A Weyland-Yutani crew investigates an unmarked vessel in high orbit containing a team in cryogenic sleep, a ship in ruins, and parasitic monsters waiting to attack.
Aliens: Dead Orbit is a newly released trade paperback (April 3, 2018), collecting all four issues of the miniseries of the same name. Story, art, and lettering are by James Stokoe. I’ve been a big Aliens fan for most of my life, so when I first heard buzz about this book over half a year ago I decided to jump on the opportunity to read another good story in the franchise when it became available. While there are a lot of comic books written about the Xenomorph—the fan name for the titular alien creatures featured within—this book is completely standalone. Though some prior experience with the franchise may help with understanding the context of some background details, this could be someone’s first experience with the franchise entirely.
Something tricky about a new standalone Alien(s) story is the fact that most of them follow a very familiar framework. I’m definitely not the first person to point this out; I’ve heard critics point it out and when reflecting on the films and other material I’ve read recently it became pretty clear to me too. Each work may put twist on the formula in some way that makes it unique in its own right, but most of them ostensibly recycle the original Ridley Scott film. In many ways Dead Orbit does this too. The crew is a bunch of blue collar workers on a grungy space station who happen upon a derelict that inflicts the aliens upon them after an investigation. A bonus point I will give this story on this note in particular, though: the alien embryos get on board without someone sticking their idiot face into something they shouldn’t. The circumstances leading to the infected individuals being brought back make narrative sense (which has been in short supply in the latest films).
We follow Wascylewski, or “Wassy,” the engineering officer of this orbital way station deep out in space. The story cuts between the present, where he is alone, the station is falling apart, and its orbit is degrading, and the recent past just before everything went to hell. As the story cuts between past and present we learn that a couple of aliens are on board, which have killed or taken most of his other crewmates, and of how he ended up where he was at the onset. One of the familiar trappings of an Alien(s) story is the corporate devaluing of human life, which I was pleased was not featured in this story as a plot point. It’s not a noted that needed to be struck once again. What we are treated to is a simple yet effective story of people trying to survive under desperate circumstances. The aliens and the destruction they have wrought are horrific obstacles that must be overcome, seemingly having come to them thanks to the worst luck in the universe.
Though the skeleton of the story is fairly generic, this is elevated substantially by Stokoe’s art. It’s gritty with a slight cartoonish quality that allows for the characters to be particularly expressive, conveying feelings better than words ever could, be it annoyance, terror, or apprehensive desire. The unique visuals enhance the horror, the less realistic style juxtaposing with the violence and pain of the content in a way that makes it more unsettling. There are some great unique moments of body horror too, highlighting how badly their technology can go wrong. Stokoe’s backgrounds are also highly detailed, making the environments feel cluttered and claustrophobic in a way that builds atmosphere. There’s a lot of spoken dialogue and context given in the flashback storyline, but a lot of great visual storytelling takes place in the present when he is on his own too.
In a lot of ways Aliens: Dead Orbit feels like a quintessential Aliens story to me. It does not hold the same weight as the original films, but it faithfully encapsulates the horror and dread that these creatures bring. Space habitation is a precarious, mechanical nightmare; a place where these creatures thrive while we only really manage to survive. It doesn’t matter much where they came from, just that they’re there and hope is fading fast. Characters fight back against the horror, and even persevere, but once they’ve escaped or got the aliens licked, they don’t really win either. If you’ve not read much Aliens stuff before and you’re interested, definitely check this book out. As a fan, don’t expect to be wowed by a new narrative take on the creatures, but rather a fantastically told story with great art that captures the spirit of what makes the Xenomorph such an icon of horror.
My rating: 4 out of 5