‘On a distant, frozen world, “artificial persons” are manufactured in discreet seclusion. With formidable new security synthetics coming online, how better to test their mettle than against a hive of deadly xenomorphs? But as Socialization Specialist Jean DuPaul sees her evermorehuman android charges sent to their destruction, she learns that the most savage species in the universe is man. Collects stories from DHP #12#17. Deluxe graphic novella format. Written by Eisner and Harvey Award winner John Layman (Chew, Detective Comics)! Sam Kieth’s Arkham Asylum: Madness was a New York Times bestseller!’
Written by: John Layman
Art by: Sam Kieth, John Kalisz (colours)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Released: April 23 2013 (June 22 2015 in digital)
You can’t be surprised that the Alien movie series has had a comic series going for a while. It technically started as a sequel to Aliens (1986), but Dark Horse has been publishing the comics since 1989 as a series of shorts, one-shots, and the occasional limited series (collected into graphic novels), to keep fresh talent looking at the world through fresh eyes, and also give us Aliens vs Predators comics. There’s about 40 titles in the series now, meaning a big range of highs and lows, but it means it’s easy to grab any Aliens title and read it without needing to know any of the others.Even when there’re returning characters or places, each one is its own story. I’m going to tell you about one of my favourites though: Inhuman Condition. (My least favourite, for the record: Tourist Season. So stupid.)
The place of androids in the Aliens universe is one that is often touched on or examined in the series, because it’s just plain interesting. How do we treat machines that look exactly like us? Outside of universe-specific things like them being immune to alien impregnation, they are often a stand-in for ‘othering’ – if you have never heard of the term before, it means the treatment of a person or group of people that marks them as different, less than, or in some other way separate to yourself personally, your group, or other humans. It’s something most often used as a result of prejudice, creating an intentional or even subconscious excuse for discrimination (‘they’re just not the same as/not as good as us’, etc.); while you might think of large gestures like segregation, it’s often in small things that are almost unnoticeable to those who they’re not targeted at, such as turns of phrase or specific wording/image composition. Why am I going over all this? Because like I said, this is the kind of thing human-looking androids are often a stand-in for in a lot of sci-fi media. They look exactly or extremely like other humans, but we use fiction to examine how we treat them, to reflect on how we treat other humans who are different from us in some way but are actually the same creature as us. Don’t worry, this is relevant to the comic – androids and how they’re treated are a major component of the plot.
It follows Jean, a ‘Socialization Specialist’ at an android manufacturing facility, whose job is specifically to help the AIs become more human to smoothen their interaction with people. The set-up for her emotional connection to the androids is immediate, especially as we are given the heavy inference that she lost a young child. However, to the executives, the androids are purely merchandise; a female model is used as disposable entertainment for a party, while the soldier models (whom Jean works with) are programmed purely for obedience and not a lot of intelligence – their attitude can generally be summed up as almost child-like ‘good boys’ – and the treatment of the androids is contrasted with the executives’ treatment of Jean. Notably, all the executives and other human employees we’re presented with are male, in the chauvinistic stereotype to contrast with Jean’s motherly cast and position. Faced with the shutting down of the facility thanks to a new generation of androids being started, it’s decided to use the current run of models to clear a xenomorph hive on the planet, since they’re completely expendable and the aliens have been causing increasing amounts of trouble. If you’re only familiar with the movies, it’s worth noting that in many of the comics a hive on a planet doesn’t necessarily turn the whole world into an immediate no-go zone thanks to advancements in dealing specifically with them. Jean, at the last straw with how her and her child-surrogates are being treated, decides to use the opportunity to take revenge on the facility.
If you think I just told you the whole story, I seriously haven’t. There’s a reason this is one of my favourites, and the entire psychological aspect to the story is a big part of that – not just in the examination of othering and how humans treat androids and each other. Jean’s reliability as a narrator is slowly questioned over the course of the story, as the extent of her past trauma after an earlier xenomorph attack is slowly revealed, along with just how much of Jean’s past and current reality are actually real. Not to the extent of ‘it’s all a dream’ or anything like that; this is more realistic, in terms of coping mechanisms for her memories and day-to-day life and how they affect those around her, specifically her ‘students’. For a fifty-page story, it fit a lot in with layered and concise writing; a very thoughtful take on the Aliens universe, but don’t worry – in both flashbacks and the finale there are still xenomorphs aplenty.
Of course, Keith’s painterly style works well for it all. A cold, clean realistic or restrained style can work very well for though-provoking intellectual stories (see Marvel’s Vision (2015)), but stepping away from that really heightens the emotion of the story and helps inform how we the readers are expected to relate to the characters. Lots of curves and bright colours help things seem almost dreamy, an often effective visual to associate with uncertainty whether something is real or not. The androids are kept intentionally uniform and uncomplicated as suits their role as tools, the antagonists are caricature-like, Jean is full of subtle expression and emotion.
But what of the xenomorphs, you ask? H. R. Giger’s amazing, complicated, detailed designs for the movie creature meant that capturing them in comics is a tricky feat – seeing the range of interpretations from so many different artists over the course of the comic series is pretty interesting. I didn’t think Keith’s emotion-over-detail character design would translate them well; they’re often simplified almost into silhouettes, but close-ups of their faces and mouths are suitably toothy and chilling, with good colour work by Keith and Kalisz to highlight or shadow their positions and movements. I’ve seen better xenomorphs in the comics, but it’s certainly not bad. The cover is great, but as with most covers it’s a slightly higher standard than the pages (though at least by the same artist).
I could recommend several different Aliens comics if you wanted me to, and discuss them all day (you’ve been warned), but the social and psychological layers of this one, along with the emotional and often beautiful ink and painted artwork, puts Inhuman Condition around the top of my list.
This copy of ‘Aliens: Inhuman Condition’ is from my personal collection, but was purchased through Comixology.com, the ususal source of our review issues. All the ‘Aliens’ comics are available digitally.