Strange Shapes Interviews Mark Verheiden

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Mark Verheiden is a TV writer and producer who also penned the first series of Aliens comic books for Dark Horse. His other writing credits include Falling Skies, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, CapricaHeroes, Smallville, and the upcoming Hemlock Grove. Film credits include work on The Mask, Timecop, and My Name Is Bruce. I contacted him to ask if he would answer a few questions on the Aliens continuation that he helped bring to the page in 1988.

Strange Shapes: Alien was already popular among horror and science fiction fans, but James Cameron’s Aliens really opened up the floodgates – the series became a franchise, with a successful line of toys, a proposed cartoon, trading cards, and then a comic book series. How did you become involved with Dark Horse’s Aliens? Was it a job you had to lobby for, or were you specifically picked for the project?

Mark Verheiden: With the caveat that we’re going back 25 years and memories can fade — I grew up and went to college in the Portland Oregon area, where I was active in the comics fan community while studying film. Soon after leaving for Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting, my old Oregon friends Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley started Dark Horse Comics and asked if I had anything up my sleeve. I wound up creating a comic series called “The American” that received some positive attention — so the stars were aligned when Mike let slip that Dark Horse was closing a deal to do an Aliens comic series. I was (and remain) a huge fan of the first two films and probably threatened violence if I wasn’t brought on to write the series. But I suspect Mike wouldn’t have mentioned it if I hadn’t been on the short list already.

SS: Many predicted that a continuation of Aliens featuring Newt and Hicks would become a trite ‘Space Family Robinson’ scenario, which is exactly what you didn’t do: Hicks was a drunkard, Newt was in psychiatric care (and scheduled for a lobotomy), and Ripley and Bishop were AWOL. Were there any qualms about such a bleak opening, or was it considered completely in line with the dark tone of the films?

MV: I don’t recall any qualms. Despite a generally sunny disposition in real life, I tend toward the darker side in story. And I think the tone of the comics generally meshed with the first two films, which were obviously quite horrific and very cynical in terms of corporate greed and the military. The key character was Newt — exploring her experience with the Aliens and how that, combined with being abandoned by Ripley, left her devastated and alone. The first series was really about Newt’s redemption in the face of the Alien threat.

SS: There is a lot of wish fulfillment in the first few installments – that is, we get an Alien homeworld, Aliens on Earth, Colonial Marines battling a hive, and even a living Space Jockey. Essentially, it is everything that many fans of the films wanted to see in a live-action follow-up. Did the comic book medium open up these avenues and allow you to explore the wider Alien universe unimpeded, or was it difficult to combine so many different elements, locations, storylines, characters and creatures into the one strip?

MV: I’m not sure if we really thought about it at the time, but remember that when we launched the book, comic-from-movie-tie-ins were sort of a bastard stepchild of the comics industry. Meaning we had no idea how an Aliens book would be received, or if we’d be doing more books after the first series. So there was no holding back. From my earliest discussions with Mike and Randy, we knew we wanted to see Aliens on Earth, Marines in battle and the Alien homeworld. (We also knew that, because of licensing issues, we were not able to use to the Ripley character, though that changed with the third series, “Earth War.”) With those benchmarks, I plotted out a story that took the damaged characters forward as I imagined might happen post-Aliens. Also remember that comics don’t have to worry about budget or casting, so we were essentially free to take the story wherever we wanted and make the action as wild and expansive as we pleased.

I should note that the choice of artist had some impact on the story-telling as well. Mark Nelson’s exquisitely moody, creepy black and white drawings on the first series really lent themselves toward horror. Denis Beauveis’ full color painted art in the second series was much more action oriented. And Sam Kieth’s idiosyncratic style led to some cool, quirky visuals for the third series.

A more mature Newt found that the nightmares didn't end after the events of Aliens. In fact, things generally got worse.

A more mature Newt found that the nightmares didn’t end after the events of Aliens. In fact, things got worse for both her and humanity.

SS: Considering that you touched on topics such as an Alien homeworld, Aliens invading Earth, and the Space Jockey, were there any calls for restraint from Twentieth Century Fox, who might have wanted to keep these elements tucked away for a movie?

