I think of all the movies I’m looking forward to this summer, Prometheus is at the top of the list. I know that being a huge comic book reader I would probably be more excited about The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, but when I heard that Ridley Scott was making a movie that had ties somehow to Alien, something in my nerd past reawakened and I remembered (suddenly? I mean it’s not like I ever really forgot) that when I was about 11 years old, the world he created in Alien was the center of my universe.
Okay, to be fair, the reason for that was more due to James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, because up until the time I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I had only ever seen anything to do with Alien in the movie book–The Book of Alien–that someone on my bus had been passing around when I was in the second grade. Furthermore, what I had seen was a picture of the movie’s infamous “chestburster scene” (although at the time we called it “when that thing came out of the guy’s stomach”) and it scared the crap out of me.
I refused to watch Alien until I finally sat down and watched it during the summer before sixth grade–this was either the day before or the day of the incident where my father, who was wallpapering the living room–stepped on a razor blade and wound up with a few stitches in his foot. I don’t think I thought very much of the movie when I first saw it because it wasn’t as cool as Aliens, which I had already been watching on constant replay for the better part of a year.
Can you really blame me, after all? I was eleven or twelve and it was the middle of the “action Eighties” where I was into any movie that had large guns that shot lots of people, it quickly became my favorite movie. My friends and I would “play” Aliens (I was often Hudson to my friend Tom’s Hicks, although I think one time I actually played Ripley which I’m sure that some psychologist would have jumped on … but I have a feeling I just wanted to be one of the leads) when we wanted something slightly different than the “army” games we were used to playing after being kicked out of the house for watching Aliens way too many times.
But with anything from my childhood, my interest faded after a little while and I paid less attention to Ripley, Hicks, Hudson, Newt, and the other characters and more attention to things like baseball and the WWF. I would gravitate back toward Alien when I was in junior high after watching the original theatrical trailer while waiting on line to ride The Great Movie Ride at what was then called Disney’s MGM Studios in Disney World. I knew I had seen the movie before, but trailers were hard to come by in 1990–you either had to have it as part of a commercial break on something you taped off of television or on another video tape that came out at that time, and considering that Alien was released in 1979 and then released on VHS for the first time by CBS FOX video in the early 1980s, that wasn’t likely to happen in my house. The trailer blew me away and left so much of an impression that I remember trying to duplicate it as part of a computer animation project in my advanced computer graphics class in the ninth grade (I think it was a bunch of stills with quick cuts that wound up with no sound and a title in a really bad font … then again, it was 1991).
Anyway, at some point around June 13, 1989, I took a random trip to the comic store, which I hadn’t been to since I stopped buying G.I. Joe and The Transformers nearly a year earlier; however, this was the summer of Batman, so everyone was making at least one trip to the store. Sitting in the “Picks of the Week” part of the new releases were two comics that caught my eye–Batman #436, which was the first part of the “Year 3” storyline and Aliens #5. I had a couple of bucks in my pocket and while Batman was the cheaper comic–clocking in at 75 cents while Aliens was $1.95–something in me really wanted that Aliens comic. I gave Bob my money and then took it home and read it. After I got over the fact that the art was in black and white despite a really cool color cover), I thought the story was cool even though I personally didn’t get what was going on (obviously–this was issue #5 of 6 and I hadn’t any of the others), but I did think it was cool that: a) Aliens was in a comic book, and b) people were cursing in a comic book.
Yeah, that sounds silly, but when I was 12 years old, comics were still the random issues of G.I. Joe that I was still holding onto. I filed it away and didn’t think much of it until I got into seriously collecting comics in 1990 and picked up Aliens: Earth War, and found a copy of the first series’ trade paperback at Words Worth books in the Sun Vet Mall. With the exception of one random issue of the second Aliens series (“book two”), I wouldn’t have the whole story until recently, courtesy of eBay.
Dark Horse’s Aliens comics open with three words that set up what is ultimately a really solid follow-up to the Cameron film: Ten Years Later. When the first series, written by Mark Verheiden (in fact, he’d write all three of the initial series) and drawn by Mark A. Nelson, opens, Newt is now a teenager and an inmate at a mental hospital while Hicks, scarred from the acid blood attack at the end of the movie, is a more or less unemployable drunk. Their lives intersect again when the Wayland-Yutani Corporation (known at this point only as “The Company”) has been studying the alien any way it can, finally capturing a queen to raise and study, and also locating the homeworld. There is also an apocalyptic cult that worships the alien and is determined to commune with it somehow.
Since he has experience dealing with these creatures, Hicks is recruited to go on a mission to the homeworld and he gets Newt out of the hospital and stows her away on the ship. And of course, as with any mission in the world of Aliens, there are people involved with nefarious intentions and not is all as it seems. Newt falls for one of the Colonial Marines, only to find out that he’s actually an android–in fact, they all are–when the soldiers attack a hive on the planet and are ripped apart. To the company, the mission is a failure–they didn’t necessarily know that the marines were all synthetic and were secretly hoping to use them as hosts for more alien specimens–but for Newt and Hicks, it’s a Pyrrhic victory as they do manage to detonate a hive on the homeworld, but at a cost greater than they think.
