It’s rare for a comic book adaptation of a movie to be well received by readers, and it’s even rarer when the adaptation is declared to be better than the movie it’s based on. For a number of comic fans, “Alien: The Illustrated Story” accomplishes both those feats, which may be a bit difficult for those who haven’t read it to believe considering 1979’s “Alien” is considered by many to be the greatest sci-fi movie ever made, launching the careers of superstar director Ridley Scott and star Sigourney Weaver.
Released in 1979, “Alien: The Illustrated Story” was no slouch in the talent department itself. The comic was written by Archie Goodwin, who played a pivotal role in the formation of Marvel’s Epic Comics line, and featured the art of comic book legend Walt Simonson, who would go on to cement his legacy with acclaimed runs on Marvel’s “X-Factor,” “Fantastic Four” and “Thor.” Originally published by “Heavy Metal” and out of print for over thirty years, Titan Books has re-mastered “Alien: The Illustrated Story” to be released this month, both as a softcover and “Original Art Edition.”
Simonson spoke with Comic Book Resources about the making of “Alien: The Illustrated Story,” why the studio was upset with the comic’s logo, which plot elements were left on the film’s cutting room floor but made it into the adaptation and more.
CBR News: How did you find yourself involved in “Alien: The Illustrated Story?”
Walt Simonson: John Workman from “Heavy Metal” called to see if I wanted to work on it. His original idea was to have Carmine Infantino pencil it and I would ink it. We talked about it some, and by the time we finished talking, I was gonna pencil and ink it. Then I suggested Archie Goodwin as a possible scripter for the book. John knew Archie’s work and thought it was a good idea.
Had the movie already come out at that point?
No, we did this in advance. The book was released at the same time as the movie. We had a drop-dead deadline in April because the film came out in May of ’79. We had to get the book done a few weeks in advance so that there would be time to print the book, photograph it and distribute it, so it would be in stores at the same time the movie came out. We were doing all this stuff before the film came out.
Did you have access to production stills? You must have had something, because the art and design is strikingly similar to what ended up on the big screen.
We had a lot of stuff. Several things were working for us. One of them was that “Heavy Metal” had access to the actors’ likenesses — that’s something you don’t always get in movie adaptations. I had done one of these for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for Marvel Comics, and Marvel did not have the likeness rights so I wasn’t drawing Richard Dreyfuss and the rest of them. With “Alien,” we had likeness rights, but the good part was they didn’t need likeness approvals. I was able to draw the characters from the references we had and make them look like the actors, but I could also make them look like part of my drawing. I think it worked out.
Because “Heavy Metal” was doing this adaptation of “Alien,” they had a lot of slides from the film. I was able to get those converted and blown up. They weren’t good enough to release as stills or anything, but they were incredibly helpful as reference. In December of ’78, about six months before the movie came out, I also got to see a rough cut of the film. I didn’t try to memorize camera angles or anything, but it was a good way of seeing the story in a different way. It wasn’t complete, however, because the film company was still doing all the model work. The rough cut was about two and a half hours long, and every time there was a spaceship shot there’d be a leader on the screen that said “scene missing.” I didn’t get to see a lot of the actual space stuff until the movie came out in the theater, but I saw most of the stuff.
We also had three different script revisions in ’78 that they had worked on — we had all three of them. Really, the film company was not concerned with what we did in the sense of getting on us to include stuff or not include stuff. I’ve known people working on film adaptations who have been told not to include specific scenes in the comic because the film company didn’t want it getting out before the movie came out. In some cases, those were some pretty important scenes and you wonder how you can get the story done in the comic. That wasn’t true here.
The other thing was, because it was Archie, who is in my opinion one of the best comics writers ever, he was able to put together a version of the story that would work well as a comic. Going over the three script versions and the stuff I’d seen in the rough cuts, we just really tried to put out the best version of that story in the comic.
There’s some really incredible typography used for the “Alien: The Illustrated Story” logo, which even manages to eclipse the actual “Alien” logo in terms of design, which is one of the greatest film logos ever. What inspired your type treatment?
With the Giger-esque type? That was just a neat way to start the book off. I don’t even know what font it was, I just knew I could change it. I had a book of H.R. Giger’s paintings at the time, and there was at least one painting that was Alien-esque. But Giger’s work all has that erotic, bizzaro quality to it. Essentially, I just tried to replicate the texture and the color of a lot of that stuff and carry the feeling in to the logo.
The cover logo for the book, which has tentacles grabbing hold of the Nostromo, was really Archie’s idea. Archie was talking to John and he suggested that. Apparently 20th Century Fox was unhappy about the cover because they thought it was better than the poster for the movie! It amused all of us greatly. John was one of the best letterers in comics, and that was the first time we had worked together. After that, I’ve tried to use John as often as I could in the work I was doing, wherever I was working.
Was the story originally serialized in “Heavy Metal?”
It was only partially serialized. Essentially, “Heavy Metal” ran two parts. They made them “chapters” just by adding a logo. They ran two eight-page segments and added a logo to the first page of the second segment. They ran them as teasers of the graphic novel. What was funny about that was when “Heavy Metal” reprinted the book as a trade paperback, somebody forgot to strip out the entire logo from page 9, so if you look at the original printing of the graphic novel a million years ago, you’ll see this yellow type that says “The Illustrated Story” just sitting in the middle of a planet on page 9. In the Titan edition, which just came out, it was rescanned and re-mastered from my original colors. It’s the first time that page has come out without the extra lettering on it, so I’m very pleased!
