Graphic novel review: Lifeformed – Cleo Makes Contact (vol. 1) and Hearts and Minds (vol. 2)

(cover image courtesy Dark Horse Comics)

Alien invasions are, for the most part, treated as popcorn-chomping blockbuster spectacles replete with big epic action sequences, lives in mortal and imminent danger and big stakes battles between good (us; for once) and evil (most certainly them).

They do not generally have time, what with all the awe-inspiring spaceship arrivals and the banging and the booming and the theatrical mass killings, for any kind of intimate exploration of how such a cataclysmic events affects those who survive this kind of end of the world terror.

But then most stories in the genre aren’t written and illustrated Matt Mair Lowery and Cassie Anderson respectively, a team who deliver a profoundly poignant, funny and deeply personal take on the world-ending nightmare of an alien invasion in Lifeformed – Cleo Makes Contact (vol. 1) and Hearts and Minds (vol. 2).

In many ways, this gripping story, which centres on Cleo, a “typical eleven-year-old” who finds her world literally and figuratively torn apart when a happy moment with her single father dad after a trying day for her is horrifyingly interrupted by the arrival of alien spaceships in the skies above.

So far, so alien invasionry.

But this is when things get really interesting and really personal.

Within seconds of the sonic boom disturbing their much-needed father-daughter reverie, Cleo watches as her dad dies – not a spoiler; the back blurb of volume 1 makes this a key part of the graphic novel’s pitch – and before she can even properly react, a faceless alien (later called Alex) crashlands nearby, brings comfort to her father and then assumes his form.

That’s a lot to take in in just a few minutes but then Cleo is in deep shock (how could she not be?) and so she leaves with this uncharacteristically caring alien – she hasn’t met any others but they are shooting and destroying and killing with gusto so it’s safe to assume they aren’t people you’d want to send Christmas cards to and that Alex is unique – who turns out to be a rebel and implacably opposed to everything the race he serves stands for.

(image courtesy Dark Horse Comics)

Which is, it won’t surprise you to learn, attacking and enslaving world after defenceless world, hundreds of them in fact, and putting the people of the planet to work for them until they all die.

It’s a brutal and ruthlessly cruel regime, an extraterrestrial take on manifest destiny with fascist tendencies to which this rebel shapeshifting alien, who has been schooled in all things human by a kidnapped Muslim American college student who encourages him to fight back (he is a slave, part of a class of manufactured beings used as manual labour by the overlord alien race) against his creators and oppressors.

They are the unlikeliest of odd couples, and in the end, Cleo stays with him because (a) she has nowhere else to go – even her grandma, whom she adores, is MIA – and (b) because Alex turns out to be a being of integrity and care, someone who, because he absorbed much of what her father, the best dad in the world, the very best of his kind, is as close as Cleo is ever going to get to a parent again.

She knows he’s not her dad, and there’s no question of Stockholm Syndrome at work here, evidenced by the times in which this proto-teenager pushes back in some pretty full-on, subversive ways, but she and the alien form a close bond, both dedicated to wreaking as much havoc as they can on the invading aliens.

The complicating thing here is that where there is one shapeshifting alien, there are bound to be more, and it soon becomes tricky telling authentic Homo Sapiens from the galactic knockoff, although Cleo, who takes to being a rebel pretty readily given her gutsy personality and some unexpected life lessons from Alex, ends up being quite good at it.

What makes Lifeformed such a heartwarming and ultimately deeply engaging read is that against a dark and bleak backdrop, in which dwells uncountable pain and loss, an incredibly complex and emotionally resonant story unfolds.

This is alien invasion writ small; not so much in the events of the story which are big, bold and very much in the action camp of things that go boom and bang, but in the way in which Cleo and Alex form a close and mutually supportive relationship, even as the former grapples with her grief, and the latter struggles with how human he actually is and how much of Cleo’s dad he is and might become.

(image courtesy Dark Horse Comics)

It is intense, powerful and heartrendingly immersive stuff, and Lowery and Anderson working together so effectively and with such insight and rich emotionality that it’s hard to see this story being told without both of them involved.

Their highly-successful collaborative approach grants the story so much gravitas and affectingly nuanced layers that it’s impossible to read with having your heart ripped out and put reassuringly back in, over and over again.

We all know that an alien invasion, were it to happen, wouldn’t just play out in big, massive scenes, but beautifully real intimate ones too as people witnessed death, destruction and grievous loss up close and far too personal, and Lifeformed really brings this home, showing us how this most terrible of events plays out on the micro, very human level.

We are also given insight to the alien side of things too, both so we can appreciate how Alex became Alex but also so we can bear witness to how the lead strategist and scientist behind the conquest, the being responsible for shapeshifting intruders and the like, came to unleash this invasion upon an ill-prepared Earth (which, thanks to the shapeshifters had been infiltrated many years earlier; hence how the power and communications went down so quickly).

The time taken to show us the alien sphere of things adds even more depth and richness to the story, and while it’s not included as an attempt to make the aliens seems more well-rounded and sympathetic, it means that we are granted far more perspective than we’d otherwise have, making this wholly engrossing story even more worth of a read.

Lifeformed is an exquisitely well written and illustrated story that explores grief, anger, fighting back and the very nature and form of humanity that takes you down into the very heart, literal and metaphorical of an alien invasion of Earth, and in so doing, reminds us that even the biggest and most blockbustery of narratives, the ones that count for the duration anyway, must have a vibrant soul and a beating heart if we are to ever truly identify with a narrative that will always, fingers crossed, stay well beyond our lived experience and always only within our fearfully fecund imaginations.

For an extra small Cleo and Alex adventure, go to, “Lifeformed Comic Short Drops Ahead of Graphic Novel (Exclusive)”

(image courtesy Dark Horse Comics)

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