This year hasn’t given us much to look forward to, but there was one announcement that tickled my fancy: the release of the graphic novel adaptation of Animorphs.
For those not in the know, Animorphs was a middle school sci-fi book series first published by Scholastic in 1996 and spanning over 60 volumes, which eventually led to a rather cringe-worthy screen adaption by Nickelodeon in 1998. Animorphs was one of my favorite series right from the beginning; despite its target audience being children, despite the large, easy-to-read fonts and the short chapters, the themes were complex and often gruesome in their dark, gritty realism. Risky urban guerilla warfare, alien invasions, and intense emotional stakes were the pillars upon which this series was built. For every scene of a person cheerfully turning into a cat, there were at least a dozen more in which people were being eviscerated and eaten alive, or tortured by their parents who had been taken over by alien parasites. It didn’t hold back, nor did it need to. The main characters never swear, and the troublesome issue of nudity is avoided by the characters somehow managing to shape-shift while wearing leotards. But the darker theme – that war is hell – always lingered, and I found these books a delight to read because they didn’t ever patronize the reader or attempt to sanitize the content, as many children’s books do.
The books included a lot of graphic imagery of children turning into animals, and of fantastic alien species and otherworldly places, that fueled my creative prepubescent brain. The battle scenes were fierce and chaotic; the underground alien pool was eerie and off-putting; even the descriptions of suburbia and junior high were on-point in their benign triteness. But a little part of me still always wanted to see the world I’d so vividly imagined and occupied for entire lunch periods back in middle school. The 26-episode Nickelodeon series, alas, did not scratch that itch for me. In fairness, Animorphs was too big of a world to be crammed into a half-hour, PG-rated television show with an extremely limited budget.
So I was thrilled when Scholastic announced a graphic novel adaption, coming out of their subsidiary publishing house, Scholastic Graphix. And even more thrilled when I discovered that they were bringing in Eisner Award-nominated cartoonist Chris Grine.
No one made any real attempt to hide the fact that the book, despite being marketed to kids, was also a nostalgic throw-back for all the now-adults who had fond memories of the original series. Certainly, I was one of those adults; in fact, I wasted no time in snatching up a copy to relive the familiar story, to dive back into the grim fantasy world that had had such an impact on me in childhood.
In case you were an Animorphs kid yourself, here’s what you need to know. First of all, if you were, like me, an overly-dramatic Gifted Child™ with a thinly-veiled love for bloodlust, this series isn’t for you. The art itself is fairly clean and fun to look at. There’s certainly a 1990s aesthetic that is very pleasing, and overall, I approve of the style (though I don’t know how I feel about Tobias being blond). And I will also say that the storytelling is a big improvement over the awful television series, because there’s no rush, and the plot follows the book fairly faithfully. A lot of consideration for the source material was given, and it shows; this is a faithful, respectful adaption. One that, I’m sorry to say, left me a little disappointed.
The thing that is lacking is the raw realism of the original books.
This might seem like a weird criticism, given that the source material features aliens that are allergic to oatmeal and order their Happy Meals from McDonald’s with “extra happy.” But the thing that always made Animorphs so appealing to me as a child was that it didn’t shy from the tragic reality of war. The books were gruesome in their descriptions of shapeshifting; it wasn’t pleasant, or cute, or even fun, and the first thing I noticed in the graphic novel adaption was how sanitized the morphing scenes were. The graphic novel fairs to evoke any strong emotion in me, and certainly not repulsion. (As a side note, the alien monsters, too, are far too camp for my taste.) In short, the grotesqueness of the original books captured my fancy as a child because that grotesqueness felt real.
Of course if you turned into a cow your insides would squish around as they re-arranged themselves to make room for a rumen; of course witnessing a friend’s lips split into a set of hairy mandibles as they transformed into a fly would be nightmarishly horrible. In a way, the shapeshifting itself almost felt like an allegory for the war the children were fighting; it was something that seemed glorious in concept but, in reality, acted as a stark reminder of the frailty of humans, both physically and spiritually.
Animorphs was a series of books for which I always longed for an adaption, but have come to determine might be one of those rare pieces of work that defies all other media, and should not be adapted. At every attempt, I’ve left feeling a small sense of disappointment. And although this is the first official comic adaption, it’s not the first time I’ve seen Animorphs fans try to move the prose to a visual medium. Duck Web Comics made a 50-page adaption of the first book, as did Char Reed Art. I applaud the ambition, the execution, and the dedication of these fan works, as they are remarkable in their own right, for what they are. But what they are is merely a tribute to a book series that loses its grimy, gorey point every time someone tries to adapt it.
This is a very rare instance where telling is better than showing. When the descriptions of the book are torn from their pages and rendered into visual media, some of the emotion (or soul, if you will) is lost in translation.
Of course, I will admit that, since I originally read these books as a child, part of my disappointment with each of the reboots is simply that I’m older than the target demographic, so naturally, I can’t expect them to appeal to me in the same way that they did when I was eight years old. And I will further state that I think it’s wonderful that the books are being rebooted as a graphic novel because it might help the next generation rediscover the original source material, just as blockbuster superhero movies have helped so many people enter into the Marvel comic fandom.
But if you were an original fan of the Animorphs book series and you’re wondering if the comics are worth your time, then the short answer is, no. They’re a great comic I would recommend for a child who is just getting into graphic novels, and they stand on their own merit. (And if you’re looking for Christmas ideas for your child, why not? You can purchase the first volume of the comic here.) (Alternatively, of course, you could purchase prequel novel, The Hork Bajir Chronicles, for way less.)
Compared to the original content, the graphic novels simply lack the brutal, harsh, vivid descriptions of the text, reducing the visuals to an almost cartoony style that takes away from the bitter realism of the original books. Also, the appearance of the characters is so de-aged as to be unsettling to me.
For twenty-four years, I wanted to see an adaptation of Animorphs: a movie, a high-budget television show, a graphic novel. And I’ve finally gotten my wish. Like most Animorphs stories, I’ve discovered that the stark truth of reality is more nuanced and disappointing than I realized, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Animorphs should never be adapted. No adaption will ever do the original books justice.
Leave the morphing to the Andalites.