2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Aliens: Book 2, the much revered 4-issue comic series illustrated by Den Beauvais and written by Mark Verheiden. The compiled limited series has been re-released many times, and even novelized. It has come to be most commonly known as Aliens: Nightmare Asylum.
Looking back over the last three decades of Aliens comics, it is easy to see that Nightmare Asylum remains a fan favorite, and is a high point, bench-mark for the Aliens series. The cover of Aliens Series 2 #1 was awarded with the Eagle Award in 1990. The visual style of the series has been described as quite possibly the most successful at capturing the aesthetic sensibility of James Cameron’s Aliens. Alien vs. Predator Galaxy’s Arek Kaminski (aka Perfect-Organism) caught up with Den Beauvais for a retrospective interview.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your journey towards becoming an artist?
Well, I’ve been drawing longer than I have memory. I won my first art award at 7. I guess I turned pro at 11 because I used to draw naked woman in the 6th grade for pocket change. I spent a lot of my teen years drawing hundreds of hot rods, mostly of my own designs and painted a lot of jean jackets in my later teens. When I was 18 I got turned on to fantasy and painted a lot of large Conan type stuff.
At 19 I put everything in storage and went west to Vancouver Canada with a pack sack, my doberman and my back pocket mini photo portfolio with hopes that somehow I could get into the record cover industry. Young and naive, I ended up living on the street and getting into trouble. At that point I realized I better get it together and returned home to Ottawa and get serious about my art. Soon after that I started sending photos of my fantasy art to Dragon Magazine and got my first cover accepted at the age of 20. My style had drastically changed by teaching myself to use an airbrush and I did several more Dragon Magazine covers. At that point, I had a more serious portfolio to hit New York publishers with hoping to get into the paperback industry. Throughout the 80’s I did a lot of freelance work for T.S.R Dungeons & Dragons and various paperback book covers. I started my own alternative black & white comic series Warlock 5 which got the attention of the guys at Dark Horse.
I sent them some black & white Aliens sample pages and they loved it. They were intrigued to know if I could do a comic book series in color. So I got the script from Mark Verheiden and proceeded to break it down to a specific amount of pages. I Illustrated the first color issue and during that time I also sculpted and molded a facehugger out of polyfoam, which I brought to Portland with me when I went to visit Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley at Dark Horse for the first time. Carrying a facehugger in an army duffle bag through security x-rays was interesting to say the least but more on that later!
When I showed the first complete issue to them, they were ecstatic! Next day we all went down to the printers to see just how we were gonna scan these pages. As this would be their first full color comic, they were not familiar with printing in color yet! Suffice it to say, all went well. Sales went through the roof and 20th Century Fox licensed other franchises to Dark Horse based on the success of Aliens.
I illustrated the movie adaptation for the classic Frankenstein and then went on to illustrate several other covers for Dark Horse including Predator, AvsP, Ghost, Timecop, Starship Troopers, Star Wars, etc.
Meanwhile I had been teaching myself 3D and submitted several Ghost covers which proved to be a lot of work, but my intent was to animate those particular cover scenes and provide a link inside for fans to view. As I became more prolific in 3D I was approached by my good friend Keith Parkinson who at that time had taken on a position as art director at a new start up game company called Sigil. Keith wanted me to create their character system for a massive online game to compete with Sony’s Everquest MMO. So I relocated to San Diego and for the next 4- 5 years focused my attention to creating all the 3D characters and NPCs for the“Vanguard” MMO.
After that my attention turned towards conspiracies and several years developing my own product Conspiracy Cards. Unfortunately producing them got me deported from the US. Returned back to Canada for a brief time and then moved down to Baja, Mexico where we now have a B&B and live by the ocean. I now have my dream studio by the ocean after a hiatus of roughly ten years I’m back to painting again doing mostly personal commissions and 3D freelance work.
What are your major artistic influences?
To clarify – influences and inspirations may be two different things. That being said, I’ve been inspired by the standards of Frank Frazetta, Boris, Micheal Whelan, Sid Mead, Hajime Sorayama, etc…too many to mention. But influenced by – I’d have to include Drew Struzan, Bill Sienkiewicz, Ralph McQuarrie.
What can you tell us about working with Dark Horse, Mark Verheiden and planning out the direction of the Aliens series back in 1988?
Not much actually. I didn’t have a say in the script but I did voice my concerns and opinions on a few occasions. I so desperately wanted to introduce some of my own Alien designs, but considering it was all so new for 20th Century Fox to license they didn’t want to stray from what already existed in the previous films. Although I did manage to implement one idea in issue # 2 which was the testicle like hammock sacks that facehuggers would retreat to until fully mature.
