Even a relatively short graphic novel, depending on the creator's use of words and images, can feel like a combination of reading a 250 page book and seeing a feature length film by the time you get to the last page. Even so, I am a bit greedy when it comes to graphic novels and I always think, "The longer, the better!" That's one thing that is so exciting to me about Mark Fearing's debut graphic novel, Earthling! This book is one long, fantastic voyage that takes eight chapters to complete.
From beginning to end, Earthling! is filled with galactic delights, from the illustrations to plot. Fearing takes what might otherwise be a pretty familiar story and adds so many fantastic, creative details to this tale that it feels entirely new. When we first meet our hero Bud, he and his father are driving to their new home in rural New Mexico for a new job at the Von Lunar Radio Telescope Lab. A serious downpour and a cloud of confusion get this story moving when Bud realizes that he has boarded the wrong school bus.
Parked next to the class nerd, Gort, Bud quickly learns that bullies exist in all galaxies. But, before he and Gort can bond, even before the bullies can pounce, disaster strikes and all students are forced to evacuate the yellow space cruiser. Bud earns Gort's loyalty by pulling him from the smoky bus into the escape pod at the last moment as the rescue craft zooms toward school, the Cosmos Academy - the best in the galaxy.
Once at school, Bud finds it difficult to navigate on almost every level. Besides the usual (human) middle school meanness that kids inflict upon each other, Bud has to hide his origins as the Cosmos Academy is decidedly anti-earthlings, "paranoiacally presuming its inhabitants to be vicious predators," as David Kamp writes in his review of the book for the New York Times Book Review. But, as Kamp notes, Bud is surrounded by a "colorful menagerie of kid aliens who resemble aquatic amphibians and/or peeled root vegetables" (there is no way I could have come up with a better description than Kamp's) and, with a few well placed untruths, he manages to squeak by, even, although not entirely, fooling Principal Lepton, referred to by Kamp as a "squat mound of McCarthyite hatred with a head like the rubber tip of a shuttlecock." I know this continual quoting of Kamp is starting to seem lazy on my part, but honestly, his descriptions are just so fantastic there's no way I could even come close. I do wish he had described the cafeteria at the Cosmos Academy so I could crib his words one more time, but I'll just have to go it alone. Populated by a diverse assortment of aliens, the cafeteria caters to all. Fearing's illustrations of the hot plates of food is appropriately disgusting and imaginative, but what really cracked me up is Bud's choice from among the dishses - NoxPaste Bites. Reviled by the rest of the kids, Bud is relieved to find that this food that looks and smells like a grilled cheese sandwich also tastes like one, despite the name...
Bud finds himself caught up in school drama, from being hounded by an Admin-Droid to being picked for a team for ZeroBall, where all the other kids assume he's a pro since he is passing himself off as a Tenarian, a group of aliens notoriously good at this galactic sport. On top of all this, Bud, Gort and the rest of the gang find themselves sneaking around the school trying to find a way to get Bud on a craft heading back to Earth. The climax of the book is suspenseful and rewarding, answering a few mysterious questions that arose at the start of the book as well as uniting space aliens and earthlings at a spot I'm sure is not too far from Roswell, New Mexico.
A few more of the fantastic illustrations from Mark Fearing's debut graphic novel, Earthling!