When it comes to a long running iconic franchise, I cannot think of one that has had a rougher time in its forty-year history than the Alien franchise. The first film is an undeniable classic of sci-fi horror, introducing the world to the now unmistakable xenomorph design and was the first of many masterpieces to be directed by Ridley Scott. The second film, Aliens was arguable just as good as its predecessor and created more modern pop cultural imagery then any other major sci-fi film outside of Star Wars and further cemented James Cameron’s place as a major film auteur to be reckoned with. But then Alien 3 came along and sent the franchise into a downward spiral that it never quite recovered from. The film was marred by endless production problems that eventually led director David Finch, in his first major film production, to leave after filming was complete and has actively gone out of his way to disown the movie. Reviews for the film were ultimately mixed to negative and has generally been detested by fans for being such an obvious step down from its predecessors as well as the unceremonious killing of several beloved characters from the previous film. Then Alien: Resurrection happened; a film so bad and so hated that despite being a relative box office success it effectively killed the franchise.
This was until 2004 when the franchise was revived alongside the Predator in the first Alien VS Predator film. Once again, however, it was a film that was by in large hated by fans and critics for any number of reasons. Both franchises would then reach absolute rock bottom in 2007 with the release of Alien VS Predator: Requiem; a cheap, dark, murky looking film without a single likeable or well written character and zero entertainment value outside of what was shown in the trailers. Some people felt it was an improvement over its predecessor with the inclusion of gore but the film ultimately did more damage than good and effectively killed both franchises once again.
Then in 2012 Ridley Scott returned to the franchise with Prometheus; a prequel that takes place several decades before the events of the first film and wisely ignored the events of the AVP films and promised to give some context on the Space Jockey and the origins of the xenomorphs. The reaction to the film was…missed to say the least. Everyone seemed to agree that the film was visually stunning and is the movie that really put Michael Fassbender on the map as well as kickstart the career of Idris Elba. Unfortunately, the writing was not up to par with many plot elements failing to make any sense and lacked any tangible connection to the xenomorphs outside of a few Easter Eggs. Most of the characters lacked anything resembling believable arc and often did things that seemed out of character given their pre-established personalities. Worst of all, it featured a story that left us with far more questions than answers and an overall sense that the creators thought they were far smarter and clever then they actually were. And now five years later we have a follow up to that visually striking mess in the form of Alien: Covenant due for release later this week and, as has become tradition here on Comic Book Spotlight, we decided to take a look at a comic from the franchise of the latest major film release. And by the Space Jockey’s helmet, this was not easy!
Since the first film was released in 1979, there have been well over sixty Alien related titles, most of which have been published by Dark Horse Comics. There have been non-cannon continuations of Aliens, comic adaptations of the films, an endless number of crossovers with major superheroes, storylines featuring original characters and more Alien VS Predator comics then I can count. Finding a comic to spotlight, as it turned out, was the easy part. Actually choosing one was where things got interesting. Ultimately, almost at random, I decided to go with one of the more recent series to be published and was rewarded with a very pleasant little treat. This is Comic Book Spotlight shining a light on Aliens: Defiance.
Written by Brian Woods with artwork by various artists, Aliens: Defiance is an ongoing, twelve issue miniseries published by Dark Horse Comics. Taking place roughly around the same time as the video game, Alien: Isolation, the plot centers around Colonial Marine, Zula Hendricks and Weyland-Yutani Synthetic, Davis One as the two go AWOL from their respective organizations to find places where people have encountered the xenomorphs and destroy them all in order to prevent Weyland-Yutani from gaining one to use as a biological weapon.
The setup is practically Alien 101. You have a strong female character as the main protagonist alongside a robot who may or may not be reliable. Weyland-Yutani is floating around, trying to capture an alien because reasons and are constantly hindering and threatening our protagonists because of this insane desire. You have aliens running around causing trouble in claustrophobic environments and killing people by the hundreds as our protagonists also run around ships and bases with faulty machinery that is arguable more dangerous than the xenomorphs themselves. It’s a set up that the franchise practically writes itself at this point. That’s not to say, however, that the plot isn’t good or is uninteresting. In fact, it takes an approach that is almost unheard of in comics these days.
One of the biggest problems with the comic book industry these days is that most books will have storylines that go on for months, if not years, on end making it difficult for new readers to jump into the story. What Aliens: Defiance does, however, is tell storylines that are usually resolved in an issue or two, enabling a new reader to jump into the series at any time, provided they know the basics of the franchise. Every issue more or less reminds you of the status quo of the characters, what they’re doing and why before moving on to the main meat of the plot, ensuring that the new reader will be up to date on just what is going on with the series without having to read the entire book.
