Second Wave
by Michael Alan Nelson, Chee (Boom, 2007)

Second Wave offers as realistic a portrayal as one could get when it's an all-out alien invasion. Everything about this graphic novel finds the happy medium of the "aliens attack" genre. The story isn't loaded with opportunely connected characters in films like Independence Day, yet the characters aren't completely clueless victims of happenstance like the ones in Cloverfield. It isn't jam-packed with over-the-top action sequences, yet we're not subjected to dozens of pages of talking heads discussing alien philosophy. It is a riveting realistic exploration of the real/regular world turned upside down from an otherworldly invasion.

Chee's artwork follows perfectly in-step with the story, providing a refreshing realism in the depiction of these characters and their surroundings. No one is a drop-dead knockout nor is anyone an ugly caricature; instead, everyone falls somewhere in-between. Miles isn't the prototypical square-jawed dashing hero that will save the day. Instead he is an approaching-middle-age regular guy who has bad vision (which provides him with distinctive hexagonal glasses that make him instantly recognizable). The post-invasion landscape and cityscape aren't simply charred wastelands; instead, beyond particular areas of destruction, there is a jarring juxtaposition of the regular pre-invasion world with these towering alien creatures moving across the countryside.

The focus isn't on the aliens; the characters and their humanity are key to this story's success. While central character Miles has a slight connection (perhaps?) to the aliens, he's not the oh-so-convenient key to the survival of humanity. In Miles, Nelson and Chee show an average guy (sometimes to a fault, as the flashback sequences show) who wasn't a hero when the first wave of alien attacks came. When the second wave comes a week later, he decides to make a difference this time around. His ongoing struggle with survivor's guilt, fed by inner demons and memories of lost opportunities, contrasts greatly with his desire to help out others.

The other characters that show up throughout the story offer a nice cross-section of society, be it in attitude, race, gender, etc. Miles's best friend Duke has a personality as loud as the orange shirt on his back. Jane is bitter at the global upheaval, taking out her frustration on Miles, yet she's steadfast in her love of her teenage daughter, Cora. Ever antsy for a fight, James and his aggressive nature risks life and death to protect his diabetic daughter Ronni. In the town of Eddington, this group is further joined by an odd yet tough nurse, a silent autistic boy and a smart-mouthed junkie.

Please don't write off Second Wave as just another alien invasion story. In so many stories of this genre, the characters are paper-thin stereotypes secondary to the coolness of the aliens. In this particular story, the aliens aren't nearly as interesting as the characters; we don't get a bunch of morose, sadsacks simply struggling for survival -- we get an intriguing mixture of humor, anger, sadness and persistence. It is in that mixture that we see not the best nor the worst, but the fascinating in-between reality of humanity.

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

31 May 2008

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