Inventing Sci-Fi Noir: Jim Steranko’s ‘Outland’

 Exhibit / November 7, 2018

Object Name: Graphic adaptation of Outland
Maker and Year: Jim Steranko, Heavy Metal, 1981-1982
Object Type: Graphic novel
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

When Heavy Metal published 1979’s stand-alone Alien: The Illustrated Story to coincide with the release of Ridley Scott’s now-canonical sci-fi horror, no one knew what a “graphic novel” was. The adaptation, with frequently gruesome art by Walt Simonson and words by Archie Goodwin, was strikingly innovative while remaining true to Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay, and it soon landed on the New York Times Best Seller list—the first of its kind to do so. The following year, Heavy Metal took another shot and contracted Marvel Comics alum Jim Steranko to do a “graphic adaptation” of Outland (1981), Peter Hyams’ overlooked space-western, which shared many of the same themes as Alien: isolation, conspiracy, claustrophobia, class struggle, mega-corporations that casually sacrifice human life to profit, and the visualization of a future where tech has evolved exponentially, but people remain as broken and depraved as the characters in a dime novel.

By this time, Steranko had been away from comics for more than a decade, concentrating on his publishing company Supergraphics and paperback jacket illustration. His illustrated novel Chandler: Red Tide (1976), an homage to both Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled fiction and Hollywood film noir, was, in a literal sense, one of the first graphic novels: instead of word balloons, the narrative runs along the bottom of the pages, sometimes couched inside panels. While it didn’t sell very well, the balance Steranko struck between his rich, kinetic visuals and brisk prose influenced noir-themed comics to come, including Frank Miller’s Sin City (1991-1992). It’s probably also why he was offered the Outland gig. In an interview with Fantastic Films magazine in 1981, Steranko explained why he took the job:

The idea was entertaining and the film worked visually in terms of theme and imagery, it struck me as being the first noir science fiction film, somewhat in the ‘Chandleresque’ vein…

Outland may well be the first American sci-fi noir film, but Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville (1965) beat Hyams to the punch by a good 15 years. In comics, 1975’s The Long Tomorrow, illustrated by Moebius and written by Dan O’Bannon (who is still unrecognized for his colossal influence on the history of modern sci-fi), is probably the first example of the trope.

Steranko’s Outland is an exhilarating tour de force by a writer-illustrator who had already revolutionized the very idea of comics during his late-’60s tenure on Marvel’s Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. The adaptation consists almost exclusively of double-page splashes, with each “establishing shot” surrounded by islands or rows or “inserts” of smaller panels, the whole thing designed to “give readers the kind of familiarity that audiences have when they face the wide screen.” And the overall “fragmented” and “paranoid” look of the narrative was inspired by—leave it to Steranko—Louis Wain’s increasingly fractured and kaleidoscopic portraits of cats following his commitment to a mental institution in 1924. Even more than the movie, Steranko’s Outland conveys the deeply noir, deeply cyberpunk elements of the story that would find completion in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982): art imitating art imitating art.

Sadly, the adaptation was never collected into book form in English and is currently unavailable outside of the original Heavy Metal issues (July through October 1981, and January 1982) in which it was serialized.

2 thoughts on “Inventing Sci-Fi Noir: Jim Steranko’s ‘Outland’

  1. Pingback: Cold War Interrupted: The Promise of ‘2010: The Year We Make Contact’

Please Leave a Responsible Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s