By Bob Clark
Over the course of this column, I’ve largely been covering the by now standardized track of comics-to-movies adaptations, usually centering on sequential stories both mainstream and niche that find themselves treated with big budgeted, high-profile motion picture productions, the likes of which audiences have grown increasingly accustomed to since the special-effects assisted advents of the Superman, Batman and Spider-Man features (all three of them by now in some manner of franchise reboot or another). Occasionally we’ve seen different cultural paths in a more or less equivalent vein– Japanese manga like Nausicaa, Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed finding themselves converted to all manner of animated iterations, hand-drawn or otherwise, sometimes with varying levels of direct involvement from the original illustrators who created the initial works in the first place. Less frequently, we’ve even looked at comics subject less to direct adaptations and instead siring off loose inspirations, such as Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan comics or Jodorowsky & Moebius’ The Incal sparking all manner of fires in blockbusters and indie-productions alike. But for the most part, the path from comics to film or television (in the case of the Timm & Dini Batman: The Animated Series) has been a uniform and straightforward one, always headed in the same direction. But if anything, there’s probably more examples of the opposite flow in terms of sheer volume.
This sort of opportunistic cross-media merchandising has been going on for the past few decades at least, with any given major Hollywood blockbuster effort being turned into a quick comic-book tie-in to coincide with its theatrical release. So far it’s built up enough of an interest for whole nostalgia markets to solidify and continue many of these film & television franchises in graphic print editions even long after their initial debuts and curtain-falls are finished. The same is true of all number of anime works as well, with nearly any successful show managing to spawn at least half a dozen manga adaptations, each with their own separate continuity apart from themselves and the original work in question, and can often outlive even the film or show that inspired them (Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s adaptation of Hideaki Anno’s original Evangelion series began publication months before the show debuted, and thanks to the illustrator’s popularity as a character designer he’s only now getting close to finishing the ending, over 15 years later). For the most part none of the various film/television-to-comics adaptations over the years from any source manage to rank as anything more than a mere curiosity for the fanbase devotions eager to lap up any new content from their particular pop-cultural drug of choice (in the case of cancelled franchises looking to continue forcefully abbreviated narratives, like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics, it’s hard to blame them), but occasionally you get something that’s at least worth leafing through on its own. Alien: The Illustrated Story may not be anywhere near the grand classic that Ridley Scott’s film is, but perusing its pages allows one to absorb not only some impressive comic-book artwork, but also come to terms with how much of that grand guignol by way of sci-fi masterpiece is, indeed, something of a comic-book itself.
Of course anyone who knows the background for how the Alien project came to be is probably well aware of the filmmakers’ various connections to the world of comics, in various degrees. Written and designed by a team of creators who initially came together for Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune adaptation, the film was merely one of several projects that carried that original project’s creative DNA about it, but ironically one of the only cinematic undertakings. Dan O’Bannon and Jean “Moebius” Giraud would team up on comics for the pages of Metal Hurlant magazine, and Jodorowsky would find a second career writing comics for Moebius and other illustrators, taking full advantage both of the backlogs of visual and narrative material he’d gathered for the Dune film and the virtually unlimited visual potential of comics as a creative force. One of the particular strengths of the comics medium is the way in which it allows epic, expansive visions to come to life without the same kind of exorbitant expense that any level of filmmaking demands– it’s only natural that so many of the artists who were brought together for Jodorowsky’s doomed-from-the-start film version of Frank Herbert’s monumental novel would find themselves gravitating towards such a more cost-effective platform.
And that time spent in both creative fields, film and comics, would rub off on both ends of creators over time– not only would Moebius find another career as a designer for big-budget sci-fi films like Tron and The Fifth Element, but his own comics work would grow more and more cinematic over time, his panels favoring a more regular, horizontal framing almost like the panoramic movie-screen. Likewise, a movie professional like O’Bannon, previously versed as a special-effects technician, would find more and more of the particular strain of European school of comics influencing his film projects, never more clear than in the beautifully grotesque concept and world that spun out for the Alien project. It helped, of course, that the film would be helmed by another comics afficianado (and Dune director), Ridley Scott, whose Blade Runner would go on to showcase huge influence from Moebius’ work on the pages of The Incal and Metal Hurlant. Appreciating that influence from comics, and particularly the Euro-comics of Moebius and his ilk, is easier when one peruses the pages of Alien: The Illustrated Story and takes in any of the various splash-panel heavy pages from artist Walter Simonson, even on a superficial level. Originally printed in the pages of Heavy Metal (the American distribution version of the French Metal Hurlant) to coincide with the release of the film in 1979, the story and meticulously crafted world envisioned by Scott and artists like H.R. Giger on the screen becomes the stuff of high-concept design fetish masterpiece. Taking the world envisioned by Ridley Scott for widescreen 2.35:1 tableaux and a noir-enthused cinematography that often bordered on monochromatic, Simonson expands the horizons of his framings upwards and downwards to better fit the horizontal contours of the comics page, and fleshes out the proceedings with a broader palate of bright watercolors.
