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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

16 Comments

tom fitzpatrick

May 12, 2014 at 2:30 pm

I have to admit that the ALIEN: THE ILLUSTRATED STORY was one of the best adaption of a movie ever to be adapted to comic.

I do SO agree that Simonson was a good choice artist for this book. Any story with science fiction or space adventure, or Norse mythology, and two-page spreads are his forte!

I’m looking forward to RAGNORAK by IDW.

Jenos Idanian #13

May 12, 2014 at 7:37 pm

I’m going to respectfully disagree. There are some aspects of this adaptation that bug me a little.

1) I freely admit this is an anachronistic complaint, but the egg opening scene looks like it’s morphing into Yoda. (Alien came out in 1979, The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.) I can’t blame Simonson for that, but in hindsight it’s impossible for me to NOT see Yoda there.

2) In the chest-bursting scene, the Alien is just too damned big. It would have killed Kane before it tried to escape. While the puppet was a bit silly-looking, it was appropriately sized to fit inside Kane’s chest.

3) The full-sized Alien is way, way bigger than it was in the movie. That doesn’t bother me within the context, like the other two, but it’s not quite accurate to the film.
OK, on second thought, it does bother me within the context of the film. The Alien is on a ship scaled to humans. If it was a big as shown here, it would never be able to get around, let alone so stealthily.

On the other hand, some things I liked:

1) Yeah, Simonson did a good job capturing the likenesses of the actors without looking like Greg Land crap. It’s clearly Simonson drawing the actors.

2) The gun firing being perfectly in line with the grapnel is brilliant work.

3) The drawing of the Space Jockey is superb, and conveys the mood and atmosphere of the moment fantastically.

So, yeah, Simonson doing cosmic stuff is his stock in trade (his single issue on Legion that I mentioned on the previous entry was also great). One might even call it his SIGNATURE genre, if I may say so. And while I have some objections, I think that he was one of the best choices for this. The only other artist I think might have done as well would be Berni Wrightson.

This run has put me in mind of another possible theme: great art TEAMS. Pencilers and the inkers who just totally clicked together and made magic. A few suggestions: Neal Adams/Tom Palmer. Keith Giffen/Larry Mahlstedt. John Byrne/Terry Austin. George Perez/Romeo Tanghal. (My 80s bias is running high here, I admit.)

I can’t wait for part 5.

Jenos: I agree that the baby alien is a bit big, but I just decided to chalk it up to artistic license. Yes, it would have killed Kane before it came out, but it looks damned cool.

I don’t mind that the alien is so big. The Nostromo is a pretty big ship, so getting around doesn’t feel like a problem to me. I imagine the guts of the ship might not be as scaled to humans as the corridors, so maybe that’s it. I just like that it looks so much more impressive when it attacks the puny humans.

That’s not a bad idea about great art teams. My biggest problem with it is, as I’ve noted over the past few days (and even going back further), that I’m not very good at writing about inking, especially the division of labor between penciller and inker. If I do get better, that’s a good idea.

Jenos Idanian #13

May 12, 2014 at 8:30 pm

Greg, I agree with you about how tough it is to single out inkers, and that’s why I’m pushing the “teams” aspect. When a penciler does what is arguably their best work, and is readily comparable to other contemporary works, then it’s pretty fair to credit the inker.

Take John Byrne. At about the same time he was doing X-Men, he was also doing Avengers (inked mainly by Dan Green, I believe) and then went on to Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight (where he largely inked himself). I — and, I believe, a lot of others — think his X-men work was the best of those series, and the main difference in the artwork is that, on X-Men, he was inked by Austin.

Or Perez. He also did quite a few issues of Avengers around the same time (can you tell I’m reading old Avengers, and just got past 200?), with several inkers. But it was with Tanghal that he exploded.

Or, then, how about “pencilers who shouldn’t ink themselves?” I’d put Byrne right there — I can always tell when he does, ‘cuz he gets lazy and uses lots of blacks. (Or, in that famous Alpha Flight, several pages of white.) Same with Perez and Giffen. To me, it’s kind of ike when Marvel let writers “edit” their own work — EVERYBODY needs someone to look over their work, especially in a world like comics. I think that’s one of the first things Shooter got rid of, and it was one of his better moves.

