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February 6, 2012

My First Animorphs Essay? Let’s Party!

It’s no secret that I friggin’ love Animorphs.  Besides mentioning it on this blog once or twice, I’ve gone on record in real life saying that it’s better than hot dogs (and I am a man who enjoys his occasional hot dog).  Well, that and the whole “the series is the reason I want to be a writer” and “it’s such an inspiring series” and “Cinnamon buns, oh yeah!” thing.

I could gush all day and night about the things that make it great.  Cool, deep characters with differing opinions and clashing ideals.  A blend of action, comedy, and drama that’s tastier than any strawberry shake.  Enemies and odds that pose a serious threat; on that note, the David story arc is probably one of the series’ high points, keeping in mind that this is a series that consistently strokes the stratosphere.  I suppose that, once again, I have to give credit to K.A. Applegate.  Even though the series is ostensibly for children, it’s still a satisfying read for young adults/man-children.  Conversely, it’s shocking to see all the complexities that she presented to children…even if they didn’t catch all the subtleties back when they were nine.

An emblem of capitalist greed.

But as I go through my collection, reading and salivating and remembering a time when I used to get issues of Nintendo Power every month, I started to realize something.  Obviously, there are a lot of complex themes at play -- war and its effects, idealism versus cynicism, etc. -- but one thing in particular started to appear more blatantly than anything else.  (Blatantly, in the sense that it might be the main idea behind the series; not so much as OH HEY GUYS LOOK AT THIS COMPLEXITY IS I A GOOD WRITER YET DERP DE DOO.)   It’s all about “roles vs. reality.”

Let’s be real: when we have characters in a story -- which is kind of often, as you’ve noticed -- we anticipate them to fulfill certain expectations and traits.  We expect the brave knight to slash some dragons and save the princess.  We expect the nerdy loser to beat the bullies in the end (and maybe save the universe).  Or maybe the weary soldier will do his final duty and bow out.  Whatever the case, every character has a role to play.  Animorphs is no exception, and probably not the first or last to play with its roles.   Regardless, it not only plays with readers’ expectations, but with the characters’ as well -- namely, in how well (or poorly) they manage to live up to their roles.

If you’re not familiar with the story -- for shame -- or just need a refresher course, here’s the gist of it.  Five normal junior-high schoolers on their way back from the mall have a run-in with an alien who gives them the power to morph into any animal they touch.  Why?  To go head-to-head against the Yeerks, body-snatching slugs that are using the kids’ town as a platform for their invasion.  It’s up to them to hold off their assault until reinforcements can arrive.  And thus, the battle for earth begins.  Also throw in androids, a race of millimeter-sized aliens, an indirect clash between two cosmic beings, and a dimension of absolute nothingness for good measure.

At any rate, we have our six heroes.  Jake (the best one of the six, IMO) is the leader.  His cousin Rachel is the pretty one, but also the gung-ho fighter.  Marco’s the sarcastic joker.  Cassie’s the nice one and the animal lover.  Tobias is…well, I’ll get back to him eventually.  And once he joins the group, the alien Ax is the loyalist.  They all have a job to do in the context of slowing down the Yeerk invasion.  They all contribute their parts when it’s time for action.  And every last one of them -- heck, even some of the side characters -- ends up taking issue with their roles at one point or another.

But enough of this preamble.  Let’s get right to it, yeah?  Hit the jump for more.

Jake, the Leader (and the best one of the six)

Aw yeah.  Dat’s my boy right there!  DAT’S MAH BO- no, no, no, gotta keep the fanboy in me in check. 

Ahem.  Okay.  So it’s pretty much a given that Jake’s the leader.  He’s level-headed, responsible, and reliable.  He’s a kid who loves basketball, arguing about comics with his pal Marco, and -- while he’s not devoted to his parents’ every word, like any good teenager -- he still cares deeply about his family, especially his older brother/idol Tom.  But when there’s a battle to be won, people look to him for advice and support.  When the Animorphs need snap decisions in the middle of a situation, Jake’s the one who makes them. 

But it goes further than that.  I’ve noticed in my re-reading that many of the series’ books follow a certain structure: there might be a mini-episode at the start that either leads into the installment’s main adventure or gives an insight into the issues to come.  The meat of the story comes from the missions themselves -- typically not just one slog where the Animorphs motor through a fight in one go,  but two or three “mini-missions” where they take multiple actions that’ll lead them to a victory.  Acquiring new morphs, a little recon, protecting a target, etc; naturally, the last of these missions will be a climax where they bring an end to the book’s conflict (usually crowned by an encounter with an enemy attack force, or the heinous Visser Three).  But what may be even more vital, and important to the series as a whole, is what happens in between all that.  The scenes where the narrator, whoever it may be for that installment, gets a little breathing room and goes through his/her life, contemplating, conversing with comrades, or otherwise doing what kids do (well, kids who have to stop some aliens).

