An Interview With Comics Legend Walt Simonson and His Adaptation of Alien

Sir Ridley Scott arriving at the world premiere of Prometheus at the Empire Leicester Square in London.
Sir Ridley Scott arriving at the world premiere of Prometheus at the Empire Leicester Square in London.

Ridley Scott's Alien is arguably one of the greatest science fiction films ever to grace the big screen. It was a horrifying nail-biter that redefined what films of that nature could do. That's a fairly well-known fact. What's less well-known is how incredible the licensed comic book adaptation of the film was.

Heavy Metal commissioned comics legend Archie Goodwin and then future-legend Walt Simonson to craft a comics version of the film that has remained out of print for decades. Titan Publishing is releasing two new versions of the book and I was able to both get my hands on a copy and talk to the artist, Walt Simonson, about it.

For its part, the illustrated story of Alien is unlike any movie adaptation I've read. It manages to capture the essence of the film, the pacing, the terror, and the lived in feel better than any film-to-comic I've ever encountered. Reading the book, I could even hear the notes from Jerry Goldsmith's score and the actual sound design.

The sequential storytelling on display, an incredible collaboration between between Goodwin and Simonson working from the shooting script (and early cuts of the film), is as elegant and well-paced as a comic can be. Take this page, even without color, from when Ash (Ian Holm's character) goes crazy and tries stuffing a magazine down Ripley's throat. It has an energy and beauty to it that's difficult to beat.

The book also features scenes deleted from the movie, like this one of Ripley walking right by the alien who unfolds itself and gives chase.

I can't talk enough about how fantastic this book is, and I only just learned of its existence a few months ago.

To learn that one of my favorite artists drew it and that I'd be able to talk to him was exciting. Below are some excerpts from our conversation, you can read the full thing over at Big Shiny Robot (including what he thinks of the casting of characters he created that are in the new Thor film and his work in the Star Wars universe)!

You owe it to yourself to pick up the book itself. The regular graphic novel edition can be found on Amazon, as well as a deluxe, oversized hardcover called "The Original Art Edition." It's a definitive edition shot directly from Simonson's original art boards. And it's absolutely stunning.

Bryan Young You've called Alien the best licensed property you've ever worked on. What did you mean by that?

Walt Simonson: What I meant was, working on that book, that particular project was really one of the best experiences of my career in all aspects, but especially on a licensed product. Licensed stuff often has a bunch of ancillary agendas to go along with it that you have to kind of work with when you're doing it, everything from license approval rights to the reference you can get on project, and in the case of Alien, Archie Goodwin and I, we really had kind of a free hand. We were given a lot of access to reference, we saw a lot of stuff, we had three different script revisions that were like two or three months apart, each one, and we were really given our head to try to put together the best comic we could, really almost on our own, so in that regard, the cooperation we got from 20th Century Fox was really wonderful, and I think that's reflected in the final product, the freedom we had to do that work. That degree of freedom is really unusual in licensed property work.

BY: Was it a licensing issue that has kept it out of print for so long?

WS: I have no idea. I don't own the rights to any of that material. Dark Horse has had the Alien license for years. I haven't any idea what the story is on that. I know that Titan got interested in doing the reprint, and apparently was able to cut a deal and keep all parties happy, so I'm delighted it's back in print. It did pretty well back in the old days, it got on The New York Times' Bestseller List for Paperbacks, so as far as I know, the first comic book to do it. I don't claim any credit. After all, if I could do a comic that had a million-dollar movie to advertise my comic, I could probably do pretty well with that comic book. The only thing that happened was, a number of years after it was done, Heavy Metal had done a second printing, and they had a number of copies of it left over, and I believe that when Kevin Eastman bought Heavy Metal, they found a bunch of copies in a warehouse somewhere, and they were sold off to comic shops. It was a number of years later, and they were just sold at cover price, so many years later, there was a time when the book was available for $4. They did come back out, because I was in my comic shop when I saw some. They looked a little shelf worn, but they were still new. But other than that, there hadn't been a reprinting till now, and that's all I really know.

BY: Did you get any reaction from filmmakers about the adaptation?

WS: The long answer is no. We didn't hear from anybody, we didn't talk to anybody. I did meet Ridley Scott, and I'm sure it was the highpoint of his Alien filmmaking career. When we were over in England, we got a tour of the model shop, and we got to go on set where they were filming a loop with the alien. They had some guy in the alien suit, not the original actor in the alien suit, he had gone home by the time we got there. But they had someone zipped up in part of it, and it was too long for him, they had his feet sticking out the bottom of it, which was pretty funny. But it was a shot of the head and it was for a loop in the last part of the sequence where Ripley was trying to escape. Carlo Rambaldi was there doing the workings of the alien jaw, and we got to see them film some of that a few times, which was just fabulous, it was fantastic! We didn't meet any of the actors; they were done before we got there. But no, I never got any feedback from the book from the filmmakers at that time. One assumes that wouldn't be their principal interest at that time anyway. We were satisfied we had done the best job we could, so that was all right.

To read more from the interview, be sure to check out Big Shiny Robot!

Bryan Young is an author, filmmaker, and the editor in chief of Big Shiny Robot!