Born out of an interest in sharing sci-fi, action-adventure stories with his children, Matt Mair Lowery set about writing Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact. He was joined by artist Cassie Anderson, who was able to capture the smaller moments of an alien invasion, infusing plenty of emotion into the graphic novel.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Matt and Cassie at New York Comic Con this year to talk about the book, the research that went into Lifeformed, the father-daughter relationship that is explored, those precious small moments, and of course, snacks!
Check out the full interview below.
Can you give me the elevator pitch for Lifeformed: Cleo Makes Contact and how the book came about?
Matt Mair Lowery: The pitch is basically that Cleo is an 11 year old girl who loses her dad in an alien invasion and a shape-shifting alien takes his place. They team up and fight their way through the alien apocalypse together. It’s a sci-fi, action-adventure story with a little bit of a coming of age story and father-daughter interactions.
MML: It came about because I’ve got a couple young daughters and I was interested in finding new stuff to read with them. Lifeformed grew out of not seeing stuff in that genre that I could share with them. That’s the genesis of it.
What was the collaboration process like in putting together Lifeformed?
Cassie Anderson: It was really good. Matt is a great writer and he gives me lots of opportunity to explore the story and the characters and to contribute.
MML: Cassie’s very good at conveying emotion; that was a lot of what I wanted the book to be about. I wanted it to be about the small moments. While there’s action in it, it’s mostly about the small moments.
MML: So her ability to do both and really dig into the emotions served the book really well. As we went on, it became apparent how little I needed to give her in order to let her find the right thing to show. I mostly stay out of her way once the general direction is established.
Were there any particular small moments that you liked writing and portraying?
CA: Towards the end, there’s a scene with Cleo and the alien posing as her dad. She realizes what he means to her and how he’s helped her become a stronger person. I really liked drawing that scene and playing with the emotions and the lighting a little bit. That was probably my favorite small moment. There were a lot of good ones though.
MML: Cleo’s obsessed with snacks and I’m obsessed with snacks and that’s translated down to my children being obsessed with snacks. So I think the moments where they’re sharing, with Cleo teaching him about cheese curls or s’mores, that sort of stuff was fun to write. It felt like it got to the heart of what I wanted to get to and would be concerned about in an invasion, you know? Finding my next bag of Cheetos before the Cheetos are gone.
MML: Yes, priorities!
What was the research process like?
MML: I did a lot of watching my kids obviously and they’re sort of in there. It was pretty light on my end. I wanted to make sure we were in as many real locations as possible. It takes place in Seattle and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t generic, so I would try to find a real location for each scene to take place in and give that to Cassie as a jumping off point.
CA: It was so helpful being able to be like, ‘Alright, let me go to Google Maps and Street View!’ and then adding details to make it not straight-up, ‘Oh, look! That’s my street I live on.’ and making it more its own thing too.
MML: There’s a scene on the ferry in Seattle and I knew exactly where I wanted them to look down on the ferry. I don’t know, the Google stuff is amazing. You just say, ‘I want to be right here!’ and you look and that’s perfect. So I would say it was mostly visual research.
CA: And for the aliens and spaceships and stuff, I looked at deep sea creatures. I let that inform their spaceships and how parts of their technology glow. We talked about it and wanted to have the aliens be more organic than mechanical.
MML: How to fire a claymore mine. That was a big piece.
CA: I had some weird ads pop up on the side of my browser because it was like, ‘What have you been researching and looking up?’
MML: That and Molotov cocktails. What’s it really look like?
CA: So many Molotov cocktail videos!
Besides snacks and claymores, did you pick up any other survival tips in your research?
MML: There’s a guy on Youtube who just fires every weapon imaginable. I’m not a weapons person, but it was fascinating to watch him do that. I don’t know of any survival tips. It was mostly that I imagine you would want to stay as quiet and under the radar as possible to not attract alien attention. But sometimes you’ve just got to cook s’mores so you have to deal with what happens.
Can you talk about the father-daughter relationship more? Both before and after what happens to her father.
MML: Before the bad thing happens to Cleo’s dad, I wanted it to be as realistic as possible, but also a little bit idealized, in order to make you really feel the loss. When we pick up with Cleo at the beginning of the story, she’s had a bad day. So the dad is trying to pull her out of the bad day with horrible dad jokes and dance parties and that kind of stuff. I wanted to show that he was always trying to pull her out of that.
MML: And after he’s gone, and she’s trying to show the alien how to be him, or her idea of her dad. We get to see her perspective of what her dad was after out of her, what he didn’t ask of her, and how she views herself – what she really needed to do to grow up, versus what he thought she needed to do to grow up.
MML: So, trying to shift that perspective and not lose the fact that it would be weird to suddenly have this alien guy pretending to be your dad. It’s not all good, it’s not all easy. Hopefully that’s something we’ll be able to continue to explore. Their relationship and how their relationship evolves.
Can you talk about how you handled the level of violence in the book?
CA: I’m not really interested in drawing gore. We knew that there had to be a certain level of violence in it because we knew she was going to be fighting back against these aliens. We knew there was going to be explosions and there would be some stabbing happening. So from my perspective, I wanted to make sure it was something that wouldn’t get too graphic or too violent and still be accessible for different age groups. It wouldn’t be, ‘Don’t read that!’ I kept it pretty mild on the art side. At least I think I did. I hope I achieved that.
MML: Supporting that, the violence had to have impact. I think we saved the use of that for the times when it needed to have emotional impact. Hopefully that’s what we did so readers can really feel it. We weren’t shying away from it and what she went through, especially the initial dad incident. We hope that you really felt it as much as possible without getting overly gross.
MML: I also feel like with Cassie’s style it makes it more emotionally impactful to suddenly see that stuff happen, in a good way. It feels like it really pulls you in. So hopefully, we saved it for the right parts and kept it in the 10 – 12 year old and up YA type of reader.
CA: We try not to gloss over it too and look at Cleo’s reaction to it because this is the thing she’s witnessing. The things she’s done are not something a kid should experience and it should be traumatic. So we tried to capture that too.