MONSTERS IN OUTER SPACE DONE RIGHT THE FIRST TIME, AND THE SECOND
“Heavy Metal” magazine once commissioned three movie adaptations in the span of a couple of years. In 1979, they printed comic book versions — serialized or in collected editions — of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and Steven Spielberg’s “1941.” Two years later, they gave us “Outland,” based on the Peter Hyams movie.
Here’s a list of the creative talents involved in the adaptations: Archie Goodwin, Walt Simonson, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch and Jim Steranko.
Pretty stellar line-up, right?
They don’t make movie adaptations in comic book form much anymore. I can’t think of one I’ve even seen on the shelves in recent years, and I know for a fact that the most recent adaptation I’ve read was the Jerry Ordway-drawn version of the Tim Burton “Batman” film. That was a couple of decades ago.
Anyway, out of that list of heavyweight American talents selected to work on movie adaptations for “Heavy Metal,” I would have guessed that I’d have preferred the Jim Steranko “Outland” the most, followed by the Bissette/Veitch “1941” and the Goodwin/Simonson “Alien” the least, mostly because I would generally rank those creators in that order in terms of my interest in their work overall, and because I would figure that the best movies would make the least interesting adaptations. It’s hard to compete with a better version and all that.
But I tracked down the Steranko “Outland” serialization a couple of years ago, and it’s not very good. Steranko choses to take a static, illustrated-text approach to the adaptation, and while some of the design work is interesting, it completely fails as a story. It’s kind of a fascinating window into what Steranko was trying to do with visuals, distinctly different from his more famous comic book work of the Silver Age, but it’s still a lifeless thing.
The Bissette/Veitch “1941” graphic novel is a hideous mess. Sure, it’s a spectacular, hideous mess, and it’s a million times more compelling than the dull debacle that was the Steven Spielberg “comedy,” but it’s more like an experiment in the grotesque than it is an adaptation of anything. Supposedly, no one was happy with the finished product from Bissette and Veitch, but the “no one” involved were the same people who made the “1941” movie, so their taste is suspect. For the record, I love the “1941” graphic novel as a curiosity, and as a deranged version of a movie that never existed in the form depicted. But I wouldn’t say I actually liked reading it. Or even really read all the ridiculous words on those pages. I looked at the pictures a bunch of times, definitely.
I hadn’t read the Archie Goodwin/Walt Simonson “Alien” adaptation until last week, though. I knew it was good; I’ve heard others praise it as the rare movie adaptation worth seeking out. I knew Walt Simonson himself was rather fond of how it turned out, as I believe he mentioned when I interviewed him last year about his early work and “Thor” comics. But now that Titan Books has reprinted the “Alien” adaptation, it’s readily available in a nice clean format, thankfully not recolored. It looks pretty authentic, just on whiter paper. There’s also an “Original Art Edition” that may have come out already. I haven’t been able to track down a copy yet, but I’m sure I will. The book looks that good.
But as I read the “Alien” adaptation, I couldn’t help but compare it (a) to the Ridley Scott film, (b) to other, less successful movie adaptations — which would be all of them, and (c) to other comics in general. What made this a good adaptation? What made this a good comic? What makes it work?
A few things, actually.
Archie Goodwin’s script takes the Dan O’Bannon screenplay and pares it down to a tight 64-page story. The “Alien” film is, what, almost two hours long? It’s impossible to believe that such a movie could be whittled down to the length of three-and-one-fifth issues of a comic book. But Goodwin did it, and it still makes sense as a story, it still hits all the highs and lows of the movie, and though I know plenty was left out, it feels complete. “Alien,” the graphic novel adaptation, is all here, even if it’s a shorter “all here.”
It helps that Simonson was working for a larger page size, so it’s not uncommon to see 8-10 panels per page in “Alien.” Sometimes, even more than that. Simonson only draws a couple of splash pages in the entire book — once when the chest-burster erupts, and again when the Nostromo self-destructs — and only one double-page spread: the famous wide shot of the crashed ship, where the xenomorph eggs are later discovered.
Another thing that really makes the adaptation work is that Simonson’s facility with caricature. He draws the characters as recognizable in relation to the actors who play them, but they aren’t so slavishly drawn as to be replicated from movie stills. Ripley looks like Ripley should look, without obviously resembling a Sigourney Weaver mannequin. If you saw the movie in 1979, I can imagine that having the comic book adaptation by your side in the months that followed would have allowed you to revisit the movie, in a way. It reads like a vivid memory of the movie, which is probably what all movie adaptations should be like, but they never are.
Simonson’s also really great at evoking a sense of terror. This comic feels clunky and rusty and humid and metallic and cold and dangerous, and that’s just all the stuff in the Nostromo and when they’re fiddling around with controls and hallways and hatches. Once the chest-burster comes out — far more viciously and horrifyingly than in the movie, as the little animatronic hand-puppet is replaced by Simonson-drawn blood and guts and gore and time-lapse-synth demonic alien faces — the comic becomes even more chilling.
As I read it, I kept thinking, “This is a super-strong adaptation,” and, “If the movie were never made, and no one had ever seen ‘Alien,’ this graphic novel would probably be considered one of the best sci-fi comics ever.”
It’s also unpolished in a kind of wonderful way. Some of the pages look frantically drawn while others are more meticulously-rendered. And though, in the movie, it takes a while before Ripley — and this is partially Weaver’s performance and partly the way the film is edited — becomes the obvious protagonist, in the graphic novel adaptation, Ripley isn’t even the protagonist. Because by the time she has a chance to take over the story, there’s only a few pages left and her survival feels like an epilogue to a tale that’s already been told. It’s not that the ending feels rushed — it’s that the structure of the final third of the adaptation presents an entirely different emphasis because of the way it’s paced, and that gives the emphasis to the space monster with the single human survivor presented as a lucky non-casualty, rather than a brave hero using every meager resource available to her.
Sure, I’m glad I have my “Heavy Metal” issues with Steranko’s “Outland,” and I’m glad “1941” sits on my shelves next to the “Taboo” volumes and “Brat Pack,” but Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson crafted a little near-perfect slice of cinema in graphic novel form back in 1979, and they did it by using all the tricks at their disposal. It’s a good comic, and you should check it out, no matter how many times you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s take on the story.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.