You see, as they were off fighting on the aliens’ homeworld, the aforementioned apocalyptic cult breaks into the company’s research facility and carries out their plan to “become one” with their god by allowing themselves to be implanted with the queen’s offspring. This leads to the alien menace spreading all over the planet. Hicks and Newt see the communiques from their ship and head back toward Earth with another ship along for the ride–one piloted by a member of the elephantine “space jockey” race (another of whom was the pilot of the ship discovered on LV-426 in Alien and might have some sort of connection to Prometheus), whose intentions aren’t exactly clear.
The story picks up with a second miniseries–Dark Horse had intended to not publish and Aliens ongoing but make the story several miniseries, something they would also do with the Star Wars comics they began publishing a couple of years later–written by Verheiden but with painted art this time by Denis Beauvais. It’s a plot on a smaller scale but one that moves the overall story forward, as with Earth being quickly overrun by the aliens, the leftovers from the first series fight aliens on a ship and the gateway station above Earth, and a crazed general actually “raises” and “trains” a team of aliens he thinks will wind up being the perfect soldiers–that is, until he actually tries to order them around on Earth and gets killed pretty quickly. It’s a plotline that’s almost Dr. Strangelove-esque in its portrayal of the gung-ho solider, and it accompanies one of the subplots that will also run through the third Aliens series–Aliens: Earth War–very nicely. That subplot is a series of “I hope someone is watching these” transmissions sent from a group of survivors, including a young girl named Amy, whom Newt quickly identifies with. That particular plot is very zombie movie-esque, the type of story that adapts very well to a sci-fi piece/horror piece like Aliens.
“Book Two,” as the trade paperback calls the second series, ends with the reappearance of a character that readers had been clamoring for–Ripley–and we pick up immediately with her story in Aliens: Earth War #1, which was drawn by Sam Kieth. This is Verheiden’s final Aliens series and the overall end to the story that began with Newt, although there would be plenty more Aliens comics, including several series where the Aliens fought the beings from the movie Predator. Although she’s happy to see Ripley again, she’s also apparently pissed off because Ripley promised never to leave her and when Newt woke up from hypersleep after the events of Aliens, Ripley was gone and she was eventually committed. Ripley spends the first issue explaining that she was reawaked prematurely, sent back to LV-426 with another group of marines that were quickly taken out and when she did another thing that pissed off the company, she and her surviving marine comrades had to go into hiding.
Then comes the master plan: they head back to the homeworld to find the “queen mother” of all aliens, capture her, and bring her to Earth where they think she will call of “her children” to her and they can then nuke everything. The first part goes well enough, but the rest, not so much, especially when Newt–who is still obsessed with the transmissions received from Amy and the survivors–goes to the surface to rescue the little girl. They get them all out and … well, it doesn’t really work out exactly as they planned because they were being used by the “space jockey,” who has led them to make Earth into a wasteland and terraforms it to his liking. But the group itself is together and heads off into space, their futures uncertain but hopefully without the alien presence.
Personally, I really enjoy these three comics series, especially the characterization that Verheiden gave to both Newt and Hicks. The fact that both of them would be physically and mentally scarred by their ordeal was almost naturally given and without Ripley being the “glue” to hold them together, I can see how they would have both spiraled downward in the years between the movie and the first series. Newt is portrayed in a way that is sympathetic, yet she is no doormat and is as tough as she was in the movie. The corporation and its nefarious motivations–studying the alien in order to use it as a bioweapon against an “enemy” that is never clearly defined (which is a great touch because very often we do wonder why the military develops all of those weapons during times we’re not at war)–are also incredibly believable, as is the whole “apocalyptic cult” thing. It’s not too heavy handed, although there are times that the “We did this to ourselves” message gets a little played.
If there’s any beef I have with the stories, it’s with the third one, especially the characterization of Ripley. In the two movies, Sigourney Weaver portrayed Ripley as a tough woman but one who did have a heart and was definitely flawed. In Earth War, she’s written as someone who is more hardened–which is totally believable because it has been ten years since Aliens–but also seems to have the answers to everything. She’s like a superhero, albeit one who can’t save everyone at the end … which I guess is the point, but the plot of Earth War seems a little bit rushed, and Sam Kieth’s art, while good at portraying monsters, just doesn’t fit that well with what was established by the two earlier artists.
For its horror and action I felt that these three series were a great conclusion to the stories of the characters in Aliens. Unfortunately, Twentieth Century Fox didn’t seem to feel that way because … well, we got Alien 3.
Now, that’s a movie I was actually psyched to see when I first saw it advertised because I went to the movies and saw this trailer:
And I was like, “Alien 3 … ON EARTH?! AWESOME!”
Then … we got Alien 3.
I’m not going to go too much into how mediocre that film was–it’s a cluster of a movie whose finished product was mediocre at best compared to the first two films (and one that I’m sure first-time director David Fincher would like to forget), but I will say that it threw a huge monkey wrench into Dark Horse’s Aliens continuity. I’m not sure if this was something Dark Horse decided to do or Twentieth Century Fox made them do (after all, the Star Wars comics tie-in was heavily guarded by Lucasfilm during its time at Marvel), but in subsequent trade paperback reprints, the three series, now called Outbreak, Nightmare Asylum, and Female War feature characters named Billie and Wilks and the “Ripley” in the series is a replicant of sorts. This is why, when I decided I wanted to read the entire Aliens trilogy, I had to track down the original printings of the trades for Book Two and Earth War (I’d sold my Earth War copies on eBay years ago). Thankfully, they were relatively cheap to find and I can ignore the “official” version for a much better conclusion to the story of the movie I loved so much when I was eleven.