Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nighttime Readings...

Does anyone these days even pay attention to the Alien franchise anymore? After Jean-Paul Jeunet successfully ran the franchise into the ground in 1997, two Predator crossovers have yet to revive the popularity of what might be one of the scariest movie monsters ever conceived. Fortunately, it seems redemption is on the horizon. Dark Horse Books has not only begun releasing new novels based on the Aliens universe (and bringing in top-selling authors such as Diane Carey, John Shirley, and S.D. Perry, to boot), but have also begun to re-release their archives of Aliens comic books - some never before collected - in their new Omnibus series of books.

Back in the nineties, it seemed like Dark Horse just might challenge for an upper echelon spot among the Marvel and DC titles dotting the landscape. With unique titles such as Hellboy, Ghost, and The Mask, and with license agreements for Predator, Star Wars, Terminator, and Tarzan, there seemed no stopping what has since become one of the largest independent comic companies in the United States. And the Aliens license was right there, with multiple series exploring more and more about not only the Aliens universe, but also the basic functionality of how the "bugs" tick. What drives them? This was the overlying question many comic writers asked themselves when they compiled these books.

When I first glimpsed the Omnibus series, I have to admit; I was intrigued. Though I owned a number of the collected trades already (my copies of Rogue and Genocide are worn to shambles by now) I was interested to see what was included in these collections, if they were as complete as they could be.

Oh, boy, were they.

I picked up Aliens Omnibus: Volume 2 and was immediately awestruck when I opened to the table of contents and read the third title listed: Aliens: Colonial Marines. The first issue of Colonial Marines had been printed in January of 1993, and I'd had a chance to read my cousin's copy of issues 1 and 2. Eager to read the rest, I searched comic shops all over Boston... without luck at all. I so desperately wanted to finish the story, but had no means to do so, and by the time the Internet came around, I'd completely forgotten my longing to complete the series. Now I had it in front of me, never before collected, and just waiting for me to plunk down my $24.95 (plus tax) to read it en masse. I was ready.

But there were two other stories included as well, both brimming with promise, and, good reviewer I am, I'll review all three in this special edition of The Latest Issue.

In the first story, Aliens: Genocide, Earth is in a delicate time. The planet is just recovering from an invasion of acid-blooded, face-chomping, bug-like aliens, and Everyone is doing their part to help the world recover. Of those people is multi-billionaire and all-around grease ball Daniel Grant, CEO of the Grant Corporation, one of the strongest companies to emerge from the post-war ashes to help rebuild the world. Grant isn't truly an evil sort, but he's definitely one who expects things to go without a hitch, so he's understandably upset when his company's new wonder-drug, Xeno-Zip - derived from the medical breakthroughs discovered from studying the alien biology - triggers something of an abnormal reaction in a small percentage of people, creating berserkers and hyper speed-freaks. This reaction is due to a synthetic element in the drug, created to mimic something that can't be found on Earth: An alien Queen's Royal Jelly.

Naturally, the army loves Xeno-Zip, side effects and all, so Grant strikes a deal with them: Help me get Royal Jelly from the Alien home planet to perfect my commercial formula, and I'll supply the army with an unlimited supply of the "flawed" drug. This introduces Major Alex Lee, the youngest holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor and an honorable soldier who fully questions the need for this mission to exist. Add in a hidden saboteur who would like nothing more than to see Daniel Grant fail and an inter-species Alien war, and you've got a fairly compelling five-part story that doesn't skimp on the alien-human violence.

As one of the better written stories in the bunch, John Arcudi (The Mask, Gen 13) deserves a lot of credit. The story paces smoothly, with character development readily moving the story forward, as Grant becomes a more sympathetic character and the soldiers themselves gaining some face-time to grow. On top of that, the art is exceptionally consistent, with Damon Willis and Karl Story (Batman, Aliens vs. Predator) doing terrific work on pencils and inks, in that order, and my personal favorite Arthur Suydam (whose covers for Marvel Zombies, Black Panther, and Wolverine have lately been fantastic) bringing his unique color scheme to this title to complete an all-around good look that is consistent throughout all five issues. My only complaint with this story is the seeming lack of drawn-out battles with the alien species: with the exception of one shown battle, most of the fights are short and not-t00-sweet. We at the Latest issue like to know who's getting killed when, even if that character never uttered a word the entire time, as it was in the second Aliens movie.

We loved Rogue, though. It was a fair reminder of just how good Dark Horse can get when they bring in the right talent to get the job done. A plus mark for the first third of the book.

