Fundamental Comics: Back to Earth for Ripley, Newt, and Hicks in the Alternate ‘Aliens’ Trilogy: ‘Outbreak,’ ‘Nightmare Asylum,’ and ‘Earth War’ and the Study of Humanity

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

Writer: Mark Verheiden
Artist: Mark A. Nelson (Outbreak), Den Beauvais (Nightmare Asylum), Sam Kieth (Earth War)  
Letterer: Willie Schubert (Outbreak & Nightmare Asylum), Pat Brosseau (Earth War)  
Editor: Randy Stradley (Outbreak & Nightmare Asylum), Diana Schutz (Earth War)
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Publication Date: July 1988 - July 1989 (Outbreak), August 1989 - May 1990 (Nightmare Asylum), June - October 1990 (Earth War)    
No. of Issues: 6 (Outbreak), 4 (Nightmare Asylum), 4 (Earth War)


Introduction

Remember the derelict ship from Alien (1979) with the elephantine Space Jockey that seemed unknowable and strange, until the race is revealed to be a pack of super-sized Smurfs in Prometheus (2012)?   

Remember how Aliens (1986) ended with the hair-raising last-minute escape of Ripley, Hicks, and Newt from planet LV-426, only for Alien 3 (1992) to wipe the bloodied slate clean?
 
Remember how in Alien 3 there were the traces of a religious b-plot, inherited partially from Vincent Ward’s draft featuring fanatical monastic monks on a wooden planet?  

Remember the human experiments of Alien Resurrection (1997) and the profoundly misguided attempt to tame aliens for militaristic reasons, and that these were the best parts of the film?

These are some of the key talking points around the fringes of the Alien movies, prompting alternate-world “what if?” debates, if only because the elements are ripe with fantastic possibilities that when in film form have been somewhat diluted, muted, or discarded, at worst turning into the milky-bubbling, glassy-eyed, trash-heap Bishop from Alien 3: “I'm not what I used to be.”  

Beginning with Aliens: Outbreak in 1988, but without the sub-title on publication, the Aliens comic book series published by Dark Horse Comics was created to be a direct sequel to Aliens, the second Alien movie. When compared to Alien 3, which came out a few years later, having undergone its own transformational gestation period, the comic sequels take the unspooling of events in another direction; they work through some of the scenarios above in greater detail or with a different focus.

Continuing with the hoo-ha heavy presence of the military and the United States Colonial Marine Corps in Aliens, the first comics make for an action-packed trilogy written by Mark Verheiden, going on to spawn dozens more storylines in the alternate Aliens franchise.             




The Plot of Aliens: Outbreak, Aliens: Nightmare Asylum, and Aliens: Earth War

Aliens: Outbreak
The comic book timeline opens with Newt in a psych ward and Hicks in a military prison, both having nightmares some years after the shared events of LV-426 in Aliens. Newt is now a young adult, Hicks is now scarred, and Ripley is nowhere to be seen.

Spurred on by another disaster aboard a spaceship, Hicks is released to go investigate the newly discovered homeworld of the aliens with another group of over-confident marines, this time with the familiar, but more honestly conspicuous goal, of collecting “specimens” for the government.

En route, further developments occur. Hicks liberates Newt before she is lobotomised, a religious cult begin worshipping the Xenomorphs, their “true Messiah,” and Bionational, the Weyland-Yutani of the story, contract mercenaries to pursue Hicks. They are also keeping a facehugger victim from the disaster in their own research lab on Earth.  
      
The mercs manage to take over Hicks’ ship, but once on the homeworld they are all decimated by Xenomorphs, facehuggers, and space-pterodactyls. Worse still, Hicks and his team – who are revealed to be androids - are then rescued by a Space Jockey at the last moment of salvation, who telepathically taunts Newt with his plans to conquer Earth.     
   
