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Monday, May 15, 2017

Panel Vision - Aliens: Genocide

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So, the Alien franchise has, in classic form, given birth to a new monster in Alien: Covenant.  To celebrate the 6th film in the Aliens franchise and the series’ seeming new lease on life in the 2010s I thought I’d look back at its most populated media frontier: comic books.  Yes, there were a metric ton of Alien comics published in the wake of Alien 3, which at the time seemed like the end of the franchise forever as “reboots” didn’t really seem like a thing yet back in 1992.  The main force behind the slew of Aliens branded books was Dark Horse, one of the B-list publishers now after clawing their way up from the C-list thanks to being the folks behind Hellboy. 

They’ve always made their bread and butter in adaptations and tie-in comics, and they milked the Alien franchise for everything it was worth, to the point they’re still putting out comics in this franchise now.  Seriously, there are 6 omnibuses worth of Alien comic material, which makes it all the more tragic that they’re so bad.  I dug through all of them in preparation for this review and found exactly two mini-series worth your time.  There was the enjoyably weird Aliens: Stronghold, which I’ll probably get to someday, and today’s focus, the unequivocal best of the bunch- Aliens: Genocide.  

From the outset let me point out that Aliens: Genocide is part of a kind of continuity that the Dark Horse comics strained for initially.  The series was published in 1997, right around the time Alien: Resurrection came out and marked the final entry in Dark Horse’s ongoing Aliens saga.  This was a series that involved all kinds of stuff like a Xenomorph invasion of North Carolina, a religion based around the aliens, and even super steroids made from Alien material. 

The steroids end up a major feature of Aliens: Genocide as they’re what’s driving the plot but we’ll come back to that.  Despite tying into this setting there isn’t a story being continued here from previous comics, in fact, Genocide is set so far after the previous events it’s almost its own thing.  What’s more, Dark Horse would roll over a lot of its Alien-verse concepts into future stories so if you’re nervous about continuity being a big issue here don’t be: as long as you understand the basic premise of Aliens you’ll be right on board. 

Genocide is set well after a failed Alien infestation of Earth.  The world has collective tried to move on from the horrors it witnessed even as sinister corporate forces move to capitalize on the remnants of the tragedy.  One such force is Daniel Grant, a rising star entrepreneur whose company Neo-Pharm has hit it big making a steroid drug out of Alien royal jelly.  This is part of the original series mythos for the Xenomorphs as crafted by Alien 1-4. 

The idea was that they were basically a random insect race; hence the royal jelly thing, which is actually lifted from real-life insects.  The only problem is that Grant’s run out of royal jelly on Earth and his substitute causes fits of extreme delusion and homicidal rage.  Facing financial ruin, Grant manages to talk the military, who actually love the berserker steroids, into launching a mission to the home world of the Xenomorphs. 

What makes Genocide such a great stand out is that it’s one of the only Alien comics that managed to preserve the feel of the first 2 films without rehashing old ideas.  Admittedly, a big part of that is that A LOT of the comics post-Genocide just borrowed from it but in a lesser fashion.  For instance, this book takes the Aliens finale and cranks it up even more by giving the entire crew of marines special anti-Xenomorph mech suits coated in a goo that neutralizes the Xenomorph acid blood. 

It’s a really great idea, this time around, that ends up reused to death in 5 Omnibuses worth of material that followed.  It works here because it isn’t played out but also builds on the originals, keeping the vibe of an Aliens world of grimy high technology and cyberpunk dystopia without just repeating the amoral android/scheming corporation plot points.  In fact, the book actually takes great pains to subvert the Aliens series tropes with the corporate guy Grant as a legitimately good guy and the traitor in the team being revealed as the Hicks-type member of the Marines. 

The writing credit here goes to John Arcudi, a veteran of the comics industry whose done a ton o great work for Dark Horse.  Most prominently, his series Barb Wire became the Pamella Anderson movie of the same name and his work on The Mask served as the inspiration for the Jim Carrey movie.  He’s also done a ton of other adaptations like Predator, Robocop, and Terminator as well as some pretty good Batman work.  Nowadays his comic Rumble is one of the cooler offerings from Image, though he also handled Aliens: Stronghold, the other genuinely good Alien comic I mentioned earlier. 

The illustrations are from Damon Willis with colors by Arthur Suydam and they’re a big part of selling the series.  Nobody has captured the truly alien beauty of the Xenomorphs the way Willis has here, with his visions of the Alien home world playing out like some kind of nightmarish yet beautiful version of BBC’s Planet Earth.  Suydam backs this up with a drab and dusty color palette that creates the lived in and grungy aesthetic that informed so much of the original films.  Seriously, aside from Aliens: Dead Orbit, the Aliens comics have never looked this good. 

Probably the most interesting aspect of the comic is that it doesn’t approach the Aliens as a horror concept.  Rather than try to make the Xenomorphs actively scary or hinge on the marines being unprepared for facing this threat, this is much more of a pulp sci-fi tale in the vein of Forbidden Planet.  When the heroes come to the Alien world, they discover the creatures are in the midst of a hive war between the classic xenomorphs and weird red mutants that have emerged lately. 

The Aliens aren’t like a secret, stalking beast here but a massive moving wave- like ants.  Meanwhile, the heroes are exactly as well prepared as you’d expect people who spent 25 years preparing for a second xenomorph attack would be.  They’ve got the mech suits, the tactical nukes, and even force field technology they’re able to block the Aliens with.  It’s not a blowout, naturally, and the Aliens are still a credible threat, it’s just that we’re meant to see them as simply a danger of the planet rather than an unstoppable horror monster. 

Again, a lot of this comes from the artwork with various big, sweeping scenes of the Alien War, bright neon coloring around the ship, and a clarity of vision that never feels claustrophobic.  Karl Story did inking, and he does an excellent job, especially in dealing with the unfathomable amounts of detail on display here.  Nothing feels overly dark or too filled in, especially not the Xenomorphs who easily could’ve ended up a cluttered mess.  They also don’t skimp on the gore when it’s called for, with some really brutal stuff both from the aliens and the berserker humans.  It’s got the same action/horror/sci-fi medley that was present in Aliens and Alien but with sci-fi as the defining feature this time rather than action or horror respectively. 

Even though the Alien franchise has managed to persist in the popular consciousness more than its brothers and sisters of ‘80s horror/action/sci-fi, I’ve actually found a lot of the film installments to be kind of tedious.  There are stand out moments but the big problem has always been the films getting caught between wanting to radically re-invent the mythos or pay homage to the original to the point of just ripping it off wholesale.  

Everything about Aliens: Genocide flies in the face of this outlook: it builds on what came before it without completely rewriting the rulebook, preserving the feel of an Alien film rather than anything else.  It proves that you don’t really need any reoccurring stuff from the films aside from the aliens themselves- after all there’s no Weyland-Yutani, no Ripley, no Hix, even the colonial marines are seriously reworked yet it all comes together.  Check it out to fill that Aliens-shaped hole in all our chests. 

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