Part 2: Aliens Omnibus Vol. 1 trade paperback review (Dark Horse)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

[The second of Doug Glassman's two-part review of the Aliens Omnibus. Read part one here.]

From the end of "Outbreak" in the Aliens Omnibus, we follow Wilks (formerly Hicks from Aliens), Billie (the grown-up Newt), and Billie’s damaged android boyfriend Bueller as they discover a bioweapons outpost—the first human contact they’ve had in weeks. Unfortunately, said outpost is headed by General Spears, a madman in the vein of Dr. Strangelove’s General Ripper. If you’ve read some of my old reviews, such as Carnage: Family Feud and Sinister Spider-Man, you’ll know that I love gloriously insane villains, and General Spears is in the top tier. He keeps his outpost under his thumb with promises of glory and instant death sentences for anyone who opposes him.

What puts Spears at the top of the crazy general pile is either a fluke or a connection between two distant pieces of the franchise. I mentioned River’s rescue in Serenity in the previous review, and continuing the Joss Whedon connections, "Nightmare Asylum" features a general who wants to breed, train and control the Xenomorphs. It seems a lot like the blueprint for Aliens Resurrection, and Spears, in both looks and tone, is very reminiscent of Dan Hedeya as General Perez. Whether or not Whedon gleaned any elements for his film from the comic, I can’t say, especially since his script was infamously mangled for the film’s production. However, the connection kept coming up as I read on.

Spears’ delusions of Xenomorph control are partly encouraged by the hive mind from "Outbreak," but I think he was crazy enough to try it anyway. The Xenomorphs are seemingly trained to follow orders using Pavlovian methods. Orders are issued to the drones through their queen, and if either disobeys, they are immolated in special tanks. They are conditioned to fear fire . . . or at least, that’s the plan. In a great moment of comeuppance at the end, it turns out that the Xenomorphs weren’t trained at all. They were faking it, and when they are released to fight the hive infecting the Earth, Spears is dead almost immediately.

Perhaps the story’s most striking image is conveyed in the one cover used in the Omnibus as a story divider: Xenomorphs with army stars and insignias painted on their heads. In part it’s because the idea of controlling such violent creatures is an intriguing idea; Aliens vs. Predator: Three World War actually accomplished it. But the other reason is that it’s the first taste of Den Beauvais’s art. The entire four-issue miniseries was painted, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Not only is the action extremely clear for a painted work, but it was also printed on black paper. As a result, the shadows are heavy one moment, but then you turn the page and find a brightly-lit operating room, changing the visual tone completely. I wish Beauvais would do far more work in comics.

Another striking image leads into the final collected miniseries. After a narrow escape, Wilks and Billie are reintroduced to a long-awaited figure. Ellen Ripley returns as the star of "Female War" and completely steals the story away from Wilks and Billie, for both good and ill. Billie getting shoved into the background takes away from a narrative thread continued from "Nightmare Asylum": she has been monitoring the video feed of a young girl, Amy, whose messages are being broadcast by automatic satellites. She sees Amy as what she used to be -- a young girl living in fear -- and the connection is immediate, despite having never met in person.

However, Ripley is still a great character to follow. She’s even more angry and sarcastic in this miniseries, especially after the retcon which separates the comics from the movies without any possible reconciliation. Ripley was awoken after only three weeks of hypersleep and coerced into working for the government, which was on the Sulaco’s tail the entire time. I love this retcon; it allows Ripley to grow and maintain her tough status while not losing her adopted family.

The main mission of "Female War" is a bit complex: capture the Queen Mother and bring her to Earth so that she can summon all of her followers into one place, then nuke the entire site from orbit, since it’s the only way to be sure to kill all the Xenomorphs. It’s good to see that Ripley has her priorities straight. One cool artistic feature is that the ship they use to capture the Queen Mother has a large containment cell in the back lined with Xenomorph corpses in an attempt to keep it sedated. It doesn’t work, since as mentioned, the Xenomorphs are smarter than we think. This ship was later turned into the Alien Attacker toy for the Aliens toyline.

Speaking of the art, this time it’s by Sam Kieth, which took me by surprise. However, this was a few years before The Maxx came out, so his art was more reined in by the editors. It ends up being very effective in its use of shadows and in providing an even more nightmarish quality to the Xenomorphs. Like all of the stories in this franchise, it ends with a massive explosion and a seeming victory, but of course, there’s no way to really get rid of the Xenomorphs.

Two short stories finish off this collection. The first is “Theory of Alien Propagation,” presented as notes from the scientist in "Outbreak" and drawn by Mark A. Nelson once more. It’s a simple piece which canonizes the basic detail of the Xenomorph lifecycle while demonstrating the process on a nameless race. The other, simply entitled “The Alien,” is by John Arcudi (in the first of his many Aliens writing roles) and Tony Akins. It wraps up a subplot left over from "Female War," wherein the Space Jockeys are terraforming Earth to their own liking. A human delegation takes out one of the beings in a way similar to the death of such a being in a recently-released motion picture.

The rest of Aliens Omnibus Vol. 1 isn’t quite up to par with the first part, but it’s still a fantastic ending to the saga. This is a must-buy if you like the franchise, especially if you’re on an Aliens kick after Prometheus.

[Join Doug next week for our special Guest Reviewer Marvel Week!]
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