Back home, Bionational are present to witness the birth of an Alien Queen only for the religious cult, now swelled in number, to carry out a terrorist attack on the research facility, willingly allowing themselves to be implanted in submissive (then screaming) acts of adoration.      
       
The Xenomorphs spread across Earth, while Hicks, Newt and Bueller, who had only just returned home, manage to escape on a ship to the stars.


Aliens: Nightmare Asylum
After disembarking some aliens with extreme prejudice, the pre-programmed ship lands on an off-world military base. Here, Spears, the commander of the station, is less than impressed with the refugees killing members of his pet-project, placing them in the brig. His cunning plan: Pavlovian conditioning to train Xenomorphs for combat under his direct control.

Meanwhile, three soldiers go AWOL, escaping to the nearby civilian colony. Re-treading history, the colonists are all bloody wall-baubles and the soldiers follow suite, aided in no small part by Spears, who is cheerfully experimenting on human test subjects.  

Along with the agitated alien captives, Hicks and Newt escape again, this time on Spears’ Earth-bound ship, where they wisely jettison off towards a space-station to discover Ripley, who is “tired of watching”.

Meanwhile, Spears lands on Earth, where he is summarily eviscerated by his mutineering alien recruits. Final broadcasts discuss subliminal impulses that are controlling vast swathes of the human population.


Aliens: Earth War
Starting with a post-Aliens flashback that also includes flashbacks to the events of Alien, Ripley returns to LV-426 with a new cadre of marines to “make sure the job got done.”  Plans go just as abysmally as they do in any Alien universe, except this time Ripley believes she has intercepted a message from the deceased Space Jockey, informing her where she can find the Xenomorph matriarch and her home planet (presumably also the inciting event for Outbreak).

Back in the present, with some of the remaining marines, Ripley explains her “Genesis World” plan to Hicks and Newt: capture the Queen Mum, take her to Earth, let all of her family be drawn in for a happy reunion, then nuke the critters with the contingency bombs that failed to go off at the end of Outbreak.

The abduction is a success. Back on Earth, Ripley kills the matriarch, and the planet is then bathed in nuclear fire. At the end of the world, though, the Space Jockey that has been overtly aiding Newt and covertly assisting Ripley throughout, reveals (again) that they have engineered everything for their own furtive purpose: to conquer Earth.   





Reception Upon Original Release

With the publication of the first issue in the series being so popular, there were six reprints immediately ordered. The collected stories have also been republished a number of times to meet demand. Outbreak, for example, was published again in 1989, 1990, 1991 (Germany), 1992 (England – incomplete), 1993, 1996, 2007, 2013 (digitally), 2016 (black and white), and in 2018. https://avp.fandom.com/wiki/Aliens:_Outbreak  

In their rundown of the top 15 Alien comics, Comic Book Resources places the Verheiden trilogy at 14 (Outbreak), 13 (Nightmare Asylum), and 12 (Earth/Female War), calling them a “must-read Aliens adventure”. 

In their article, “A look at what Alien 3 could have been”, IGN offers the following:

A perfect example of Aliens at its best is in the early comics by Dark Horse. [….]This was the first in an ongoing series of comics by the then rookie comic publisher. It was first published in the late '80s. These comics not only helped put Dark Horse on the map and establish it as a movie comic publisher, but they were good stories. 

Reviewing the 2016 reprint, Aliens 30th Anniversary: The Original Comics Series, Vulture affirms that “Verheiden’s storytelling is ambitiously bleak, Nelson’s visuals are gruesome, and the combination of the two produced a nightmare-fueled comic unlike any other. It’s good to have it back.” 


Critical Analysis

Despite being a continuation from the Aliens movie storyline, once Alien 3 was released in 1992, the comic-created world became distinctly non-canon. In the films, Newt and Hicks had died, so to make things fit more neatly, the comic was expected to retroactively ditch them. More recently, Gearbox Software’s much-maligned video game, Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013), resurrected Corporal Hicks again for its own official continuation of the Aliens world, but on the page for the 1996 reprints onwards, Hicks became Wilks and Newt became Billy. Interestingly, these changes in the comic re-prints were first made in the novelization of Outbreak, which was released as a tie-in for Alien 3. Yet, Ripley is always Ripley, even when she’s being cloned as she is in Alien Resurrection or is a synthetic, which is how she has been retconned for the comic series (as explained in the novelization of Earth War).

