Author: Mark Verheiden
Artists: Chris Warner and Ron Randall
Release Date: June 14, 2017
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Genre: Action, Horror

Before the two ever faced off, the Predator and the Alien were inextricably bound. Some of Dark Horse’s earliest successes as a publisher came in 1989 with licensed Alien comics, translating the series’ moody sci-fi horror to the page. Later that year, they tried again, this time adapting John McTiernan’s sublimely over-the-top macho horror Predator.

On paper, Predator is a property almost perfectly designed for comics. An action movie, horror story, and pulp survival tale all wrapped in the cocaine excess of the Reagan ‘80s, Predator swapped the sexual subtext, class-war, and cosmic horror of Alien for relentless tension as a crew of burly shit-kickers are picked off on-by-one. The first Predator film is designed as much for Arnold Schwarzenegger fans as it was for John Carpenter ones, supplying as many gun-porn thrills as splatter-kills. It’s a formula that easily translates from the screen to the page but still offers plenty of challenges.

Predator: The Original Comics Series showcases the first shot at catching lightning twice but narrows the focus to just one approach. The focus here is on writer Mark Verheiden and artist Ron Randall, who first teamed up for the “Concrete Jungle” miniseries and would tell two more stories with “Cold War” and “Dark River.” All three stories follow Officer Schaefer, the brother of the film’s Dutch Schaefer, modeled on Jean Claude Van Dam with the personality of Duke Nukem. He deals with the arrival of a Predator in New York City and searches for information as to his brother’s disappearance.

The format of the collection lends itself to telling a, mostly, complete story but fails to take into account Dark Horse’s other attempts at adapting the license, like John Arcudi and Evan Dorkin’s 1981 “Big Game” series or the ambitious but flawed “Race War” mini. It’s a strange oversight, especially for a retrospective, but offers a portrait of the challenges of adapting a well loved property.

“Concrete Jungle” hedges pretty closely to following the formula for a Hollywood sequel by mostly just going bigger. While it beat Predator 2 by a few months, it has a very similar story. Schaefer faces off with a Predator in an urban environment as a full blown invasion of Earth begins.

It’s a story that goes far too wide. While it begins with Schaefer getting in fist fights with gangsters and aliens, it pivots to him heading to the jungle for an issue before facing off with crooked cops, scheming military officials, and ultimately teaming up with coke dealers before the four issues wrap. It moves fast and is jam packed with way more dialogue than this story needs.

The biggest draw here is Chris Warner and Ron Randall’s art. The pencilling could not look more at home in 1989, with heavy inks and a focus on tight staging and busy paneling, it’s clearly a product of its time but the art team excels in little details. The Predators, in particular, are intricately detailed and their features and weapons look straight out of the film.

What’s most notable in the text is how much Verheiden tries to do to make sense of the franchise’s mythology. He plays with the idea of Predators replicating speech they hear, although it’s mostly an excuse to give them some dialogue, and an awful lot of the plot is dependent on characters trying to wear the Predator’s helmet to spot oncoming ships. It’s a goofy plot point, doing its best to explain something that didn’t ever need to be explained, but it’s among the more memorable features in an easily forgettable comic.

“Cold War,” the second story collected, doesn’t fare much better. Illustrated by Randall alone this time, the story picks up shortly after the first one ended, this time with Schaefer heading to the USSR after a Predator ship crash-lands near a Soviet comms station. It’s a more ambitious story, one comparing Schaefer to a Soviet officer struggling to keep her men’s respect and survive in the face of brutal realpolitik. It doesn’t entirely work. Schaefer’s still spouting action movie quips, despite a few moments meant to emphasize the losses he’s had to deal with but it doesn’t feel true to the character.

The biggest crime of “Cold War,” however, is its pace. This is a ponderously slow story, one that takes two issues before the Predators start cutting through Soviets and another two before Schaefer really starts fighting them. There are still moments of grim tension, like a base full of skinned, dead Russians and a brutal prologue involving a Predator cutting through a Soviet battalion but the thrills are few and far between.

“Dark River” is much better, mostly on the strength of Randall’s art. Released in 1996, Randall’s pencils have become much rounder, more expressive and cartoonish, resembling Tom Grummett or Jan Duursema and it makes Schaefer’s exaggerated physique feel more at home in a world full or ripped soldiers, buxom guerrilla fighters and massive, hulking extraterrestrials.

It’s a story that sees Schaefer going after the Predator from “Concrete Jungle,” who’s somehow survived the events of that story. The storyline here is also more coherent. It actively engages both with the miniseries that came before it as well as the original film, and provides one fairly memorable sequence as Schaefer survives being shot, left for dead and watching friends tortured and killed, to take one more shot at the Predator. Still, it ends without any real resolution and after spending so much time with a resolutely unlikable character, it’s kind of hard to accept.

What’s most interesting about the presentation and stories in Predator: The Original Comics Series is watching as the rules for modern licensed comics are slowly figured out. Verheiden’s scripts slowly find a focus, realizing that the series is less about character and more about themes and aesthetics.

Predator in the moments when it’s subverting action and horror cliche, when the heroes of one genre are turned into the victims of another. It’s a trick that “Cold War” plays with and “Dark River” gets closer too, mostly by adding a group of would-be victims of the Predator and bringing the action back to an area familiar to movie fans.

Ultimately, Predator: The Original Comics Series isn’t the most complete retrospective of a franchise or an iconic ‘80s slasher but it offers a solid portrait of the company at a pivotal time in its history and the modern licensed comic. Otherwise, it’s almost strictly for the biggest Predator fans only.

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