On July 10, writer Joe Harris and artist Adam Pollina’s new collaboration takes readers of all ages on a perilous journey to a land of forgotten children’s playthings in “Wars in Toyland,” an oversized-format graphic novel from Oni Press. The story is told, largely, through Pollina’s sweeping lens, via panoramic shots framing a landscape built out of toy parts and household junk.
With his older brother, Alex, gone missing, young Matthew takes little solace in his toy collection. The reader follows young Matthew through a portal in his toy box, where he finds himself swept up in a war he hardly understands. Matthew soon learns that his brother has found his way to this strange world as well, and may now be held captive by Roxbury, a disgruntled, angry teddy bear turned dictator. Matthew leads the charge against the evil Roxbury, quickly learning that he may have taken on more than he was ready to handle.
Below, CBR debuts the trailer for “Wars in Toyland,” offering a first look at the upcoming graphic novel while Harris and Pollina share insight into the book, the influence of Laurel and Hardy on the story and the universal truth about the difficulty of growing up.
CBR News: What’s the story being told in “Wars in Toyland?”
Joe Harris: It’s about a kid named Matthew who finds himself transported to this world where all of the toys he’s shared with his older brother, Alex, are locked in this brutal civil war. This toy army of wooden soldiers believes Matthew is the leader they’ve been waiting for to lead them to victory against the oppressive Tediarchy. Only poor frightened Matthew believes otherwise. When he learns that his older brother, Alex might be held prisoner here, he realizes that the only way he might be able to rescue Alex and get them both home is to try.
It’s a dark fantasy story:Â an old-fashioned good vs. evil epic, with clashing armies and fantastical characters. Only nobody’s playing war anymore. This is brutal. This is real, no longer a game.
Who is Roxbury? What does he want? What’s driving his actions?Â
Harris: Roxbury is this evil, giant teddy bear whose regime makes life hell for the toys. After years of neglect, misuse, abuse and abandonment, Roxbury founded the “Tediarchy” and has sought to share and spread his pain.
How would you describe the main character, Matthew? Aside from his lost brother, what’s at stake for him in this story?
Harris: Matthew is the “Captain” the toys have been searching for to lead them into battle against Roxbury. Only Matthew doesn’t have a clue what to do about it. He’s going to have to grow into these expectations if he’s going to save the toys, his brother, or himself.
I’d venture to say that there’s a lot at stake emotionally for Matthew as well — there’s a good deal of talk about growing up, and leaving childish things behind.
Harris: Matthew is sort of stuck at childhood’s end and, over the course of this story, has to let go of the past and allow for growth if he’s going to help the toys prevail. Alex, for his part, is already struggling with this new chapter in their lives, negotiating new expectations and having a tough time with this whole growing up thing. Matthew still believes in the innocence of childhood and longs for the days when he and his brother would play together without consequences and without the responsibilities growing up brings. It all makes for a tension that reverberates through these boys’ lives, and through the fate and state of Toyland itself.
What stories or experiences inspired “Wars in Toyland?” I found myself thinking back to that young adult novel, “Indian in the Cupboard.”
Harris: You’re the third person who’s mentioned “Indian in the Cupboard” to me this week! Though I can’t fault the connection you’re making, “Wars In Toyland” was really influenced by lots of our favorite children’s stories and movies. From the old Laurel & Hardy holiday classic telling of “Babes In Toyland” to MGM’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” to “A Wrinkle In Time” and so many others.
Adam has rendered some really beautiful spreads for this book.
Harris: Adam is one of my dear friends back from childhood and I’m thrilled we got to collaborate on something new as he’s been out of the comics industry for a little while now. I think this book is the finest work he’s ever done.
Adam Pollina: Joe and I have been friends since childhood and we make a great team together. Partly because of our childhood, it seems our influences are the same as well. Laurel and Hardy’s “Babes in Toyland” had a tremendous impact on my life. “Wars in Toyland” was an opportunity to share that particular influence in our own special way.
Both of you mention the childhood influence of “Babes in Toyland.” What about that film impacted you, and why do you think it’s stayed with you?
Harris: The soldiers, honestly. The movie looks so dated these days, and now that they’ve colorized it, I’m even less inclined to go back and watch it anymore. But growing up and watching that Laurel and Hardy classic on television on Thanksgiving morning was a childhood thrill. They way they wind up and march, so proudly. The image just stuck with me, and I guess, us both, after all these years.
Pollina: There are many reasons for the strong impact. As a child of the ’70s, early black and white films were shown on Saturdays and Sundays, often programmed alongside color cartoons. Abbot and Costello films were my favorite, as was Bugs Bunny. Somehow, black and white film was easy to digest as a child and I followed it happily.