And what does Jake do in these situations?  Lead, at a base level; it’s during these little excursions that he flexes his delegation muscles.  Taking in information, giving orders as needed, while putting decisions to a group vote.  Very basic, but respectable stuff.  And then there are moments when Jake shows just why you should respect him (besides the fact that he can turn into a tiger at will).  Though his humility says otherwise, Jake is well aware of the group dynamics and internal affairs, and makes his judgments as needed.  He knows that Rachel drives the others to do some reckless things, and he’ll adjust a two-man team to compensate (especially if she’s just done something reckless…which is often).  He knows how to use his partners’ skill sets to his advantage; when Ax offers to use himself as a distraction, Jake says they need him inside the Yeerk facility to handle their computers -- and Jake himself becomes the distraction.  When he can’t come up with something on his own, he’ll use the skills of his teammates to compensate.  He relies on Cassie to give them details on -- and access to -- most of their best morphs, and has an innate ability to understand -- and even manipulate -- people.  He relies on Tobias to get the lay of the land and keep an eye out for trouble, since one slip-up can bust their whole operation wide open.  He relies on Ax to handle alien tech, and just give information on aliens in general (even though he says biology was his weakest subject).

I don't blame him.  Seriously, what is that thing?

But what’s surprised me in this rereading bender I’ve been on is a certain realization: Jake will flip his shit if you do something stupid.  As the paragon of responsibility in the team, he expects -- or maybe hopes -- that his pals will do the same.  So naturally, Marco will morph into a mouse to sneak into a pool party and punk a girl who didn’t invite him, Cassie will morph into a skunk mommy and protect its children and nearly gets stuck as a skunk forever, Ax will try to fight off a nearly-unstoppable enemy for the sake of honor and loyalty, Tobias will get closer and closer to the two-hour time limit and risk being stuck as a hawk, and Rachel …well…

It’s shocking, seeing Jake drop his cool demeanor -- but when he does, you start to think that maybe he’s showing a bit of his true colors.  He’ll act rationally and won’t stomp all over anyone’s opinions in a debate, but if said opinions get in the way of their mission, he’ll call them out on it big time.  Sometimes he’ll start yelling furiously; he’ll emotionally -- but rightfully -- point out that the Animorphs’ safety and group well-being is a little more important than getting back at snobs or saving a few skunks.  Which is fine, and like I said a little frightening; Cassie notes that when Jake’s really ticked, one of his veins starts throbbing visibly.  But sometimes a person is more frightening when they’re talking calmly -- because that’s when you know that their words aren’t clouded by anger.  In one such instance, Jake is quick to chide Rachel for nearly getting them all killed and spoiling their chance at succeeding in the installment’s mission.  Does he invoke the power of the CAPS LOCK OF RAGE?  Nope.  He just tells her that maybe she should have thought of the consequences before screwing up.  All it takes is a cold stare and a few words from Jake to get Rachel -- hot-blooded to a fault -- to see how badly she screwed up. 

How effective he is up for debate, though.  Even though he’ll tell one of his friends to calm the hell down, sometimes they’ll do the exact opposite of what they prescribe and act on their basic traits/mindsets.  Does Rachel, currently in the midst of morphing whenever she gets emotional (which, again, is often) stay put and let the others come up with a plan?  Pfft, no; she gets ready to go on national TV and almost gives birth to a full-grown crocodile.  Does Cassie decide that maybe the human race means more than a few baby skunks?  Uh, nope; she not only goes on taking care of the skunks, but she gets the other Animorphs to do the same.   Does Tobias heed Jake’s warning and stop pushing the two-hour time limit before being trapped as a hawk?  Er…okay, that was in bad taste.  It’s like the characters, in spite of good intentions, exist partly to push Jake closer and closer to a future of sleepless nights and mild alcoholism, knowing that he’s got to play babysitter every other day.  Or every day, for that matter; he’s usually the one that has to remind everyone that they’re on, you know, a life-threatening mission and maybe now isn’t the best time to have a debate about oatmeal or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I’d assume that Jake is aware of it as well.   There’s always a gap between what he wants to be and what he is -- in other words, a guerilla general and a kid that just wants to goof off and chill with his family.  But he’ll try his hardest to reach his apex, for better or worse.  And by worse I mean “try to seal off any sort of weakness or indecision in order to project an image of admirable flawlessness for his comrades’ sake.”    Did I mention he’s about thirteen at the series’ start?

Most kids want bikes for their birthday.  He just wants to not get eaten alive.

With that in mind -- and the fact that Animorphs is more or less a children’s book -- Jake has to make decisions that would make a grown man take pause.  Go after an ersatz Bill Gates to bust his Yeerk-monitoring operation wide open, or prevent a little kid from confessing to his dad that he knows about Yeerks?  Keep ancient alien technology away from any use, or use it to turn a society of peaceful androids into dog-faced Terminators?  Invite a kid that’s just lost his home and family to become an Animorph, or act on your friends’ mistrust and tell him off -- knowing full well that he’s being hunted?  Every question that pops up is one without a definite right answer -- a grey area at its finest -- but these six kids are forced to debate and discuss them regularly.  And Jake, as the leader and the group’s strongest voice, typically has the final say.  Whatever the case, he knows that every choice will have a lot of weight behind it; he may be young, but he understands that some choices are morally right, while others are right for survival. 

