Our names are Alenka and Melissa. We can’t tell you our last names. We can’t even tell you the towns we live in, or what state. It’s not because we’re shy – it’s because if the Yeerks find out who we are, they’ll stop us from writing this review.
Despite the danger involved, I was excited when Melissa invited me to co-review Chris Grine’s adaptation of Animorphs: The Invasion. This complex series about the horror of war is exactly the kind of story warmongers and politicians like Visser Three don’t want us to share with a new generation of readers. It’s a bit off-beat from our typical cat-themed reviews, although multiple kids do morph into cats during the series! Incredibly, we don’t talk about cats, and instead focus on how Grine brings the intensity of the original series into a comic format.
Animorphs Graphic Novel #1: The Invasion
Chris Grine (artist and adapter), K.A. Applegate and Michael Grant (Original Writers)
October 6, 2020
Melissa Brinks: After over 20 years since the release of the first Animorphs book, The Invasion, how does it feel to see the words, “We can’t tell you our last names,” appear in a beautiful graphic novel format?
Alenka Figa: Oh gosh… well now I feel sort of old! Reading it for the first time, and seeing those words imposed over an image of Tobias, definitely brought lots of feelings back – especially about Tobias. I should own up here that I didn’t actually read the Animorphs books as a kid! I definitely knew about them, because they were popular and the covers were so iconic, but I didn’t really fall in love with and fully appreciate the series until I got into Carey Pietsch and Megan Brennan’s podcast, Morph Club. The two cartoonists reread the books together and living it through them was really emotional and wonderful. They talked about possible adaptations, including comics because, of course, they are both comic artists, and seeing the story come alive in comic form feels very special!
While I had immediate, big, “oh my gosh these children” feelings for each of the characters right away, I initially got swept up by the truly wild intrusion of aliens into the story. Seeing Elfangor felt sort of silly, but also exciting – an Andalite!! Official art of Elfangor on the page, with his hooves and no mouth!! However, a bit farther in there’s a moment where the kids are hiding because Visser Three’s ship has landed, and Elfangor telepathically warns them that the Hork-Bajir don’t care that they’re kids. They will kill them. The terror on each characters’ face is an incredible one-two punch. It rips away all the silliness of this wildly creative, fabricated world of evil slugs and beautiful blue centaur-esque aliens. The danger is real.
How did the story’s opening land with you? Was there a particular moment that brought back old feelings from the books, or that drove the story’s “war is hell” theme home?
Melissa: I actually just finished re/reading the series (I read a little over half of it as it was coming out) and it hits totally different as an adult — as a kid, it’s easy to forget that beyond all the horror of body-snatching slugs, the real messed-up thing at the heart of the series is that they’re kids and they have to deal with this problem created by adults of an entirely different species. Though the kids act childish sometimes and occasionally remind you of their age, seeing that in the graphic novel adds a whole new level of distressing, and that’s a good thing. That “war is hell” theme is going to be even more prevalent in a visual medium, I think!
I’m not a particularly visual reader, but seeing the construction site where the Animorphs meet Elfangor was a pretty weird experience. As a kid, I always pictured the mall as being the mall I used to buy all my Animorphs books at, with the big open area next door being the construction site. Seeing Chris Grine’s interpretation of it is a weird experience — not a bad one, just strange! The beats hit right, but my brain tries to insist that this isn’t what it looks like at all. The Andalites look perfect, though. I think they always looked a little cartoonier in my head than they do on the covers, and I like how Grine draws them — alien but still familiar.
Speaking of seeing things for the first time, we have to talk about how the mid-morph forms look. I think they’re the perfect amount of horrifying; just gross enough to be repulsive, but also just funny enough that they (probably) won’t give young kids nightmares. I wonder if they’ll bring in the parts later where the kids’ bones just shoot on out of their bodies. How are you feeling about the morph looks?
Alenka: I loved them, they are amazing and terrifying and fascinating. They seem to get a bit more graphic as the story goes on; there are some incredible onomatopoeia sounds added to the morphs that really capture the sense of bones cracking and changing. The first two morphs we see are Tobias as a house cat and then Jake as his dog, and both are sort of awkward and cute, which seems like a good way to ease into the bizarreness of morphing. Seeing Jake in half-dog mode while he freaks out did make me laugh, but reading – and, in my head, hearing – those bone cracks did evoke horror. Grine executes the morphs well.
Another high point of the art, for me, is the colors. When the aliens arrive the colors really start to shine; Elfangor is a shade of blue that is beautiful but feels unnatural, the Taxxons are a very sickly yellow/green, and Visser Three’s dome ship emits this horrible, vibrant red that makes the scene feel more intense and scary. What did you think of the colors, especially in regards to balancing the alien aspects of the world and the human ones?
