After a few months off, James Stokoe returns to conclude his singular take on the Alien franchise. Can he stick the landing?
Written and Illustrated by James Stokoe
With one last gambit aboard the space station, Wascylewski finds himself ambushed by two more deadly xenomorphs that will stop at nothing until he’s dead. The conclusion to Orc Stain creator James Stokoe’s thrilling and claustrophobic Aliens story!
There’s something special about a comics creator who can both write and draw their own book. Get them to color and letter it themselves as well and they usually achieve something no creative team of multiple people, no matter how well they work together, could create. Stokoe goes straight for the visceral horror for his final issue of “Aliens: Dead Orbit,” and it’s successful in a way that only the work of a single creator could be.
Stokoe uses very few pieces of dialogue, all in the first half of the book, but beyond that, the story is told exclusively through the visuals. The dialogue isn’t even particularly meaningful, for the most part. It’s there to set the tone more than anything. People are shouting, everyone is everywhere, there’s nothing good or helpful that anyone could say, and anything could be behind any corner. By that same token, the dialogue is much more of a showcase for Stokoe to use lettering to add to his art than it is for story progression. Shouting word balloons are claustrophobically placed just too close to characters for comfort, and the bubbles’ unevenly spiky edges poke into the characters’ bodies. Anxious worry is written slightly smaller than other dialogue and given more than enough personal space to scare itself, both within a panel and within its shaky curved word balloon which looks like someone tried to draw a circle while trembling. In a sort of backwards way, these touches tell this story in a way words never could.
The plot of “Aliens: Dead Orbit” is fairly simple and, though I’ve never seen an Alien movie (writing for this site has shown me just how many pieces of popular culture I’ve been completely in the dark about), it seems familiar. That doesn’t matter. Stokoe’s pacing kills it, and that’s what gives this book its bite. As with any great piece of horror, it’s all about the build-up. From both a macro sense, where the first few pages lead to a horrifying middle which itself sets us up for an exhilarating final showdown, to a micro sense, where the panel-to-panel pacing ensures that every moment has the most effective set-up for getting you engrossed before delivering a scare, all moments are built up in the best possible way.
All this and I haven’t even gotten to “Aliens: Dead Orbit”’s actual illustrations. Needless to say, they’re every bit as gorgeously detailed as fans of Stokoe have come to expect. This issue doubled down on the scares, providing multiple scenes of sudden Xenomorph appearances. As mentioned, these are all built up well, like with a trio of panels from one character’s perspective as he moves closer and closer to an item before an alien bursts out of an unexpected area to attack him. As important as the set-up panels are, though, it’s the scare panels that completely sell these moments.
The scare panels are always fluid, created with the eye of an animator. Speed lines will appear around the creature, and the item they’re bursting out of will be unnaturally jolting upwards and outwards, with small bits of it breaking off and flying out. The creatures are also usually holding onto the side of whatever they’re crawling out of, meaning you can almost feel the weight they’re supporting with their lanky, grotesque, almost humanlike arms.
It helps, too, that Stokoe does a fantastic job with the body language of the crew. From facial expressions down to the subtler touches in the hands or leg stance, you can feel exactly what type of fear each character is experiencing at any moment: anxious, angry, curious, terrified, blank, determined, and on and on. It’s amazing how many ways Stokoe has found to display variations of the same basic emotion.Continued below
Oh, and the colors! Sticking to Aliens standard, “Aliens: Dead Orbit” depicts the titular aliens as pitch black with some dark details, blending in with the darkness when needed and standing out against lighter backgrounds to amp up their visual power in the scare panels. The spaceship is all shades of light and dark blue and purple, while explosions, lights, and sound effects stand out by sticking to the red-orange-yellow side of the color spectrum. Every color has its place and serves a different role, being used in direct, planned conjunction with the art and story to achieve visual harmony in the most terrifying possible way.
Overall, “Aliens: Dead Orbit” was one tense, satisfying conclusion to an incredible, singular take on the Aliens concept. Even with a somewhat derivative plot, Stokoe’s one-man creative vision set “Aliens: Dead Orbit” apart from pretty much any other comic I’ve ever read. The story may not particularly stick with me, but Stokoe’s shocking take on the scenes will.
Final Verdict: 8.5 – A visceral conclusion that shows how a one-man creative vision can turn a straightforward take on an established franchise into something special.