Animorphs Graphix #1: “The Beginning” by K.A. Applegate & Michael Grant, Adapted by Chris Grine
Publishing Info: Graphix, October 2020
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: Sometimes weird things happen to people. Ask Jake. He could tell you about the night he and his friends saw a strange light in the sky that seemed to be heading right for them. That was the night five normal kids learned that humanity is under a silent attack — and were given the power to fight back.Now Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Tobias, and Marco can transform into some of the most dangerous creatures on Earth. And they must use that power to outsmart an evil greater than anything the world has ever seen. . . .
I’m know I’m super late at getting around to reading this, but as the second graphic novel is coming out here shortly in October, I knew I had to get on top of things now. I read graphics novels only on and off, so I had mixed feelings about this series being released in this format. On one hand, any new version of the series is amazing (how incredible is it that a cult favorite kids’ series from the 90s’ is getting re-worked in 2021??). But on the other hand, I had seen some previewed pages of the artwork and didn’t really like it. However, my unwavering love of the series won out and here we are!
Best Change: I really liked the use of color-coded dialogue bubbles for thought speak. That was always going to be one of the big struggles of adapting this series. This style also allows the thought bubbles to float anywhere in the pane, not needing to be drawn directly next to the character speaking. This gives the artist a lot more flexibility with action scenes and such. I also liked that the colors were largely coordinated to their main morphs, Jake has orange, Marco has black, Visser Three has red. I found the pink for Rachel to be the the worst though. Not only is that not connected to her grey elephant or brown grizzly later, but the pink color itself often clashed with the other color schemes of the panel in a way that the more earthy tones didn’t. I also don’t like the general, tired, “pretty girls like pink” motif that it was playing towards.
Worst Change: I’m more curious to see how this will play out in future books than it being any sort of real “worst,” but this book had some strange pacing with regards to it being “Jake’s” book. The first half of the book is so entirely told through dialogue bubbles, that I was honestly thrown for a loop when Jake began an internal narration when he morphed the lizard (somewhere around page 120). It was jarring to suddenly be in his head in that way given the way the rest of the story had played out. I wish the book had stuck more closely to a consistent internal narration running from Jake throughout, clearing marking him as the character at the heart of this particular installment. I’m really curious to see what happens with Rachel’s story in the next book. That story does involve her alone in her cat morph more often (unlike Jake who was with the group through most of this book), so there’s a better opportunity there to have the pacing be more consistent with her internal narration.
Pretty, Pretty Pictures: Like I said, one of the reasons I held out on initially reading this was my immediate dislike of the general style. I get that the characters are kids and that the story is also for a younger audience. But it’s also gruesome and tackles some serious issues, ideal for teenage readers, as well. As it is, the style reads very “kiddy” to the point that I think teenagers might be reluctant to read it (not only is this a good age group for this story, but YA is a market behemoth in the publishing industry, making tons of money for most publishers, so it’s foolish to cut off chances at cornering that reading group). As with any comic/graphic novel, the art changes slightly over time, so perhaps the style can try and lean a bit more closely to the realistic version used for the animals and aliens. On another point there, I think the mixture of very cartoon-y human kids vs the more realistic, sharp-edged drawings of the animals and aliens was a bit distracting.
I also did not at all like the red noses. I’m not sure what the point of that even was. It just reads as very old-fashioned and weird. There are a few panels where the characters almost look like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from that super old stop-motion animation. It definitely isn’t adding anything to the book, and I hope it changes.
With some more variation to noses, the art would also be helped in making the characters more distinguishable from each other. Rachel and Tobias are the obvious problem characters. Tobias will be a hawk for the majority, so that gets around it. But it’s never good when two of your characters look so similar in the very beginning of the story as you’re trying to set the stage. It also does nothing for the “Rachel is amazingly beautiful” idea if she’s nearly identical to a teenage boy character. Adjusting all of the faces slightly would also give them more room to express more complicated emotions.
