Written by Mark Verheiden
Illustrated by Mark A. Nelson
Lettered by Willie Schubert
Review by Billy Seguire
In July of 1986, James Cameron released Aliens, the long awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s original masterpiece that forever changed our understanding of science-fiction, tension, and otherworldly horror on a cinematic scale. Its release came at a time when studios were finally understanding the marketing power of movies as franchise and the term expanded universe was starting to be embraced more and more by creators as well as fans, hungry like ravenous wolves for more content from the mythologies that they loved. For a newly founded comics company like Dark Horse, the timing couldn’t have been more right. Their attitude and sense of purpose at the time was a perfect fit for the Alien universe, and in 1988, Dark Horse published Aliens: The Original Comic Series, a comic that continued the legacy of Aliens in the characters of Newt and Hicks, and carried the franchise forward with a story unconstrained by marketability, budget, or canon. Reprinted this year in a gorgeous hardcover edition for the 30th anniversary of the film, the comic stands as an imperfect relic from a bygone time. It may not be what modern fans of the film version of Aliens would have asked for, but it’s a work absolutely true to the spirit of its time and medium, definitively worth a read for any die hard Aliens connoisseur.
Black and white, intricately drawn, and heavy with atmospheric shadows, the first impression garnered from Aliens: The Original Comic Series shows what is instantly indicative of the way ‘adult’ comics were being drawn in the late eighties. Each page holds the vibe of the underground, a subversive spirit that feels somehow both dangerous and forbidden. Although it’s not at all something you’d expect to see in a mainstream media tie in, the style works perfectly within Aliens’ otherworldly action-horror aesthetic. The Xenomorphs are lovingly rendered in all their organically terrifying detail, and you cannot help but be overwhelmed by full-page spreads of the Alien Queen. Considering the resources Mark A. Nelson had to work with at the time included a VHS that wouldn’t pause and a borrowed Kenner Alien figure, the level of commitment to capturing the spirit of these creatures is staggering. Some of the art is a bit dated now. There’s clearly more focus on rendering technology and monsters than the human characters, but you can’t deny it’s the perfect fit for a franchise built on the drawings of H.R. Giger.
Limited to only Newt and Hicks from the original movie, author Mark Verheiden had to take some creative liberties with the source material in creating an Alien franchise story that didn’t involve Ellen Ripley. While Newt and Hicks were decidedly key players in Aliens, Newt was arguably used best as a service to Ripley’s arc, and Hicks, while much loved for being portrayed by Michael Biehn, really just isn’t that interesting as a character. As leads, their characters had to be wholly reinvented, which means some inconsistencies with the film and leaps of faith you may not totally go along with if the dystopian nature of the comic conflicts with your vision of Alien’s future. For much of the story, however, we’re seeing the progression of events from the point of view of the villains, representatives of The Company or their competitors. To this end, it’s a story where the moral compass has been skewed. Many of the characters would qualify themselves as sociopaths. On par for 80s comics that vied to be edgy and graphic, there’s unfathomable violence perpetrated not only by the Xenomorphs but the human villains themselves. In Alien, most of this applies, but the characterization of Massey is the most disturbing. Massey has the visual appeal and 90s factor of Eric Robert’s Master, and behaves like an absolute monster throughout the book.
Thematically, this book again removes us from the spirit of the films and adds a new component that works just as well for the goals it’s trying to accomplish. Where the movies implied themes of motherhood and sexuality, the comic takes these ideas to their logical conclusions, while adding their own spin and incorporating an ongoing infatuation with religion. A note about television becoming 90% evangelical after the introduction of cable feels completely off in a Netflix age. The story takes an almost academic approach to this exposition, clinically cold and removed. Yet there is nothing scarier than watching the development of a cult that worships the alien as a God, offering themselves for the “rebirth” of the chestburster to be the ultimate spiritual experience. Likewise, the late-series appearance of the Space Jockey, in his original elephantine incarnation, comes almost as a messiah-like presence. It’s actually interesting how much this lines up with AIien 3, and the way Paul McGann’s character would look upon the Alien with reverence, but it somehow feels out of place here. An unnecessary thematic intrusion onto the source material.
For fans of the entire Alien franchise as it stands today, you’ll obviously notice a slight discrepancy between the continuity of the films and Aliens: The Original Comic Series as described so far. That Space Jockey is definitely not an Engineer underneath his suit, for example, and protagonists Newt and Hicks are both unquestionably alive despite dying in the opening credits of Alien 3. For purists, I advise this book as a historical document of the mythology as it stood in 1988. As a cinematic sequel, it could never be adapted, but many of its story beats are on par with the movies we know and love. From the overbearing presence of the company, to a brilliant twist involving the revelation as to which characters are indeed synthetic (as revealed only when they’re torn in half by a rampaging Alien Queen, of course), it’s squarely in line with the two cinematic stories that had been told in the Alien universe so far. Though you may not recognize it right away.
Apart from the art itself, the writing within this book is also unfortunately a victim of its age. It’s tough to be critical of a book released in the late 80s, especially when author Mark Verheiden went on to do brilliant work on television series such as Battlestar Galactica and Netflix’s Daredevil. Yet this early work struggles to flow for me, and veers off at times to places far removed from the Alien franchise. At times, I found myself unsure of whose perspective I was reading, lost as to whether sequences were taking place in reality or a character’s waking dream. The visual language I’m familiar with for these concepts has changed considerably in the nearly 30 years since the book originally came out, and the black and white format, while appropriate to the story’s grim tone, restricts my understanding of the visuals in some areas.
I do appreciate the purity that this 30th Anniversary Edition retains in keeping as much as possible from the original release. The original names for Newt and Hicks, for instance, remain here, whereas in previous re-releases Dark Horse had insisted on renaming them Billie and Wilks so as to not upset continuity. But that’s an unnecessary revision of history, and removes much of the charm of reading a book like this in the first place. I found myself greatly affected by the fact that this book was directly contradicting everything that had come after Aliens both in-universe and out. A references to how the World Trade Centre smoked in ‘24 was particularly shocking, but how were they to know? Alien: The Original Comic Series is first and foremost a product of its time.
Check It Out. The ideas presented in this comic are shockingly dark, and without the inclusion of Ripley, one might feel that the general atmosphere of Aliens: The Original Comic Series is off by several degrees. For some, the art style, storytelling, and black and white nature of the book are going to make it feel dated. Yet I can understand how this book became a classic and best-seller at a time when Dark Horse was only a young company moving forward from the story of what was then the last film in a dead franchise. If nothing else, it provides a fascinating look at what directions were considered for how the stories of Newt, Hicks, and Earth could have gone if the movies going forward had decided to continue in that direction.
No continuity truly delivers on the ending of Aliens, just as Aliens (in my opinion) didn’t truly deliver on the ending of Alien all those years ago. It was a happy ending, and you just can’t continue the stories of characters on a happy path and tell an Alien story at the same time. Realistically, the premise alone was too grand to become anything other than a comic, but perfect as a perfect reminder of what the expanded universe looked like before Alien 3 clawed its way out of development hell.