The Aliens are coming back -- and back in a classic era.
Friday at the "Dark Horse: CLASSIFIED!" panel at New York Comic-Con, the publisher announced an ongoing series titled Aliens: Defiance beginning in April. Set between the first two films, this new series follows an injured Colonial Marine named Zula Hendricks who breaks out of her confines to mount a new attack on the Aliens.
Hendricks is much like the classic Alien heroine Ellen Ripley, according to series writer Brian Wood. And artist Tristan Jones, fresh off work on Mad Max: Fury Road, is a hardcore fan of the franchise with enthusiasm to spare to make this series work. Newsarama talked to both of them about revisiting the classic era of the Aliens franchise and how it fits into the broader franchise both in comic books and movies.
Newsarama: Brian, what is Aliens: Defiance about?
Brian Wood: It’s a ‘classic’ story set in the Aliens universe, and by ‘classic’ I’m thinking back to the vibe of the first couple Aliens movies, action-survival-horror with a relatable central character and loads of deep space ambiance. Also, this series isn’t deep into continuity and is designed to be its own thing, not tying into the other Aliens/Predator/Prometheus titles Dark Horse is doing.
Tristan Jones: The thing that I love about Alien is how grounded the whole thing felt, and I think some of the subsequent films sort of lost that. Aliens: Defiance feels like Aliens via Alien. It’s a weird thing to say, I know, but there’s an over the top feel to Aliens that sort of pulled away from the grounded nature of the original that made it so horrifically real. What Brian’s done is take ideas that everyone loved from Aliens and given them a much more realistic feel.
I think the thing that stands out the most in that is the way he’s presenting the Colonial Marine Corps. What Alien did for the over-worked and underpaid trucker/maritime worker types, Aliens: Defiance does for the military. Where Aliens kind of made being a soldier in space exciting with all the “Hoo-rah” stuff and pulse rifles, and kind of robbed the creatures of what made them so horrifying in Alien, this goes “No, this is what being a soldier in this world would really be like…” and brings the guns without reducing the creatures to fodder.
Nrama: Tristan, will be drawing all the different permutations of the Aliens? Can you explain how you're going about drawing the various ones?
Jones: I’m hoping so… I’ve spoken to/vomited copious amounts of universe nerdery at Brian and Dave, so I’m pretty certain we’ll see things both familiar and new. I’ve kind of been working with an idea in mind regarding why the alien morphology changes that may or may not be presented in the dialogue, and I don’t want to tip that hand just yet in case we make a bigger deal of it down the road. I think, regardless of whether people liked the film or not, Prometheus brought a great deal to the Alien universe and given what’s in that film and how it applies to the universe as a whole, I’m pretty sure we’ll see even more variation. At the end of the day though, I just want to make things as H.R. Giger-esque as possible without losing my own voice, so the original creature and design is what I’ll be using as a base and really just building out from there.
Nrama: Can you tell readers about the Colonial Marine at the center of this, Zula Hendricks?
Wood: She’s a young woman who was not very far into her career as a Marine when she was seriously injured and is now currently undergoing treatment in the Alien-universe version of a V.A. hospital. She took a lot of damage to her spine, has a trouble walking unassisted. She languishes at Tranquility Base on Luna, watching her squad-mates move on with their lives and careers, and wondering why this had to happen to her.
Jones: She’s a broken person that put herself back together as best she can, aware that she’ll never be the same but perseveres all the same. She’s determined, but there’s a sense of underlying anxiety.
Wood: She fits well into that Ellen Ripley-esque. work-a-day, blue-collar type of character. Her story also has resonance to themes of our day, war, veteran’s issues, and related social themes. I feel like this was the stuff we saw in Alien, back in the 70’s, and it works now as well.
Nrama: When is this set in the sprawling Aliens timeline?
Wood: Pretty early on… I would say more or less concurrent with the Alien: Isolation story. We even have a cameo with Amanda Ripley at the start of our story. She and Zula are known to each other. If you want to talk dates, the events of Alien occurred during the in-story year of 2122, with Aliens being 2179. We’re at around 2136 or 37.
Nrama: Getting back to the character, what specifically prompted Zula to have such a murderous intent for the Aliens?
Wood: Well, since this is fairly early on in the overall Alien story (at least in terms of their contact with humans), the Aliens are not well known at all, not to Weyland-Yutani or to the Marines, the two primary institutions in this story. Sure, they know something’s out there, but it’s all still a little hazy on the details. It’s not until a derelict freighter is noticed, drifting towards Luna, that Weyland-Yutani sends up a squad of combat synthetics to investigate what they secretly suspect might be an interesting and potentially exploitable alien contagion.
Zula is the sole representative of the Colonial Marines on this corporate salvage mission, presented to her as just a quick trip to the derelict to restore power and get it under control. The core of the story isn’t that they find the xenomorphs there, because, well, duh, but it’s what Zula does about it next.
