Game over, man!: The Love/Hate Relationship between 'Aliens' and its Tie-In Books
There was a time when the wait between movies in a beloved franchise was agonizing. Every rumor, however farfetched, was pored over and the years were interminable. These days, however, are an age of miracles. Star Wars is on the big screen. Marvel and DC duke it out with two or more movies per year. Whereas there was a dozen years between Terminator 2 and Terminator 3, in that same amount of time two more sequels have been made. Whether or not any of this is healthy remains to be seen, but before the 21st century video games, comic books and, most importantly, novels were sometimes the only avenues for a hungry fan.
Some of those novels included Aliens from Bantam Books. From 1992 to 1998 Bantam adapted nine Aliens comics by Dark Horse Comics, followed by a gutter of years before DH Press started publishing original material in 2005. These Bantam books are tenuously connected at best, maintained largely by Steve Perry and his daughter Stephani, but what's fascinating is how they've been overridden four times: by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, the DH Press books, and finally the Titan books released since 2014. This is the plight of the devout, seeing beloved characters relegated to a lower rung of importance or forgotten altogether.
On the 30th anniversary of James Cameron's Aliens, however, those neglected books are being given a fresh coat of paint. Not only is Dark Horse releasing an unaltered (more on that later) hardcover edition of the original series, Mark Verheiden's 1988 Aliens, but Titan is compiling every Aliens novel into Omnibus editions. With that in mind, there's no better time to look back at this strange, evolving expanded universe that managed to be more ambitious and epic than anything that followed.
In its early years Dark Horse was known for continuing popular movies: everything from Predator to RoboCop to Indiana Jones, with Star Wars in particular having a substantial and well-loved run. Under similar, but much more impressive, circumstances to Aliens, Bantam's Star Wars novels intertwined with Dark Horse and anything Lucasfilm related, from video games to tabletop RPGs.
Kevin Anderson, writer of The Jedi Academy Trilogy and many subsequent Star Wars books, explained in his forward to the first edition trade paperback of Dark Empire:
When you read Dark Empire, or any of the other novels, remember that although Lucasfilm has approved them, these are our sequels, not George Lucas's. If Lucasfilm ever makes films that take place after Return of the Jedi, they will be George Lucas's own creations, probably with no connection to anything we have written.
He was half-right, as Disney's 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm meant sequels but not by Lucas, and the subsequent brushing aside of 20+ years worth of material.
But in simpler times, Verheiden was one man with free reign. He picks up with the later dubbed Aliens: Book One 10 years after the events of Aliens. Newt is in a mental institute and Hicks is suffering PTSD. When a xenomorph is discovered on a deep space freighter, it's traced back to its planet of origin. Hicks is tasked with retrieving a specimen for the Colonial Marines, and brings along Newt as a consultant. What they don't know is that evil corporation Weyland-Yutani has already retrieved a specimen, and while Hicks and Newt are gone the earth is overrun.
Let this be a lesson to those that put their faith in Neil Blomkamp's aborted attempt at an Aliens sequel: while Verheiden's three series are exciting and tense, they never tap into the eldritch horror and cosmic desolation of the Ridley Scott original. Newt also has a bizarre telepathic encounter with a Space Jockey that anticipates Scott's Prometheus, but much like that ambitious but flawed endeavor proves some things should be left to the imagination.
Aliens: Book Two, in which Hicks and Newt encounter a general attempting to train xenomorphs as soldiers, was the 1989 follow-up and in 1990's Aliens: Earth War they capture the mother of all alien queens on its home planet and bring it back to Earth as bait. This is where it gets interesting. What Verheiden didn't know was that Fox was cooking up their own sequel, with similar plot outlines dealing with Hicks, Newt and Ripley going to war with their toothy, slimy enemies. That Sisyphean undertaking has been well-documented, with 1992's Alien 3 not leaving room for the established comic book universe.
Enter Steve Perry. One wonders why Dark Horse worried so, as future series barely concern themselves with the apocalyptic Earth (a few casual mentions, with only Genocide utilizing it as a main plot point). The parallel Alien vs. Predator line certainly went its own way. But Perry was instructed to stay in line with Alien 3. That meant Hicks and Newt become Wilks and Billie, complete with nearly identical backgrounds, and Ripley (who appears in Earth War) became a synthetic version of herself.
The resulting novels, renamed Earth Hive, Nightmare Asylum and The Female War, are passable. Wilks and Billie never overcome their movie counterparts, although Billie as grown woman provides new layers to explore. Perry must be commended, however, for providing the synthetic Ripley a provocative existential crisis that far outweighs her angry gym teacher characterization from the comic. Perry and Verheiden both are also not restricted by budget and manage to do two things the movies promised for years but never delivered: the Earth ravaged by aliens, and a glimpse at their home planet. Perry in particular ends Earth Hive with harrowing and overwhelming passages detailing a desperate interstellar evacuation.
