In the Dark Horse mini-series Aliens: Dead Orbit, the first issue of which hits stands April 26th, Canadian cartoonist James Stokoe applies his singular style to the world of Ridley Scott’s sprawling sci-fi franchise, melding the obsessive detail honed on books like Orc Stain with the Freudian nightmare imagery of legendary Xenomorph designer H.R. Giger. We’ve mentioned Dead Orbit nearly every month since its announcement at New York Comic-Con, and now the debut issue is nearly here. You could say we’re…Stokoe’d for it.
In Dead Orbit, a lone engineer fights for his life against a seemingly unstoppable phallo-vaginal monstrosity from outer space—a horrific isolation also captured beautifully by artist Rafael Albuquerque’s convention-exclusive cover, first available at C2E2 and shown here in full, haunting color. To commemorate Stokoe’s masterful take on the franchise, Paste chatted with the cartoonist about acclimating to the horror genre, reining in his inclination for fart jokes and what’s next now that he’s conquered Godzilla, Galactus and Facehuggers.
Paste: There seem to be two primary camps of franchise fans: those who prefer Alien and its claustrophobic horror, and those who prefer Aliens and its run-and-gun action. You’ve said before that your original version of this pitch was more action-oriented—could you choose a side if you had to?
James Stokoe: I really can’t choose! They’re such different takes on the same setting that it’s really difficult for me to make hard comparisons. I think the original pitch was more action-oriented because that’s my default. There’s nothing I love to draw more than a long action scene, so I naturally gravitated to a more Aliens-centric story, but ultimately I’m glad that the final comic is going to echo the original film more closely. It’s been stretching different muscles that I’ve never really used before.
Paste: You’ve done mic-drop-quality work with licensed properties from Galactus to Godzilla, but nothing firmly within the horror genre. Did you feel comfortable slipping into that mode, or is this a new creative headspace for you? Are you a scare-junkie at all?
Stokoe: Oh yeah, I love horror, but it’s definitely been a challenging genre to work in, and I’m still not sure I’m 100% acclimated to it. It’s one of those things that I consume a ton of, but have never really given proper thought on how I would go about making a story in that genre. There’s been a lot of self-edits on these pages to get it right, which is something I’ve never really done before. I think there are a lot more tricks and a focus on solid structuring that you have to hone to get horror done right.
Paste: Humor, especially visual humor, has always been a key part of your creator-owned books like Orc Stain. Did you have to restrain that side for Dead Orbit, or did you find opportunities to sneak in a gag or two?
Stokoe: I’m afraid there’s not a lot of slapstick in this book, definitely none of the fart jokes that I love so dearly. I think the only real joke so far is an “Eat the Apple, F*ck the Corp” coffee mug in issue one.
Paste: You’re known for obsessive amounts of detail—which is perfect for the established aesthetic of this universe—but what really sets your work apart is your almost European approach to coloring. Was it a challenge to adapt your use of vibrant gradients to the more deliberately restricted palette of the Alien universe?
Stokoe: Well, I’m still coloring it the same way that I color my other work, just a few shades deeper. I’ll only ever use five or six colors on a given project, and just flip the dominant color around from scene to scene, so it’s a pretty simple process once the palette is figured out, and it keeps the comic consistent. I still think it ended up quite a bit more bright and vibrant than what I’d expect from an Aliens story, but that’s probably more my own style refusing to shut up.
Paste: Dead Orbit leaps back and forth in its timeline, which isn’t something we’ve seen from any of the franchise’s film outings. Typically, part of the tension comes from wondering who’ll become space chow next. How did you decide to flip the formula with dual story threads?
Stokoe: It’s mostly a choice I made to aid the pacing. The lead character spends a fair amount of pages wandering around alone, so I didn’t want all of the sparse dialogue pages lumped together in one long, silent sequence. I think it adds a bit of mystery to an otherwise pretty straightforward story, as well. For example, how do Aliens mess up a space station that badly? Is the rest of the crew really dead, etc.?
Paste: The Alien universe has a history of meaningful ship names. Google tells me Sphacteria is the site of a major Athenian battle—is that a conscious choice, or did you just like that it sounds like “bacteria”?
Stokoe: Yeah, I’m a bit of a history nerd, so it’s named after the Greek battle. Basically, a bunch of Spartans got stranded and eventually overpowered by the Athenians on this tiny island just off of the Peloponnesian coast, so I thought it would make a sneaky reference to the crew’s situation of being besieged on a space station. Not the deepest cut in the world, but I haven’t read enough Joseph Conrad to carry on the Aliens tradition.
Paste: It’s a thrill to see you working within established properties; especially those that seem to be giving you room to do your own thing. Are you looking to play in existing sandboxes for a bit? Or can you tease any original projects coming down the pipe?
Stokoe: I think I’m going to get back into more original projects in the near future. Licensed stuff has been definitely been a lot of fun, and has kept the lights on for the last couple years, but I’ve got a few ideas for smaller self-contained stories that I want to get off of my chest. Of course, if the right property comes along and the timing is right, I wouldn’t write that possibility out. It depends on my mood, I guess?