Melissa: I really love the colors because I think they lend something to the sort of… flying under the radar thing the book series had going for it. The covers of the original books were goofy and the story was hard to parse if you weren’t following along, so K. A. Applegate could include all kinds of grisly (and grizzly, in Rachel’s case) descriptions and difficult subject matter without overprotective adults catching on. These colors are bright and cheerful on the surface, but what they come to mean internally is quite different. Flip through the comic to quickly evaluate it and you’re likely to see kid-friendly covers, some “cartoon violence” as it’s often referred to in TV ratings, and kids having adventures. The horror is contextual, and I like that.
I think you’re totally right about how the colors reflect the alien world versus the human world colors. These very bold colors really stand out, situating the alien content as totally divorced from the human world. I’m really interested to see how this develops, and whether, as the Yeerk infestation increases, we’ll see a greater intrusion of more bold colors like that.
Now, I just reread the series and I loved it to pieces (granted, I skipped a lot of the more dull, ghostwritten books), but it’s hard to recommend a 52+ book series written in the 90s to people. Do you think the graphic novel is a good entry point, whether for people who missed the boat on the series or kids who are coming to it for the first time?
Alenka: I am going to put my librarian hat on here and say yes, I absolutely think this is a great way to introduce the books to a new generation of readers! Animorphs as a series has so much content that feels perfect for a visual adaptation. On Morph Club Cast, Pietsch and Brennan both talked about how they’d adapt parts of the series as a comic or cartoon, and both media are set up to balance the zanier moments from the books – like Ax eating floor garbage at the movies, which I think I remember happening?? – with the heavy moments. So many comics and cartoons do this, and we’re having a bit of a golden age for both, so I can’t think of a better time. We’re also in an era where there are a lot of parents who grew up loving comics and want their kids to love them too. Animorphs comics have potential to be like The Babysitters Club but for much weirder kids, I think.
I’m reading the first book right now – the ebook was available at the library – and comparing the two, I can tell that Grine really took the time to note important character moments and build them into the illustrations. I was thinking in particular about when Visser Three kills Elfangor, and Rachel hugs Cassie and holds Tobias’ hand, and tells them not to look. Grine emphasizes this moment, and shows that despite what she says to her friends, she does look. That’s a very early, key event for Rachel – and one that foreshadows what she’ll be to the group, and what they’ll expect of her. Readers who loved the series will appreciate the care Grine took to do this.
What do you think about how the characters are written in the adaptation? Does everyone still feel like who they were in the original series?
Melissa: Ax absolutely eats movie theater floor garbage. You have remembered correctly.
I’m definitely on board for what Grine is doing with the characters. I think there is some internal stuff that might be hard to translate in some of the books without leaning for straight-up thought bubbles, but the care he’s put into the character moments, such as the one that you mention, leads me to believe he’ll succeed at translating that.
This early in the series, we’re only getting hints of the people that these characters become. But so far, so good — I love seeing their facial expressions and how those suggest the interior life they have. Marco’s playful expressions are balanced with the times he looks scared or serious, just like Rachel’s smile is always tinged with a hint of recklessness. Those little touches, especially in this sort of cartoony style, really sell me on the characters.
This first volume is a lot of worldbuilding and setup — not a bad thing, but it makes me antsy for what’s going to come later. What are you most excited to see on the page?
Alenka: I am really enjoying the alien designs! The descriptions of the Hork-Bajir and Taxxons in the books are so wild, and it’s interesting to see how Grine interprets them. I think because they talked about Andalites being cute in Morph Club Cast so much, I didn’t imagine them as feeling super powerful. Grine’s Andalites feel really strong; they’re BIG compared to humans, which totally makes sense but isn’t something I thought about, and they look very muscular and tough, especially with their sharp tails. There are some truly strange aliens later on in the books and I’m interested to actually get to see them. Also – the Ellimist!! What the heck is the Ellimist gonna look like? I do hope we see Rachel being more fashionable as well? She didn’t feel quite like the stylish Rachel described in the books, and I was confused about whether or not she had bangs.
I will bump that back to you – what are you excited to see in future volumes?
Melissa: I’m really excited to see the Iskoort and the Howlers. I had a lot of trouble picturing both while reading, and that book — where the Animorphs get blasted away to a future planet to be pawns in the Ellimist and Crayak’s literal game of fourth-dimensional chess — has a lot of really intense, really good thematic meat alongside its extremely silly (and yet wonderful) conclusion. The Iskoort live in this very strange city that’s described as being almost LEGO-like, and I can’t wait to see what Grine does there in terms of colors and alien designs. I think it’s going to look great!