“Babes in Toyland” had magic, because I clearly knew it was old, from my grandparent’s era. Yet it was all about a world of toys and scary boogiemen. There was a true innocence to the films of that time, this one in particular, that really resonated with me. It has never left.
Adam, in visualizing these characters — especially some of the more dramatic ones like the Red Rook, Roxbury or the neglected dolls Matthew first encounters — were there any particular influences or points of inspiration?
Pollina: The Red Rook was influenced by a knight’s helmet I saw in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. It always stuck with me. The rotten bear clearly has influences from the “Akira” animated feature, and the giant dolls were my version of zombies in a world filled only with toys.
There’s something a little bit, perhaps, nostalgic to “Wars in Toyland” — the toys and the toy box seem like objects from another, earlier time. In designing and rendering some of these characters, was there a particular moment in history you wanted to nod to?
Pollina: Hell ,yes! As I mentioned earlier, “Babes in Toyland” was a huge influence for both Joe and I — it was released in the ’30s. The toys featured in our book pay homage to that time period as much as possible. They are more iconic than anything else.
Harris: When Adam and I first started discussing this thing, a whole bunch of years ago, we wanted the toys to be timeless, rather than timely: lots of Radio Flyers and ageless wooden soldiers. Honestly, I figured we were best off focusing on those sorts of toys that don’t really go out of style, rather than risk dating ourselves by having — I don’t know — Tamagotchis, back when we first starting discussing the thing, or some other toy products that were more representative of the times.Â Making the book feel nostalgic was a goal.
This book reads like something of a modern fable — about growing up, or letting go. What do you think the model of the fable allows for, as a writer or storyteller?
Harris: It’s a framework that’s pretty universal and easy to grasp.Â I’d like to think there’s a simple, broad message at the heart of this story. Wrapping everything else around that let me write a really wide-open and clean adventure story.
How much direction or back-and-forth was there between the two of you with regards to settings or the look of the characters?
Pollina: Joe and I go way back. He trusts my tastes, and allows me to have fun. We talk at great lengths about the world. I hear his words and then paint my pictures. It works out great.
Harris: We’ve lived with this collaboration for a long time, so we’ve had this sort of mutual understanding of how these characters were going to look and move and talk and act for so long now. But the spreads are so lovely, and the characters so much fun to look at and likable for almost that reason alone that I can’t help but still be surprised.
I tend to script really tightly, but stepped back and let Adam beat out the panels and flow of the sequentials as he saw fit. I haven’t worked in the old “Marvel” style of “plot first, then art, then script” in a while and was a little insecure because I’m typically all over layouts and camera choices and how to block out the scene. But Adam makes it easy to relinquish that. It’s an awesomely enjoyable collaboration.
How was the decision to format the book with large, double spread pages made? Does working in this format, versus a more typical paneled page, affect how you write and tell the story?
Harris: Adam made us do it! It’s how he saw the thing, and I was entirely willing to indulge that format and instinct. The book is oversized to start with, with dimensions a bit larger than your standard graphic novel format. From there, we’ve turned the volume on its side and bound the short side rather than the long one so that, like you said, the book opens with mostly these wide, sweeping spreads.
Because I knew Adam wanted a lot of space to play with, I kept the “script” loose and provided some beats I wanted to hit on each spread, but left it to him to pace and frame the shots and flow. There’s some insecurity working like that, from my end, because I wasn’t sure what I’d get back. And there was certainly some reconsidering of some stuff, and re-imagining of others as a result. But what I love most about collaboration is when the person you’re working with surprises you with stuff you never realized might have been in a scene, a shot, a character design, all along. I’d get back pages that brought out new aspects of the story, which totally influenced the text that was scripted over the artwork following this step.
Pollina: Yes, the extreme layout was my decision, and Joe had to adjust his storytelling ability to fit. Not easy, but he nailed it. It was intentional and challenging to break the story down into a simpler format. Children’s books and fairytales often have single panel per page layouts with a small insert image if any, [featuring] big beautiful images that tell a lot of story within them. It was my goal to emulate this early childhood influence and break the “standard” format layout, opting for a more “panoramic” approach.
It was challenging to capture the heightened energy, while still trying to maintain a minimal panel layout. Multiple small panel inserts were dropped into the large double page spreads in order to progress story points as well as show character reaction.
This was Joe and my attempt to create a big fantastical world, where many wonderful stories could unfold. Mathew’s journey is but one.