As far as comics go, Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens appears at first glance to be a checklist of everything wrong in the industry. A comic that serves as a glorified storyboard for a movie pitch? Check. Big name Hollywood director, Barry Sonnenfeld (Wild Wild West, Men in Black) specifically, butting in on on the field? Check. Vapid, soundbite-premise that mashes up two things that comic readers loved as little boys (or girls), but is so blunt about it that it dares anyone who doesn’t go into that catnip stupor of nostalgia from memories of clashing their action figures together to roll their eyes? Yeah, that’s a big check. Following Cowboys and Aliens and other easily digestible concepts, I was more than a little wary of Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens.
Fortunately for hit-or-miss filmmaker Sonnenfeld, he tucked two aces up his sleeve: Grant Morrison and Liquid Comics mainstay Mukesh Singh. Singh has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of Frank Quitely, Morrison’s last collaborator in comic book xenofiction (We3), whose jaw-dropping depiction of cyborg house pets pushed the visual boundaries of American/British comics. This never reaches those heights–its beasts stay within the confines of the panels, as opposed to leaping from one to the other in the chaotic fury of We3‘s action scenes–but Singh does bring an impeccable eye for beauty, countering some nagging cynicism even when the novel ends on a commercial-friendly cliffhanger (expect a sequel, if not the movie. Check.), or that Singh himself is snubbed from the cover and blurb in favor of Sonnenfeld, Morrison, and a quote from Perez Hilton for…some reason (double-check). The scenes showcasing Morrison’s neo-Jack Kirby vision of the dinosaurs, decked out in ceremonial headdresses (how do they make them? Or put them on?) while chirping, honking, snorting, and roaring, has the sense of epic spectacle that made Cameron’s Avatar initially fascinating. Mist enshrouded valleys and massive volcanoes dominate the landscape, and there’s a bold assortment of reds, greens, golds, and blues to each page. One of few good examples of the “wide-screen” comics format.
When the aliens arrive, their mothership floats above a towering rock formation in a manner reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The aliens themselves are travelers seeking a new home, supplies dwindling, “Sliding down the razor’s edge to extinction” as Commander Kit narrates. Kit is the entry point for this primeval culture clash, explaining how his kind enact a process called “Dominion” over the Earth and set about exterminating the dinosaurs, also hinting at the rise of mammals. They think the reptiles are simply inferior, possessing only “the most basic intelligence” and existing on the “lower slopes of evolution.” If this ‘Dominion’ (the original, better title) sounds at all like Manifest Destiny to you, that’s the point, as Sonnenfeld and Morrison share in their forewords. Unlike other Manifest Destiny yarns (the aforementioned Avatar, Dances With Wolves), the use of the alien as the metaphor for colonial expansion–their story covering Mayflower desperation, Kit Carson’s divided loyalties, and General Custer’s arrogance–allows for an almost objective, critical eye that was sorely lacking in those movies and Cowboys and Aliens (comic and film both favored “Pew pew pew!” over allegory). Alien-Kit is apologetic yet cynical about his actions, saying “I challenge you all to say you wouldn’t do the same” (and we did). His position in the brewing conflict is clearly on his species’ side even as he begins to empathize with the “monsters,” like T-Rex One-Eye. Kit isn’t Sam Worthington from Avatar, white savior of the noble savages, but a soldier with self-doubt, plunging into disaster. The prologue shows an eclipsed sun and dust-settled apocalypse, reflecting bison poaching and the forcing of American Indians onto reservations, a blight on the New World.
One-Eye himself is depicted as a proud, self-reliant sort, bringing his family food, but later ignoring the calls of other dinosaurs pleading for help against the invading force in favor of returning home, easily the best bit of storytelling Singh gives us. It’s communicated entirely in One-Eye’s annoyed stare at the smaller creatures and their panicked “Reekts!” and “Rip-Rips!” (lettered by Nilesh Mahadik). It’s only a page long, and demonstrates the tyrannosaur’s personality (whether defined by his species or his mind). This depiction of dinosaur ‘culture’ contrasts with the belief they’re incapable of such; even today, people ignore the idea that animals have social structure and rudimentary language, a fact Morrison, Singh, and Sonnenfeld use as a startling metaphor for racism. That the dinosaurs had specialized for millions of years doesn’t dawn on the settlers until the very end, their thinking being the savage beasts would be easy to push from their new would-be home. Manifest Destiny becomes as much nature vs. technology as metaphorical man vs. man.
Did the world need Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens? No, but Singh and Morrison help make the graphic novel to be more than blatant product.