Anyway, I’m babbilng here, and it’s not about Simonson. I guess that going off topic about my pet thoughts is a SIGNATURE move of mine…

Jenos Idanian #13

May 12, 2014 at 8:56 pm

Oh, and one suggestion for a future artist to profile:

Fred Hembeck. The Man. The Swirly Elbows And Knees. The Legend.

I still havent bought this collection…

but the colors have been redone from the pages published in ‘Heavy Metal’

Jenos: I don’t completely mind Byrne’s inks, but you’re definitely right about Austin being a better inker than he is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Austin make a penciller look bad. We’ll see that tomorrow!

I have so little Hembeck art I’m not even sure I could do two days of him. I can look – it’s a good suggestion – but I know I don’t have a lot.

ollieno: I figured they had been redone, which is why I avoided writing about them. Thanks for the info.

A Horde of Evil Hipsters

May 13, 2014 at 1:12 am

Oh, I had a copy of this as a kid. Never realised this was by Simonson, probably because I only discovered his Thor work a few years later.

In retrospect I do have to wonder why my parents thought it was a good idea to give a preteen an adaptation of “Alien”…

A Horde of Evil Hipsters

May 13, 2014 at 1:23 am

…and just as I finished writing my earlier comment I read the news that H.R. Giger died yesterday. Eerie timing on this article.

Stephen Conway

May 13, 2014 at 3:53 am

Going by this interview it looks like this is recoloured, but based off the original colours http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=41835

Jenos Idanian #13

May 13, 2014 at 6:00 am

“I have so little Hembeck art I’m not even sure I could do two days of him. I can look – it’s a good suggestion – but I know I don’t have a lot.”

Um… Greg, chum, that was a JOKE. I mean, I love Hembeck, but I don’t think his work as “evolved” over time to merit this kind of examination…

A Horde of Evil Hipsters: Huh. That’s a weird coincidence. And I would have thought Giger was much older than 74. I figured he was at least 50 when he dd Alien.

Stephen: Thanks for the link!

Jenos: Well, heck, I didn’t know! I didn’t know if early Hembeck was any different than his “classic” style, so you could have been serious! :)

LouReedRichards

May 13, 2014 at 8:31 am

I really like Simonson’s work over all, and I absolutely love Alien, but I’m not sure this works so well for me.

The inking seems to be a large part of the problem. I also don’t like the Alien being as big as he’s depicted here.

You’d think this would be a match made in heaven (and for most people it seems to be) but it’s just not doing it for me.

@Jenos Idanian #13

I’d disagree that a penciler always needs somebody else to ink their work. Certainly some benefit from having another hand in the mix, but there are tons of artist who do/did their best work doing both pencils and inks. An inker can really mess up good pencils when the inker/penciler isn’t well matched. The Simonson/Milgrom art from the other day is a good example.

John Byrne’s pencils/inks on the Fantastic four is among my all time favorite comic art, some of the inking is muddier than the rest due to his experimenting with those Japanese brush pens, but by and large I prefer his inks on his pencils. I don’t think using a lot of black is lazy – god how I wish more artist would spot blacks more often in their work.

Late 80’s and onward Bryne doesn’t do much for me, pencils or inks.

Terry Austin is an inker who I think works well for certain artist, but I think he has a tendency to overpower a lot of pencilers style. His work with Byne on the X-Men and Simonson on X-Men/Teen Titans is amazing though.

Bill Williamson

May 13, 2014 at 8:58 am

An odd coincidence that HR Giger should die the same day you decided to write about Alien: The Illustrated Story.

If indeed it WAS a coincidence…

Jeff Nettleton

May 16, 2014 at 9:06 pm

re: Simonson’s work in Star Wars.
He didn’t do that many stories; but, he did probably the most memorable single story (with Archie Goodwin), “The Hunter”, (issue 16)about a human bounty hunter with an extreme hatred for droids. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say Goodwin gave him the perfect motivation and Simonson made him look awesome.. It’s a shame that Walt didn’t have the regular gig on the book. Infantino was actually pretty good, though he had problems with drawing some of the hardware (at least, making it look like the props and models) but nothing as bad as the old Gold Key/Whitman adaptations (Star Trek, Buck Rogers), where they didn’t have any reference material and drew old school sci-fi. Archie’s stories were lightyears ahead of Lucas.

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