Our Fearless Leader: Overall, I liked the version of Jake we saw here. I think his character looked very “boy next door” but also like the kind of kid that would be the one looked to as a leader, could be popular but is kind of just doing his own thing most of the time. As it’s “his book,” we had a number of panels that spoke to his inner thoughts without the use of dialogue, and I think they worked very well. Most of them had to do with Tom and Jake’s slow understanding that something’s wrong with Tom. We see his look of hurt when he finds out that not only does Tom not care that Jake didn’t make the basketball team, but Tom himself has quit and couldn’t care less. And, perhaps most movingly, we see the horror and sadness when Jake sees Tom break through the Yeerk’s control for a brief moment and Jake must finally admit that Tom is a Controller.
I think, overall, these moments worked very well and the art was able to convey a good deal of emotion without resorting to dialogue, either out loud or inner thought. I’ll be most curious to see how this moves forward in other books, as I feel like it was only used sparingly here and is perhaps one of the areas that could grow the most as the artist becomes more comfortable drawing these characters.
Xena, Warrior Princess: There wasn’t a whole lot of characterization given for Rachel. They never mentioned her being Jake’s cousin, so that was strange. And the contrast between her looks and ferocious fighting style wasn’t really highlighted at all. She’s lucky to have the second book as it will hopefully flesh her out more. I really hope they include the cousin bit; that’s so fundamental in the growing tension between Jake and Rachel in the back half of the series.
A Hawk’s Life: There were a few things to like about Tobias’s character here. First, his connection to Elfangor is really highlighted, as well as his immediate connection to the mission as important and something that he will pursue with or without the others.
I also like the way his eventual end, stuck in hawk form, is built up over the story. Once he acquires that morph, we rarely see him in human form, even when he’s not yet stuck. There were also a good number of lines, both from him and the others, that hinted at why he had such a connection to this form. The freedom, the escape from a world that has largely ignored, neglected and rejected him. And, of course, the back panel featuring him as a hawk is one of the more beautiful pieces of art in the entire book.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Overall, I liked what we go from Cassie here. We got to see both the barn and The Gardens, and how her connections to animals are crucial to the Animorphs’ success going forward. But, like Rachel, I felt that she, too, had very little actual characterization. Compared to all three boy characters who I think had solid defining traits early on (Jake’s reluctant leadership, Marco’s cynicism and smarts, and Tobias’s heart and discomfort with his place in humanity), both girls felt pretty weak and undefined. There’s plenty of time to change that, but it was a bit disappointing from a series that really stood out for how balanced it was in its characters.
I was also disappointed not to see any reference to Cassie’s particular skill with morphing. There was one line thrown out there about Cassie being good at it, but we didn’t get to actually see much of it. Though I guess she morphs mostly off page or behind the other characters at the farm, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. Hopefully we’ll see it in the second book when she demorphs and has the angel wings that Rachel specifically points out.
The Comic Relief: I really liked Marco here. I think he was actually perhaps the most well done (close tie with Tobias, perhaps). Grine nailed the combination of smarts and reluctance that was so integral to Marco’s early characterization. There’s also plenty of room given to explaining early on why he’s so reluctant. But we also see him clearly step forward when needed by his friends. And the important role he plays in balancing out Jake’s more impulsive, less thought-out moments. It’s really cool to see that, especially. Particularly how he was the most unwilling to think/talk about what had happened in the construction site, but then immediately picks up on the weirdness of Tom, proving that his mind is always working with the reality of this information, even more so than the others who, on the surface, seem to have accepted it more.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Obviously, not featured. The artwork for the Andalites though is interesting. It’s not exactly how I pictured it. There were a lot of references to the Andalites being similar in shape to deer, very slim and light on their feet. Their bodies, especially their hands, were also often referenced as being rather thin and weak. All of this was used to draw attention to the true strength of their tail blades and how important that feature was to them, thus its use in so much of their culture (shape of their ships, religious rituals, etc.) The Andalites here look much more hefty, more workhorse-like than anything. I mean, it’s fine, but still a bit weird. I wonder if Grine will slim them down a bit for Ax to demonstrate that he’s still young?
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: One of the things that really sold me on this adaptation was the fact that Grine didn’t hesitate to go there with the story. The artwork itself can make the story look very juvenile and kiddy (obviously it’s about kids and marketed to kids, but the story is much more dark than I think most would expect for what is considered a kids’ book). Right off the bat, obviously, you see what happens to Elfangor. But the real punch came with the disaster that was the Yeerk pool run, particularly their chaotic escape while being chased by Visser Three’s fire monster. There are several, several, panels that show people burning alive from his flames. It’s tough stuff, but fully necessary to really set the tone for what this story is and where it’s headed. People die. A lot.