As mentioned earlier, the plots themselves are practically Alien 101. You have the xenomorphs in a ship and the good guys eradicate them. You have aliens in the space station and our heroes must find survivors and wipe out the alien population. One of their friends gets infected and our protagonists have to decide what to do about it and how. It’s stuff that we’ve seen before but the creative team was smart enough to throw in a few clever twists to keep the plot from becoming stale. These include, but are not limited to, a pirate invasion, a squad of colonial marines acting as a second antagonist and the usage of the aliens to combat some of these threats. The true brilliance of it, however is that the plots in question usually end up feeling like a subplot for the more interesting conflicts that the characters themselves are going through.
Zula is a rookie marine who was crippled on her first mission and has been reminded of this fact at every turn in some way. Throughout the series she deals with extreme, debilitating pains as well as feeling as if she has betrayed the corps, further causing her to question the wisdom of what she is doing. This is explored through her narration regarding the marines where we learn just how much she loves the corps and how much it’s eating at her to effectively betray them. Through this same narration, flashbacks and some later plot points we learn more about the Colonial Marines then we have since the 1986 film. Mainly we learn that in this continuity and time period the organization is little more than a glorified private military organization that works on the behest of Weyland-Yutani and other mega corporations and is primarily populated and run by heartless psychopaths. The unironic glorification of its members, equipment and state as humanity’s ultimate badasses are nowhere to be found in this comic and shows them to be little more than a band of thugs who are only good for making things worse. As a result, the marines end up being far more interesting in this comic than they have been since the 1986 film.
Then we have Davis who plays the role of the android whose intentions, loyalty and even functionality are unknown. Thankfully it is made abundantly clear early on that his intentions are good and doesn’t bother drawing the matter out. Rather his arc becomes about Zula learning to trust and care for him as he begins to learn more about human emotions as well as experiencing them. Perhaps the most brilliant direction that they took this character, however, was in his design. The design itself is nothing to write home about. Like all the book’s artwork it has its origins in previous installments of the franchise and is little more than a slightly updated version of the Working Joe synthetics from the video game Alien: Isolation. The character has no distinct individual features with pale grey skin and dead, milky white eyes that make him indistinguishable from his brethren. However, it’s this vey lack of individuality that makes him so unique.
Previous Alien films and video games always feature a major android character who were, for the most part, indistinguishably human in appearance and mannerisms. This, in turn, allowed us to project our own emotions on to the characters, thus making their ruthless, inhuman actions all the more horrifying but also making their human actions more believable. With Davis’ copy and paste design, however, the opposite is true. Because of this design, when the character does something that is cold and ruthless it’s what you expect. But whenever he does something that is kind and empathetic it catches you off guard and makes for a surprising and refreshing take on the whole Alien android formula.
The rest of the artwork, however, sadly lacks this level of subtly. The books itself ultimately lacks anything resembling an original design outside of maybe its main character and is something that works as both a strength and a weakness. Just about everything looks the way that you’ve come to expect from this franchise. The xenomorphs designs are unchanged and the various ships and space suites look exactly how you would expect them to look in this particular time period. This was clearly the intention but at times it’s clear that the book could have been improved with a few more original designs. This, in particular, would have worked well with the Colonial Marines. The look of the organization is identical to that of the 1986 film and makes very little sense considering the fact that this book takes place a good thirty years before that film takes place. Perhaps this is just a nitpick on my part but it was an avenue I felt could have been explored better.
The artwork itself tends to vary in quality but gets progressively better as the series goes on and the artists changed. Early issues had problems with the backgrounds as they had a tendency to look like they may or may not have been right next to the foregrounds and were often far too dark in its coloring. As the series went on, however, it gradually got better and everything became more distinguished. Towards the end of the series everything has been clear and crisp and turns out exactly the way you expect them to look.
In the end, Aliens: Defiance is quite an interesting little treat. It uses the backbone of a formulaic Alien plot to support its much more interesting character driven story and is an angle that we really haven’t seen the franchise take before. It’s by no means the best thing that the franchise has produced nor is it the best comic that you’ll read from this year. But if you’re looking to satisfy that Alien itch that you might get after seeing Alien: Covenant, this comic is an overall pretty good way to do it. Give it a read.
Trey Griffeth is the Head Writer of The Nerd Hub's Comic Book Spotlight section as well as a contributing writer to Video Game Spotlight. In addition to his work with The Nerd Hub, he is also a Staff Writer for Heroic Hollywood.