Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Meteor Men

Meteor Men
Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Sandy Jarrell, Kevin Volo, Crank
Oni Press

[Editor's Note: While the print edition of Meteor Men won't be out for a little bit yet, Oni Press is releasing it in stages on Comixology, starting today. The complete release schedule is at the end of this review, courtesy of Oni Press. -RobM]

Meteor Man is your classic, thoughtfully written, beautifully illustrated, coming-of-age, boy meets alien story.  For as long as there have been stars in the sky, people have speculated about what (or who) was out there. Few stories have been told more frequently in science fiction than aliens arriving on Earth; more specifically, there are many stories in the "aliens arrival shows us the nature of humanity, and humanity is terrible" milieu. If you're telling that kind of story, your story needs to be pretty strong. Meteor Men clears that hurdle. At its best, it conveys a sense of vast scope, possibility and uncertainty.

When I was in 6th grade we went on a trip to an overnight camp in New Hampshire.  One night we went out to a clearing overlooking a lake and sat looking up at the stars. They say that to the naked eye, under ideal conditions, it is possible to see up to 5,000 stars in the night sky. That night, it felt like we saw all of them.  I remember we saw tons of shooting stars, which I don’t think I had ever really seen before. Then, in a revelation that blew my mind (and still does), a camp counselor explained how when we looked up at the stars, we aren't actually seeing where they are right now. Because light needs time to travel, we're seeing where the star was relative to how far away it was from us. So, in a sense, by looking up at the stars, we are looking backwards in time. There was something about that moment that's still incredibly important to me now, where I looked up at the stars and gazed into the past. I felt like I had become aware of vastness of the universe.  Given all those stars, I was sure we couldn't be completely alone out there.

I bring this up to say that what I truly love about science fiction stories, more than just fun stories about time travel or robots or aliens (bonus points if you can combine all those elements), is something that the best science fiction stories do, which is to get the reader (or viewer) in touch with that sense of vastness.  The notion that there's so much undiscovered out there; rather than feel insignificant by that idea, I find it comforting. That's why books like Meteor Man appeal to me.

The story begins with just stars, and then we hear the conversations of people. They're all out on a local field owned by local teen Alden Baylor to watch the meteor shower. Alden's uncle, an astronomy professor, takes care of Alden and manages the property for him.  One particularly large meteor lands in Alden's property and starts a fire, but he uses clear thinking to corral others into putting the fire out. The meteor shower develops quickly into a big story, as a number of similar large meteors landed around the world (a highly unusual occurrence). All of these meteors similarly cracked open to reveal a hollow core. Alden continues to go about his day, watching news of these meteors from around the world, when he senses a message in his mind from his friend Wilton. Alden runs into the woods, and is confronted by an alien floating above him. He runs, but this alien follows him home. The alien communicates telepathically with Alden - he's hungry, and tired. Alden (remarkably composed given the circumstances) gives the alien food and sets him up in his barn to sleep. The next day Alden is met by the alien again, and learns about the alien's origin.


Over the next few days, things keep escalating. People around the world all describe seeing an alien looking remarkably similar to the one encountered by Alden. Eventually, local and federal authorities and the media converge downtown. The authorities want to bring Alden in for questioning but as soon as they begin holding him, the alien appears with demands to release Alden. This provokes a confrontation which goes pretty badly for law enforcement, and Alden is released. But it's not over yet, and Alden soon learns that the aliens have a deeper connection to the humans they encounter than anyone realized. With the authorities ready to pounce and lives hanging in the balance, Alden must make a choice that I won't spoil here.

This is a powerful story; there's a lot that's original and interesting in Meteor Men.  Parker and the creative team have crafted a plot that's heartfelt and sincere. The theme that we are all in this together (and are all part of something larger) runs throughout the book. The art really sets the scene. Jarrell is a talented visual storyteller, and there's great layouts, sequential storytelling and coloring courtesy of Jarrell and Volo. This starts at the very first page which begins with the starry sky, and then you see word bubbles, and finally people gathered to watch the meteor shower. It's a great way to begin the story, and sets the reader up to understand that we are in the stars, we are out there, and we are part of everything else that's in the cosmos.

The art style here is appealing visually; motion (such as the flying meteors) is strikingly rendered, as are the characters. It's an overall "realistic" drawing style (for a story involving aliens), with great facial acting and body language (rendered in a style which is very much Jarrell's own, but somewhat reminiscent of Chris Samnee or Doc Shaner, with a little Paul Pope in Alden's face).*

One of the strengths of the book is that the aliens are genuinely, well, alien. They don't think as humans do, and the difficulties in communicating with a fundamentally different life-form are effectively portrayed. The parts of the story that are the most effective are when Alden is communicating with the aliens. Alden is a great character. It's clear that he's been lonely and somewhat adrift since the death of his parents, and his lack of fear of the aliens and willingness to engage with them feel like refreshing choices by Parker. Finding the alien feels like finding a friend to him (which not surprising, given what we learn about them).  Alden's interactions with the alien have real humor and spark to them. The humor here is aided by great lettering from Crank!, where the telepathic communication from the aliens to people appears as large letters outside of any word bubbles; in one amusing moment, the alien "thinks" too loudly at Alden (in huge letters), and Alden has to ask it to "speak" a little more quietly.

An aspect of the story that feels a little more typical and less interesting (but probably necessary) is the depiction of the reaction of the law enforcement and the military. These scenes make sense within the context of the story and it is realistic that our military would view any alien life forms as an extreme threat and try to destroy them (sadly), but it feels like something you've seen before. However, this does bring home the message of the book - for better or for worse, humanity is not alone. We are one planet orbiting one star among many, and how we choose to face that fact will have real consequences.

For a thoughtful and gorgeously rendered take on the "first contact" theme (that's far less risky than actual contact with aliens), Meteor Men is worth a look.

If you liked what you read in this review, you can get the first part right now at Comixology. Here's a complete release schedule for the book:
  
Tues. Aug 19th - Meteor Men #1 ComiXology

Tues. Aug. 26th - Meteor Men #2 ComiXology
Tues. Sept. 2nd - Meteor Men #3 ComiXology
Tues. Sept. 9th - Meteor Men #4 ComiXology
Tues. Septh 16th - Meteor Men #5 ComiXology

Sept. 22nd - Final order cutoff for retailers and preorders (Diamond Order Code: JUN141331)

October 15th - Meteor Men comes out in retail everywhere

* i.e., an accessible "classic" style but with modern design and layout

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