Resides in Vienna, Austria where he constantly wrangles his weird world into shape as a comic book artist, storyboard artist, writer & performer.
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Hello party people! Brace yourselves, for today’s Slow on the Draw review our Rob Ayers is dragging a nostalgic depth marker up from the stygian, viscous fissure of his memory… Aliens: Earth War!
Not a proper Slow on the Draw, really, since I know and love this series front to back, but I haven’t actually looked at my old, tattered copies of the book in years and years. It’s a comic I was proud to pick up at the comic shop every month for 4 months, because it was one of my first forays into the world of “indie comics” (this was the late ’80s/early ’90s), and it had no superheroes. No superheroes! I didn’t understand anything. This series was the one that let me know that was okay. Now we have superhero books without superheroes in them, and everything is permitted, which is supercool. The playing field is 100 times more expansive and diverse than it was just 20 years ago, but back then it was like the natural world turned upside down when a kid read their first non-superhero/super-powered/super-costumed book. For me it was this series that informed me it was all right if a comic didn’t have spandex or super powers, and that it could be an extension of a world from a completely different medium. This was a big deal for my adolescent brain, as wiggly and malformed as it was. Maybe I wasn’t actually ready for such a lesson, but that’s an issue for the psychologists. We’re here to talk about comics.
I read and reread this 4 part mini-series probably more than any of the other Alien minis Dark Horse put out in the beginning of their reign over the independent comic book market of the 1980s and early ’90s. I think this one even beats the first Alien vs. Predator mini-series by a couple read-throughs. And if not actual read-throughs, than surely mindless gazing. Page after page of weird, incredible art that had me transfixed and flabbergasted for hours at a time.
The book, written by Mark Verheiden, with art by Sam Keith and colors by Monika Livingston, was almost slimy with atmosphere. The look Keith injected into every millimeter of each page seemed a natural resolution of how the world would look if we took this universe, where the Aliens exist and threaten anyone anywhere — and have even spread to Earth, turning it into a rotten hive of darkness and wet death — to its end.
That’s not to discount Verheiden’s tight scripting. He does a sharp job of making the Alien universe of the comics seamlessly bleed out from the universe of the movies. Unsurprising, since he wrote the first two Aliens mini-series for Dark Horse before Earth War, both to critical acclaim.
Earth War itself also garnered much acclaim, all of it loud and defined if not gleaming. Reviews of the book at the time of release were torn, more against than for, and mainly for the artwork. There was no real gray area in regards to yeas and nays. Most were baffled and confused by the extreme look of Sam Keith’s art, and the majority of critiques stated it just didn’t fit in the world of Alien. I think it’s important to note that not many actually criticized Sam’s ability and talents. Even then, early in his career, he was an artist carving out his own way with a style clearly coated in Teflon, a style that was not going to be guided by the masses or critics, regardless of how harshly some railed against it. All one could say is Sam’s style just wasn’t right for them, or for the book. I’m clearly not on that side of the fence. I’d be thrilled if Sam Keith just started drawing pages in every book. He’s always been the closest I can get to new EC comics style madness, and when he stops working a void will remain.
So, maybe I should mention the story, comics being a storytelling medium ‘n’ all. It’s pretty simple, which serves everything very well. Newt is a young adult, having been separated from Ripley for the last ten years or so, and Hicks is back as well. He was escorting Newt to safety after the crazy, exhilarating climax of the Aliens Vol. 2 mini-series. (I’m sure we’ll get into that in a later article.) So, the family is back together —
Oh, a little research has clued me into something that will make me sound a little more professional: reprints of Aliens: Earth War have been titled Aliens: Female War, Ripley is a synthetic version of herself, and the characters of Newt & Hicks have been renamed Nerd & Fiddlesticks, respectively. No, wait… they were renamed Billie & Wilks, respectively. This was all done in response to the movie Alien3, which came out two years after this series hit the shelves. The idea was to make it all blend together as one universe, so out of respect to the movie, later reprints of the comic were altered to accommodate the story of Ripley on the prison/refinery planet where Newt & Hicks died in the opening credits, thought of as a great disrespect to the rabid Alien franchise fans of the time.
Either way, my withered old copies of Aliens: Earth War predates that tomfoolery, and tells the story of Ripley, Newt & Hicks gathering a few old friends Ripley has collected in her ten years away, and going to a far off Alien planet to kidnap the Queen Mother Alien, and bring her back to Earth, where she will naturally attract all her children to her, and they (our heroes) can nuke the site from orbit, it’s the only wa— you know the rest.
Laid out in a tiny paragraph like that it might sound a little too simplistic, almost childish, but in execution it’s fantastic. Mark Verheiden spreads out the story in a thick pate of atmosphere and archetypal characterization, and Sam Keith backs it up, supports it, and launches it into the stratosphere, with the assistance of Monika Livingston’s perfect colors. Even the covers, all four from the original printing painted by the great John Bolton, promised a perfectly disturbing and dark experience like the best movie posters in the world, and the series delivers on all fronts, in my opinion.
It all feels like a huge, solid, three-act Alien movie, paced just right to satisfy those of us that deeply value the time and money we give to our addiction to comics. Oh, and real quick, I think it’s smart to mention: Mark Verheiden did a really clever job of unfolding this story like a deserving sequel in the Alien franchise, but somehow he didn’t make it R-rated. I’m not sure exactly how he did that, but it’s great. It’s a book you can share with a large audience, and still call it a science-fiction horror book. The violence is off-panel for the most part, and what we do get on-panel is stylized away from realism, so all the creepiness and unease one might feel while reading this series is all held within the atmosphere and story itself. Well done everyone involved. I’m sure I speak for many when I say thanks to Mark, Sam, Monika & Dark Horse.
So there’s that. Even though I got a little snooty about the changes in the reprints, I can’t imagine it alters the overall magic of this mini-series. It being Halloween time, I can’t think of a better book to read under the covers with a flashlight and a pile of candy.
Until next time, let us know what you think is a good October book in the comments below!
Rob Ayers is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter @S_R_Ayers.
Perfect for the Halloween season, or any season for that matter. If you love the movies, and/or dark, atmospheric storytelling you need to jump back in time & check this out!