A modern master of detail and structure takes on one of cinema’s most terrifying creations. We take a spoiler free advance look at James Stokoe’s “Aliens: Dead Orbit” #1.
Written and Illustrated by James Stokoe
After a horrific accident strikes a space station, an engineering officer must use all available tools—a timer, utility kit, and his wits—to survive an attack from the deadliest creature known to man.
Much like the release of “Godzilla: The Half Century War,” Stokoe’s previous mini-series about a cinematic monster, “Aliens: Dead Orbit” feels like a perfect fit for his hyper-detailed, insanely creative pagework. The ‘Alien’ universe, first brought to us by Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger (as well as the countless others that worked on that seminal 1979 horror) is a grimy, ‘lived-in’ sci-fi world, the starships covered in tubes and pipes and air ducts that feel like they’ve been welded together from hundreds of spare parts over centuries of use. Stoke’s gorgeously ugly, wonderfully intricate line-work doesn’t bother giving the reader an approximation of this fictional reality, it recreates it painstakingly in every panel.
Fans of his work will already know what to expect going into this book but even then, prepare to be surprised. Stokoe’s detail demands that you examine every panel, rewarding you with more and more to see as we’re exposed to a ship and a crew that feel lifted directly from the movies. The plot is fairly similar to what we’ve seen previously in this franchise, although one gets the sense this is more in reverential homage than lack of imagination. The structure of the book uses the present as a framing narrative for flashbacks to explain how a mission to explore an abandoned salvage vessel leads to the station’s engineer on his own repairing a ship that’s failing around him. There may also be a hideous black acid monster made of knives and hate that’s slowly hunting him, but we don’t want to spoil it too much.
The pacing of “Aliens: Dead Orbit” and the nature of the set-up implies that Stokoe is leaning heavily on the original movie for influence. This is a slow burn, with moments of graphic, explosive shock in juxtaposition. There is genuinely frightening imagery and, like all good horror, the monster is teased and only revealed at the moment of peak tension in a visually stunning way. Stokoe’s style is perfect for pacing a slower story, as you want to pause and take in every panel, and despite how busy everything is, there’s a startling feeling of silence in the quieter moments. This could be due to Stokoe’s lettering style, choosing to make the sound effects small and localised to their source, like a beeping alarm panel or a whirring stasis pod or the solemn ‘k-thunk, k-thunk, k-thunk’ of anti-gravity boots on the hull of a starship, their noise eaten up by the overwhelming silence of space. Consequently, when something makes a loud noise it frightens you; a comic page – an inherently silent medium – has the ability to startle you and break through that silence.
Our protagonist – engineer Wascylewski – is introduced to us in a panel that utilizes imagery plucked from the deep lore of the Alien franchise in a nice nod to what’s come before. Likewise, Stokoe has taken the design elements from the movies that seem inconsequential – the look of instrumentation, the displays on comm panels for example – and developed a set piece in the Starship Sphacteria that is new to us but instantly recognizable as being of this same, shared universe. It’s that attention to detail that elevates “Aliens: Dead Orbit” above what must be hundreds of comic stories over the years and makes this feel like a vital addition to the canon.
The character designs are strong, with each of the cast looking distinctive and just as ‘lived-in’ as the world they inhabit. Stokoe’s facial work and body language are reminiscent of Katsuhiro Atomo’s work on “Akira,” in that it’s exaggerated in a dynamic way, but never spills over into the cartoonish. Their emotions and thoughts are clearly there to interpret when the intention is to do so, and the movement feels fluid and natural while still making full use of the medium. A good example is a thrilling set piece in the center of the issue concerning the fate of the crew of the abandoned salvage vessel. Here, Stokoe pulls all of his skills together to form a tense, frightening and frenetic scene: the panels instantly shrink, increasing your reading speed; the speech bubbles become jagged and frantic as the cast panic; sound effects explode around them as the situation turns deadly; the background swiftly becomes a wash of reds and orange to subconsciously fill your mind with danger; and the graphic detail of the consequences of said danger are horrifyingly realised.
Much like Moebius, much like Geoff Darrow, there’s always a purpose to James Stokoe’s intricate level of detail. As a reader it feels almost cathartic; every page is a treasure trove of pipes and buttons and tubes and boxes that make you slow down and really examine the craft that goes into developing art like this. Here though, in “Aliens: Dead Orbit,” that purpose is to not only faithfully recreate an already existing universe, but to draw you into the mundanity before exploiting that engagement with visceral horror, betraying (or maybe rewarding) your investment in the everyday background intricacy with loud, tension shattering terror. The titular creature may make a late showing in this issue, but its presence is felt throughout. “Aliens: Dead Orbit” #1 is more than just the build before the payoff, but it’s very much the opening chapter of what promises to be a deeply engaging, frightening book. The stunning artwork throughout, and the precision of the pacing and plot feels like a real regeneration of an overworked franchise, and as such shouldn’t be missed.
Final Verdict: 9.2 – A new book by James Stokoe is always a highlight, but “Aliens: Dead Orbit” #1 is a rich and rewarding chapter in what promises to be a must-read addition to the franchise.