If you’re like me, the last 18 months have been one unending barrage of volatile emotions. Whether it’s anger, grief, frustration, sorrow, boredom, or some wacky combination, COVID has been trying for the human psyche across the board. But what if you couldn’t express those emotions — and not just because you’d get kicked out of Safeway.
That very premise is at the heart of Human Remains, a new Vault Comics written by Peter Milligan and with art by Sally Cantirino. (The duo are joined by colorist Dearbhla Kelly and letterer Andworld Design). The series follows a group of people — including lovebirds Dax and Bisa — as they face “new and terrible invader-monsters that deprive us of the very feelings that make us human.” It’s sort of like A Quiet Place meets Doctor Who — only so much better than that descriptor — and it serves as a powerful exploration of how vital emotions regardless of whether the world’s on fire.
To better understand the series, I caught up with both Milligan and Cantirino via email. In addition to tackling the series’ larger premise and inspirations, we talked about how the pandemic shaped the book’s development, the catharsis offered by horror/sci-fi, meaningful character creation, and much, much more.
Human Remains #1 hits shelves September 29.
AIPT: From both of your statements, the pandemic really played a huge part in the birth and development of this book. Does processing that event via art come easily or naturally, and does the process help you personally/emotionally/etc.
Peter Milligan: The pandemic itself didn’t play a huge part in the birth of Human Remains, it was more how I saw people change because of it. That’s what struck me and I think moved me. I’m not sure if this stuff ‘helps”, but it’s what you do when you’re a writer or artist. You use what’s happening in the world and how you’re feeling about it and you turn it into stories and art. In a way I suppose it’s a way of trying to understand what’s out there — the world — or what’s in here — your reaction to and feelings about the world.
Sally Cantirino: I think in our incredible rush to “get back to normal”– back to work, back into offices and schools, back to productivity– we collectively, as a society, have not processed the incredible grief and trauma of it all. Grieving the loss of friends or family or community, of relationships, of mental or physical health, of time, of safety nets (or the illusion of them). I think whether I went into the project thinking it would be cathartic or not, it has been.
AIPT: Building off that last question a bit, is there a fear that this is going to be perceived as a “pandemic” book, or is it relevant enough for when the world’s not on fire?
PM: I very much DO NOT WANT this to be seen as a “pandemic book.” I think most people are heartily f-----g sick of the pandemic. This is a story that has its roots in the pandemic, or how quickly it affected people’s behavior, but from then on it really has little to do with the pandemic. I saw certain basic human actions – touch, closeness etc. — disappear and thought about other acts that seem so very human – high emotions, love, anger – and wondered what a world would be like if these key human emotions could get you killed–by big ugly monsters.
SC: This is not the first and probably won’t be the last pandemic or plague to rip through our world. We still have living ancestors who were affected by polio outbreaks or AIDS. I think there are universal messages and emotions in Human Remains that will continue to be relevant.
AIPT: What is it about sci-fi or fantasy or horror that makes for such a perfect vehicle to process things like human relationships and life itself?
PM: On a very simple level, maybe you find out more about characters and societies when they’re put into extreme situations — and SF and horror is very bloody good at creating very extreme situations. Also, by leaving everyday contemporary realities behind SF and Horror allows you to explore themes on a very symbolic level, which can be good.
SC: I love horror because it really gives you a safe, controlled oasis to face a fear or anxiety. You can turn off the movie, you can put down the book, you can fast-forward or cover your eyes through things– but you know eventually the credits will roll or the book will close and you will have survived.
AIPT: I think the “main” character, Professor Naresh Sharma, unfolds nicely in issue #1 — she seems thoughtful and yet dedicated. Why have a scientist as the lead here, and is this a sly comment about the treatment of Dr. Fauci in the last 18 months or so?