Was there ever a different direction in which the series was supposed to go?
Not that I’m aware of. Although, I had an idea that would have been a pretty cool continuation from the second movie. As we all know the Queen was ejected into space at the end of Aliens. My idea would have stemmed from that. The Queen, impervious to the harshness off space, would have latched onto a passing cargo ship carrying various other animal species designated to colonise another planet, find her way inside, lay more eggs and infest all the other animal species and open up a plethora of other alien/hybrid possibilities. Just a thought, but I think that could have been fun!
Your Aliens series feels very much like a visual extension of the second film from the series. How consciously deliberate of an effort was it for you to capture that aesthetic, and what is the magic ingredient that made that happen?
It’s all about the lighting! I wanted to capture the eerie glistening rim-lighting Ridley Scott introduced in Alien, as well as the bold action lighting from James Cameron’s Aliens.
There were only two movies from which to draw inspiration, so it had to be one or the other. I like to think it ended up being a mixture of both.
You used a very cohesive color palette on every page, so that every element feels like it belongs. How conscious of a decision was it to do that?
The palette choice becomes more apparent once the script is broken down and laid out in thumbnail images. I tried to create a rhythm to reserve bold brilliant colors for action scenes and more subdued for talking head or build-ups. As the action would escalate the colors choices would be more brazen. I guess in the back of my mind I’m always thinking like a fan, asking myself what would I like to see? And then try my best to deliver and entertain myself in the process. Sometimes developing art can be just as mysterious to the artist as reading a book. Turning the page is like introducing a new color or effect. All of a sudden it comes to life in a way you didn’t foresee. Those moments are truly exhilarating.
In a way, it’s like thrill seeking for artists. A tip to young artists: Try not to over produce color compositions, leave room to experience the wonder as it develops so it keeps you, the artist/creator, excited to see it unfolds before your eyes for the first time. I miss that pencil pre-tech pre-computers sketch and development process. A lot of my concept ideas now are developed in Photoshop and most of the time my Photoshop concepts turn out so good that in a way it kind of robs me of some of the enthusiasm to actually paint it. I mean, I know how it ends then! I guess what I’m trying to say it the digital way is a trade off. Try to pull back a bit and enjoy your own ride.
Your black framing of virtually every page removes the viewer from the sensation of reading a comic book and effectively allows them to experience the art as if it were in a darkened theatre. Can you elaborate on this aesthetic choice?
Not much. I just wanted to immerse the viewer so they feel more like they’re in a theater and less like they’re reading a comic book. It’s simply more cinematic.
The series was done in the late 80’s, so one must imagine there were no computers involved in the creation of the artwork. Your airbrush style is inimitable, yet compares very favourably against modern “Photoshopped” artwork. Can you elaborate on the technique?
Well, luckily I had a lot of practice having done thirteen issues of Warlock 5 in black & white. Being under a tight deadline can sometimes add a positive pressure causing you to find shortcuts just to get it done on time. Airbrushing is a great way to lay down a foundation of basic colors and tones. Bit of brush work, add some highlights, done! Technique is whatever works to get that image across.
I learned a lot and was inspired a lot by the works of Ralph McQuarrie, Bill Sienkiewicz and also Frank Miller. What’s enough to pull off this image? Is it entertaining? Does it flow? My technique was relative to the times and my deadline. I think what’s interesting about digital art today is that however beautifully rendered, once we are aware it’s digital we lose a bit of respect for it somehow. Like if we know it’s hand done it’s more deserving. The viewer supports the artists struggle to reach the vision. But if it’s too perfect, we can’t participate in it’s splendor. Digital art is inherently cold.
If you were to do comics today, would you still use your iconic technique or go digital?
I could go either way for different reasons. I know I could get it done so much faster and slicker in Photoshop, but again, I feel people will inevitably want old school, hand done, struggling for perfection art instead. It all depends on the project as well. Ultimately the question would be, is it engaging? Is the audience connecting? I’d love to jump ahead two or three generations to see future comics. Did we go over the top and back around again to simplicity? We’ll see, I guess.
How was your original artwork “captured” for the comic books? Was it all hand painted and photographed?
Yes, the first issue was all hand painted and then scanned on a laser barrel. I hand delivered the pages for #1 to Dark Horse Comics in Portland Oregon. This is when I first met Mike Richardson, Randy Stradley and the rest of the crew at DH. On the second day of my visit the three of us went down to their printer to test scan the pages on a laser barrel. This was new to me. Until that point I was accustomed to having my art photographed on 4″ x 5″ color transparencies. The pages were slightly larger than standard. Approximately 12″x 18″ on thin illustration sheets pliable enough to wrap around a laser drum for scanning.