MV: Looking back now, from the perspective of 25 years doing comics, film and television, I’m amazed at the freedom we were given by Fox on the first three series. The Dark Horse editorial folks may have fought wars that I never heard about, but I can only recall two or three “notes” from the studio. And those were minor, like asking to tone down some extreme piece of violence.

I will note that I was asked to do another Aliens comic series around 1994 or so, which if memory serves would have been set on Earth, but things had changed politically and that story was killed by Fox because it evidently (and accidentally) came perilously close to whatever they were developing that eventually morphed into Alien Resurrection. That experience pretty much killed my interest in doing any more Aliens books, though since then I’ve done a couple one-off Aliens short stories with Mark Nelson.

SS: The android Colonial Marine squad was a fantastic idea, and reminded me of the replicant Rachael from Blade Runner, in that they’re artificial and ignorant of it. Another interesting thing is that at the end of issue #6 (Book One)  humanity finds itself displaced by the Aliens, and they flee the Earth, which reminded me of Battlestar Galactica’s premise. Were there influences on the comic series beyond just the Alien movies?

MV: I’m a voracious science fiction fan and so I’m sure there were other inspirations, though I can’t recall any specific homage that made it into the comics. Tonally, besides the Aliens movies, I’m sure Blade Runner was in the mental mix somewhere. But the idea for the android Colonial Marines came out of simple logic – if you can create fully independent, humanoid machines capable of virtually every human function, why would you send humans into space at all?

SS: The series was a great success, and the way that characters like Newt and Hicks were handled was superb. However, after Alien 3 the comics were retrofitted to suit the canon of that movie. Hicks became ‘Wilks’, and Newt became ‘Billie’. Do you feel that this recasting detracted from the series?

MV: Dark Horse felt they needed to make those changes so the books would fit into the Aliens film canon post Alien 3. It kept the books in print and I happily cashed my royalty checks, but I had absolutely nothing to do with the re-edit and as far as I’m concerned the original stories are the ones I would prefer for people to read.

SS: I only have one last thing to ask you: were you aware that Paul W. Anderson named a character in his Alien vs. Predator movie after you? Quite a nice homage.

MV: I was quite flattered to have a character named after me in the first A VS P film, even though I never wrote any of the A VS P books.  I’ve never met Paul W. Anderson but I assume he must have enjoyed my Aliens comics (Though my character is brutally killed, so maybe not…)

The Aliens overrun Earth in Dark Horse's continuation.

The Aliens overrun Earth in Dark Horse’s continuation.

I would like to thank Mark Verheiden for taking time out of what must be a busy schedule to answer my long winded questions.

Article banner courtesy of the heroic Space Sweeper.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Strange Shapes Interviews Mark Verheiden

  1. Take them along with Labyrinth, the first Aliens vs. Predator series and Destroying Angels and you have comics every bit as wonderful as the films which inspired them. Dark Horse gets too much stick for its mis-steps and not enough credit for where it got the world of Alien dead right. Every frame of Denis Beauvais’ work on book two is a thing of pure wonder, and that cover with the numbered Aliens in the fire is probably my single favourite Alien image of all time!

    But yes, it was the expansion of the universe under Mark Verheiden’s pen that took me from liking the films to becoming fanatical about the creatures and their world, so many thanks to him! Truly great psychological explorations of the effects encounters with the Aliens could have, as well as thoroughly exciting stories. Something many other mediums tragically chose to ignore in the long run. Their loss, I guess – give me my early Dark Horse anyday!

  2. Very nice interview with great questions and answers. Marks response to his homage in AVP was quite funny, but Anderson did admit that he loved the original comic books

  3. bplol

    Did they changed only the names, or also details on the plot? Never had the chance to read it.

    • I’ve never read the retconned versions myself (I have copies of the originals), but from what I hear the plot is the same, except that Ripley, when she appears, is revealed to be a synthetic. The revision was quite shoddy apparently – at one point Ripley calls Billie “Newt”, Wilks has “Hicks” on his uniform at a few points, etcetera.

  4. Pingback: “Aliens” by James Horner | HQCovers

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