In a New Aliens Comic, Paul Reiser Insists Burke Isn’t the Villain You Think He Is

Exclusive: Paul Reiser tells us what it was like revisiting one of the Alien universe's most infamous villains for Marvel's Aliens: What If...? #1.

What If Aliens #1 Cover
Photo: Marvel Comics

“Don’t presume you know everything.” For decades, that was actor Paul Reiser’s response whenever people would ask him about playing Burke, the Weyland-Yutani middle-manager who tried to kill the heroes of Aliens to please his bosses.

Since the release of the James Cameron classic in 1986, viewers have taken Ripley’s summation of the situation to heart. “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse,” she tells him after escaping from a trap he set to infect her and the child Newt with a Xenomorph. “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

And yet, almost 40 years later, Reiser still insists that Burke isn’t the villain he seems. When Den of Geek catches up with the actor and comedian, he shares his rejoinder to those who called Burke a bad guy. “You say ‘bad,’ I say ‘misunderstood.'” In a new Marvel comic book series titled Aliens: What If…?, Reiser finally gets a chance to set the record straight.

As you might expect from the title, Aliens: What If…? explores alternate realities within the beloved world of Ridley Scott‘s and Cameron’s sci-fi horror movies. The company kicks off the series with the ambitious storyline “What If… Carter Burke Had Lived,” written by Reiser, along with his son Leon, Adam F. Goldberg, Hans Rodionoff, and Brian Volk-Weiss, with illustrations by Guiu Vilanova and colors by Yen Nitro. Fan-favorite artist Phil Noto is illustrating the covers, one of which you can check out below:

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Aliens: What If? #1

For Reiser, bringing Burke back from the dead didn’t feel like so much of a stretch. We never actually see Burke perish in Aliens (even if it’s highly unlikely he survived that Xenomorph ambush), so when Marvel came to Reiser with the idea of doing an alternate reality Burke comic, he thought, “It’s really not implausible.” Crediting his son Leon for nailing the details, Reiser realized “there was enough time to get to the ship and it could all work. This could be true.”

For those who might be tempted to point out the infamous deleted scene from Aliens, in which Ripley finds Burke cocooned with a Xenomorph growing inside of him (“That was no massage,” Reiser said of shooting the scene), the comic has it covered. Where that deleted scene ended with Ripley handing Burke a grenade, presumably to kill himself, Aliens: What If…? #1 provides a simple explanation for both the explosion and Burke’s escape to the drop-ship. We won’t spoil that here, but it’s a good one.

That said, after getting him off of LV-426, the comic gives Burke his just deserts. Cutting ahead by several decades, we see Burke as the most hated man in the universe for threatening to bring a Xenomorph to Earth, living the only life befitting a middling functionary.

Satisfying as that new arc is, Reiser’s interest in the story stemmed from his chance to flesh out what is a pretty straightforward baddie on screen. “It was just my joke,” Reiser said of his alternative reading of Burke, but that was enough for Goldberg to come up with the idea of revisiting the character’s past and future. “He had this whole backstory, which justified Burke’s actions, as off the rails as they went and as tragic as the results were.”

As one of several people involved in the creation of the story, Reiser is quick to downplay his contributions. “I’m not a comic guy, I’m not even good at reading them. I get lost, I need things to be linear,” he admits. However, he not only approved all of the story details but also offered suggestions for how to craft the character of Burke on the page…within reason. “I realized I would look at dialogue, but I was looking at it as an actor. I would tell them ‘I would say it like that’ or ‘it feels a little bit too expositional,’ and then remember it’s a comic book.”

He may not be a comic book guy, but Reiser is a comic, and that background drove his part of the story. But of course, even then he had to contend with another funny guy, his son Leon. “The writers would sometimes send the draft and say, ‘Anybody have any pitches?’ And Leon would send in 20 lines of suggestions and they would see my 20.” And more often than not Reiser, admits, the team went with Leon’s ideas, a sting made easier by the fact that it was his son: “Yeah, his were funnier.”

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Leon’s contributions helped Reiser feel more confident in the comic. “He can be the ‘Paul Whisperer,'” says Reiser. “He knew my comic timing, my rhythm, and my tone.” And it’s that sense of comedy that makes Burke feel so human in the movie, a sense that is captured in the comic. It helps that Vilanova not only replicates Reiser’s facial expressions in the book but also his unique sense of humor and his desperate need to be liked.

Which, of course, fits with Reiser’s perception of the character. For the comic, Reiser and the rest of the team were able to build on an approach the actor brought to Burke back in the ’80s and has continued to think about since.

“The character stuff was very rich and realistic in this super crazy world,” he says of Aliens. “So it was exciting for me to see how the character is sort of opened up and you see his personal life [in the comic]. He has a daughter, we’re making him a full fledged person.”

The comic also allowed Reiser to do something he couldn’t do with Burke in 1986: offer his opinion on the character and the story. “I had nothing to offer,” Reiser says of his experience working with Cameron. “I said, ‘This guy’s a genius,’ and his script was killer. My goal was to just avoid bringing this film to a grinding halt.”

However, he did have one idea that Cameron at least entertained. While the Space Marines were grabbing their gear and getting ready to use the tools of their trade, Burke grabs a Filofax. “It’s sort of funny to me, but then Jim said, ‘Think carefully if you want to carry that, because you’re gonna have to hold this every scene.'” After that, Reiser set the Filofax down and Burke went on empty handed. “And I think, yeah, that was about the extent of it.”

Even though the moment didn’t make the final cut of Aliens, Reiser’s decision reveals a lot about his take on Burke. Sure, Burke does terrible things. But he’s fundamentally another cog in the machine of Weyland-Yutani, flawed and pathetic, ready to be laughed at and sympathized with.

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With Aliens: What If…?, Reiser finally gets to show off that side of Burke. And perhaps clear the villain’s name once and for all.

Aliens: What If…? #1 is out now. Issue #2 is out on April 10.