Animorphs Retrospective, Book 1: The Invasion (Part 1)

OH MY GODDDD IT’S FINALLY HERE!!!!!

giphy anchorman.jpg post-26029-kermit-the-frog-YAY-gif-0hBT carlton-dance-o dancing tumblr_lol8riGRpi1qeolcio1_500 giddy-conan

Thanks to a long talk with my pal Taylor, I’m going through the entire Animorphs series, one book at a time!

Okay, maybe this has already been done, but it hasn’t been done by me. Which is a perfect reason for me to do it! I’m filling that me-shaped void in the Animorphs fandom and literary criticism.

So how is this going to work?

Basically, you can watch Taylor and I attempt to discuss this in a coherent and non-meandering fashion (spoiler alert: we’re not successful), on a podcast called Morphathon, hosted by Bibliomancy for Beginners. So that’ll consist entirely of the two of us shooting the shit about this series, and I will be in full fangirl freak-out mode for 54+ straight episodes.

I will also be writing all of my feelings in a written post, because my brain operates better in writing than speech. In general these will just be my opinions as I read through this series for the . . . 6th time in 13 years. It’ll only include my thoughts, because Taylor has his own blog and this is a place for me. I am the queen of my castle, and I will not have other people’s rational discourse getting in the way of my fangirling and snark.

If you’d like to read along, all of the books are available as PDFs here! You can always try buying them or checking your local library, but they’re getting harder to find, which is why I’ve saved all of the PDFs despite having my own collection.

Booyah.
Booyah.

Yes, it infuriates me that they don’t all fit on one shelf. And by 1 book, no less!

But anyway, time to get started with what I’ve been known to call The Best Children’s Series of All Time (subtitle: Eat It, Harry Potter). I last read it in high school, which was a time of naïveté and poor judgment. Will it be as good as I remember? Let’s find out!

My name is Jake.

Did you just get chills?

jesus save me

If anyone is reading along, one of the fastest things you’ll learn is that you can skip half of the first chapter completely, as it will always be exactly the same. In its defense, there were 54 books, a new one coming out every month or so for a delirious 5 years. Nobody read all of them.

Well, almost.
Well, almost nobody.

No library had the complete series, either, so the vast majority of kids absorbed these books in a hodgepodge, incomplete way, reading perhaps the first 5 or 10 in order and then picking up whatever was available until they grew bored and moved on.

Is this why Animorphs is one of the most tragically unsung collection of children’s books in the history of kid lit? I think so, and since it’s my blog, my thoughts are the ones that matter.

But I digress. The value of having the repetitive intro is to get anyone caught up to speed, whether they start on book 1 or 36, and refreshes the story for readers who haven’t opened one up in months. It’s a brilliant move, but man does it get tedious for those of us who meticulously pieced the series together through Scholastic book fairs and interlibrary loans. For all the rest of the books (until the Shit Gets Real section, heralded by this intro changing) I’m going to skip this section, but it’s worth going through the first time, since it gives the plot and defines all of the main characters in 3 handy traits.

That’s my first name, obviously. I can’t tell you my last name. It would be too dangerous. The Controllers are everywhere. Everywhere. And if they knew my full name, they could find me and my friends, and then . . . well, let’s just say I don’t want them to find me. What they do to people who resist them is too horrible to think about.

I won’t even tell you where I live. You’ll just have to trust me that it is a real place, a real town. It may even be your town.

I’m writing this all down so that more people will learn the truth. Maybe then, somehow, the human race can survive until the Andalites return and rescue us, as they promised they would.

Maybe.

Image: A woman rolling her eyes and saying "dramaaaa. Drama, drama, dramaaaa."

Okay, it’s a little cheesy. And I’m starting to see where my love of choppy sentences came from. But imagine a 7-to-10-year-old kid who, upon seeing a boy turn into a lizard on the cover —

Image: Cover of the first Animorphs book. A boy turns into a lizard. Caption: This was badass in the 90s. No, really.
This was badass in the 90s. No, really.

— opens the book up to this. And imagine that this kid had previously only read girl-appropriate books with plots heavily involving ponies and fairies, who ignored Harry Potter for months (years?) because it was “just for boys.”

Before having a chance to put this down because it was a “boy book,” little baby Casey’s mind was blown. What kind of story doesn’t tell you about the main character? What are Controllers? And Andalites? Why is the world in danger?

Little baby Casey was hooked.

