In 'Intro To Alien Invasion' College Students Transform Into InsectoidsOwen King and Mark Jude Poirier's new comic is a B-movie type portrait of college life interrupted by the arrival of alien beetles who feed on the shallowest kids.
September is about more than kids heading off to school, all bright shining faces and expensive new electronics. This month also kicks off a horrifying gauntlet of fear, tedium and aggravation (mostly aggravation) for a beleaguered species, the college professor.
Or so Owen King and Mark Jude Poirier suggest in Intro to Alien Invasion, a B-movie-style body-snatch graphic tale in which average American college students rank alongside extraterrestrial invaders in their ability to ruin a sane person's day. In real life Poirier is himself a professor – he holds a creative writing fellowship at Harvard – and if this book is any indication, he's not having too great a time at it. At his and King's fictional Fenton College, the students are almost universally juvenile (Jello-filled balloon bombs? Really, kids?), entitled, and immune to the instruction their parents are paying for. They're actually easier to deal with once intergalactic parasites have transformed them into 10-foot-long monster bugs.
The near-lone exception is the shy and nerdy heroine, Stacey Kepler, whose basic niceness nets her nothing but harassment at the hands of her fellow students. She's sneered at by the hot girls, subjected to sexist (and, worse, just plain unfunny) jokes by fraternity types, targeted by a Jello bomb and overlooked by the roommate she has a crush on. In another story she might have found some measure of comfort from bonding intellectually with compassionate instructors. Here, though, the one fleshed-out professor is even more evil than the students (King and Poirier's dark vision is total). When that teacher's research goes awry, it's up to ace-science-student Stacey to fight the resulting alien beetle invasion.
Unfortunately, while the authors do endow a few characters with enough basic decency to help Stacey save the world, these supporting cast members are paper thin. It's as if King and Poirier actually can't imagine what a less-than-horrible college kid is like. The cast, good kids and bad, are infinitely more interesting once they've undergone alien transformation. First, the affected person swells into a blob that pops with a satisfying "Splorsh!" Then they manifest as a huge multi-legged beetle that retains some of the features of the original student. A girl-bug keeps her ponytail, and a guy who had "penis" Sharpie'd onto his forehead in a fraternity prank still has the word scrawled on his bug face.
The best part is the big beetles' tendency to scream broken versions of the original students' most irritating dialogue. Early on, two popular girls rail at a professor who insists on carrying class on to its scheduled conclusion, even though it's the day before Spring Break. "We're going to miss our flight to Aruba!" cries one, who will be Splorshed a few pages later. The other expresses a sentiment that, in one variation or another, has driven countless real-world professors to contemplate homicide: that students should be catered to like customers. "I pay full retail at this college!" she bawls. Reborn as a bug, she spends the rest of her short life – before Stacey clips off her legs with pruning shears – screaming, "Full retail! Full retail!"
Such over-the-top moments, to say nothing of the free-flowing goo, more than make up for the book's deficiencies in character development. The briskly paced story and simple but expressive art (courtesy of Nancy Ahn) combine for a rollicking read. As for the bleakness of this book's vision of college life, it can be taken as a warning. If you don't want the giant bugs to eat you up, buckle down. And please, no more Jello bombs.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.