While this tome might be a bit much for the casual fan, Alien devotees will find much to like about the Aliens Omnibus, and the series' anti-corporate brio still resonates.
Once you get past all the shattered ribcages and melted faces, the Alien series has always held a hard kernel of anti-capitalist critique. Note that the ominous space-age conglomerate Weyland-Yutani, usually referred to simply as "The Company", serves as the series' gravitational center -- every Alien film chronicles the Company's attempts to employ the titular xenomorph as a biological weapon, no matter what the cost. In classic sci-fi tradition, the Alien films use spaceborne phantasmagoria to shed light on the human condition, by underscoring our potential for inhumanity in the pursuit of profit and power.
This critique reached a fever pitch in the pages of Dark Horse's Aliens series, a three-part, in-and-out-of-continuity saga designed as a follow-up to Aliens, neatly compiled here in Volume 1 of the Aliens Omnibus. The series consists of three extended, interconnected stories by writer Mark Verheiden ("Outbreak", "Nightmare Asylum", and "Female War"), each drawn by a different artist. The 1992 release of David Fincher's embattled Alien3 invalidated these stories by unceremoniously dispatching with the tough-but-sweet Corporal Hicks and little-girl-lost Newt, stranding a smooth, hairless Ripley on a dismal penal colony full of twitchy psychopaths and Cockney rapists.
But Verheiden's saga proceeds differently: we meet Hicks and Newt (renamed "Wilks" and "Billie", in a sometimes-confusing legal flourish) years after their narrow escape from LV-426 (renamed "Rim") and the close encounter that irreparably damaged both of their lives. Wilks has become a drunken wreck, his torment written on his face in the jagged contours of acid burns, while Billie has spent her entire post-xenomorphic life wasting away in a mental institution. The series begins with Wilks staging a daring jailbreak in order to take Billie along on a deep-space vacation to the alien homeworld, stumbling into an ambush by a company called Bionational seeking to secure alien specimens (Weyland-Yutani sits this one out). But Wilks and Billie have another agenda: wiping out the dread space creatures once and for all.
Content-wise, "Outbreak" is the strongest of the story's three parts, as well as the longest and most complex. While Mark A. Nelson's art is fairly typical for the time period, Verheiden riffs energetically on the steely and unforgiving Alien universe, populating his dystopia with the kind of amoral schmucks that have always been the series' real villains. (As Lt. Ellen Ripley once noted of the aliens: "You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.") At one point in the story, when a ruthless corporate mercenary's wife and child stumble onto some top-secret information and he slaughters them to cover it up, one of his bosses at Bionational muses: "I wonder how it feels -- being a sociopath, I mean. I would imagine it's quite liberating."
Verheiden even works in a subplot about a creepy televangelist who sees something sacred in the aliens -- and raises a cult of suicidal, alien-worshipping followers who venerate the "Immaculate Incubation." (One scene, where an overly curious video technician is tortured until he falsely confesses to being part of the cult's conspiracy, feels uncomfortably relevant today.) Verheiden draws a parallel between the Bionational scientists and the cultists, both of which develop a fetishistic obsession with the xenomorphs (a theme reiterated by Alien: Resurrection). And inevitably, Bionational's practice of keeping live alien specimens -- including a captured queen -- and the cult's belief in self-sacrifice collide, with predictably cataclysmic results.
The numerous, overlapping narrative threads of "Outbreak" -- plus its postmodern deployment of fictional corporate memos and psychiatric reports -- makes the second and third parts of the story seem a bit one-dimensional. "Outbreak" is a spirited, shaggy-dog trip through the Alienverse, and the two-fisted action and suspense in "Nightmare Asylum" and "Female War" feel a bit flat in comparison. But the latter stories still satisfy, and "Nightmare Asylum" scores points for Den Beauvais' outstanding artwork, which boasts a level of polish, style, and mood that outstrips anything else in the volume. (Sandman artist Sam Kieth's work on "Female War", while far from ugly, has not aged quite so well).
While this tome might be a bit much for the casual fan, Alien devotees will find much to like about the Aliens Omnibus, and the series' anti-corporate brio still resonates. Released all the way back in 1986, Aliens fired a gob of spit at the Reaganite consensus, countering the promise of "Morning in America" with a nightmarish vision of capitalism run amok in a cold and hostile universe. And Dark Horse's Aliens comic series followed suit by blasting Clintonian complacency, reminding readers that corporate chicanery and murderous fanaticism hadn't gone away -- a message that sounds more urgent today than ever.