Off The Shelf: Alien – The Illustrated Story

The artwork of the legendary Walt Simonson in his prime is the main reason to snag this classic book.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

Alien: The Illustrated Story

When Alien was released in 1979, it was a cut above anything else out there.  It was one of the first sci-fi movies in decades to have the alien creature be the heavy. It was one of the first films outside of Star Wars to have merchandise, and it was one of the only films to have a comic book adaptation. Heavy Metal Magazine published Alien: The Illustrated Story to coincide with the film’s release, and while many felt it a milestone in comics, it faded from view rather quickly. This month, Titan Books is bringing a real treat to comic lovers with the newly restored version of this classic graphic novel.

Alien’s story is well known. A group of space miners are picked off one by one by an aggressive and violent alien species they bring back from a desolate planet.  The first thing Heavy Metal got right was hiring veteran comic scribe Archie Goodwin to write it. Goodwin, who cut his teeth on Creepy and Eerie books, knows how to write suspense, and he uses that talent to maintain the fear of the film. It’s nearly impossible to translate the terror and tension of Alien from screen to print, but Goodwin does an admirable job.

No disrespect towards Mr. Goodwin, but the real reason to snag a copy of Alien: The Illustrated Story is the glorious artwork from comic icon Walt Simonson. The book saw release in 1979, the end of a decade where Simonson had become a major force in comic books. Another 1973 collaboration with Archie Goodwin, a back up story in Detective Comics titled Manhunter, made the comic book world wake up and take notice. From there, Simonson turned out work for Metal Men, Hercules Unbound, Weird War Tales and several others. Alien was a premiere platform for Simonson and Goodwin, which also introduced the former to John Workman, a letterer who would go on to collaborate with Simonson through most of his career.

There is nothing that even comes close to the work Simonson is doing here. The opening page features a huge title with elaborate pencil work depicting the bone structures where the crew find the facehugger eggs. Moving into the meat of the story, Simonson uses his ability with delicate pencil work to give each member of the crew a distinct look. He then relies on the heavy inks to give them weight. Each panel in this book is a magnificent piece of solo artwork. Nothing happening within these pages is filler. Combining all of these small masterpieces makes Alien: The Illustrated Story something that still can’t be touched by anybody in the industry.

While other artists have penciled the Alien creature, few have captured its animal brutality. Most are focused on mimicking the slick and technical aspects of artist H.R. Giger’s original concept. Simonson’s approach is different. He captures the style of Giger’s Alien, but uses broader and heavier lines coupled with varied hues of color to give the beast a feeling of rage and lethality. I must also bring your attention to the scene where the Alien bursts from the chest of a crewmember. I defy anyone to find a more striking, disturbing and gorgeously violent page of art in any comic book anywhere.

Alien: The Illustrated Story is not only a tremendous book, it also gives us a glance at comic books when they were still an underground ideal. There were no computers allowing for a slick uniformity to the work, no repetitive panels that push along another tepid event series. Simonson hammers out his own artistic vision here, one that follows no rules. Colors are used as backgrounds, backgrounds move from broad to highly detailed, there’s a feeling of an artist being at work here in a way modern comics is lacking. Titan Books has done nothing to mess with integrity of the book – they’ve just cleaned it up so every detail is clear. If you love comic books, sci-fi, Alien, or any combination of the three, then you owe it to yourself to buy this rerelease immediately.