Couples Watch!: I’m not sure if it was on purpose or what, but there’s next to no reference to Jake’s crush on Cassie. She makes her usual line early on about appreciating the boys’ walking her and Rachel home, but that’s about it. However, bless his heart, Grine definitely left in the Rachel/Tobias connection. There are several moments here and there throughout, most notably Rachel commenting that she’d care if something were to happen to Tobias when he claims his aunt and uncle wouldn’t even notice if he disappeared.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: I do think the more stocky body type worked for Visser Three’s Andalite form. Kind of wish they had made Elfangor more slim the way he was described in the book and left Visser Three as the only Andalite built in this more combative mode. I really liked the way both the alien morphs were depicted. They were appropriately huge and terrifying, really highlighting, through sheer size alone, what these young kids are up against. It was a great way of using the visual format of this version to highlight the challenges ahead.
I also want to highlight this panel:
Giving me big time “Balrog in Moria” vibes, what with the fire demon alien thing and the narrow bridges breaking and crumbling.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Right off the bat, with Elfangor’s death. It always got me in the book, too, of course, but there’s something incredibly hard about actually seeing it happen. The fact that he’s not just killed but actually eaten alive by Visser Three. All the worse when you already know the history between these two from “The Andalite Chronicles.” What kind of messed up being must Visser Three be to actually choose to eat (instead of killing/executing in a more normal, not psychotic way) an enemy like Elfangor was to him??
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: Little moments that kind of go by unnoticed in the book really popped in this version. In this instance, I think of the sheer idiocy of the “just stand in front of her guys!” moment when Cassie is almost caught demorphing from a horse by the Controller!police officer. I really liked this interpretation of a moment that exemplifies how many near misses the Animorphs get away with through sheer dumb luck. The group standing there with arms around each other: “This is how we like to stand!” Great stuff.
I had a really hard time with this pick because there are so many iconic images that were so neat to see come to life on the page. A close runner up was a three-panel page of elephant!Rachel, gorilla!Marco, and tiger!Jake fighting Hork Bajir in the Yeerk Pool. It was just such a perfect image of these three in battle form for the first time (though Rachel’s grizzly is her much more iconic battle morph later on).
But I finally settled on this one:
This was the moment that started it all. It’s both powerful and incredibly sad, as it’s clear that Elfangor is near his end in the picture. The use of the bright lights coming from the box and the dark shadows surrounding them all in the construction site is a lovely metaphor for the Animorphs ongoing battle against the oppressive Yeerk regime trying to creep across the world and universe. “Do not be afraid.”
I also have to throw this one in here as it seems like a nod and a wink to die-hard fans who know the Marco/trash can relationship is something special:
Final Thoughts: I liked this book way more than I was expecting. I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised given how much I loved the original series, but I also figured that the fact that I loved the original so much was the very reason I’d struggle here. The fact that it was so faithful to the original story is probably what really did it for me.
I think there’s definite room for improvement with some of the art choices, but I also think that Grine set up the story and characters very well (with some exceptions for Cassie and Rachel, but even they were ok, all things considered). There were some really smart decisions with the colored bubbles for thought speak and the choice not to shy away from the more gruesome, dark aspects of the story.
My biggest concern is what is going to happen going forward. While I loved that the first book was given an entire graphic novel all to itself, that’s not a sustainable pace to get through all 50+ books, not to mention Chronicles and Megamorphs. This was a long book, as far as graphic novels go. And obviously one book a year would leave this series being published continuously for half a century. A more likely route would be to combine books into one graphic novel or skip unessential stories (there are a number, especially towards the second third.)
From the preview of the next one, it seems like we’re diving straight into an adaptation of just the second book, which is worrying as far as this all goes. Maybe the idea is to get through the first 5-6 and then start combining? Either way, one book a year is a hard sell for such a slow-moving series as this is. On their own, each adventure does very little to move the bigger plot forward. That works when they’re coming out once a month, but once a year? Seems like it might be hard to keep a loyal fan base invested at that pace. I guess we’ll see what the plans are going forward after the second one releases.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all!