New To You Comics: The Guys Kick Around James Stokoe’s ‘Aliens: Dead Orbit’

by Brendan M. Allen

Tony and Brendan have very different tastes in comics. Tony loves his capes, super powers, and sci-fi. Brendan tends to stick to horror, noir, and weird indies. Occasionally, their paths cross, but like most readers, they tend to stay in their own lanes.

New To You Comics is here to break up the pattern a little. Tony will throw some of his favorites at Brendan, and Brendan will hit Tony with some of his. Every NTYC title is brand new to one of them. Every once in a while a title will land with both of them. Not always. Sometimes. Okay. Twice. It happened twice.

This week, Brendan introduces Tony to Dark Horse Comics’ Aliens: Dead Orbit, by James Stokoe. Here’s what Dark Horse says about the book:

‘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. Collects issues #1-#4 of the thrilling and claustrophobic Aliens story Dead Orbit, penned by Orc Stain creator James Stokoe!’

Brendan Allen: This week’s going to go a little differently. I thought I had read Dead Orbit, but I might have only read the first chapter? Which is weird, because I pulled the whole thing. I have the floppies right here. In any case, the formula here is pretty straightforward. 

Engineer Wasclyweski is alone aboard a disabled Weyland-Yutani station as he does his best to hold the busted thing together. Introductions out of the way, Stokoe tracks back to the beginning and shows us how Wasclyweski and the rest of his crew discovered a Wey-Yu freighter drifting through space, went aboard to investigate, and brought three injured passengers back aboard their own ship. Any familiarity with the franchise will tell you that’s when it went south.

What did you think?

Tony Thornley: Last time we talked about an Aliens book I think I told you these comics are just a nostalgic sweet spot for me. The Dark Horse folks were always very good about keeping a consistent feel to them, even this series which is so far out of the norm stylistically. I know the franchise is shifting licensors this year, and I really hope whoever oversees the line at Marvel makes a point to capture these same sorts of dark, claustrophobic horror stories.

Brendan: Dead Orbit definitely follows the tried-and-true Aliens pattern. It’s not a carbon copy of the plot of the first film, but it’s very close. Not necessarily out of lack of imagination. It feels more like a reverential nod to the stories that have come before, leaning into the strength of the franchise. 

Tony: Yeah, if anything it felt more like a spiritual sequel to the original Alien, than it did to anything that came after. It really doesn’t stop the whole time though.

Brendan: Stokoe pops the timeline back and forth between storyline present and recent events that led Wasclyweski to this point, alone and on the run from a pair of Xenomorphs. It’s a very cinematic approach, and it works really well to dial up the tension.

Tony: And he establishes the stakes early. Even though they haven’t even encountered a Xenomorph yet, the first flashback quickly shows this is a fairly laid back group of company men. They don’t have any Colonial Marines with them. Hell, their only gun may be out of bullets. That’s another thing that reminds me more of Alien than Aliens.

Brendan: Yeah, that was a nice touch. The one crew member who’s armed gets drunk and violent. A lot. So they ejected his ammo. And now they’re screwed.

Tony: My only hesitation in the writing is that the non-linear style doesn’t really let us get to know anyone. I mean, sure you know right away everyone but Wasclyweski is probably facehugger bait, but the horror isn’t as effective as it could be because of that.

Brendan: Great point. Stokoe did use a little bit of a condensed narration style, again, leaning into the fact that this is one of the biggest franchises in the world. People already know how this thing is going to end before they ever crack it open, and the fact that there’s only one guy left at the end/beginning, it doesn’t really make you want to invest in the other characters much.

Tony: Except for that one inevitable scene where someone just cracks, and when it happens in this one… Holy crap, that was good stuff.

Brendan: Probably the biggest difference between Dead Orbit and a thousand other Aliens stories is going to be Stokoe’s art. He brings that hyper-detailed, highly exaggerated signature style to the Aliens franchise, and it works way better than it should. I compare so many artists to Stokoe, it’s hard to pull up names to compare his work to. Moebius? Geof Darrow?

Tony: Know who this one reminded me of? Katsuhiro Otomo, of Akira. It had that hyperkinetic flow that Otomo often used in Akira. The designs also evoked a lot of the body horror and far future tech that we got in the manga and movie.

Brendan: I can see the comparison, like you said, in the action scenes and body horror, but I feel like Otomo sticks to more of a snap-grid on his architecture and his anatomy and proportions are way more based in realism. Stokoe plays much more loosely with the physics.

Tony: Stokoe really just does his own thing in the best ways. His layouts are always great, his designs are stunning, and he just kills it in the character work. Every shocking moment lands like a gut punch to the characters, and you can feel the emotion each and every time. He always does such unique things with work for hire books that it’s always a bit of a thrill.

Brendan: Obviously, this book made enough of an impression on me from just the first chapter that I wanted to go back and revisit it. For the life of me, I still can’t remember why I didn’t finish it in the first place. What’s your bottom line on Aliens: Dead Orbit?

Tony: It wasn’t a perfect book, but it was enjoyable as hell. It’s a really great singular work, especially because Stokoe does basically everything. It would be a good one to give to someone to get them interested in his work.

Brendan: Fair. What’s up next from your queue?

Tony: We’re going to look at a fantasy adventure with a bit of a twist. It’s a darker take on portal fantasy- Birthright Volume 1 by Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan.

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