Image: A person's head exploding. Literally. (From the TV show Scrubs) Caption: Dramatic reenactment.
Dramatic reenactment.

Now it’s time to introduce everyone’s 3 characteristics. Line ’em up, people!

Jake’s best friend Marco is spared this the first book, perhaps because he and Jake weren’t really differentiated as characters this early in the series; they’re both just “the boy.” Eventually he’ll acquire his 3 traits — smart, funny but really annoying, and with a huge ego.

Image: A Hispanic boy with long hair flirts with an annoyed-looking blonde teen who says, "There's no way in hell, Marco." Caption: Spoiler alert: Marco is my favorite. Credit: Shinga at http://shinga.deviantart.com/art/Animorphs-Rachel-and-Marco-40262785
Spoiler alert: Marco is my favorite character.

Instead, we only get this:

Marco has this amazing ability to analyze games and figure out all the little tricks.

This isn’t super important, but I liked it because it’s foreshadowing one of Marco’s defining qualities that will develop throughout the series: that his mind is deeply analytical, to the point where he is in charge of plotting most of their schemes. He can see “the thin, clear line” from problem to solution, and this makes him both the most intelligent Animorph and the most ruthless. I have no idea if this was intentional, but it made me happy.

Jake gets his 3 traits delivered in a less direct way as well, in part because he’s the narrator, but also because I still don’t think he was his own person just yet:

I’d tried out for the basketball team and I didn’t make the cut.

It was like no big deal, really. Except that Tom — he’s my big brother — he was this total legend on the junior high basketball team. Now he’s the main scorer for the high school team. So everyone expected me to make the team easy. Only I didn’t.

Like I said, no big thing. But it was on my mind, just the same. Lately, Tom and I hadn’t been hanging out as much. Not like we used to. So I figured, you know, if I got his old position on the team . . .

Jake: athletic and All-American Aryan perfection, but not to the point of alienating the bookish nerds who would gravitate to the series; laid-back and level-headed, which is why he ends up being stuck as Team Dad/leader of this ragtag group of losers; and just, like, idolizes big brother Tom.

Seriously, Jake and Tom, guys. So much angst.

Image: A young man's face with the words: "And, over time, hope dies. The host becomes a faint, shattered creature. Like your brother" - from Animorphs book #6, The Capture. Image credit: http://www.manic-expression.com/animorphs-re-read-6-the-capture-chapters-17-20/
D:

They run into almost everyone’s favorite character (because no one except me likes Marco), Tobias:

Tobias was . . . I mean, I guess he still is kind of a strange guy. He was new at school, and he wasn’t the toughest kid around, so he got picked on a lot.

Also known as EmoHawk for reasons that will become abundantly clear, Tobias is shy and sensitive, bullied a lot, and kind of in love with Jake.

Later, “shy, sensitive, and bullied” will merge together to make room for his real third character trait: he’s a fucking bird.

Image: Young boy covering his face with bird wings in the back. Caption: Get ready to hear a lot about Tobias the Bird, because that's 90% of his angst. Credit to: Kecky at http://www.deviantart.com/art/Tobias-316562131
Get ready to hear a lot about Tobias the Bird in the upcoming novels.

The boys talk about boy things, name-dropping a game that I was sure existed, but nope, there is no arcade game involving crossing a Nether Fjord to fight a SleazeTroll. Someone make that game now.

But now on page 3, some of this aggressive boy-ness is interrupted by the presence of girls!

Image: Two teenage girls, one African-American and dressed in overalls, one blonde. Caption: GASP! Estrogen!
GASP! Estrogen!

All right, let’s get their characteristics out of the way:

Rachel is kind of pretty, I guess. I mean, okay, she’s very pretty, although, since she is my cousin, I don’t really think about her that way. She has blond hair and blue eyes and that kind of very clean, very wholesome look. She’s one of those people who always know the right clothes to wear and how to look like they just walked out of one of those fashion magazines girls like. She’s also very graceful because she takes gymnastics, even though she says she’s too tall to ever be really good at it.

Cassie is sort of the opposite. For one thing, she’s usually wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, or something else real casual. She’s black and wears her hair very short most of the time. She had it longer for a while, but then she went back to short, which I like. Cassie is quieter than Rachel, more peaceful, like she always understands everything on some different, more mystical level.

