This is the first part of an ongoing Animorphs retrospective - check out Part Two and Part Three.
As a kid I cycled through a lot of obsessions. There were the obvious ones like Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events or The Lord of the Rings. When I was slightly older there were the slightly less obvious ones, like all things Hannibal Lecter or Jaws. But maybe the earliest story obsession I ever had was Animorphs.
There was a lot to obsess over. There are 54 books in the series, plus eight spin offs. Finding them all in the correct reading order wasn’t easy, so I used to just read whichever book I could get my hands on, meaning my experience of the overall story was pretty disjointed and non-linear. I read the third book first (and consequently will forever be a Tobias kid) then jumped around with a disregard for continuity that would horrify my modern self. I didn’t care. I just loved Animorphs and wanted to read as much of it as I could. Eventually I moved on to other things and as such never reached the series’ grand finale, but I always remembered the books fondly.
For the uninitiated, the fundamentals: five teenagers (Jake, Cassie, Rachel, Marco and Tobias) take a shortcut through an abandoned construction site one night only to witness an alien spaceship crashing. The mortally wounded pilot, a telepathic space centaur (Andalite) named Elfangor, warns them that earth is in the midst of a silent invasion by the Yeerks, sluglike parasites that crawl into the ears of their hosts and take them over. Meaning anyone –friends, family, teachers, bosses – could be an enemy in a secret war. Before dying, Elfangor gifts our five newly recruited heroes with the Andalite race’s greatest weapon, the ability to acquire the DNA of any creature they touch and then morph into them for a limit of two hours. After that, the kids are on their own. No mentor, nowhere to turn, no choice but to fight. To paraphrase the glorious theme song of the slightly less glorious TV adaptation, it’s all in their hands.
This set-up, for a kid, is kind of irresistible. Of course there’s the wish fulfilment element of being able to become a bird or a tiger or anything, but beyond that there’s the whole ‘chosen one’ appeal of being the only people on the planet who can stand up against a gigantic, all-conquering threat who can never find out who you really are.
But what really lodged Animorphs forever in the fond memories of everyone who read the series was how famously bleak it got. How it never pulled its punches. As the story went on and the spin off books lent increasing context to the intergalactic conflict, it slowly morphed from a fun action adventure with hints of darkness to an epic, universe spanning tragedy. Good guys do terrible things. Bad guys reveal empathetic motives. Heroes die. Villains win. Recently, talking to my Mum about some of the particularly messed up plot points, she exclaimed ‘and I let you read these books?’ But the truth that Daniel Handler always so beautifully understood with his Lemony Snicket series also holds true here – kids can handle a lot and hate being patronised. Animorphs never, ever patronised.
So when I saw recently that the first book had been adapted into a graphic novel by Chris Grine, I immediately grabbed a copy, settled in with a beer, and got to reading. Which predictably sent me plummeting down a rabbit hole of nostalgia that led to a throwaway yet ultimately fateful thought – ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have the whole collection?’
Idly I went looking online, figuring I could get the lot for like, $150 max. No such luck. The cheapest I could find the collection was well over $1000. So began a still ongoing hunt to track them all down. I spent hours scouring the internet looking for anyone selling bulk lots. I bought the first 20 for $100 only to immediately see the first 40 selling for the same price – I bought those too, figuring I could sell the excess. After that it became a case of daily checks and constant messages asking if people would be willing to sell certain volumes individually. Slowly my collection built. At the time of writing there are only two books I don’t have either on order or on my shelf – 42 and the finale, 54.
But here’s the thing; despite all the money I was spending I’m not sure I actually intended to read the whole series again, at least not initially. Part of that was a time thing, but also due to the lingering worry that they wouldn’t hold up. I was probably more excited by the prospect of owning the whole series than truly revisiting it.
Then I got back from Sydney right after their recent covid outbreak with a sore throat, so I got tested, isolated, and decided to just read the first Animorphs book. It took less than two hours, so I read the second. The next day, confirmed covid-free, I read the third and the fourth. Then I started having weird Animorphs dreams so I resolved to only read the books on weekends. Which I’ve been doing ever since and I’m now a quarter of the way through the whole series with every intention of seeing it through to the bitter end.
So, does Animorphs hold up?
