Inhuman Horror (Aliens: Dead Orbit)

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At their heart, all Aliens stories are And Then There Were None. You slowly watch people in a confined setting get picked off one by one, until none are left standing. The Xenomorph is the masked murderer or the hand of God slowly picking them off. Just like in a slasher movie, the intrigue isn’t who kills who but when the victims will die, and if any will survive.

When you write a new Alien story, there’s a couple ways to do it plot-wise. You can drop the Xenomorph into a new interesting setting or cast (Aliens, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, Alien: Covenant, Alien vs. Predator, Alien comics crossovers) or you can simply dress up the basic Alien story (Alien: The Illustrated Story, Alien: Isolation, Aliens: Salvation, Aliens: Dead Orbit).

The first category relies on plot and character: What if the Xenomorph fought Marines? Monks? Predator? Batman? It aims for new, fleshed-out characters and settings, or wacky ideas and scenarios to drop the Xenomorph in. In contrast, the second takes the barebones of Alien (blue-collar crew, crappy spaceship, Xenomorph) and does it in a sexy stylish way: What if Alien was drawn by Walt Simonson? Mike Mignola? James Stokoe? What if Alien was an immersive first-person experience? Both lean heavily into exploitation and ultraviolence but the former starts with a new premise while the latter aims for purely aesthetic violence.

The first category almost exclusively becomes schlock, taking the alien as a pulp character that can be dropped into anything. These stories lean into action more than horror. They usually have some promise that the Xenomorph can be defeated, whether it’s by calling Ripley, Batman, or Predator to fight against them. This creates a light B-movie feel for this group. You know going into Alien vs. Predator or Batman/Aliens that it’s not going to be a literary classic. But it’s usually fun corny exploitation material.

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The second category has the possibility for greatness, with some damn impressive experiences in multiple mediums. It’s about the wonder of storytelling, with the Alien as a vehicle for some awesome horrific shit. This is nihilistic ultraviolence, with a side sprinkling of science fiction for good measure. When I heard James Stokoe was doing an Aliens book, I knew it’d fall squarely in the second category and it does.

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This is one of my favorite books coming out right now, and I couldn’t tell you the name of a single character. There are no real characters and there is no real plot. Sure, there is a sequential story and an original cast of characters, but they’re mostly cardboard cutouts waiting to be killed (and that doesn’t matter). It helps that there’s barely any dialogue. The story can be easily understood through just the art, assuming the most basic knowledge of Aliens. The key function of the words is forcing the reader to slow down and appreciate the art. Oh, also some absolutely horrifying and hilarious sound effects here and there.

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This page shows Stokoe’s masterful use of page layouts, and sound effects/text for pacing. Even the minimal, repetitive text of “TH-THMP” forces the reader to stop at every panel, even for the smallest fraction of time. A key part of the layouts here are the speed lines in every panel. The top panel’s speed lines move sharply to the right, forcing you through the sound effect and on to the middle of the page. The presence of multiple panels in the middle slows the reader down, but their parallel design and vertical speed lines make them quick reading.

TH-THMP. TH-THMP. TH-THMP. Each panel corresponds perfectly to a single beat in time. This steady fast pace amps up the tension and then the book explodes open, moving then from the bottom silent horizontal panel into the large spread. That panel and the spread following it are both silent (lacking text) but the speed lines make up for it. There is no dialogue or sound effects, but the speed lines work like an effective film score. Both the bottom panel and the spread following feel loud because of the massive speed lines, and it’s easy to imagine an orchestral piece slowly ratcheting up and then dropping a loud sudden crescendo. If this were a horror movie, Stokoe’s speed lines are the score adding tension in action scenes, and this is where the killer’s theme comes out. This is the theme song for Jaws done in comic book form.

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Another huge part of the atmospheric horror of Aliens: Dead Orbit is Stokoe’s ship designs. His ships evoke the look of the Xenomorph with their over detailed cramped designs. The ships feel like they have scales or spine of a Xenomorph. Various repetitive pieces constantly loop inward to create oppressive and overwhelming scenery. The coloring and shadows give them the typical grimy feeling of tech in the Aliens franchise.

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The characters feel trapped within the ships and technology around them. They have unique recognizable faces, but beyond that they’re constantly seen in spacesuits and tight corridors. Only the smallest amount of human skin is ever shown, with usually a couple pairs of hands and maybe an arm or two visible on each page. Stokoe’s anatomy isn’t exaggerated or stylized, but human bodies only exist here for gore and spectacle. In contrast, when Stokoe draws disgusting skinless human bodies, he takes his time drawing every vein and muscle. The characters are either one with the machinery around them or simply meat for their prey. There is no in between, no room for individualization. They only have clear faces so the reader can follow them for basic story purposes, and to give great terrified expressions. The characters’ visuals perfectly match their narrative functions. They set the mood just as much as the ship or the Xenomorph in their inhuman flatness.

This is ultimately nothing more than an exercise in art style for James Stokoe, using the Aliens franchise to do so. But I love James Stokoe’s art and the Alien franchise so this is a personal match made in heaven. It’s beautifully gory in all the best ways possible. The Xenomorph’s perfect visual and narrative design easily attracts great creators, whether it’s James Stokoe and Mike Mignola, or James Cameron and David Fincher.

I’ve decided on alternating between writing about new current comics and older material for the time being. I’m using random.org to randomly select a year from 1935 to 2016 and then I’ll find a comic from that year. I’ve read very few pre-1960 comics and this should take me out of my personal soft spot (1980s comics) to provide for interesting subjects.

2008

My first spin at the WABAC machine gave me the recent past of 2008, a year of Bendis, Millar, Morrison Batman, early Walking Dead, a financial crisis and Obama. I’ll be back soon with a book from 2008. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter, like Gutter-Space on Facebook, and keep reading.

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