[Guest review by Doug Glassman]
During the six-year stretch between Aliens and Alien3, Dark Horse Comics turned to screenwriter Mark Verheiden to create a comic book continuation of the it first movie. What resulted, collected in Aliens Omnibus Vol. 1, not only redefined the franchise, but also brought Dark Horse into the spotlight. I have so much to say about the first part, “Outbreak,” that I’m splitting this up into two reviews.
“Outbreak” answers one of the franchise’s major questions: “Why do these stupid humans keep trying to capture, breed, and even train the Xenomorphs?” The answer is a combination of two major themes: the Xenomorph hive mind has a telepathic influence, and humans are utterly greedy bastards. Drawing from the scene in Aliens wherein the Queen reacted strongly to Ripley destroying her eggs, as well as the Xenomorphs’ strong communication despite lacking sense organs, Verheiden extrapolated a powerful psychic influence. A “Queen Mother” on their homeworld induces motherly feelings in other beings, drawing them towards her and her children so that they can continue to breed. Artist Mark A. Nelson takes it a step further and uses the Xenomorph’s toothy grin as a memetic image of this psychic link.
But the Queen Mother’s plan wouldn’t work if humans didn’t bring themselves down due to their own sense of superiority and drive for money. The government still wants to capture the Xenomorphs and breed them as weapons. A private company, Bionational, wants to get there before the government and is willing to commit piracy and even murder to do it. I’m not entirely sure if Bionational is meant to be Weyland-Yutani and was changed in the reprints, or if it was always its own company, but either way, it’s similarly corrupt. The leader of their mercenaries, Massey, is an incredibly cold-hearted soldier despite his first appearance as a family man. He quickly becomes the “designated human villain” of the piece, much like Ash and Burke before him.
Verheiden moves between a number of plots and subplots, including the escape of an infected salvage pilot (and his “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”-style demise) and the priest responsible for the memetic infestation. Verheiden predicts the speed of media with the “eye-box,” which uses messages as short as a second to gain the attention of viewers. An image of the Xenomorph is all that is needed; people start having dreams combining their mother and the creatures. Although the term "xenomorph" was used in Aliens, “Outbreak” came out it was applied as the official term for the creatures; instead, they’re simply called “the Alien,” used as both a singular and plural interchangeably due to the strength of the hive mind.
Hicks and Newt are the stars of the series, but they have been renamed “Wilks” and “Billie.” This was supposed to keep the comics in-canon after the characters were killed off in Alien3 and the books were reprinted. The situation gets complicated during “Female War,” as the characters return to their regular names in the first part . . . and then become Wilks and Billie for the rest of the story. I’ll refer to them by their new names, as their experiences have turned them into new characters.
Billie is now all grown up and even nuttier than before; not even the advanced psychiatric treatments of the future can get the Xenomorph queen out of her mind. The poor girl has grown up living in fear and with her only attachments to humanity snatched away from her. Wilks, scarred by acidic blood, is still in the Marines, but has settled into a pattern of self-destructive behavior to try to get expelled. The only thing that snaps Wilks out of his funk is the knowledge that Billie is about to be lobotomized. His rescue of Billie involves blowing up a wall of a skyscraper-sized psychiatric hospital and jumping on to a hovering platform. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of the rescue of River Tam in Serenity.
As the story goes on, we meet new characters, such as Billie’s android love interest Bueller, and explore some of the future’s technology, such as gravitationally-balanced ships. In order to fly properly and use their artificial gravity, ships have to meet a weight limit; Wilks has to jettison some food rations to get Billie on board. It’s a minor piece of technology but, like the eye-box, it adds to the world of the future. We also encounter a live Space Jockey for the first time. At the time, no one knew that the Jockey seen in Alien was a suit, and it looked like an alien with a proboscis. Both versions of the Space Jockey share the same malicious intent towards the Earth and have the resources to back themselves up.
Artist Mark A. Nelson is better known today for his work on various source books for role-playing games. He has an excellent use of shadows and his depiction of the Xenomorphs is dead-on, especially the memetic mouth image mentioned before. Nelson’s depiction of the Xenomorph homeworld is incredibly sparse and desert-like. This might seem like a lazy approach, but consider this: with the sheer number of drones, would there really be anything left on the planet? It’s amazing that there are still cacti.
Verheiden leaves it open as to whether the Xenomorphs are actually malicious or just incredibly dedicated to their lifecycle. At the end, Earth is overrun by the creatures and ort heroes barely escape. We’ll pick up on these aspects of the Aliens Omnibus next time in “Nightmare Asylum” and “Female War,” but “Outbreak” works well on its own as a sequel to Aliens, a sci-fi story, a horror story, and even a piece on memetic imagery.