The 1979 story of Alien begins with a quote from Joseph Conrad. Not the mining ship Nostromo, named after one of Conrad’s novels, but the other direct quote, from his Heart of Darkness: “We live as we dream – alone.” Then, we see the unmistakable Alien title font: an H. R. Giger-inspired melange of indeterminate limbs, gnashing teeth, curvaceous techno-pipes, and shadowy apertures. This is followed by the omniscient narrator offering in fragments that “It starts with a ship… The ship… And the silence… Then… …The silence ends…” The USCSS Nostromo whirs into life through a series of repetitive clicks and concussive binary metres; the fateful crew wake up for the last time. Chattering, clattering, and complaining about full shares.
This uncanny introduction to the first entry of the sprawling xenomorph saga, which is both familiar and entirely different to the theatrical release of Alien (1979), is not another stab at an Alien: Director’s Cut (2003). It wholly belongs to Alien: The Illustrated Story, the comic book adaptation of the original movie.
Published the same year that Alien released but written while the film was still a two-and-a-half-hour rough cut and three different scripts (see CBR’s 2012 interview with Walt Simonson), The Illustrated Story was published by Heavy Metal Communications in 1979, first as a two-part teaser in Heavy Metal Magazine, and then as a standalone trade paperback to tie-in with the release of the movie.
Written by Archie Goodwin (original writer on Iron Man, co-creator of Luke Cage, and former editor-in-chief of Marvel who brought in the Star Wars comics license) and with art by Walt Simonson (acclaimed runs on Manhunter with Goodwin, and writing/drawing Thor, Fantastic Four, Battlestar Galactica), the combined talent prompted Frank Miller to provide the blurb for the 2012 Titan Books reprint, having been out of print for 33 years: “Alien: The Illustrated Story might just be the only successful movie adaptation ever done in comics.” This focus on quality for a Hollywood tie-in also helps to explain how the book was the first graphic novel to make the New York Times Mass Market bestseller list, staying there for eight weeks between July and September 1979. (See page 272 of American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1970s by Jason Sacks, Keith Dallas, and Davd Dykema.) Presumably, the sales had nothing to do with frustrated teens trying to get a glimpse of the film, rated “X” in the UK for its “perverse view of the reproductive function” (according to a 2012 Telegraph article).
To borrow from Ash, The Illustrated Story is “a perfect organism. And that structural perfection is matched only by its hostility,” The comic takes two hours of oppressive, cinematic space-horror and translates it into a lean 64-page cascade of frantic terror and violence. Although Simonson’s work on the comic replicates the props, ship models, backgrounds, and character likenesses with a high degree of accuracy and depth, The Illustrated Story doesn’t recreate the movie shot-for-shot like a photobook – chopped up, dismembered, and devoid of contextual and narrative resonance. Instead, The Illustrated Story successfully adapts, and with that freedom, it reframes the classic plot beats and familiar action for a different medium.
The movie is full of vast, dark corridors full of smoke, shadows, and expelled ship mists of an indeterminate nature, which the shipmates scurry around, often captured in wide-angled shots for dramatic effect. By comparison, the layout of the comic mostly follows a traditional grid structure, meaning that character agency is more tightly framed. Fog and steam are absent once the alien is onboard, with a noticeable increase in color contrast to pick out the various elements at play on each page. Not leaving as much room for the cinematic atmospherics, the comic relies more heavily on densely packed action, creating a different route towards the same claustrophobic feeling of isolation. Even as the panels of the narrative begin to unshackle their terrors, the viewer/reader still can’t see what’s happening on the de-fogged fringes of the frame until the alien is ready to splatter us and the crew of the Nostromo with unabated horror.
Let’s take Brett as an example…