PM: Being from the UK, though I was very aware of the insanity around Trump and Fauci it probably didn’t have such a visceral impact upon me as for those living in the US. So no, on a conscious level it was not a commentary on that. Though I suppose it’s POSSIBLE that some of the anti-science stuff from some politicians that I’d been seeing or reading about might have played some unconscious role in how I wrote her I scenes. I’m glad Naresh made a good impression on you. I really like this character and she’s going to be increasingly important as the story progresses.
AIPT: And speaking of main characters, I can’t not mention the young couple of Bisa and Dax. How does their dynamic impact or inform the story? And does their interracial status also play some larger significance?
PM: It’s funny, initially Bisa and Dax were going to be very much the center of the story, the main characters around whom everyone else moved. But some of these other characters – especially Naresh – kind of elbowed their way to the front and demanded to be heard. Dax and Bisa represent love, that very thing you have to be careful about expressing in the nightmare world of Human Remains. Their different races – he white, she black – is but one and maybe not the biggest difference between them. I liked the idea that this love that have for each other overcame race, class, expectations–and then to explore if this love can survive or exist in this time of monsters.
SC: When the outline and first script were sent to me, Dax and Bisa were really what drew me in and what I connected with. My boyfriend and I had about 3 months of normal dating before the pandemic and the first lockdown, and then had to navigate our relationship in an entirely different way– first just by being long-distance, then negotiating when it was going to be safe to actually see each other and be around each other in person again.
AIPT: There’s a lot of dope body horror and gore so far, but also just a lot of neat physical touches (like, people’s body languages and gestures in general are super telling). Why is it important to have these deeply physical elements, and does it have to do with connection (or the lack thereof) and isolation?
PM: I wanted this book to operate on both the smart, character-based level–and also on the good old fashioned monster story level. And I believe that Sally and I are succeeding. People’s body language and gestures are very important. This is a book about modes of communication, and what happens when that process is interrupted or stopped. Therefore gestures and body language – those most basic and human forms of communication – can be fascinating and key.
SC: Comics are a visual medium, you don’t have elements of sound like tone/volume of voice or a soundtrack to help you convey emotions. Body language and gesture are super important, whether it’s subtle or extreme. The body language and the body horror are both equally fun to me to draw!
AIPT: I feel like this is a story not just about “oh, you miss what you can’t have (intimacy, physical touch, personal expression, etc.),” but also the sheer power of these gestures. Is that fair to say this is a story about how so many things in life come down to our basic ability to engage and interact, especially on physical levels?
PM: It’s about who we are when some of those things have been stripped away. What’s left? And yes, that means coming down to our basic ability to interact.
SC: There was a moment during last winter, after my dad passed away and it was just my mom and I living at home, where she said something like “You’re my only source of hugs now, you’re the only person I talk to now”. And it was just like, oh my god. And then, you know, acknowledging that there are people left behind and disconnected from society all the time, whether there’s a pandemic on or not– the way our prison system works in the US, the way disabled people are excluded due to lack of accessibility to physical or digital spaces.
AIPT: What’s the collaborative process been like thus far? Would this book still be possible if you didn’t have such shared experiences or insights from COVID?
PM: The collaborative process is great. The key is communication and there’s plenty of that. This book wouldn’t have happened if there’d been no Covid. One of the most remarkable things about the pandemic, I feel, is how so many of us, in different lands and cultures are going through EXACTLY the same thing, and probably talking or thinking about the same thing. I Everywhere really does begin to feel like everywhere. I speak a bit of German and like to tune into German radio news, to get a different perspective on things I listened to the news recently and it was incredibly just how similar the first five minutes to any new report in the UK, and probably anywhere else.
SC: It’s been an honor to work with Peter, and a joy to work with Adrian, Dearbhla, and Andworld at Vault again. I think that our different or similar experiences with the pandemic in different parts of the world (or hell, even just in different parts of the US for some of us) has been an influence too.
AIPT: I love the overall look and design of the book. What sort of influences are at play here? And does that slightly cartoonish, almost “quaint” vibe play up some of the larger, more “complicated” themes of the book?
