Nowhere Men had topped my list of best graphic novels last year and author Stephenson’s newest, They’re Not Like Us, is equally engrossing. Where Nowhere men took an interesting and grounded look at superheroes, They’re Not Like Us does with the X-men generation. The characters intrigue and the tale never goes where one would expect.
Story: A young girl stands on top of a high rise hospital roof – ready to throw herself off if only to end the constant noise in her head. When an odd man appears in front of her, she jumps. Waking later, injured, he takes her out of the hospital to join a group of misfits all with odd powers like she has (she’s telepathic). But they are no heroes – they take what they want and blame society for making them who they are. The girl, codenamed Syd, will have to make some very hard decisions about what she wants and what they represent – because the first order after joining them is to kill her parents.
The entire crew that Syd meets up with at the house are nuanced and interesting, with fully realized backgrounds and history. Stephenson makes smart choices in the writing, giving just enough information to intrigue but never so much that we are bored. Because answers are given at such a smart rate, we race to find out the truths just as Syd does. The dialogue builds the world but also feels very authentic.
A hallmark of Stephenson’s writing is a grounded realism. With characters who are so different (psychokinetic, telekinetic, etc.), none are likely to have lived normal lives. But it’s still a thoughtful moment when one of them observes, “If our abilities were a handicap instead of a gift, we would have been doted on, cared for. Instead, we were feared and reviled — treated like burdens and freaks and made to feel inadequate.” That seems to be the heart of the novel – how some overcome their upbringing and others did not. Syd is the moral compass they’ve been missing and a catalyst for change for several.
The art is well done and the characters are expressive and complement the storytelling well. There’s always a little something subversive in Stephenson’s work and artists Gane and Bellaire capture it well – from the odd Dali-meets-Picasso artwork on the walls of the house to the characters themselves: Maisie’s quiet fatalism, BlurGirl’s sweetness covering despair, Moon’s ambivalence, to The Voice’s inscrutability. With main character Syd, we’re given a quirky and cute pixie who packs quite a punch in her emotional scenes.
Collecting 6 comics, this ended abruptly and left me wanting more. Once I had started reading I didn’t want to stop, it was that good a ride. And while perhaps not the tour de force that was Nowhere Men, this is still an extremely well written and nicely illustrated graphic novel well worth a read. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.