans presents a distorted mirror-image of today’s world, reflecting many of the anxieties that trouble 21st century western culture without losing sight of the action-thriller plot which holds it all together. The emergence of the “NH” population works as an allegory for our fear of change: a new (immigrant) culture that’s shunned for its ‘otherness’, rapid urban redevelopment, technological change, children treated with utmost suspicion and being drugged to suppress their imaginations and the creation of new NH life, political upheaval, new forms of crime, and more besides. Where I think the comic particularly succeeds is that it doesn’t paint the reactionaries or progressives of its world as being wholly right or wrong, nor does it suggest that there’s an easy solution to the troubles they’re fretting and fighting over; this new form of life is as capable of enslaving humanity as it is capable of coexisting or even enhancing its “parent” species and the mere fact of its existence has changed the world forever, so there’s plenty to embrace or be scared of.
Yet in spite of all that, at its heart, this is the story of a boy with abandonment issues who grew up to repeat the mistakes of his father, disappointing his family, wrecking friendships, leaving his own teenage son struggling to find his own way through the complexities and confusion of growing up in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. It’s about Aimes’ one chance to fix some of the damage he has caused and, even when he’s not aware of what’s at stake, he risks losing everything with every turn he takes.
Unfortunately, the admirable ambition with which Non-Humans has been crafted is a double-edged sword. With such an interesting world, built on a solid foundation of socially relevant allegorical concepts, the 4 issue limited series simply lacks the space to explore its own ideas to the depth that they deserve. The action/detective plot moves at a fair pace and the core of the father and son story is satisfactorily resolved (in a way I honestly didn’t expect) but the vast scope of the setting and the major - world-changing - subplot is placed on hold when we reach the end of the book. A lot of readers might feel disappointed by this and I can only hope that there’s a follow-up to Non-Humans that builds something glorious on top of its solid foundations. Get to work Mr. Brunswick!
In the meantime, anyone who can get ahold of this miniseries in trade or single issues would do well to give it their time. There’s a fresh, conceptual richness to Non-Humans aligned with some punchy, heartfelt plotting and fans of action sci-fi are likely to be very pleased with what they find in its pages - assuming they aren’t turned off by the art.
Writer: Glen Brunswick
Artist: Wilce Portacio
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: 7/17/13