Alien: The Illustrated Story by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson – Comic Review [Bellarius]


Opting to take another look at comic adaptations, Bellarius sees what the combined team of Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson can do when they are given Alien.

“Maintaining the suspense, terror and visual brilliance of the film, Alien: The Illustrated Story proves to be an adaptation worth any fan’s time.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields

Not long ago we looked at Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, exploring the problems of adapting other media into comicbook narrative. While what is present there stands as a major example of issues to avoid, it only seems right to offer a counterpoint with an adaptation which works. One of a classic no less.

Recently re-released by Titan Books, Alien: The Illustrated Story is quite simply that, an illustrated retelling of Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror classic. It keeps the same story, focusing upon a human cargo shipping crew brought out of suspended animation upon hearing an alien distress signal from the planet below and the horror they find there. Furthermore many visual cues and the dialogue from the film’s script, yet manages to at the same time distance itself enough to justify its existence.

What elevates the story however, is the fact the creators realise it was an adaptation and were willing to take liberties. The right kind of liberties, such as refusing to directly re-create shots from the film or sequences which would only work on a moving image. The foremost example of this is the opening sequence with the silent USCSS Nostromo coming to live with machines detecting the distress signal. Whereas the film spends several minutes showing the utterly abandoned interior of the ship, here it is established in only a handful of panels with very brief dialogue boxes used to build atmosphere. Within two pages the sequence is done, focusing upon the main controls over the entire interior, and we cut to the crew waking up.

While the way it’s presented in might seem slightly dated, it fits the style of the time and compresses a lengthy sequence into a slightly shortened series of events. These acts of shortening certain sequences like this are only present where they will be least noticed, and unlike The Force Unleashed it doesn’t skip major events wholesale.

While Goodwin made sure that many elements of the tale emerged as intact as possible and were told in the best way to suit the medium, Simonson brought his talents to work with its visual design. Best known for his work on Thor and having worked on the surprisingly good Robocop vs. Terminator, he was familiar with both big scale visual impacts and adapting film elements. This remains a constant strength with a number of hard to adapt points, such as the crew hearing the alien signal and the first image of the Nostromo. The former, being a sound, is naturally a hard thing to impress upon a comic as how alien and unnatural it sounds, as such Simonson made it seem to be almost bleeding through the panels and overwhelming the characters. The latter is presented in glorious detail on a massive single image, detailing every aspect of the vessel and giving more impact than if it had attempted to replicate the sweeping shots of the film.

Some of the liberties taken are going to rub some fans of the source material wrong however, especially on the art side of things. With many threats there is an obvious sense of exaggeration from what was seen on the big screen and seem somewhat ramped up than before. It’s nothing like the usual exaggeration you’d expect from bad comics like the xenomorph arming itself with an M-16 or rather than acid blood it spawns more than itself, but things have definitely been made bigger.

When it comes to the human shuttle landing on LV-426, the damages and failings are represented by massive billowing electrical fires and the ship rocked by a massive explosion than the lesser damage of the film. Furthermore, the size of the xenomorph itself has been bulked up to gargantuan levels with it now towering over the humans by a good half a meter. Furthermore, its ability to crawl into confined spaces has been upped to almost outright shape-changing, with the creature capable of blending almost entirely with the machinery around it. While this might help impress upon some readers the true dangers posed to the humans, to others this will undoubtedly look like an effort to pointlessly one up the film. Others may also become frustrated at the removal of backgrounds in some scenes intended to provide shock, as while it does highlight those involved it also may look cheap.

Yeah, there’s a lot of “you mileage may vary” when it comes to this comic’s contents, but that’s to be expected given the changes in styles and writing in the past several decades. The semi-vibrant colouring and style of shading alone will potentially put off some people, but at the same time it’s those same qualities which allow the adaptation to maintain its own identity.

So, at the end of the day is Alien: The Illustrated Story worthy of purchase? Definitely. While it might be a replication of another work, there’s no denying the relatively high quality and success of adapting this tale to pages. While it has a somewhat different atmosphere, the same sense of horror and threat remains consistent without compromising or changing what made the film so great. It might be repeating the same story, but it does so in a different light than before. For everyone burned by the sub-par instalments in Dark Horse Comics’ later expanded universe tales or Colonial Marines, definitely look to get this one.

Verdict: 7.8/10


Long time reader of novels, occasional writer of science fiction and critic of many things; Bellarius has seen some of the best and worst the genre has to offer.
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