We have two opposites to pick from! Are you pretty and athletic and into fashion? Then you have Rachel. If you’re a mellow animal-lover with no traditional femininity, then you get Cassie. While they’re not necessarily the most interesting characters —

Image: angry-looking grizzly bear brandishing its severed arm like a weapon. Caption: Yet.
Yet.

— it’s nice to not only have 2/5ths of our A-Team female (instead of the obligatory 1), but also neither is overly girly or a “I can do things just as good as the guys!” standard tomboy. There are elements of that, this being a children’s book from the 90s, but for the most part they avoid token-ing the women in this series (or the people of color; Marco is half-Hispanic as well).

I guess you could say I like of like Cassie. Sometimes we sit together on the bus, even though I never know what to say to her.

God, how cringey was middle school romance? Every time I read this, the characters are so relatable that I age them up in my head (because they were my age when I first read them, so they’ll be my age for the rest of my life, goddammit!), but it’s little comments like this that remind me that nope, these are 13-year-olds.

Putting the fate of the world in the hands of middle schoolers is pretty common in children’s media.

Picture: Power Rangers. Caption: I don't know why we keep thinking this is a good idea.
I don’t know why we keep thinking this is a good idea.

Anyway, the gang’s all here and now it’s time to head off into the wilderness! Or an abandoned construction site.

Gotta be honest, the description of this place is pretty awesome. I won’t type it all up here, but it’s worth noting that Applegate can actually do words good:

There’s a broad, open field between the construction site and the nearest houses. It’s a very isolated place.

Originally it was supposed to be this new shopping center. Now it was just all these half-finished buildings looking like a ghost town. There were huge piles of rusted steel beams; pyramids of giant concrete pipes; little mountains of dirt; deep pits that had filled up with black muddy water; and a creaking, rusted construction crane that I had climbed one while Marco stayed below and told me I was being an idiot.

Imagine that setting appearing in a legit, grown-up horror movie. It’d be great.

Also, look at Jake being such a boy, doing reckless things because that’s what boys do! It’s weird that this book is so full of macho stuff like that, because the series is very egalitarian. It may have been slightly marketed more towards boys, but I don’t remember there ever being much of a divide between who read and enjoyed the series. Maybe the author(s; Applegate wrote the first 25 and last several of the books with her husband, Michael Grant, and the rest were ghostwritten, albeit outlined and approved by them) was trying to get the ever-reluctant-to-read young male demographic, but it’s a bit heavy-handed. Luckily we don’t have to deal with it too much as the series progresses, since they drop this thread fairly quickly.

As they’re meandering through the construction site, they don’t get attacked by serial killers or zombie monsters or zombie monster serial killers —

Besides, that’s already been done.

— but a spaceship, which crashes to earth right in front of them. They take it pretty well, but so would you:

Aww, how cute!
Aww, how cute!

Tobias in particular is all over aliens, partly because his own life sucks and partly because he’s just a bizarre dude:

Tobias was actually grinning, but that’s Tobias for you. He’s never scared of weird stuff. It’s the normal stuff he can’t stand.

Every time I read a children’s book, no matter how good it is, I’m always struck by how much more elementary-age books tend to tell rather than show. That being said, it does lead to cool little character snapshots like this.

“We should tell someone,” Marco said. “I mean, this is kind of major, you know? Spaceships don’t just land in the construction site every day. We should call the cops or the army or the president or something. We’d be totally famous. We’d get to be on Letterman for sure.”

Guys, I swear Marco gets likable. The first few books are a little rough, but he’s honestly awesome and nowhere near this annoying (usually). He’ll never stop being an asshole, but he’ll become a much more interesting one, I promise.

He’ll never stop spouting dumb one-liners and pop culture references, though. You just have to learn to love them.

Also it’s weird reading this and realizing that the series could never have existed today. I mean, people have come up with some seriously awesome modern headcanons, but a cell phone with video would sink this plot before it could get off the ground.

Anyway, who comes out of the crashed ship but everyone’s second-favorite Animorphs extraterrestrial . . . THIS GUY!

Okay, hands-down the least original alien design in the series, but look at it. It’s so great.

This cutie is Elfangor Sirinial Shamtul, though I’m pretty sure the kids don’t find out his name until much later in the series. (This is what you get reading Animorphs with me. I’ll give you all the sweet insider information.) Instead, they see a giant blade-centaur with no mouth and 4 eyes and . . . are pretty cool with it:

I realized I was smiling, too. And at the same moment, I realized that there were tears in my eyes. I can’t really describe how it felt, except that it seemed like the alien was someone I’d known forever. Like an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

Considering Andalites are revealed later to be the douchebag jocks of the galaxy, this is a bit of an odd reaction. But that’s okay, because Applegate needed to establish immediately who are the Good Aliens and who are the Bad Aliens, so some corners have to be cut. Hence freaky mind-meld emotional connection thing that I’m pretty sure will never happen again, ever.

