Book: Alien – The Illustrated Story


Originally published in 1979 by Heavy Metal (the American counterpart to France’s magazine Metal Hurlant), Alien – The Illustrated Story had been out of print for more than 30 years. It’s a rightfully acclaimed adaptation of the Ridley Scott film by the late Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson. The graphic novel is finally back in print this week thanks to Titan Books, digitally remastered from Simonson’s own original color artwork.

In late October, an Original Art Edition of Alien – The Illustrated Story will be released. This special hardcover will come in an oversized format (13″ x 17″) featuring black and white scans of Simonson’s full-sized art, sketches, script pages, color tests, and an in-depth interview with Simonson himself. This format should sound familiar to Simonson fans: IDW released a special oversized, B&W, original art edition of Simonson’s legendary run on The Mighty Thor in 2011. It collected two story arcs from seven issues, including the first appearance of Beta Ray Bill.

What’s interesting about this 33-year-old comic is how Goodwin and Simonson distilled the film’s essence down to a mere 61 pages. There’s none of the decompression found in many contemporary comic books, and the art is densely packed — sometimes containing up to 15 panels on a page — but never cluttered. There’s a lot of great play in the layouts, and I was surprised how Goodwin and Simonson evoked the Heavy Metal aesthetic and the feel of European comic books.

Adaptation is an interesting and difficult animal. When going from one medium to another, something will inevitably get lost and replaced. But in a sense that’s the point — adapting material isn’t about transcription but translation. Good translators of literature, for example, need to consider how to make the cultural idioms in one language function in another while also considering rhythm, tone, voice, etc. Lots of attempts at direct, literal, word-for-word translation between languages winds up absolute gobbledygook. (If you don’t believe me, run that last sentence through Babelfish and see what happens when it comes out the other end.)

So maybe the xenomorph from the Alien films is a fitting metaphor for the nature of successful adaptation: the resulting creature takes on some of the features of its host medium but is still tied to its source material. I still think that Alien, the source material, is superior to Alien – The Illustrated Story, but in so many cases it’s difficult for the adaptation to surpass the original. Usually it happens when the source material isn’t that good (e.g., the book Jaws vs. the film adaptation Jaws), but Alien is a bona fide masterpiece. Yet Alien – The Illustrated Story is always visually interesting and dynamic, finding ways to emphasize the strengths of the story in sequential art terms.

Rewatching key scenes from Alien the film and comparing them to Alien – The Illustrated Story, it’s just so clear that movies and comics are two distinct mediums with their own strengths. Anyone who thinks that comic books are a mere storyboard for films doesn’t understand how either medium works.

In the film, the chest burster scene plays out over a minute or two, and the horror comes in the escalating grand mal seizure, the silence and the pauses from the first shot of blood, and that moment of absolute weirdness when the creature appears, squeals, and scutters across the table. In film, you have motion and composition, editing to heighten the sense of confusion and accentuate the incomprehensible moment of the alien’s appearance, the passage of time, the play of sound, the nuances of the human performers.

In comics, it’s about playing with the panel and page breaks to create time and movement, the beats of a page turn, the expressiveness of a line, and the manipulation of color. In the Goodwin/Simonson version of the chest burster scene, there are three pages, 15 panels total, and one page is the bursting forth. The alien coming out of Kane’s chest is not a small moment (for a lack of a better description) because the small moment full of horror works better on film. Instead, it’s like a rocket shot out of the body followed by gallons of arcing blood, a geyser as bold as Beta Ray Bill’s hammer blow on the cover of Thor #337.

I wish a bit more of this gory expressiveness was given to the eventual reveal about Ash (Ian Holm in the film). It’s much more gruesome in the movie than it is in the graphic novel. I didn’t have time to check if Goodwin or Simonson saw the finished version of Alien before working on this adaptation for Heavy Metal. If they didn’t and were just working from Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay and some concept art, I wonder how much of that screenplay was changed when shooting the actual film.

I mentioned earlier that the comic has the feel of Heavy Metal/European comics of the time, and you can sense that in Simonson’s art. It’s still his distinct linework, no doubt about that, but there’s something different about it during this part of his career. In in way, it’s less like he’s channeling Jack Kirby and more like he’s channeling early Enki Bilal. There’s actually something of a Howard Chaykin feel to some of the faces too — it’s like Sigourney Weaver by way of Simonson by way of Chaykin, if that connection makes any sense. Simonson, Chaykin, and Jim Starlin shared a New York City studio space in the late 1970s, so I assume they influenced each other’s styles to some degree.

This European feel may also have to do with the size of the graphic novel and the page layouts given the size. In this new printing, Alien – The Illustrated Story measures roughly 8″ x 11″, which is shy of a hardcover comic album but a bit larger than some European comic/bandes dessinées reprints in the United States. And because of the density of the pages and the play with panels and gutters, there’s something less like an American superhero comic or even an American alternative comic (or at least given my narrow knowledge of them). That three-row/three-column/nine-panel bristol board grid is abandoned for something looser.

My brother flipped through the book and commented on the colors of Alien – The Illustrated Story being so vibrant and bright, which was odd for an adaptation of a film that’s not especially colorful. I think part of that is a reflection of the aesthetics of comics in the late 1970s. Bright colors seemed like they were generally the pervading style. Even something like Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Incal had the bright colors you’d expect our of Power Pack or Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. Or, you know, House of Mystery and those infamous EC books.

It did make me wonder how different this would have looked if Bernie Wrightson had done it or, if given the same limited page count, how contemporary creators would approach the adaptation. Alien – The Illustrated Story winds down a little too quickly because of the page count, but maybe the haunting last moments of the film can only be done in a film… or maybe with 63 pages rather than 61. We sort of get the action-movie ending instead.

Apart from a few scans I found online, the majority of the images that appear with this post don’t do the color restoration job justice. Alien – The Illustrated Story is gorgeous to look at. There are little swirls and little gradients of color — it looks like watercolor and water-based paints, to my untrained eye — that just don’t come through in these photos. This is the sort of book that you read through and then reread, getting your face up close to the artwork to discern how each color was laid down. In addition to tracing the path of the brushwork, on some of the pages there are creases and wrinkles. The scans are so good that you can see the warp in the original art after all these years in Simonson’s archive. I suppose a pristine image might be preferable to some, but I have thing for those imperfections caused by age. It’s got more character and more history. I wonder if the colors have deepened over time as well just like they’d do with any work of art.

Back when I was just a kid, one of first comic books I read was a Golden Book illustrated adaptation of Gremlins. It wasn’t that great a comic book or an adaptation even though I still talk about it fondly, but it did feature Billy fighting a roomful of human-sized robots in the climax for no apparent reason. Maybe the reason I talk about it fondly is that scene. It was an adaptation abandoned the spirit of the film and while memorable, I only remember it because it because of that moment that was so out of place. (Though maybe it’d fit with a comic book adaptation of Gremlins 2.)

I only mention it now at the end of this spotlight on Alien – The Illustrated Story because Goodwin and Simonson’s work is much, much better than that. And I wish this had been one of the first comic books I ever read. It’s a fine adaptation of a classic movie, definitely, and it’s an example of how an adaptation can be done successfully, but it’s also a fine comic book in its own right that can now be celebrated and enjoyed again.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.