Review by Ian Keogh
Cleo is bright, goon natured and funny, yet like so many young teenage girls, lacking self confidence. That seems the worst of her problems until the day the Earth is invaded. Not all the invaders are evil and warlike, however, and Cleo manages to hook up with one who wants to help humanity. In a time of unimaginable crisis Cleo takes that leap of faith into the unknown she’s never previously been able to manage.
Almost the entirety of Matt Mair Lowery’s plot focuses on Cleo, who’s drawn by Cassie Anderson in a wide-eyed manner designed to induce sympathy. Both through events and subtle visual hints we’re shown throughout that Cleo isn’t the person she believes herself to be, and when it really counts she’s the strong and capable person her father knows her to be. While the message of empowerment is reinforced throughout Lifeformed, it’s never to the point of overbearing, and wrapped in a constantly engaging story. Cleo is very likeable, and after an initial bout of having to cope, natural emotions kick in, resulting in an extremely well delivered wordless sequence midway through. Many young adult graphic novels tiptoe around tragedy, prioritising day to day emotional responses, but Lowry’s not afraid to shock, which he does very effectively shortly into Lifeformed. While subsequent incidents don’t quite match the surprise value of the first, they’re nonetheless unusual for the genre, and this isn’t soft soaped in Anderson’s art. It may be cartooning, but the impact is absolute.
This isn’t just Cleo’s story. The invaders are shapeshifters, large, but vaguely humanoid without distinct features unless they choose to adopt them, and able to rapidly shift internal organs in a way that renders guns useless against them. We learn the history of the one sympathetic alien as the story progresses, his story in its own way as tragic as Cleo’s has become, in his case a search for identity, and Lowry takes that in a surprising direction.
Lifeformed is a clever title with dual meaning, the cleverness exemplifying a thoughtful and humane graphic novel filled with neat small touches such as the chapter separators each being an illustration of Cleo’s rucksack and contents, but changing as her circumstances and personality change. It emphasises personal growth and confidence while presenting a cracking adventure that’s very nicely drawn. You can’t ask for more than that. This was a hit with readers, and Hearts and Minds follows.