Archie Goodwin (writer) & Walter Simonson (artist)
Alien: the Illustrated Story
Titan Books 2012 (1979)
Originally issued forty years ago and timed for the release of the film, Alien: the Illustrated Story has a different narrative vibe from the movie while essentially giving us the same tale. Where the screen version used muted colours and shadows and built up the tension with long stretches of inaction and a strong sense of claustrophobia — as I remember it: in fact it’s been decades since I saw it — this graphic novel instead gives us bilious hues in which flashes of yellow (for lights), blues (for Ripley’s overalls) and especially red (for the inevitable blood) punctuate the action. Unlike the celluloid alien, which we only caught intermittent glimpses of, in these pages our eyes can linger on the dread details of Giger’s design for the malevolent predator in its disturbing exoskeleton.
Do I need to spell out the plot in detail? The original authors, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, were influenced by the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None in depicting a group of individuals who are bumped off one by one. In Alien the crew of the space transporter Nostromo are diverted from their homebound journey to investigate a CETI-like signal from a planetoid body. Inadvertently one member gets infected by an alien life form, which quickly matures and then proceeds to prey on the crew in the close confines of the spacecraft.
The stuff of nightmares, you can imagine why this story was initially — and so aptly — pitched as “Jaws in space”.
While the Christie whodunit may have provided the initial inspiration, I sense debts may be due to other sources. That prototype for the alien invasion trope, H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, suggests itself strongly to me, for example, while O’Bannon and Shusett cite classic SF films, especially B-movies. Aspects of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo are evident, of course — especially the transporter craft shipping and refining ore, referencing the role of silver ingots in the Conrad novel, and also the tension between idealistic beliefs and reality — but another trope, unintentional I’m sure, intrudes into the mix: Snow White.
The conciseness of the graphic novel helped make this idea more obvious, to my way of thinking. In Alien we have seven crew members awoken from stasis, two women and five men (the counterparts perhaps of the seven dwarfs of the Disney animation, whom it could be fun to try to pair with Ash, Brett, Dallas, Kane, Lambert, Parker and Ripley). The Nostromo’s duplicitous onboard computer is called Mother, a possible parallel with Snow White’s wicked stepmother; and in the fairy tale, you will remember, the escaping heroine stumbles across and into the dwarfs’ dwelling while they are off mining in the hills, and proceeds to make herself at home — and even a bit indispensable.
It’s possible to see Alien as a dark version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and even though the creature is no Snow White this visitor is likewise a kind of parasite on its hosts. Unlike a fairytale ending, however, there is no Prince to rescue the creature, not even a facehugger to kiss it back to life.
A team of colorists, letterer, designer and editor was responsible for the finished product, digitally remastered in 2012, and a handsome book it is too, its humans individually characterised and remarkably close to the movie’s original cast.
In many ways it is like a storyboard with added script, but while it has a similar feel to Ridley Scott’s original storyboard for the film it seems to draw direct inspiration from the completed edit, though from a totally individual viewpoint. Simonson’s masterful artwork is testament however to Scott’s set designs and to Giger’s concepts for the creature and alien spacecraft, the latter looking uncannily like a cross between giant headphones and an organic Celtic torc, but in a way that makes the flesh creep.
Even though some detail, like the now very dated font of the computer display, is of its period, the plot is timeless, and this illustrated novel is a worthy record of the art of storytelling.
While not part of my 20 Books of Summer read, this present from my son for Father’s Day was irresistible