Yes – with caveats. The biggest problem with Animorphs, and likely the biggest barrier to the series in its original form seeing any kind of mainstream resurgence, is that it is very much a product of its time – that time being the 90s reign of Goosebumps and Scholastic book fairs. Each of the books are short enough to read in under a couple of hours, but in several instances they’re also disposable and repetitive, existing more to fill out the release schedule than actually advance the plot. There’s also a lot of onomatopoeia and dated pop culture references, although there’s an argument to be made that those are part of the charm.
Maybe the most frustrating part is the very thing that allowed my kid self to get completely enraptured despite reading them all out of order – the fact that the same information is relayed in almost the same way at the start of every book, the exposition becoming heavier after each new major plot development. Obviously this was done to ensure that the series would be accessible to those who might not have read every instalment, but speaking as somebody who is reading every instalment, it’s annoying.
But those issues haven’t really hindered my enjoyment. The books are full-on right out of the gate. The first few pages of the first book see a benevolent alien gruesomely torn apart and eaten in front of our teenage protagonists. The following pages throw them into a guerrilla war, forced to fight and kill and eventually see one of their own trapped forever in the body of a hawk due to spending too long in morph. All in one slim book. The stakes are established from the start and fleshed out nicely in the second and third books, which delve into the human cost of the Yeerk invasion and the complicated nightmare of being trapped in an animal’s body. Four and five both introduce major players and keep the plot moving. Six and seven are great examples of science fiction and psychological horror. The canonical eighth book, the first of the Megamorphs specials, is inessential but a lot of fun, a blockbuster romp after three successive heavy instalments and a great way to close out the saga’s first act.
After that, things get a little shaky. The alien perspective and mythology-building of book eight is a high point but by nine the repetition started to really annoy me, and while the story ended up playing with some interesting ethical dilemmas, it was maybe the first book that on balance I’d recommend a new reader skipping. Ten is all interesting sci-fi ideas and worldbuilding, eleven is a pointless time travel story that’s events are erased at the end, twelve is at best some goofy fun – at worst, irritating filler. Thirteen packs in essential plot progression, fourteen is all about a McGuffin that turns out to be an Andalite toilet, then fifteen deepens one of the best moral dilemmas of the series. I guess this will be the nature of the series going forward; a mix of powerful and pointless.
Well, the mainline series anyway.
My plan was (and mostly remains) to read them all in release order, but due to a mix up with which books I’d actually bought I didn’t have a copy of The Andalite Chronicles, the first of the Chronicles prequels which was originally released between thirteen and fourteen. I figured I’d just read it when it eventually arrived, but after finishing fifteen I decided to skip ahead and read The Hork Bajir Chronicles instead. Partly to make up for the lack of the other Chronicle, partly because as a kid this was easily my favourite book in the series.
Taking place decades before the main instalments, The Hork Bajir Chronicles tells the story of how the peaceful yet fearsome-looking alien race the Hork-Bajir were taken over by the Yeerks. I always remembered it for its downbeat ending and all-pervading sense of epic tragedy. Of all the books it was simultaneously the one I looked forward to and dreaded revisiting the most, not wanting my warm memories to be punctured.
That was… not the case.
The Hork Bajir Chronicles is Animorphs at its best; a science fiction parable loaded with big ideas and intricate worldbuilding, but always rooted in moral complexity and characters we care about. Without ever descending to histrionics or hyperbole it is a devastating, haunting book. There is one moment that I think I maybe subconsciously buried – I remembered it was coming about a page before it did and man, it slammed me in the gut. After finishing it I spent the rest of the day unsure of what to do with myself. I went to bed thinking about it. Predictably, dreamed about it. And woke up feeling really glad that I decided to embark on this re-read.
I keep thinking about whether Animorphs can be introduced to a new generation. Fundamentally, it deserves to be. I could see the books re-released in omnibus editions that eliminate the need to track down all sixty-two separate instalments, but even then you’d have to deal with the dated references and the repeated context and the rest. About ten years back Scholastic started re-releasing the original books with new covers and updated references. They flopped. Maybe the new graphic novel versions will catch on and do better. Or maybe Animorphs is so of its time that it’s fated to stay in that time.
But for those willing and interested, I do recommend revisiting – at least on the basis of the seventeen books I’ve read so far. I can’t speak to whether they would land if you don’t already have a nostalgic connection to the series (which almost certainly helps me forgive some of the issues), but I think the cleverness and clear eyed, uncompromising examination of the complexities of war will speak for themselves.
Whatever the case, I’m sticking with them and will continue to report. See you at the halfway point.
Writing words about writing words.