You mentioned that you and Archie built your story from three script treatments. Did anything make it in to the graphic novel that isn’t present in the final film?
There’s a scene in the graphic novel that’s not in the movie, where at the end, when Ripley is running around the spaceship, she bumps into a box and the box unfolds itself and it turns out to be the alien waiting there for her in the hallway. That scene isn’t in the film, but it was in the rough cut that I saw. I thought it was really cool. Another guy I was with thought it looked really cheesy, but I liked the way it looked. They were still editing the film at that point, so when I got to the point in the graphic novel where I had to put that page in or not put it in, because it would affect the placement of the left and right pages of the story, I asked and they said, ‘Right now, it’s in.’ I added it back in, pasted everything around it and then, lo and behold, the movie comes out and the scene isn’t there. Go figure.
What have you thought about all of the “Alien” film sequels?
I mostly haven’t seen them. The only one I’ve ever really seen is the second one, “Aliens,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. I thought it was quite a different film, though. “Alien” was a haunted house story dressed up in SF terms. “Aliens” was an action-thriller. I enjoyed both of them immensely, but I’ve never seen the other two and I haven’t seen “Prometheus,” so I don’t really have anything to offer on that. I’ve never seen a complete version of the “Alien vs. Predator” movies, either. I’ve seen bits and pieces of those. Someday I promise I’ll go see that stuff!
You might want to skip the “Alien vs. Predator” movies.
Isn’t Lance Henriksen in one of those?
Yeah, he’s in the first, “Alien vs. Predator.”
I could probably watch Lance Henriksen read the phone book! I would watch it just for him, although I haven’t yet. I don’t watch a lot of films, in general.
I actually know Lance really well. I met him last year in San Diego. He was a presenter at the awards ceremony, as we were too. We saw him in the backstage green room and chatted a little bit before he went out. It was very cool and great to meet him because I’ve been a fan of his for a long time.
To your knowledge, has “Alien” director Ridley Scott or screenwriter Dan O’Bannon read the graphic novel?
Don’t know. Occasionally I get asked that question. I did get to meet Ridley Scott and shake his hand. He was filming a loop for the film when we were there and we got a tour through the studio when I was over for the rough cuts. We saw the rough cut in England — I was actually flown to England to see it, one of the many reasons that working on this project was so fantastic for me. They were filming a loop with the alien and I had a chance to meet Ridley Scott. I’m sure it was the high point of Ridley Scott’s film career to shake my hand! But really, I have no idea if he’s ever seen the comic or what he thinks about it or anybody else connected to the film, for that matter. Haven’t got a clue.
What’s your favorite moment from “Alien: The Illustrated Story?”
I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that, really. Actually, there are two, and they’re both things that weren’t in the movie. One is the corridor scene with the box that I mentioned earlier. What that does, speaking as a storyteller, is it foreshadows what the alien does later when Ripley gets in to a lifeboat and she isn’t at all aware that the alien was there. I thought it was very cool that they would do something in the story where you begin to understand that the alien can fold up in ways that doesn’t look like itself. I think that’s really neat. It moves the alien a few feet further away from just being a guy in a rubber suit.
There’s also a short scene, just three panels or so, where Ripley and Lambert are talking and one of them asks the other if she’s slept with Ash, the Ian Holm character, and she says, ‘No; I never got the impression he was interested,’ and the first girl didn’t either. I thought that was very nice. It foreshadowed what you discover about Ash later on down the road. From a storytelling point of view, I like those a lot. They were small touches, but they were nice touches.
I like the double-page spread of the derelict ship and the Nostromo taking off, too. Those were the only pages in the book, on the “Original Art Edition,” that are actually a little bit smaller in print than they are in real life because in real life I had drawn them really large in order to enhance the sense of scale in reduction. We would have had to make the book a lot bigger just to get those two drawings in there full-size, so they are a little reduced from the original drawings. They still have that feeling of big stuff to them which I like a lot, though. The big scale seemed appropriate to the work.
“Alien: The Illustrated Story” was pretty early in your career. Where would you place it in terms of your own personal growth as an artist and how do you look back on it now?
Personal growth? I don’t know, I’ll let somebody else decide about that. As far as the project itself, like I said earlier, because of the way things worked out, the collaboration, getting to work with Archie, getting to work with John Workman, because we were able to do a four-color book and because of the cooperation we got from 20th Century Fox and everything else that all came together, it was really one of the best experiences of my comics career. I’d been doing comics for seven or eight years at that point and, even then, I had some experiences that I had liked and some I wasn’t so crazy about, but this is one of the high points for my career.
Did I enjoy doing it? I totally busted my ass. I look at the work now and, to tell you the truth, I was amazed at how much work was in there considering I did the whole thing in about four months. It was just an astounding amount of work. I had three women, Louise [Simonson], Polly Law and Deborah Pedlar who did most of the coloring because I just couldn’t do all the coloring and get it done in time. It was really a treat to be able to do it. Honestly, we were able to put something out, and I look back at it and am so delighted by it. I’d be very pleased if it turns out to have a shelf life of another 30 years later.
“Alien: The Illustrated Story” by Walt Simonson and Archie Goodwin is out now from Titan Publishing. An “Original Art Edition” of the book comes out on October 30.