Considering said premise–pitched as “Blade Runner meets Toy Story”–strains for a tired, X-Men metaphor about race, such deftness often saves the comic from itself. The L.A. of the comic, drawn by Whilce Portacio, is the kind of dirty, lived-in future that moves from the desert outside the city (where we can see massive, mirrored towers) to glitzy streets full of nightclubs, before settling into the ghetto of “Plastic Town.” The graffiti tag “We Are Alive” can be seen on walls (a robot is also carrying a sign with the slogan), demanding the recognition of humanity Roy Batty from Blade Runner sought. Portacio makes this L.A. tactile, like Akira‘s Neo-Tokyo or Batman: Year One’s Gotham City, showing obvious signs of wear, tear, economic divide, even traffic congestion (an opening montage with lyrics from Springsteen’s Born to Run). It’s impressive world-building.
Portacio’s style here is as much a hodgepodge as the artificial beings themselves, alternately with a roughness that brings to mind Kevin O’Neill (the scratchy, aged backgrounds) and Leinil Yu’s New Avengers run (roughly drawn characters), with layouts that owe plenty to Neal Adams. This mix, resulting from Portacio constantly tinkering his style (of all the old Image guys, only Valentino has shown more range), adds to the tension between man and machine in Glen Brunswick’s script, manifesting in the designs.
Interestingly–or disturbingly, depending on how you choose to read it–the Non-Humans manifest a wider variety of appearances than the humans (unusual for what’s essentially a robot story), ranging from animals (a drug-dealing teddy bear and a monkey in a hoodie…yeah…) to the anthropomorphic (Spice and various others). On the other hand, the people only seem to exist in various states of uniformity: LAPD Detective Aimes–who uses a grappling hook to level the field against the Non-Humans–and his fellow cops wear black uniforms with red armbands, and sentries wear red armor, while two white supremacists sport shaved heads and go shirtless. Only two civilians, Todd and his mother, are given any serious attention in character design, and they wear fairly plain clothes.
Where Non-Humans struggles is with its themes of prejudice. Brunswick (working off an idea from Noah Dorsey) only deals in the blunt and the hamfisted: Aimes often justifies his cruel treatment (bashing a mannequin in the head) and cavalier attitude (at a murder scene) towards Non-Humans by pointing out the lack of an “existence card,” a robot’s green card; later, at a rally, a civil rights leader quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Both literalize Non-Humans’ metaphor at the expense of trivializing the very real struggles of blacks and Latinos, the same way Marvel did with all those Holocaust references in X-Men comics following House of M (which continued into this year’s AVX). This isn’t helped by the ethnic stereotypes and caricatures that crop up every so often in the issue–the previously mentioned bear and monkey, another bear that says “You in the wrong neighborhood, Homes”–highlighting Otherness rather than humanity. Much of these elements are tied up in a serial killer/assassin plot, which is less a story as it is a frame for the more interesting world that inhabits it.
It’s the relationship between Todd and Spice, which comes loaded with all manner of questions about sexuality, that proves most interesting: two of the mannequin’s friends point out she is essentially a boys’ fetish object, a taboo from the wrong part of town on top of that, and, as Aimes separately notes, can’t get pregnant. Indeed, the process of Non-Human reproduction is asexual, hinging on the spark of the mind (in the “childbirth” scene, it’s interesting to note that, essentially, “father” and “mother” played reverse roles). Coupled with the drug Todd is forced to take to suppress his life-giving imagination, essentially eugenics, and this becomes the engaging window into class structure Portacio’s cityscapes tease.