In the 2016 publication of Aliens 30th Anniversary: The Original Comics Series, the original names returned. The 2016 edition also saw another key change: iIt reverted back to the black-and-white artwork of its first six issue publication. When viewed without color, Mark A. Nelson’s panels occasionally invite comparisons to the monochromatic biomechanical illustrations of H. R. Giger, who also provided conceptual design work for Alien. Some of the lingering nightmare imagery, the claustrophobic alien attacks, and the cover art he provided reinforce the connection that comics can have to Giger and horror in a way that is different to that attainable within movies.

Nelson has since adapted the stories of Clive Barker and H. P Lovecraft, but instead of erring on the side of the “unknowable,” his style in Outbreak is clean and exactly detailed, also with strong echoes of Sid Mead’s future-utilitarian concept designs for the Aliens film. Here, the uprising of the Xenomorph zealots is just as disturbing as the operating room and the alien hive, because they all feel so palpably real.




However, while Nelson’s representation of the Xenomorph and human technology cling closely to Giger and Mead’s designs within the movies, his design for the “Space Jockey” is also notably different to that made flesh within Prometheus. In his preface to Aliens 30th Anniversary, Nelson explains that he had to “make some educated guesses regarding some of the Aliens movie mythology,” one of which being that the engineering extra-terrestrial in Outbreak should be depicted as a bipedal space-elephant with the power of telepathy.

The Space Jockey then goes on to become the sinister background villain of the early comics, lingering around at the end of an apocalypse event they helped spur on (and is then impressively/implausibly killed by the President of the United States in the epilogue story, The Alien).  The subtle psychic influencing on mankind towards their own destruction by an elder race feels pretty Lovecraftian for an Alien story, but as with the space-pterodactyls in Outbreak, whether you get on board with the lore-expansion or not, the design decisions show how the comic series has substantially expanded and diverged from the direction of the movies on its own terms.

The artwork within the initial Aliens comic trilogy is the same as it is for the rest of the series, that is to say: It differs from one story to another. The reason for this is straightforward. Artists and writers can drop in and out of the ongoing project (The last limited series was Aliens: Defiance in 2016.), each bringing their own style to the Aliens universe; much like how the Xenomorph flexibly adapts to have features based on the host organism for optimal environmental efficiency but imagine comic book artists bursting out fresh pictures for 30 years.

Compared to Nelson, Den Beauvais’ work on Nightmare Asylum feels like a fever dream that has been spray painted onto a fairground ride. With strong outlines, impressionistic backgrounds, and a vivid color palette (cold blues and blood red), all presented over a black background, the emotional intensity is ratcheted up as though a battlefield marine just gave the reader an adrenalin shot straight to the heart. Nightmare Asylum is one of the most fantastically kinetic comics I have ever come across. Becoming negative space, the gaps between the images recede into an inky pit, while flames and fluids sinuously frame dynamic direct-action and the onomatopoeic sounds of screaming, screeching, and gunfire. The use of color is especially notable in Nightmare Asylum, because, as Beauvais explains, Dark Horse Comics “had only printed issues in black & white up till then.”   





Sam Kieth’s work on Earth War sits somewhere in between the range of Nelson and Beauvais, but with a distinct style of its own. The principle figures look like finely coiffured or ruggedly handsome actors from a pulp-adventure b-movie. Ripley could actually be modeled on a young Joan Collins. In stark contrast, the supporting cast have exaggeratedly cartoonish features. The marines of Aliens have an exaggerated “I am the ultimate badass” swagger and cigar-chewing mannerisms, but here that effect is further manifested in the different style in which they are drawn: frizzy hair, waxed mustaches, and goggle-eyed expressions at every encounter.  