I also brought with me the polyfoam facehugger I had made while I was working on the first issue. As a carry on, it was a bit of an adventure going through airport security. I had it in an army green duffel bag and a scream was let out as it was scanned going through the initial security. The x-ray visuals must have been intriguing as it had an internal wire armature. They pulled me aside and demanded I take it out of the duffel bag to explain. I was nervous that this was gonna scare a few people so I pleaded and said “you don’t really want me to pull this out here!” “Oh yes,” they said. They all jumped back a bit. A tense moment as you can imagine. I took it out and showed them. They were satisfied that it wasn’t alive and I was on my way, phew! Nobody got tazed and now it’s just a fun memory. But if this had of happened post 911 it might have been a different story.
Do the original illustrations still exist?
All the pages sold to various art collectors within the first year. I have no idea where they are today but I’m sure they still exist. I hope so, anyway.
Did you first draw the basic art with a thick black marker, only to do airbrush work on a separate layer?
I never used markers. They bleed too much. In most cases I’d airbrush color first, brush over that with other acrylics or black ink and then highlights and rim lighting last making everything pop.
Your use of lighting, highlights, and reflections, shows that you actually practically ray-traced the behaviour of light quite accurately. How conscious of an effort was it for you to capture that “mathematically correct” look?
It’s like shooting pool, same thing. Perceived bounced light and direction, but it’s only your perception. It may not be correct, but if it conveys the vision then it works. Keeping a light source or a stronger contrast on a focal issue is key. There’s no point in overly dramatic lighting if you miss the intent of the storyline.
How much of an influence was HR Giger’s work in designing the look of the Aliens’ nest towards the end of the series?
Without a doubt, HR Giger’s influence was essential! So was the creative contributions of James Cameron. But, for the nest I think I referred back to the look from Giger’s Alien and some of his original art prior to the movie.
The vehicles, equipment, and places from your series look very well thought-out, and properly designed. They are always shown in tightly accurate perspectives. Did you actually design these in their entirety prior to drawing them in the series? Are there any blueprints of the vehicles, equipment, and settings?
I did do some rough designs and layouts of the vehicles and sets; mentally running a camera through the scenes. I remember having a small debate with Mark Verheiden concerning which direction characters were moving. I remember arguing the fact that they couldn’t turn right or there would be a wall or something.
Looking back I think I took the script too literally. But as you just pointed out, our minds map out approximately where we are while viewing. Just little details I was aware of. I’m amazed you noticed.
As for equipment or vehicles, I mostly kept to the flavor that both Cameron and Sid Mead previously established.
Are there any unpublished Aliens artworks, or sketches from the era of your Aliens series?
I still have a few rough sketch pages and some unfinished or abandoned covers.
There are homage references to the first Alien film, such as burning one of the aliens by the American ship’s thruster engines, the medical chamber with Butler and Newt, and perhaps even some of the interior elements of the McArthur ship. How intentional were these, and were there any other Easter eggs you would care to share?
Hahaha, they wouldn’t be easter eggs if I told you, now would they?
Your Aliens practically have digitigrade leg structures. It makes them look even more like wild animals. Was it intentional on your part to give them that sort of look, or is it just a question of the poses they happened to be in?
A bit of both I think. Although the tri-leg joint wasn’t really established in Aliens. It just seemed more fitting for the postures they were in for comics. I never really thought about that ’till just now I guess. Did I influence the following designs?
You put together additional artwork for the omnibus version of your series. (The first encounter with Spears, Hicks, and Newt.) How did that come about?
Any additional work escapes me at the moment. I only remember one additional splash page of Spears and the Xenomorph in the large stasis tube. That basically came about to add 1 more page in order to even out the print run, I think, so that the next page would start on the right.
Your original series was recently reprinted in a hardcover volume. Regrettably, your additional artwork did not make it into the book. Did you have any input into the production of this volume?
Questions often pop up about your Aliens: Countdown comic which initially appeared in the pages of Dark Horse Insider. Was it done in full color or was it always gray-scale? Does the original artwork still exist, and can we hope that it will be reprinted some day?
They were done in black & white. I have no idea where they are today. They sold years ago and I don’t know if Dark Horse has any plan to republish them.
Can you speak about the Operation: Aliens card set which you designed? How did that come about?
The Topps Aliens cards, right! I have very little recollection of that. I had a fairly simple script and suggestions for each card image. I remember they were fun to do! Other than that not much else to offer, sorry!
Have you had the chance to read the novel adaptation of your Aliens series by Steve Perry, and if so, what are your thoughts?
