'Dead Orbit' Reinvigorates the Alien Franchise in Comic Book Form

The acclaimed cartoonist tells us about his love of the Alien franchise and how he's changing his style for the 'Dead Orbit' miniseries.

by Oliver Sava
Apr 25 2017, 5:41pm

The Alien franchise has had a rich life at Dark Horse Comics since 1988, with creators building on the mythology introduced in the films to create a more expansive Alien universe on the page. But like any long-running property, those comics became stale over time—largely because they lacked the personal touch that made the first two movies so memorable. That changes this month with Aliens: Dead Orbit, a new miniseries written, drawn, colored, and lettered by James Stokoe.

The brilliant mind behind the exhilarating action-fantasy series Orc Stain, Stokoe has proven that he can take an existing franchise and invigorate it with his thoughtful storytelling and dynamic, meticulously detailed artwork. His Godzilla comics for IDW were equally epic and emotional, and his brief forays into the Marvel Universe have been some of the most imaginative comics to come out of that publisher in the last five years. Stokoe's complete creative control of Aliens: Dead Orbit allows him to bring that personal touch that's been missing from the franchise, and his passion for the property is clear in every lovingly crafted page.

Dead Orbit's tone is different from Stokoe's past work, veering away from bombastic action to tell a suspenseful horror story in the vein of the first Alien movie. Stokoe has a deep understanding of what makes this franchise work, and I recently spoke to him to learn more about his Aliens fandom and explore his creative process for this new title.

VICE: What attracted you to the Alien property?
James Stokoe: I saw the second film at the perfect age—around 12 or so—and I instantly loved everything about it. Then I saw the first film and the sequels, and I turned into an Alien sucker for life. They've remained really important to me even as I've gotten older. There was incredible craft put into those first movies that I have so much awe and respect for. It breaks my heart that they dismantled the Nostromo set. They should've turned it into a museum or something. It feels like a cultural loss.

You were initially going to go with a more action-heavy approach to this book. Why did you shift into a more atmospheric horror mode?
My first pitch was riffing much more heavily on Aliens, but Dark Horse had several series already in that vein, so they asked me to tackle something a bit different. I sent my editor, Daniel Chabon, a couple paragraph-long elevator pitches, and I've got to publicly thank him for picking the one that would end up being Dead Orbit. From what I remember, the others were not particularly well thought out.

How have you adjusted your storytelling to accentuate suspense and dread?
I've never really done a horror-type comic before, so the pacing is a completely different animal than what I've been used to. I guess the Godzilla in Hell story I did was somewhat similar, but this Aliens business still feels like uncharted territory for me. I've ended up redrawing quite a few pages to get them right, which is something I've never done on a project before and which my kind editor secretly wishes to strangle me over, so there's definitely a steeper learning curve than what I've been used to.

I guess I've tried to exercise a lot more restraint to the scenes that I'd naturally try to make more kinetic and bouncy. You've got to pace out the high-action parts more sparingly, but when they do drop, I think it makes those moments much more impactful.

Are you looking to any past Aliens movies or comic books for inspiration for Dead Orbit?
I basically graduated to Alien comics during my teenage years, after reading pretty much nothing but Spider-Man and Silver Surfer, so they're written into my DNA at this point. I attribute the Frank Teran–drawn short from Aliens Special to what first made me want to become a comic book artist. His pages on that look thick, like they should be printed in 3D. It still makes me jealous.

Series like Stronghold, Rogue, and Genocide have all left an indelible impression on me. The first Geof Darrow and Arthur Adams work I ever saw were one-pagers in an Alien issue! A ton of those influences definitely bleed into Dead Orbit, as well as probably everything else I've ever drawn up to this point.

Are you trying anything different stylistically for Dead Orbit?
I'm trying to keep everything boiled down into small spaces to add to the claustrophobia as much as possible. This might be the first book I've done that doesn't have big landscapes rolling around—in the background, it's just pipes, grates, and black space.

Also, I've scanned the inks in a different way than I normally do. I'm trying to leave a bit of grit on the pages from the pencils—not enough that it's easily noticed, but there's some dirty pencil lines poking through if you look close. That's a bit of a nod to Aliens, which has that weird, almost CCTV-ish filter on top of it. I wanted a bit of that grainy feel to pop through on Dead Orbit.

What do you appreciate most about the aesthetic that has developed over the course of all the Aliens films and comics?
I like that you can really feel a sense of each artist's sensibility shining throughout the series. Giger's is obviously most evident, but there's so much unmistakable Ron Cobb and Syd Mead design on the screen, and they all add something different that somehow blends together perfectly. The comics have Doug Mahnke's and Kilian Plunkett's grime. Aliens has always been an artist showcase to me, and they're almost always paired with really tight scripts as well.

What is the biggest challenge in working with a licensed property? Do you find it easier or more difficult than working on your creator-owned work?
It's a different animal in the way that you feel like you should be adding to something, rather than just winging it and coming up with something totally new. But I've been pretty lucky to have worked on licensed stuff so near and dear to my heart that it feels like I'm exercising a particularly deeply ingrained influence, rather than simply being a commissioned artist doing a gig. I end up learning a lot about what makes my favorite things tick, and why they've mattered so much to me over the years, that I always come out of each project a bit wiser and more self-aware about my art. So it's not really harder or easier, I guess, just different.

Are there any other licensed properties you would love to tackle?
Someday, I'd love to do a big, ridiculous Warhammer 40K story, draw it all on poster board and print it newspaper size. Like, super-dense 2000 AD style with a million panels on each page. Just make it as excessive and uncomfortable to read as possible—I think that would be the best way to handle it. I'd probably have some regrets after two or three pages, but it could be fun.

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Aliens: Dead Orbit #1 hits comic shops and ComiXology on April 26, and readers can check out an exclusive preview of issue #2 below.

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Dear Orbit