Depictions of deep space and the Xenomorphs also shift aesthetic gears to share a paint spattered effect where the edges of the figures aren’t so easy to make out, as though the creeping horror is destabilizing the integrity of the comic panel itself. Having also drawn the first five issues of Neil Gaiman’s landmark Sandman series (See Fanbase Press' Fundamental Comics Essay.), Kieth again demonstrates his ability to bring nightmares into the texture of the artwork itself, using the medium to affect the psychology of the reader.

While the Alien films tend to share a consistency in visual style, if not a uniformity in narrative tone, the vastly different art direction in the first Aliens comic trilogy attest to the flexibility possible in representations of the Xenomorph mythos. They also speak to the different avenues that can be explored with away from the constraints of the Hollywood feature film format.

With the series being one of his earliest professional comic works, the writer of all three stories, Mark Verheiden, immediately went on to adapt the Predator (1987) universe into comic book form for Dark Horse Comics, spawning another significant comic book franchise. Furthermore, Verheiden has since acquired extensive experience in television adaptation, having contributed scripts to episodes of the Battlestar Galactica remake, Smallville, Constantine, and Daredevil.

This does not mean that the Aliens stories must be good by proxy, because, after all, David Weddle and Bradley Thompson also worked on the remake of Battlestar Galactica and the script for Aliens: Colonial Marines which they contributed to and is notably awful. Sid Mead was also brought back in to work on Colonial Marines, having already designed the exterior of the Sulaco for Aliens. And Verheiden adapted his own Dark Horse Comics property into film, co-writing the script for the distinctly dodgy Van Damme vehicle, Timecop (1994), on which Sid Mead was also a “visual consultant.” Thinking of the gross, white Newborn Alien from Alien Resurrection, not all collaborative experiments are a success. Some, indeed, might benefit from being flushed out an airlock and forgotten.

Artistically, the Aliens comic trilogy is largely a success. (The metal space suits of Outbreak perhaps belong more in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and the extent to which mankind is zombified in Earth War is arguably too strong a shift within the horror genre.) The action is entirely on-point though, as are the representations of the alien menace and the cascading collapse of humanity. Verheiden’s writing is also strong enough to unite the different styles and tensions of each part of the overarching narrative and provide genuine substance to a plot that could have been entirely about Soylent-Green-Marines marching like lemmings into a cosmic meat-grinder.

As I touched upon in the introduction, there are strong themes in the comics that build upon the mere whispers of further context that were pared back in the movies. These aspects lend context to the sinister Xenomorph plague spreading across the universe, but they also reflect more significantly on the human angle: who we are when forced to concede that being superior to all other creatures is no longer a tenable or useful stance; who we are when forced to forge and protect our own families against the uncaring universe; who we are when forced to turn towards, then turn inside-out, our own ideological precepts as a way of making sense of ruthless, chaotic nature; and who we are when given the keys to the kingdom and nobody forces us to turn on each other, but we do so anyway, because we are human.



           
The Xenomorph religion is the driving force behind one of the sub-plots for Outbreak, but that is the tip of the spear as society collapses without much of a struggle. Arguably, when the story starts with prisons, mental institutes, and space junk, we are not exactly looking at an enlightened United Federation of Planets. Throughout the story, it is not long before paranoia-soaked testing centers crop up alongside shady scientific experiments that insert aliens into victims, and vigilante execution squads are quickly replaced by alien-controlled zombie mobs that serve an eerily similar function.