PM: This sounds more like a question for Sally. I can talk about influences for the monster. That was amusing; me, Sally and Adrian Wassal — the editor at Vault — finding pictures for what the monster could like like. Eventually we focused on images of tiny bugs, blown up many times. After that it was down to Sally to adapt these beauties for the book. I also like the almost cartoony look of that characters–as a counterpoint to the gory horror that’s happening to them!
SC: I think it’s always important to balance a little lightness with horror. I think it’s very human to find yourself laughing at something just utterly ridiculous in the midst of horror or grief or trauma– it doesn’t make the experience any less awful, but your brain goes up for air when it can.
Visually, I came up as a teenager reading a lot of Vertigo stuff– including Peter’s run on Shade the Changing Man, things like Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, and also Preacher — Steve Dillon’s art on Preacher is one of those things that I don’t think I realized how much I internalized until I came back to it later in life. I feel like all of that is an influence on my style still.
Any time I design a monster it starts with something like, “What animals or parts of animals do I find the most unsettling and gross?” When we were going back and forth on the monster design, there was this one picture where the bug’s head looked a bit like a bird skull, or a plague doctor mask, that was the one that stuck with me. I wanted it to have the feel of something unfolding and spindly like a daddy long legs, with a little of the grossness of all the palmetto bugs I hated when I lived in Florida.
AIPT: How much of this larger story is told via just the art? I kept getting the sense — beyond the scope of even your average comic book — that the greater context/understanding lays with how characters interacted or how they viewed/perceived one another.
PM: I’m not sure if it is. Of course, the comic is a fusion of words and pictures. I’m exploring the characters themes in the script. A good artist does more than simply illustrate that–they expand, comment on, and in a sense communicate with the writer and script . That’s why it’s so important that the artist really gets and feels the story.
SC: It’s a book about the way we interact as humans, in our close intimate relationships and with strangers and with our communities and with the world at large, and those things are all complicated by emotions, preferences, prejudices, or past experiences.
AIPT: Peter, you just released the excellent God of Tremors. I think these two stories share a thread in that we tend to overcomplicate existence and that’s where we get into trouble. Do you think there’s some connection there, and that this is all about, in your own words, “trying to be human…in an increasingly inhuman world”?
PM: I don’t think they’re about how we try to overcomplicate things. I mean, life is sometimes very complicated. I think you’re right that they’re both about trying to be human, whatever that is. They also share something in that God of Tremors was inspired by an epileptic seizure but it’s not about epilepsy, and Human Remains was inspired by reacting to the pandemic, without being about the pandemic.
AIPT: Without spoiling too much, where do we go with issue #2? Can we expect more characters to enter the fray, or a hint of the paths facing Naresh and Bisa/Dax.
PM: Let’s say things get complicated Yes, we follow Dax and Bisa, struggling to be young lovers in this changed world. Naresh becomes increasingly important. We don’t add too many more characters but we go deeper into the ones we’ve introduced in part one. And of course, there are monsters and horror and blood.
SC: One of the things I love about the structure of Human Remains is getting a new script from Peter and seeing how things unfold, and how the different threads of characters and stories start to weave together and intersect with each other.
AIPT: Why does anyone need to read issue #1? What do you hope this reminds people of regarding their basic humanity (which seems super vital right now)?
PM: It’s a monster story unlike any you’ve read. And it’s about you. It’s about the things that are most important to you. And it’s about how you’ll cope when that’s taken away.
SC: Like I said earlier in the interview, I think there’s a lot of grief and trauma, individually or collectively, that we have not processed yet about what we have lost during the pandemic– people, connections, time, safety or stability. Maybe you’ll see your experience reflected in Dax and Bisa’s relationship, or Jessica’s isolation and fear, or Naresh’s determination, and you’ll sit with that feeling and get a little catharsis. Or maybe, you’ll just get a kick out of seeing a big monster and some guts, and get a momentary distraction from it all.
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