Alien: The Illustrated Story is a comic book adaptation of the famous science fiction movie done by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson. It’s pretty damn good and I’m somewhat surprised because the movie is excellent. It’s one of my favourite science fiction movies and it works so well on so many levels. The comic adaptation isn’t as good as the movie but that was too be expected. The movie’s strength is the slow and controlled pace. The movie is nearly two hours long and it will take you less than 30 minutes to read the comic. It will take you less time than that if you don’t take the time to look at all the wonderful Walt Simonson art.
The art is where this book excels. The narration is a bit strange and hasn’t aged well but the dialogue closely resembles that of the movie and I actually hear the actors playing their parts in my head because I’ve seen the movie so many times. The comic and the movie were released at around the same time. Simonson must have had access to pictures of the movies sets because it’s all spot on. The fact that Nostromo looks like it does in the movie helps make this a good comic. Had it simply been based on the script and none of the visuals of the movie, I’m not certain the comic would have been any good. Simonson pages are packed with panels. Averaging it all out, he has about nine panels on each page! There are few splash pages, less than half a dozen, which is saying a lot considering the comic is about 60 pages long. There’d be at least twice that many had the comic been produced in the last ten years instead of in the late 70s.
It’s impossible for me to talk about this comic without also talking about the movie. There are two main differences between the movie and the comic and the first one is the pacing. There are numerous techniques that can be used in movies and in movies to control the pace of the narrative. When it comes to comics, the reader has a lot of control over how quickly he’ll read the comic but when it comes to movies, the viewer has practically no control at all. Someone watching a movie sits through and watches the movie for its duration at whatever pace the director has chosen whether it’s 90 minutes or 140 minutes long. There are really two things the viewer can do, pause the movie and come back later or stop it completely. When it comes to comics, two different people reading the same comic can both read that comic for two different amounts of time. You, as the reader, control how long you linger and combine the words with the pictures. You could easily read a comic by, well reading. You could pay attention to the caption boxes and the word balloons and give nary a passing glimpse at the images. Another way of reading a comic is to poor over the images and words and putting them together to form a complete comic reading experience.
Writers can use dialogue as a way of controlling the pace of a comic. Certain writers even instil a rhythmic quality to their dialogue that makes for an interesting, and controlled, reading. An artist’s use of different page layouts and different amounts of panels per page can also have an important effect on the pace of a comic. One writer in particular, Warren Ellis, is a master of controlling the pace in his comics. I remember reading something about Fell, his image series with Ben Templesmith, where Ellis mentions that he was very aware of how many words he would use in any given panel as to not overwhelm the art. You see, Fell, unlike most mainstream comics, have 16 pages of story per single issue as opposed to the average 20-22 pages. Because of this Ellis and Templesmith used a 9 panel grid. To make this more difficult for themselves, each issue was a done-in-one story meaning you had a beginning, middle and end in each 16 page instalment, that’s nuts! To get to the point, Ellis was conscious not to overwhelm any individual panel with too much dialogue. Templesmith was conscious of all the information he had to provide to the reader in each panel, they had no space to waste. The end result was a series that, despite its 16 pages per issues, was pretty dense. Interestingly enough, for a two hour movie, Alien does not have a lot of plot. Not a whole lot happens. But it happens slowly and it’s extremely moody and tense to watch. It’s a movie you watch on the edge of your seat. Ridley Scott really controls the pace and since it’s a movie, we have no option other than sit and watch at the pace that the director and his crew have chosen for the story being told.
|Kane, you've got a little something on your face. . .|
Alien: The Illustrated Story doesn’t share the controlled pace of its movie counterpart but it might have the upper hand on the second major difference which is the sense of scale. The alien is much bigger in the comic that it is in the movie. It also appears to be much bigger when it first pops out of Kane’s torso. The panel gives us a skewed perspective making the alien look even bigger. Making the alien bigger in its first appearance at the dining table is a good call because it makes it more believable later one when other characters encounter it on the ship because it gets really big in a very short period of time. It’s nice that the comic allows you to see the alien in all its glory. It’s clearly not a body builder or a wrestler in a big rubber suit. It’s an alien, plain and simple.
It’s strange but the ship seems smaller in the comic. I’m not sure if that happened accidentally or if it was something planned, but you don’t get the sense of how big the Nostromo is compared to the movie. Simonson’s art does keep the feeling of claustrophobia as the movie, which is a good thing or else the story would be losing something important. There is a two page spread of the alien ship down on the planet and it’s gorgeous. The ship is monstrously huge. It’s much bigger than what it seems to be in the movie and even in the movie it was made to look big. Unfortunately, the stranger (or the pilot) in the seat inside the ship is given but a small panel, less than a quarter of a page big. It’s interesting how Simonson chooses to show the differences in scale between the objects and the crew members. I’m not sure if Goodwin and Simonson needed to use pages with many small panels in order to get all the whole story told within a specific amount of pages or if that was an artistic choice made in order to increase the feeling of claustrophobia and being stuck in a finite space with an alien monster. Either way, sometimes it works to great effect and other times it falls a bit flat.
|Dallas, meeting the alien in the world's biggest air shaft.|
For a comic that frequently has many panels on any given page its surprising how clear the storytelling is. Simonson rarely uses a grid. On those instances that he does, the grid is often superimposed on top of a larger image giving the reader both splash page like image and a page full of panels which move the story along. Although Alien: The Illustrated Story isn’t as good as the movie, it’s still a great comic. The art is excellent and a surprising amount of the plot, the art and the tone of the story remain true to the movie version. Despite all that, the comic still feels like its own thing, separate (though not entirely, of course) from Ridley Scott’s version. The colouring and some of the art choices, along with the narration, clearly played an influencing role in making the comic distinctly different. A great story is a great story though, and it’s nice to see two other professionals telling their version of Alien.