We wish we could say the same for Aliens: Harvest. It brings a unique idea to the table: Dr. Stan Mayakovsky builds an android replicate of an Alien with the intent of stealing into a hive and stealing Royal Jelly, which has become a precious commodity on the black market. Of course, Stan doesn't care about that, he just wants enough to stop the cancer that has ravaged his body, and let his partners do what they will with the rest.

To complete his task, Stan builds XL1, or Norbert; A synthetic alien design with advanced intelligence and one mission: infiltrate the alien hive, and commandeer the favored royal jelly (stop me if you've heard this before). XL1 certainly comes in handy when Mayakovsky and his team become stranded on the planet surface, facing hordes of alien legions.

With the exception of the alien android XL1, there really isn't anything about Harvest that stands out. The writing of Jerry Prosser (one of the co-creators of Dark Horse, The Crow) is mediocre at best, confoundedly difficult to understand at worst. I could forgive the equally awful artwork by Kelley Jones (Batman, Sandman) if the writing was a little better. At least the art was unique. I wish I could say more about this title, but honest to heart, I just wanted to get this bad part over with before I got to the part of the book I really wanted to see.

Aliens: Colonial Marines starts off great. A deep space waste-disposal facility is our first destination, as the crew not-so-merrily launches barrel after barrel of toxic waste into the local yellow star. It's the ass end of space, and the crew is trying to finish the current shipment before the local administrator for Alpha Tech stops by to supervise their work and drop off a replacement security detachment. Knowing this is coming, the crew is shocked and appalled when they observe a new ship, the Laing, coming in to make an unscheduled delivery. They never know until the last second that the Laing is home to a whole nest of Aliens, at least not until it's too late.

This brings us to USCM base Dover, where a young Lt. Joseph Henry is sitting in the brig, punishment for striking a superior officer. Henry has always been one to dismiss authority, probably caused by the precipitous relationship shared with his father, head of the Joint Services Committee, and one who was never around during Henry's youth. Henry learns he has been tabbed to run a platoon of untrainable goldbrick marines and take them to a hard labor station to try to work them into reasonable soldiers. Aided by no-nonsense Sergeant Nyland and gigantic synthetic Liston, Henry is also bringing administrator Beliveau and his hand-picked security team to that very waste disposal facility. This leads to a race against time to see who's manipulating the aliens and leads to some very frantic firefights. At least that's the idea.

The first three issues are great. Chris Warner (Barb Wire, Aliens vs. Predator) is very dialogue heavy, but once the action sets in, he's as good as any writer out there. And he's helped by the best part of the book, penciler Tony Akins (Heartbreakers, Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi) who by far does the best work in the entire book, with solid art and recognizable characters. It's a joy to read the first three chapters for his work alone.

However, that's when the honeymoon ends. I don't know if this crew were first signed to do the whole series, but after these issues Dark Horse made a change, with Kelley Puckett (Batgirl, Supergirl) taking over the script and Allen Nunis (X-Wing Rogue Squadron) doing the artwork. There's not much to say, but I will anyway: Bad dialogue, lousy and inconsistent artwork. They traded in Warner and Akins for these schlubs? Fortunately, Akins makes a quick one-time return to drawing in issue 7, and Dan Jolley (Obergeist, Firestorm) takes over writing duties in issue 9, to finish the series. Also, John Nadeau (X-Wing Rogue Squadron) begins in issue 8 to create images far superior to that of Nunis and even Akins. The last three issues in the series are by far the best, though they might have been better if not for the mediocrity that preceded them.

This series has troubles, doubt me not. First and foremost, while the truly main characters are fleshed out and humanized to great extents, many of the "grunts" who are portrayed here never are. Rake, Rosemas, Chen, Cvercko, Maryland, Beech, Bateman, Berganza, Carrano, Koo, Forsyth, Dinkel, Vormitag and Boston are all just names, not characters with pasts or stories to tell. Even potentially intriguing characters like Carmen Vazquez (little sister of the more famous Vazquez as portrayed in Aliens) are poorly used. They're all just backdrop. To top it off, it seems none of the artists really synced up with how any character was supposed to look; With the exception of the "minority" characters, none of the secondary people seem to differentiate from one another, resulting in confusing glances from the reader as to wonder who the hell's dialogue he just read. Top that off with Nunis' bad art, Puckett's bad writing, poor layouts and the apparent cutting of the series from twelve issues to ten (which might have solved some of the character problems) and you have a purely bellow-average scoring series that could have been much more.

I wish I loved this book more. Genocide was fantastic, Harvest was atrocious, and Colonial Marines was just so-so. Better and worse series have existed than these three, but for a barometer of what the Aliens franchise is capable of, check out this book.

Just don't pay full price.