Review by Ian Keogh
This story is a watershed both for Dark Horse as a publisher, and for the treatment of licensed properties in comics. That had rather fallen into disrepute in the 1980s, but the care and attention Mark Verheiden and Mark Nelson devoted to their Aliens material raised the bar considerably, and it sold incredibly well both as a miniseries, then collected. Having something of this quality to present to owners of other properties was surely a fundamental step in the growth of the company.
The subsequent release of Aliens 3 rendered Verheiden’s use of Hicks and Billie from Aliens no longer canonical, so while they bore their original names in editions titled Book One, in subsequent reprintings under the current title they’re Wilks and Billie. It’s an initially strange divergence considering the experiences of Hicks and Wilks are shared, but go with it as Verheiden’s plot soon drags you in.
Nelson’s opening illustration of a Xenomorph is stunning, and sets the tone. There are a few awkward pages to begin with, but once he hits his stride Nelson produces exciting layouts, and his improvement as an artist can be seen as the story progresses. He’s a natural storyteller, and hits the right combination of horror and drama.
Verheiden’s plot is underpinned by those in power on Earth possessing a knowledge of the Xenomorphs, and assorted opportunists attempting to exploit matters. These include a preacher adopting an alien as the returned messiah and business interests set against the government, each wanting to use the creatures and their capabilities as weapons. Verheiden would later progress to writing TV dramas, and the required skills are all on display here. He delivers the story, for the most part, by constantly switching scenes, ending each with a hook, and introducing other cast members designed to rub against mainstays Wicks and Billie.
A chance at redemption, closure and revenge is key for Wicks and Billie, but as with the Aliens film, Verheiden and Nelson hang a shroud of suspense over events. We know how fatal the aliens can be, while almost everyone else underestimates the creatures, blinded by their self-interest. Verheiden also unleashes an assassin without conscience and delves into the murky background of research into aliens on Earth. There are very few characters who emerge with much in the way of ethical understanding. Needless to say, as we move past the mid-point, those who’ve diminished the dangers experience an extremely rude awakening.
The plot’s cleverly set-up, giving the protagonists decisive roles, and it leads to quite the bleak and unexpected conclusion. It’s very cinematic without having to be focus tested by a group of sixteen year olds somewhere in Idaho. Outbreak stands alone, but success bred a sequel in Nightmare Asylum, and Verheiden would eventually produce a connected trilogy.
All three books are collected at a slightly smaller page size within the first Aliens Omnibus, and a 30th anniversary hardcover edition presents Nelson’s art in its original black and white.