As far as her murderous intent, as you say, I’m not sure I would use that term. I mean, obviously, she’s a trained soldier and these are vicious creatures, so there’s a fair amount of trigger-pulling going on, but it’s not like it’s a revenge story. She’s very much on the defense here, as this is the first time she’s heard of or seen aliens like this.
Nrama: The subtitle of this is "Defiance": What does that mean for this series?
Wood: It’s in reference to the fact that Zula, and the rest of the cast, go A.W.O.L. to carry out their mission. It’s a noble sort of defiance, breaking the rules for the greater good.
Nrama: Is it just Zula vs. Aliens, or are there other characters involved as well?
Wood: The primary cast is Zula and a squad of combat synthetics, collectively named Davis. These are rather basic models, falling somewhere between Worker Joe and a more advanced model like Bishop. They are owned and operated by Weyland as corporate mercenaries. Their squad leader, Davis One, forms a friendship with Zula.
There are a few secondary characters who come along a little later - Zula’s doctor from back on Luna, a geneticist named Hollis they meet along the way, and a whole bunch of angry Marines, to name a few. But this is not an ensemble book, this is really Zula’s story, or Zula + Davis.
Nrama: Tristan, you’re coming to this after doing great with Mad Max Fury Road: Furiosa, and some other licensed work. What interests you about doing these movie/TV/game tie-ins?
Jones: Aw thanks! I really only go in for titles that mean something to me personally. I think the great thing about licensed books is that they give you an opportunity to explore those universes in ways that you can’t in their original mediums. Whether the license holders actually do that is something else, but I love the idea of being able to really get in and do something new. One of my favorite things about working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back at Mirage was that the Turtles themselves barely figured into things, and I was given a chance to really look at other aspects of that world. I think Defiance is similar, and I’m stoked that Brian, Dark Horse and our dude over at Fox are letting us really examine a lot of different aspects of how that universe and the people inhabiting it work.
Nrama: Brian, I know you're selective about what licensed comic book work you do - why was Aliens something that appealed to you?
Wood: I’ve been writing comics for almost 20 years now and the vast, vast majority of that time has been spent on creator-owned work. It’s really only been during 2012-2014 that I did a lot of work-for-hire and licensed stuff, and now I’m back again to mostly creator-owned. Aliens: Defiance is the one exception at the moment.
First of all, it’s Aliens, and Aliens is awesome. It’s also something I think was and still is culturally important and still resonates, and of course it’s always flattering to be asked to contribute to big name properties like this. My editor at the time did a great job of pitching the opportunity to me, and I couldn’t help but agree to it.
Similarly, talking to Josh Izzo, our contact at Fox, has been great as well, very productive and inspiring.
Nrama: Tristan, what about you – why Aliens?
Jones: I’ve been a huge fan of Brian’s work ever since DMZ first hit, so when he first hit me up about it, I was down before I even knew what it was about, and having just finished an issue of Rebels for the dude, I am even more excited about working with him on this. It’s kind of funny—after I finished Mad Max: Fury Road: Furiosa, I was telling Nicola Scott (who has been a tremendous support to me professionally) that I was pretty much done with licensed books and wanted to start doing creator-owned stuff (which, funnily enough was largely inspired by The Massive), but would drop everything to write and draw an Aliens book, or work with a really good writer if I couldn’t do it myself. Literally, within an hour of getting home, Brian hit me up about Aliens: Defiance… I was straight on the phone to Nic like, “You will not believe this…!”
The Alien universe is also pretty much the only thing I genuinely geek out about. I saw the first movie when I was five and that was entirely due to the fact that I made my dad get me the Aliens comics Dark Horse were publishing in the late ‘80s because I was so mesmerized by the look of the alien itself, so the creature, the comics and the movies have been a pretty huge part of my upbringing. Aliens: Labyrinth and Aliens: Salvation were both pretty instrumental in my creative development, too. Nobody drew the creatures quite like Killian Plunkett, and Mignola’s Mignola, so… y’know…!
Nrama: You're working with Australian artist Tristan Jones. What's your appraisal of his work with what you have planned in the comic book?
Wood: I’m only recently aware of Tristan’s work, but became an instant fan. He’s a huge Aliens fan and posts up sketches of xenomorphs often enough that he was my first choice to draw this book. In a lot of important ways I rely on him as a sort of unofficial co-writer, since he knows more about the Aliens universe that I ever could, and has all the obscure reference material and just lives and breathes the aesthetic. He picks up where I falter. It’s a good partnership.
Nrama: Is this a one-off series for you, or could you see yourself doing more Aliens series in the future?
Wood: Sure I’ll do more, if possible. It’s always a balance between what I’m working on now and the big list in my head of other things I want to get to some day. I’m doing more and more work in video games and television, so I think that will force me to be more selective about the comics work I take on. But for now I have 12 issues minimum of this to write, so I don’t have to make up my mind right now.