By Arpad Okay. Take your time with James Stokoe’s Aliens: Dead Orbit. Get lost in the panels, the copious details. Way Station Sphacteria is cluttered with sci-fi ephemera and space trucker detritus. The thousand details of keypads and monitors, panels and bolts, switches, LEDs, tracks and levers — all of it falls into place like a mad schematic. They are legion.
There is an intention to their presence: you don’t see the crew fiddling with each and every compartment (there’s no one left to do so even if they wanted to), but the presence of all this hardware in disrepair makes the Sphacteria feel authentic, storied, real. Now it serves as a labyrinth for two. Wascylewski, the hunted, and Giger’s parasite, the hunter.
Wascylewski isn’t hard to find in these crowded pages. Despite the gleeful complexity of the setting, there’s no chance of overlooking the story’s focus: can he get out of this alive? The density aims to slow the reader down. The storytelling, Wascylewski’s solitude, both are conveyed mostly without words. Linger, and soak up the atmosphere.
There’s no one for him to talk to outside his dreams; he dares not make a sound or he will alert the dark passenger to his presence. His alarming reverie, a memory of dead friends, is bookended by near silence. The dialogue will trick you into speeding up, into the comfort that makes Wascylewski talk to himself. Don’t. Don’t make a sound. Don’t rush. The safest pace in Aliens: Dead Orbit is crawling dread.
You read a Stokoe book because he writes something much more than a new take on the source material. His style of art is serious, severe, but not bound to strict realism or franchise gloss. Dead Orbit is pulp. It’s seriously dark. The wash of subtle colors has the tender palette of a bruise, a risograph print abrasion. Its visual vibe is the classic Dark Horse series aesthetic, its atmosphere is of the first film. The quiet, the detailed ship, the misanthropic teammates, Dead Orbit nails the core essentials of Alien. But where Scott’s film was slick and sterile, Stokoe’s book is a junkyard pile of fresh horrors.
The work is powerful. Inspired by, not based on. If you don’t know the franchise, it’s a damn thrilling read. If you do, there are clues for you, things to make the inevitable all the more painful. Stokoe makes horror better, and Aliens bursts with promise.
Dark Horse Comics/$3.99
Written, illustrated, and lettered by James Stokoe.
7 out of 10