Aliens: The Essential Comics Volume 1 is a unique, hard to define book. Assembling a series of three stories (almost volumes themselves given the length) written by Mark Verheiden and illustrated by Mark A. Nelson, Denis Beauvais, and Sam Kieth, that were originally envisioned and released as a direct sequel to Aliens before Alien 3 was released, this collection finds major successes in its premise, its respect for source material, and most importantly its aliens, but falters with execution frequently in a way that would plague film successors much the same. The uneven execution suggests, in fact, that making something like this is no easy task at all. What comes of the attempt, though, is primarily a fun, gory success.
It’s hard to overstate just how excellent things fall into place during this collection’s first two arcs as both Newt and Hicks realize that a horrible new Xenomorph threat is hatching beneath their feet. Literally, as our iron skinned, acid blooded aliens make their way to Earth to inflict horrible pain and misery across all they meet — aided both directly and indirectly by a doomsday cult of sorts, corporate greed, military oversight and wanton arrogance.
Each and every page leads perfectly into the next for the first 200 or so pages here, mini cliffhangers and tension fraught with the same tonal direction as the films in a real inspired elegance. There’s a lot happening, too much to keep track of there’s no doubt, but so much of it excellently touches on the thematic elements, tone and importance of its source material that it’s hard to fault either writer or artist for wanting to revel in all this story and opportunity to expand the world (while setting up its end).
A Better Fate for Newt, Hicks, and Ripley
Speaking of a lot happening, one of the most important bits here — nay, one of the central premises — is the re-introduction of Newt, Hicks and eventually Ripley all to great effect, certainly better than the actual sequel to Aliens to say the least. Some re-prints of these stories rename Hicks and Newt to avoid the connection to the films and retain their canon, but their fates here are far better and realized than anything those films have to offer for at least Newt and Hicks in the long run anyways.
Newt momentarily finds love and reconnects with her hero, Hicks gets to enact revenge on the things he hates most and prove worth to the Marines he sees as his family, and Ripley returns in typical badass fashion. It’s all relevant, reverent and great character work that sets the Aliens up in sharp contrast well.
The titular aliens don’t go overlooked here and thank God (or maybe the Devil?) for that! They’re rendered by all three artists in a unique, horrible way that’s equal parts imposing, impressive, and awful. And, while there are fewer action scenes throughout this lengthy tome than readers might like, and certainly less than new Alien books offer, the scenes where these beasts of teeth and claw are front and center doing what they do best are powerful and eye-catching all the same. The narrative work done exploring the Xenomorph biology, ecosystem, and hive-mind is also impressive, fun and unique even if it was eventually retconned to all oblivion.
Horrible violence, heads exploding, and great lines like “in the black vacuum of space, death is the only absolute” accompanies these harbingers of doom always, indicating a real understanding of their power, importance and ability in a way that tears through the narrative well and makes them feel powerful and realized.
What Doesn’t Work
The Experimental Bits
While the films, largely Alien 3 (which, again, wasn’t out at the time) but to a lesser extent the two that were out at the time of the release of these comics originally did experiment with the inexplicable — mostly through Ripely being able to kind of interpret the Alien’s wills and intent — none did so as much as these issues do. There’s a lot of psychic connections and interference happening here, mostly to Newt, that just don’t stick, make sense, or add much to the plot. First through a connection to a living Space Jockey which would eventually become The Engineers of Prometheus but also to Ripley, and between the Xenomorph queen and others throughout the final arc that confuse and confound for seemingly no reason other than to convey important plot points or motivation that could easily be done elsewhere. It’s messy and cumbersome, best left to an entirely different genre or world.
Lastly, while the first two arcs of this story set up a compelling (if complex and dense) plot, the finale fails to deliver on almost every front. The plot hits a bit of a convoluted dead end that relies too heavily on Ripley and Alien-ex-machina, the art from Sam Kieth is heavy and discordant but also kind of garish and overly bright, and totally off tone from the first two volumes of the same narrative, and things fail to cohere into any one meaningful sendoff or point in a satisfactory way. The journey here is excellent, and well worth the price of admission, but the exit is loud, faulty and incomplete feeling.
Aliens: The Essential Comics Volume 1 is a lengthy, demanding, and mostly rewarding read. Its anachronistic charm is hard to deny and the singular focus it gives its most important characters — the aliens themselves, in both narrative and art — is commendable and grisly fun to behold even if its larger focus falls apart under scrutiny.