Year of the Artist, Day 132: Walter Simonson, Part 4 – Alien: The Illustrated Story

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Year of the Artist, Day 132: Walter Simonson, Part 4 – <i>Alien: The Illustrated Story</i>

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Walter Simonson, and the comic is Alien: The Illustrated Story, which was published by Heavy Metal and is cover dated 1979. These scans are from the re-issue, which was published by Titan Comics in May 2012. Enjoy!

Simonson was a really good choice to draw the comic book adaptation of Alien, as he had shown by this time a good eye for action, of which there is some in the book (not a ton, as you might recall from the movie, but enough to make it crucial to get a good action artist); an ability with facial expressions, something that’s also necessary for this book, especially as he was going to be drawing actual people and trying to make them “act”; and a familiarity with science fiction, which I assume he did pretty well on the Star Wars comics around this time (I don’t own them, sorry!). Plus, he was working with Archie Goodwin again, and they obviously had a rapport. So we got this, which is a really nice book on its own, in some ways better than the movie. It shows how close Simonson is to being “Walter Simonson,” and I’ll show some of that development below!

I’m not going to write anything about the coloring here, because this is a reprint and I have no idea if it was recolored in any way. Sorry! Anyway, in Panels 1 and 3, we see some of the staples of Simonson’s art, as this becomes more common with him. The wash of the spaceship is very Simonsonian, with the puffy, smoky outlines and the ragged fiery touches in the center of the main thrust. In the background, Simonson uses thick lines to show the cloud cover on the alien planet, and the lines of the sky intersect perpendicularly with the backwash of the rocket, which helps frame the actual spaceship. In Panel 3, he again uses jagged lines to show the engine sparking, and he doesn’t rely on colors to do so, as the lines of the electrical arcs are the strongest on the page. Obviously, this is the 1970s, when comics didn’t really use special effects as they do now, so everything was drawn in and then colored, but there were degrees of pencil work, with the colors overshadowing some pencil work on some comics. Simonson isn’t that kind of artist, though – he uses thick lines a lot, and it adds some nice violence to the panel to show how dire things have quickly become. We can’t see it too well here, but Simonson uses the actors as models without simply tracing them, so while we “see” Yaphet Kotto or Tom Skerritt, Simonson is still able to give them their own personalities.

One reason this book is better than the movie is that you can linger on impressive stuff rather than have the camera pan past it quickly, and this is better lit than the movie. So we see the alien sitting in that … thingy, and we can see how much care Simonson puts into it. He was influenced by Giger’s designs for the movie, of course, but his thick lines and slightly cartoony vibe makes this more Simonson-esque, which is fitting. Simonson inks in every small part of the thingy, allowing us to examine every small inch of it. In the second row, he does nice work on Dallas in the final panel, using inks to create almost a skull mask for everyone’s favorite small-town sheriff. It’s something that movies can’t do as well as comics, and Simonson, with just that tiny detailing, makes Dallas look far older, stressed, and doomed than the movie ever did.

Poor Kane. He was just a Droopy Dog-faced dude looking for love in deep space, and he got impregnated by an alien spider crab. I will say that the top row doesn’t do as good as job as the movie as building the creeping horror of the pod opening up and that thing jumping out and attaching itself to John Hurt’s face, but Simonson does his best with it. I actually appreciate that he didn’t show us Kane’s point of view as he looks in – that definitely wouldn’t have worked as well as the movie. Simonson, once again, shows how he does action by placing it slightly off-center in Panel 6 – it’s as if the “camera” wasn’t fast enough to get a picture of Kane in the center of the frame as the spider crab attacked him, and Simonson uses this kind of framing quite often – we’ve already seen some of it, and he knew a good thing when he saw it. I also like how the upper right corner, where Kane’s face should be, is just black, implying blood, sure, but also implying that Kane has already been obliterated. In a not shocking creative choice, John Workman letters this sucker, and I don’t know if he or Simonson put red lines over the word balloon in Panel 7, but it’s a cool way to show Kane sinking into unconsciousness.

In a comic book world where special effects don’t cost any money, the dumbest-looking moment in the movie (sadly enough, as about a second before, it’s the most terrifying) becomes this amazing page, as the alien bursts out of Kane’s chest, and Simonson makes it look far more disturbing than the cute puppet from the movie. Simonson, as we can see, uses nice thick inks on Kane as he lies there, stricken with really bad indigestion, shadowing his face and roughing up his skin. I love the juxtaposition between his bared teeth and the alien’s, as one carnivore dies so another can live. Simonson uses that crazy, scribbly line of his all over the page to show the blood spurting from Kane’s body, which makes it look so much more chaotic. This is an amazing moment, and it’s far better in the movie. Sorry, Ridley Scott!

One of the good things about the comic is that, as I noted, it’s better lit than the movie, so we can see the alien attacks in all their glory, plus the aforementioned lack of budgetary constraints on the page mean that Simonson can draw that sucker as big as he damn well pleases. So Harry Dean Stanton and then Tom Skerritt meet their doom, and we get to see Simonson’s rendition of the big evil dude, who looks like he just wants a hug. Did anyone ever think of that?!?!? Unlike the movie, we can see every inch of the monster, and because it’s a static image, we don’t just get a glimpse. Again, I dig that in the movie, the alien appears and vanishes quickly (due to the fact that it looked kind of silly), but it’s still nice to sit there and look at the way Simonson draws it. Look at that big lug!

In Panel 2, Simonson once again shows us what movies can’t do as well – he simply inks the entire monster, leaving its mouth open and its teeth bared, which creates a better image than the one we get in the movie, where you can see a lot of the alien. I wanted to show this sequence because of the gun burst in Panel 3 and the way the hook intersects with it in Panel 4. Those are Simonsonian drawings if any ever were, with the burst a flourish of curves and thick lines emanating from the barrel, and then the jagged lines exploding out of the alien’s gut. These are the kinds of explosions Simonson would continue to use for the next 30 years, up to the present day.

Alien might have been Simonson’s most high profile work to that point, simply because of the fact that it was based on something outside of comics. But for the final day of Simonson, we’ll look at his most high profile work strictly within comics, a project that might still – three decades later – might be one of the three or four things comics fans are most familiar with when you say “Walt Simonson.” Be back here for the cool-assery! Or don’t go anywhere, and spend the next 24 hours cruising through the archives!