As such, the world of Alien opens up tremendously from the ornate and beautiful, but oftentimes uniformly hostile and claustrophobic environments of Scott’s film, each location imbued with a lighting and design that makes the viewer feel like a prey animal swallowed whole and awaiting digestion in the belly of some beast of unknowable, eternal scale. The overall feel of the Simonson illustrations is less one of Lovecraftian horror and more a classic cheap B-movie brand of adventure and excitement, albeit rendered at a scale that would dwarf most other productions on screen or even on page. As printed in the European oversized format familiar to readers of artists like Moebius, the grand splash panels of Alien stretch out to huge wide-angle compositions that positively swallow the reader whole, and breathe a new kind of life into situations and events familiar even to the most devoted fan of Scott’s film. Simonson’s IMAX-like compositions (some of which span whole pages) and lurid, clashing color combinations draw out the inherent surreality and strangeness inherent in the original film that can sometimes be drowned out by some of its very best qualities, its adherence to a strict physical and cinematic brand of documentary realism. Shorn of its dark, dripping corridors of blue-collar industrial space travel or bio-mechanical residue and filled with the bright lights of attractive three-tone friendly colors, there’s an adventurous spirit to the Alien story that screams out and luxuriates in these pages, a brand of discovery along with the danger that’s at times akin to Herge’s Tintin stories.
It’s nowhere near as scary as the film that inspired it, but it has an element of pure hard-boiled genre fun that James Cameron would later find his sequel Aliens and original work Avatar. At times the brightly lit and colored world of the comic-book and the emphasis of hard-knuckled action sequences from the film even seem to resemble the more wondrous, occasionally stilted approach that Scott himself would take in his return to the franchise in this year’s Prometheus. Mostly, it feels like a matter of editing on the screen and page, of montage and collage– part of the great strength of the original Alien film is the patience that the glacially slow pacing forces in the audience, resting on images lit and composed both for a kind of naturalism and beauty before gradually revealing the terror lurking underneath. In order to retell the story of the film in a mere 60 pages, the script for the comic-book from legendary scribe and editor Archie Goodwin (instrumental in bringing Metal Hurlant and Akira to America and commemorated in the pages of Loeb & Sale’s Bat-masterpiece The Long Halloween), there’s nothing of the slow, gliding pace that the story has on film. Indeed, everything runs at such a hectic, pell-mell speed that one is able to gain a newfound appreciation for just how deliberate the film is. It’s a deliberate kind of pacing that Prometheus would lack in comparison to the original, just one of several aspects the prequel found itself criticized for, but if anything the faster clip the new film works by feels like something of an advantage, especially after seeing how the story of the original plays out under something resembling those circumstances. Under Goodwin’s tight, quickened abridgement, the Alien story plays out less as a horror-story in space and more as a kind of saga of exploration and discovery, exactly the kind that Scott aims for in Prometheus.
Though his direction of the original plays more like Kubrick’s 2001 in the way it slowly metes out the details of the worlds its inhabitants live in and map out, the comic and prequel carry more of a Lucas/Spielberg flavor for the ways in which they quickly move from one place and story-beat to the next (appropriate, given that Goodwin was also engaged in writing the official Marvel Star Wars comics in the 70’s and 80’s before Dark Horse picked up the franchise). As such, they each have a grander sort of space-opera feel to them, and have a somewhat more psychologically immersive feel, especially when it comes to putting you in the shoes of the characters– in the original, the glacial tone and atmosphere always put the viewer at something of an arm’s length from the proceedings, giving you the same kind of outsider feel you get from the mysteries of Kubrick’s film or all manner of horror. Before the xenomorph itself rears its ugly head, the world of the Nostromo or the alien world they set down upon are dark and mysterious enough to fill us with a foreboding dread– even the lyrical, poetic touches that Scott introduces on the ship, like that bobbing-head bird toy, seem to imply a sense of inevitable doom, a vertical pendulum ticking down the seconds until the end. On the pages of Goodwin & Simonson’s adaptation or in the laser-bright 3D smorgasbord of Scott’s follow-up, however, there’s less dread and more excitement in the air between all these Union-dues astronauts, as if they are having just as much fun in the prospect of finding an alien world and life-form as we are. As such, there’s a delicious kind of hope that finds its way past the flaws of either work, even in moments that seek to match the darkest discoveries in the original. In a sense, the comic-book and prequel almost feel more deserving of the title that Kubrick’s film grants itself, feeling more in common with the Homeric myth of a the man of twists and turns vying against Gods and monsters alike– a true space Odyssey.