By Jeff Parker and Sandy Jarrell
Oni Press; 128 pgs.

Why are most of the pop-culture aliens of the last few years so boring?

Even in generally fun moviesThe Avengers, Pacific Rim, Attack the Blockthe aliens are almost completely defined by one characteristic: They attack. Extraterrestrials with complexity, who challenge our humanity in ways other than violence, are rare. But they exist, from the unapproachable, radioactive aliens in Peter Watts’ marvelously eerie Blindsight to the multi-sexed, tentacled invaders in Octavia Butler’s Dawn.

That’s why Meteor Men, a new graphic novel written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Triangle fixture Sandy Jarrell, is such a treat. Appropriate for young teens but intelligent enough for adults, it’s a rich alien invasion story where clean, expressive artwork and emotionally resonant characters sweep the reader toward a satisfying climax.

After working at Nice Price Books in Raleigh for 19 years, Jarrell recently quit to focus on drawing comics. Parker is a former Raleigh resident, now living in Portland, Oregon, who has written for Marvel, DC and other big comics publishers. The two have known each other for decades, and worked together on the Batman ’66 anthology, based on the classic TV show.

Oni Press released Meteor Men online in August and in a softcover collection in October. It garnered positive reviews from Wired, Entertainment Weekly and comics blogs such as Newsarama and Comics Alliance. The odd, heartfelt story starts gently, with teens and adults waiting to watch a meteor shower. They’re on land owned by Alden, a high-school kid whose parents have died in an accident. The dialogue is realistic as the teens watch a meteorite crash and work to put out the fire it causes.

Alden soon has to deal with scientific, government and military officials who have their own plans for the meteorite on his land, which is not the only thing that has arrived on Earth. As events become more frightening and global in scope, the emotion of Alden’s story becomes even more central. There are also a couple of resonant reveals that neatly twist the standard first-contact narrative. The explanation of why the aliens share our bipedal, symmetrical body plan, for instance, is both horrifying and wonderful.

Meteor Men is filled with perfect little character bits. Parker plays with our sympathies, and he’s not afraid to interrupt rapidly building action for quiet emotional scenes that remind you of the humanity at stake. In one, government officials eavesdrop on Alden talking about his first encounter with the alien on his land. “I gave it the rest of my barbecue sandwich,” Alden casually tells a pal. “It eats pork,” is the quick, grim response from the official listener. It’s a chilling moment that captures Alden’s naiveté and the officials’ aggressively defensive mindset, and it happens so quickly you could miss it. Meteor Men is full of those passing moments, which makes it even better on a second, slower reading.

Much of the power comes from Jarrell’s art, especially the evocative facial expressions and posture of the humans and the aliens. The panel layouts are mostly conservative, but the constantly shifting perspective adds excitement. It’s easy to imagine the trailer for a film.

The INDY recently spoke with Jarrell about creating Meteor Men, breaking into the industry and trying to earn a living on “funny books.” Jarrell will sign copies of the book at the Charlotte Mini-Con on Saturday, Jan. 31.

INDY: How did you and Jeff Parker come together on this book?

SANDY JARRELL: I’ve known Jeff a long time; we went to school together at [East Carolina University] and I knew him when he was living in Raleigh. I’d been drawing and sending samples to a bunch of comics companies in the late ’90s, getting feedback, getting ignored and getting rejection letters. But I was improving. I drew a 140-page story for a small company that, unfortunately, hasn’t done anything with it, but Jeff saw it and liked it. Oni Press had been bugging him for a while to do something for them, and he had the general idea for Meteor Men, so it worked out.

You released Meteor Men digitally, in five $2 chapters, before the graphic novel. How did that work out?

The publicist at Oni says it definitely worked to build buzz. I know that when Batman ’66 was released digitally, it was the bestselling digital comic on Earth, in the top 10 in every country except China. Our print run on Meteor Men was 3,000 to 3,500, and five days before release, we were already through about half of it. There may be a second printing. I think it’s fine that you don’t have to go to a funny-book shop to get Meteor Men. A lot of people don’t want to go to a funny-book shop.

How was working with Oni?

They were great. Initially, they were skittish about the ending, and asked us to change it. We kind of said we’d think about it, and then just didn’t address it and kept it the way we wanted to tell it. They loved it.

What are you doing next?

I’m drawing four issues of Jungle Jim for Dynamite Comics that will be out in January. He’s an old character by Alex Raymonda pith helmet-wearing jungle adventurer. It’s a lot of fun; he’s frequently naked and changes into animals. Dynamite is putting out a bunch of new four-issue miniseries with old King Syndicate charactersFlash Gordon, The Phantom, Prince Valiant, Mandrake the Magician and Jungle Jim.

Jeff and I are also doing another Batman ’66 comic, but it’s too early to talk about it. I wish I could tell you how rad the story is.

You’re doing both creator-owned comics and work for hire. What’s that like?

I love that Meteor Men is 100 percent creator-owned. We own the property completely. But I like doing work for hire, too. I mean, come onon Batman ’66, I get to draw Adam West. I’ve been obsessed with that show since I was three.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Deep Impact”