That won’t stop the choices -- and the threat of just having to make choices -- from tearing him up inside.  Applegate could have renamed the series “I’m Twelve Years Old and What is This” and have summed up a lot of each character’s internal conflicts.  Jake’s no exception.  He makes it pretty clear that he’s in this to protect his family, and more importantly get that Yeerk out of his brother’s head.  Why?  So he can live out a peaceful life with said family, and tell dumb jokes and eat together at the table and shoot some hoops later.  Small things.  Simple, without ambition, but meaningful nonetheless.  Then destiny happened, and Jake has to regularly duck out of family and basketball and --breathless  gasp! -- school to go on a mission at the bottom of the ocean or infiltrate a McDonald’s.  Funny that in trying to protect what he loves most he comes dangerously close to losing it.  To say nothing of later installments in the series…

But I digress.  What matters is that the fight takes its toll on Jake, pulling him away from what he really is by both necessity and his own willpower.  But what he wants to become may not be what he -- or anyone -- really needs.  In the same sense that he picks the right people for the job, he also uses them to the group’s advantage…sometimes in a more negative way than he’d prefer.  One huge example of this is when the Animorphs have to deal with a now-rogue David, showing them just why the Yeerks hate enemies who could be anything, anywhere, at any time.  Exhausted after a late-night duel (in which Jake nearly died, no less), the leader willingly allows Rachel to go after David in their school.  Why?  Because, as he explains later, he wanted Rachel to go on the attack.  He knew she’d lose her cool, and he needed someone to scare David -- someone who could make him hurt, if need be.  It works like a charm, but Rachel calls him out on it.  She doesn’t want to just be this bloodthirsty beast that Jake can call on whenever they need an enemy attacked, but Jake seems content in doing so.  In a gripping scene, Jake admits his folly, and that he’s crossed a line he never should have crossed.  But this is war.  He’s the leader.  He has to put aside his ideals and emotions for the sake of the team and the effort.  And, undoubtedly, he’ll have to make choices like that again…and again…and again.

It's symbolic for...showing that...uh...rhinos can fly?

So it’s a given that Jake has to do some dirty stuff in order to win and survive.  But is it for the best?  Is it worth it in the end?  Well…negative as it may be, I say yes.  In the context of the story, it was absolutely necessary to have someone like Jake step up.  Did he have do get his hands dirty?  Yes.  Did he have to put his friends in danger and make them transform just like he did?  Yes.  Did he end up losing a part of himself, and forgo his childhood innocence in order to be the leader that everyone needed?  Yes.  But remember, after seeing that spaceship land that fateful night, there wasn’t a single thing Jake did that wasn’t his choice.  He could’ve walked away, but he didn’t.  He could have said “Marco, you’re pretty smart.  You be the leader.”  But he didn’t.  He could have campaigned single-handedly to save Tom and his parents and blow off the other Animorphs.  But he didn’t.  You could argue that he didn’t choose to be the leader, but he sure did choose to STAY the leader.  Remember, at the start of the series it was just five kids against an army of aliens that might as well have owned the town.  He knew that bailing would leave them at four freedom fighters -- and furthermore, four fighters without a solid leader.  If we think of Jake as a responsible guy, then logically that sense of responsibility would make him choose to become the general the planet needed.  Basketball be damned.

Jake’s struggle with his “role vs. reality” is probably what makes him my favorite.  All the characters face that little theme in their own separate ways, but -- as an eternal idealist -- I’m of the persuasion that Jake’s conflict makes him come out stronger.  Maybe not necessarily better, or happier, but certainly there’s something admirable (and of course interesting) about him.  He’s a kid who becomes a leader, a general, and arguably a champion by his own choice.  That one choice leads to a string of other choices and decisions that he has to make; while they’re regularly unpleasant, he takes them all on because it’s his self-ordained job.  He has to put his family matters aside (more or less) so that he can protect the happiness of other families, and give them a chance to have boring, joke-filled dinners.  Dark as the series can get, the inner strength he summons is something that brightens the circumstances.  Young or old, you can’t deny that Jake is more than just a leader or a regular dumb kid.  He’s a hero.   A hero that can turn into a lobster, but a hero nonetheless.

…Well, that took longer than expected.  So for the sake of expediency, I’ll cut off here for now.  But I’ll be back with another installment in this little character study soon enough.  Next time, I think I’ll have a look at a certain magical warrior. 

I’m so excited, I can bear-ly contain my excitement!

…Except I’m kinda tired, so I might take a nap.

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