Verheiden has been involved in religious storylines before, from Matt Murdoch’s Catholic guilt and questioning in Daredevil, through to cults and the cross-examination of polytheistic faith in Battlestar Galactica. Likewise, by the end of Outbreak, it is not quite clear if the Xenomorph religion is the alien product of mind-control or the human need to make sense of some unknowable phenomena, caused by a disposable culture mistaking alien novelty for profundity and the diminished responsibility of a discarded (or alienated…) social class seeking change. (See also: Golic versus The Dragon in Alien 3.) This is then further perverted in the human testing of Nightmare Asylum, where the Xenomorph are considered “Perfection” compared to an expendable human colony. (See also: General Perez and his sharply curtailed attitude in Alien Resurrection.)

The rotating squads of marines, the romance between Newt and Bueller, Hicks’ paternal attitude towards Newt, the family trapped on Earth, and Ripley’s own familial grief, all demonstrate the tight bonds that are knitted within Aliens in the face of adversity, but just as Ripley demands justification from the alien matriarch to “Explain your worthless existence [….] Explain my daughter,” there is no fitting answer to her existential crisis, nor will there ever be from her perennial mortal enemy: Nature.

At the end of Outbreak, Newt affirms, “I wasn’t alone anymore – and maybe, finally, that was all that mattered,” but after several further traumatizing events, she then states on the final page of Earth War: “Human greed and rage had brought the alien to Earth.” The worst aspects of humanity are brought out as the elite launch off in to space, with a plan of returning once they can be sure that all those they consider to be inferior (human, not alien) have been wiped-out. After all the events of the Verheiden’s trilogy, when the Space Jockey reminds the heroes of his plan to conquer Earth, it is really quite difficult to see that as an especially bad thing. In Nightmare Asylum, Hicks is right when he surmises “Maybe we brought it on ourselves.”


Relevancy Today

Even taking a break between 1999 and 2009, the number of comic collections in the Aliens series number in the dozens. In fact, the six collected volumes, which number around 400 pages apiece, only collect the first ten years of output from 1989 to 1999.  

After their initial success in adapting the Aliens franchise, Dark Horse Comics quickly followed up with a Verheiden-helmed Predator series, also with a comparable volume of publications. It was also from these separate comic runs that the first Aliens vs. Predator face-off occurred, with Dark Horse Presents publishing a short story in 1990. Other spinoffs, where the Xenomorphs fight Superman, Batman, Judge Dredd, The Terminator, and Vampirella were to follow, but so far Aliens vs. Predator is the only pairing to bear fruit with two awful but awfully profitable Hollywood films.

The Verheiden comics have also been directly adapted into best-selling novelizations, with Steve Perry, prolific author of novels based on the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Conan, and Predator franchises, adapting the trilogy (with Outbreak being retitled as Earth Hive). There have been nine novels published so far.

A video game called Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure was published by Mindscape in 1995, but the digital legacy of Aliens lies again with the popularity of the spin-off Aliens vs. Predator series, both in the arcade (the 1994 beat-em-up by Capcom is especially brilliant) and on home release (the two releases in 1999 and 2001 in particular are highly regarded).

The Alien movies continues to be the main draw, both in terms of franchise inspiration and their cultural legacy, but in exploring the avenues blocked off to the main series, the Aliens comics continue to be an important part of the Xenomorph mythos.  


Other Points of Interest

Originally called Aliens: Earth War, the third part of Verheiden’s series was the first of the three to receive a unique subtitle. Initially, Outbreak and Nightmare Asylum had been numerically numbered with each issue, then known as Book 1 and Book 2, respectively.

When the comic line was rewritten to fit haphazardly within the movie timeline altered by the arrival of Alien 3, Earth War became retitled as The Female War.  This draws attention to the bonds between the developing trajectories of Newt and Ripley in contrast and comparison with the Xenomorph matriarch. Furthermore, the novelizations had already changed the first story, Outbreak, into Earth Hive, so maybe there was too much “Earth” for a series about extra-terrestrials.   

A number of short stories were published alongside the Aliens series. Verheiden and Nelson, for example, worked on Aliens: Theory of Alien Propagation, which was published in 1988 for Dark Horse Presents #24 alongside their work on Outbreak.




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