As for quality, Perry's prose is workmanlike but enjoyable. He has quirks like always referring to rifles as carbines, an aim for authenticiation by infusing the text with shop-talk lingo. Take this snippet from Wilks's introduction:
Wilks stared at the line bot. Now, why would the glitter want to see him on the double? Anytime rank started rumbling, it usually meant trouble for the grunts. He felt his gut churn, and it wasn't just the dregs of the chem-binge he'd gone on, either. Whatever this was, it wasn't good.
But he certainly can pace an action scene, doesn't shy away from graphic sex and will lay on the grue when appropriate. What's incredible is that any of these books hold together coherently at all, considering Perry's gargantuan task. And with Ripley dead on a bum note (growing to love Alien 3 is a long journey), it was nice to have a band of gun-toting adventurers picking up where the movies left off. That is, until Alien: Resurrection.
Prior to 1997, Dark Horse did its best to toe the line. In 1996 they re-released trade paperbacks of Verheiden's trilogy as Library Editions, this time altered to fit with Perry's novelizations. Paradoxically, Earth Hive became Outbreak and The Female War makes no attempt to incorporate the android storyline, leaving a human Ripley that has a history with Wilks and Billie, seemingly creating yet a third continuity.
This was all null and void when Alien: Resurrection presented a future 200 years after Alien 3 that saw the Earth never taken over and no public knowledge of the xenomorphs. It was around this time that Dark Horse seemingly threw up their hands. Berserker was the last published Aliens novel from Bantam in 1998, and following 1999's Xenogenesis the comics line had a 10-year hiatus. Alien: Resurrection itself is certainly divisive amongst fans, and consequently has had very little revisiting: only Alien vs. Predator vs. Terminator (2000) picks up with the Ripley 8 clone and Annalee Call in comics and Original Sin (2005) in novels.
Original Sin, appropriately enough, kicked off an uninspired run of six novels from DH Press that had precarious ties (only two of them were written by the same author). These books made little impact in the fan community. It was generally accepted at this point that headcanon was more important than cashgrab tie-in material.
Even Dark Horse accepted this, releasing the entire Aliens comic line (still altered) in 2007 in Omnibus format, and kicking off a comic reboot in 2009. For the most part they don't acknowledge the past, except for Alien vs. Predator: Three World War (2010) that picks up with Machiko Noguchi, the protagonist of the original Alien vs. Predator mini-series. Fortunately, the Aliens 30th Anniversary: The Original Comic Series will be released on April 26, collecting Verheiden's original in all its black & white, Hicks and Newt glory for the first time in over two decades.
This would seem to indicate a fungibility, with authors given free rein to play with story and characters without constraint. Lucasfilm used to do something similar, breaking their material down into G-canon (movies), T-canon (television shows like The Clone Wars), C-canon (anything else including comics, books and games), S-canon (outliers like the old Marvel comics to which authors could pick and choose), N-canon (What-if stories under the Infinities labels) and D-canon (animated comedy series). Disney, however, now claims that all tie-ins since 2015 are "canonical" and are much more tightly monitored for consistency.
Perhaps this reflects a growing trend, as Titan Books also claim they are only publishing "official" material. The first three novels, Out of the Shadows, Sea of Sorrows and River of Pain, were, according to Shadows author Tim Lebbon in an AVPGalaxy interview, concocted by Fox. "I received notes from Fox as well as my editor at Titan," he says. Much like the Aliens: Colonial Marines (2012) and Isolation (2014) video games, these books tell stories that supposedly fit into the movies, and don't leave room for any previous incarnations.
The first novel actually features Ripley in a story strangely set between Alien and Aliens, while the latter two are standalone tales. Titan plans to continue this initiative with the Rage Trilogy, also written by Lebbon, of Predator: Incursion published last year and Alien: Invasion and Alien vs. Predator: Armageddon set to come out later this year.
How times have changed. Once the "lower" mediums attempted to bend around the movies, then they gave up altogether. For a time this allowed for a degree of freedom, with authors improvising and riffing on popular intellectual properties without oversight. It may not have been important, but it scratched an itch. If Disney's handling of Star Wars and Fox's handling of Aliens is any indication, there's an insistence these days that everything must connect and "count". Unfortunately, these new books lean more toward pandering and a push for familiarity rather than experimenting with something new.
In the end, everyone wins. Ironically the almighty dollar has resulted in a bifurcation as, much like Star Wars: Legends reprints of the former expanded universe, the old Aliens novels will be reprinted in seven volumes, with the first released in January this year and the last planned for December 2018. These and Dark Horse's reprints democratize the fan's choices. So if I want Hicks, Newt and Ripley to have lived happily ever after, all I have to do is open up a good book.
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