“Look!” Cassie cried. She pointed at a burn that covered half the alien’s right side. “He’s hurt.”

<Yes. I am dying,> he said.

K.A.? Katherine? May I call you Kathy?

Kathy, a few questions, if you have a moment.

  1. Why are you softballing the gore? Did you miss the picture of bear beating people to death with its own arm — you know, that picture based on a scene YOU WROTE? Hell, in like 5 minutes you describe this adorable little deer-alien’s death with such loving descriptions of violence that I’m shocked your editor didn’t ask you what the fuck you’d been drinking. No need to ease us into the horror, really. It’ll only make it worse for us.
  2. Why can’t Elfangor just morph? (Morphing: turning into another living thing.) It heals all injuries, and life would probably be much easier as literally anything but a wounded blade centaur. Does he just not feel like it? Does he know he’s about to get eaten by another deer-alien and all of his pals and went, “fuck it. Too much work”? Really, I feel like there were better options here.
  3. I know I gave you a pass for the emotional bond thing, but we can still acknowledge that it’s pretty damn weird, right?

Ah, well. Poor Elfie is dying and there’s nothing anyone can do (or is in the mood to do, whatevs), so he asks Jake to go into his spaceship and get his magical blue box so that he can give them the worst Christmas present ever.

I quickly reached for the box and started to head back outside. But then something caught my eye. It was a small, three-dimensional picture — four Andalites, standing all together, looking like a strange gathering of deer with solemn faces. Two of them looked very small — kids. I realized that this was a picture of the Andalite’s family.

On the one hand, that’s really cheesy. On the other hand . . . it’s still really cheesy, but like, in a cute way.

It must be really hard to get everyone into frame when your ass is that big; no one can stand behind you. You all have to be in a really long line, or canted at an angle like can-can girls.

Anyway, Elfangor gives them the power to morph, it makes them weirdly tingly, and then the bad aliens arrive. And by “bad,” I mean the best aliens in the series.

They leaped from the ship, whirling and thrusting and slicing the air — creatures that looked like walking weapons. They stood on two bent-back legs and had two very long arms. On each arm there were curved horn-blades growing out of the wrist and elbow. There were other blades at their bent-back knees, and two more blades at the end of their tails. They had feel like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

But it was the head that got your attention — a neck like a snake, a mouth that was almost a falcon’s beak, and, from the forehead, three daggerlike horns raked forward.

HORK-BAJIR, MOTHERFUCKERS!

Are you fucking with this?!
No, you are not. Because NOBODY’S fucking with this.
BOW DOWN, BITCHES.

Hork-Bajir are actually very peaceful and a little bit dumb, but who gives a shit about that because look at how awesome they are! (Actually, it’s pretty cool that the more gentle-looking species is one of the most warlike, while the scary-looking aliens are vegetarians, but no one wants commentary about judging by appearances when we have death-metal dinosaurs.)

I can’t hear you; I’ve been deafened by the abs on this thing.

But the Hork-Bajir have buddies. And those buddies are . . . um . . .

They were like massive centipedes, twice as long as a grown man. So big around that if you tried to hug one, your arms wouldn’t make it even halfway. not that anyone would ever want to.

They had dozens of legs that supported the lower two thirds of their bodies. The top third was held upright, and there the rows of legs became smaller, with little lobster-claw hands.

Around the top of their disgusting, tubular bodies were four eyes, each like a wiggling globule of red Jell-O. And at the very end, pointing straight up in the air, was a round mouth, ringed by hundreds of tiny teeth.

They’re an abomination against God.

That’s a big room full of nope.

These lovable folks are Taxxons, cursed with an insatiable appetite that is impossible to control. They’re one of the most interesting races Applegate spawned from her sick, twisted brain, and I’ll go into more detail about that as we get further into the books, but really all you have to know is that they make my eyes wish they weren’t eyes.

I guess I should stop now, since I’ve broken 3,000 words. But . . . uh . . . we’re only 31 pages into this book.

This 180-page book.

We’re in trouble, aren’t we?

Are you excited? I’M EXCITED!
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