An exclusive look at the horrors of Aliens: Dead Orbit with James Stokoe

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Apr 6, 2017

The legendary Aliens franchise has nearly as long a history in comics as it does in film. In 1988, Dark Horse Comics published their first comics set in the world of the xenomorphs and have continued to add to the mythology ever since. In comic book form, the franchise has carved out as storied a place in the science fiction and horror realms as their cinematic counterparts.

This month, the Portland-based publisher will be adding to that tradition with the release of another Aliens masterpiece, an all-new four-issue miniseries entitled Aliens: Dead Orbit. The series is written and drawn by the inimitable James Stokoe, best known for his creator-owned series Orc Stain and his work on Godzilla: Half-Century War. His artwork is astonishingly detailed, with an infectious, monstrous energy and dynamism that needs to be experienced by every fan of comic books.

In Aliens: Dead Orbit — which I was fortunate enough to read the first issue of — Stokoe has created an incredibly tense, well-crafted story that sees a lone man quietly prolonging the inevitable aboard the Sphacteria, a deteriorating space station orbiting a remote gas giant. How he came to be alone on the station is a story that will be revealed over the course of the series, but if the first issue is any indication, readers will find themselves on the edge of their seats every panel of the way.

I got a chance to ask Stokoe a few questions about this engrossing project, and we discussed his past with the franchise, his process, what actor he based the protagonist on and much more. Plus, we have an exclusive first look at the fourth issue cover, as well as a gallery showing off each stage of Stokoe's stunning artwork from the pencils to inks to final colors.

Check out the interview below, and be sure to pick up the first issue when it hits stores on "Alien Day," April 26.

What was your first experience with the Alien franchise? And if it's not the same answer, what's your favorite Alien movie?

I think I saw the second film first. My dad, who's a huge Alien fan, was taping it off TV and twelve-year-old me came into the room right as everything was going sour for the marines. I remember that movie totally clicking with me on every level. We rented the rest of the trilogy right after, and I fell in love. After that, I bought a bunch of the Aliens comics from the used bookstore, which I credit for keeping me interested in comics for the rest of my teenage years.

As for which film is my favorite, I couldn't really say. It's either the first or second, but they're such different movies tonally that I have a hard time comparing them.

You recently posted some of your pages from your pitch on Twitter, and you described it as originally being more "actiony." How did the series evolve from that initial pitch?

Yeah, I did those a while ago, basing them on a fan comic I had done years and years ago. It was much more of an Aliens-style story than Dead Orbit, which is tighter and more claustrophobic. I think Dark Horse and Fox ultimately had an abundance of action-centric Aliens stories coming down the pipe, so they asked me to pitch something more akin to the first film. I think it was the right choice in the end. It got me out of my comfort zone a bit.

You start off in the middle of the story and flash back, which is a fairly different story structure than fans of the films would be used to. What made you land on that as a hook?

It's mostly a pacing thing. I knew there were going to be a lot of really quiet scenes in this story, with Wascylewski on his own and going about his business on the space station. I didn't want that all lumped into one long sequence at the end.

You have a very distinct art style, as does Alien, but you've done a great job of keeping them both intact. Was there anything that proved challenging — or surprisingly easy — about meshing the two together?

When I start a project like this (based on a heavily established property), I have a very distinct idea of how it should look, which is usually nothing at all like how I normally draw. I'll try to get that idea onto paper, but it almost always gets absorbed into my own style and I find a happy medium after a few pages. I also noticed this while working on Godzilla, and my style shifted after that wrapped. I like the idea that I'm ingesting all these things I love and am interested in coming out the other side a bit different.

The more Giger-centric stuff is a bit trickier to tackle. He was definitely his own artist, and that's a tough nut to crack into.

Your work is extraordinarily detailed. Do you work at a larger page size to accommodate that? How much of the work do you do digitally?

Nah, I tend to work on the standard-sized board. There's not too much to say about my process, just pens and paper. The only thing I do on the computer is coloring, abusing the gradient tool.

There is a ton of design work put into the space station and technology. How much did you look at the Alien films when designing it?

I look at a lot of Ron Cobb, even when I'm not working on an Alien book. His production designs on the first film are amazing, and there's a ton of inspiration from those, though I doubt any of my designs would work in real life like his do.

What makes Wascylewski a compelling protagonist to you?

He's actually based, to a small extent, on the actor Charles Bronson. I was reading some old article about him and he came across as a guy who just showed up on set and sat quietly in a corner until it was time to do his job. Very workmanlike. He said something like, "I became an actor because it sounded like the easiest way to make a lot of money," and I thought that would be the perfect type of person to be contracted to work long tours in a quiet end of space. I'm a sucker for a stoic protagonist anyway, and you don't get much more stoic than Charlie Bronson.

The first issue does a great job of quietly ratcheting up the horror and tension, and I can only assume there's much more terror to come. Without getting too spoilery, what are you most excited for readers to experience in upcoming issues?

I'm working on a pretty nasty scene right now that I'm pretty excited about. I've been back to it three or four times, thinking, "This needs to be juicier!" So, take that how you will!

There's a scene in Issue #3 that I'm pretty excited for, where you get to see what the xenomorphs have been up to in the station. Also, there's one cameo from the films (hint: it's a wet donut).

Xenomorphs have been said to symbolize all sorts of primal fears, depending on who's interpreting the story. What's the scariest thing about them to you personally?

Like anything, I think they're creepier the less you know about them. I love most of the sequels and other stories, but they do tend to demystify them a lot, which takes away from the horror. I've got a production book about the first film where Ridley Scott was explaining how he intended the Alien to be a savage, removed from its own culture and identity and reverting to its basic primal instincts, like a baby with fangs. That's not a concept that leaps out at you during the film because you know nothing about the Alien or where it comes from at that point, but it's a wicked idea.

Aliens: Dead Orbit #1 is on sale from Dark Horse Comics on April 26. All artwork by James Stokoe.