There’s a novel adaptation of my series? I had no idea. I guess I don’t have any thoughts on that, sorry!
I understand you’ve worked extensively in digital 3-D recently. However, the 2-D “analog” illustrations capture your distinct character and style. Do you find that your 3-D work conveys the same uniqueness that is classic Den Beauvais?
Well, probably not! Suffice to say going from 2D to 3D is a tall order, as well as capturing a specific painting style. It can be done, of course. Pixar has proven that several times. Not sure I could capture my own painting style in 3D, but I have duplicated my 2D works into 3D as close as possible with my “Bridge of Sorrows” painting that was originally published on the cover of Dragon Magazine in 1984.
Over the last few years I have remodelled the characters and animated the scene. Now, considering I modelled, textured, rigged, animated and directed the animation, I’d like to believe I captured my style. Take a look – What do you think?
The world of comics misses your unique flair and style. Would you ever consider returning to the medium, and would this involve any future Aliens work?
Who knows? I loved doing comics when I did them. But, I follow my heart a lot. Seems I’m on an endless quest to do things I haven’t done yet. I’m not sure if I have any more to offer in the comics industry, but then again, I have a tendency to surprise and underestimate myself. I’ve recently licensed my IP Warlock 5 to be reprinted by Outland Entertainment.
Depending on how that is received I may find new enthusiasm to contribute to its further development in ways I can even imagine at the moment. I’m always open to whatever presents itself. I know from previous experience that I’ve learned a lot more saying yes in life that saying no!
And that is everything from myself. Before we go, I do have a few questions submitted by the members of the Alien vs. Predator Galaxy community. Wey-Yu PMC Goon asks who did you base the original look for Newt off? How much did you enjoy drawing up Michael Biehn and at the end Sigourney Weaver knowing you could use both of their likenesses?
I don’t think I had anyone in particular as a reference for grown up Newt. To me that’s what I’d expect. It was a blast doing Michael Biehn and Sigourney Weaver, although I wasn’t going for portrait likeness. I’m not sure it would have been in keeping with the comic book look of the other characters if that had been too realistic. But yeah, that was fun!
Bobby Brown notes that you clearly love the Alien franchise and was wondering why you didn’t return?
At that time I was eager to try whatever I hadn’t done before. So to do another series seemed redundant. I wanted to move on and try something new and shortly after that I was offered to do the Frankenstein graphic novel adaptation of the Borsi Karloff 1931 classic so that intrigued me even more at the time. My love for Aliens never died though.
I went on to do several other Aliens products such as the Topps cards, model kit cover, T-shirt design, etc. And I’m also still painting Aliens for personal commissions. In fact I just finished another one a few days ago and eager to do another!
Rob Birtton would like to ask if you had any reference points outside of the first two films for your ship, base and gun designs? They remain some of the most logical extensions of the Cameron aesthetic within the comics.
He’s particularly interested in the fighter ships which appear to be bombing the city the little girl (Amy) and her grandfather are hiding in. Always thought they were really brilliant! Mainly just thanks for being so inspiring to him when he first picked up the UK Trident reprints! Rob learned to draw Aliens by copying you!
Thanks so much for props on my tech designs. I was just trying to keep it within the same flavors they already established and as always Sid Mead ‘s tech designs of are always inspiring.
And lastly, Whiskeybrewer would like to know if you were ever approached about working on Earth War, the follow-up to your book?
Maybe. I’m not sure now. But Mike Richardson did offer more Aliens work or whatever I wanted to do and at that time I did want a break from Aliens to try something else. I was offered Star Wars which seemed exciting.
I was up for that, but shortly after Mike advised that having the work ultimately approved by Lucas Arts might be more challenging than I’d have patience for. So, I went on to do the Frankenstein graphic novel, which I really enjoyed, and also filmed myself in the process. Should anyone be interested in that, here’s a link to part 1 of 6 videos on YouTube.
On behalf of everyone at Alien vs. Predator Galaxy, thank you for an landmark comic series and we wish you continued success in the future.
Thanks so much! Those were some interesting questions. I hope I was able to shed some light and inspiration. My heartfelt thanks to all the fans! I’m so very grateful for the continued support and interest in my work. Thank you!
I would just like to take the opportunity to thank Den Beauvais for taking the time out of his busy schedule to sit and talk to us! I’d also like to thank our very own Perfect-Organism for doing all the hard work on this interview.
If anyone is interested in commissioning a piece from this Alien legend, Den is always up for projects! Feel free to contact him at den -at denbeauvais.com. Also be sure to check out Den’s website. Corporal Hicks.