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The X-Files (Topps) #1 – Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

If you needed proof that The X-Files had made it, then the forty-issue Topps comic book series from the mid-nineties seems a place to start. Of course, this has less to do with the stories published in the comics themselves – though some are very interesting – and more to do with the comic book market in the nineties and the business model employed by Topps. The comic book industry was perhaps at its peak in the nineties – at least when it came to exposure and public profile.

Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 became the biggest-selling comic book of all time in 1991, selling over eight million copies. A year later, DC Comics published The Death of Superman, a sprawling highly-publicised comic book event that killed off (and then revived) the Man of Steel. The year after that, Batman got in on the action with the Knightfall trilogy, a suitably spectacular event that featured the crippling of Bruce Wayne, his replacement as Batman, and the eventual return of the Caped Crusader.

The truth is in here?

The truth is in here?

It is important to put those figures in perspective. While this was a financial peak for the comic book industry, it was still something of a fringe economy. In the mid-nineties, a television show attracting only eight million viewers would find itself on the bubble line when it came to renewal. However, that figure was the largest readership of any comic book ever. (Audience diversification means that both television audiences and comic book readers have dwindled in the years since, but the latter much more than the former.)

However, the business model for comic books in the nineties made them highly profitable, despite their smaller audience. Price gouging was not uncommon, with some retailers charging as much as $30 for Superman #75 in 1992. Poly bags, gimmick covers, variant artwork, celebrity authors – comics were largely driven by gimmicks in the nineties. More than that, the emphasis on comic books as an investment in the mainstream media helped to suggest the industry was more for collectors than for readers.

Holy conspiracy, Mulder!

Holy conspiracy, Mulder!

It is telling that the company to land the license for The X-Files was Topps, a company famous for producing sports memorabilia. The company had branched into comics in 1993, as the industry was growing and growing, hoping to license various characters and properties. The implication was that The X-Files comic had been designed more as an accessory than as a story. The cover to Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas ever features a handy “first collectors item issue” tag below the “1” at the top left-hand corner.

Licensed comic books have something of a chequered history. In the context of the mid-nineties, it would be easy to write off the forty-one issues (and change) of The X-Files as a cynical cash-in. However, the series has moments of brilliance and insight that mark it as a worth extension of the brand name.

Up in the sky!

Up in the sky!

Mid-way through the second season, it was clear that The X-Files was a hit. Fox were quick to try to capitalise on that hit. For his part, Chris Carter has been quite candid about his difficulties with licensed merchandise:

I didn’t want to cheapen the show by just putting the X-Files logo or Mulder and Scully’s face on anything that could be licensed. So I’ve turned a lot of things down. Boxer shorts was one. Various and sundry key chains. Flashlights. Mostly just doo-dads. Gee-gaws. I don’t know how to describe them. Trinkets. What David Duchovny calls wampum.

It’s an understandable concern for Carter, who worked very hard to manage the brand image of The X-Files over its nine-year run. Carter was understandably upset about losing the credibility that the show had built up.

Letting it slide...

Letting it slide…

Indeed, Carter was quite clear that the cache of the merchandise was important to him, that The X-Files never appears to have “sold out”, expressing some small frustration at how mainstream and commercial the show’s merchandise had become:

I resist a lot of stuff. If this becomes a show that you can find at your local KMart or Wal-Mart too easily, it’s going to lose the thing that’s made it special. The X-Files is coming out on videotape, and it’s going to be in all those stores. It makes me a little sad. I’d like it better if you could only find them at a head shop in Van Nuys.

However, the show was becoming a booming industry in its own right, and it was clear that this was happening with the consent and cooperation of the production team.

A cold reception...

A cold reception…

Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster was replaced at the start of the second season, after the first season edition proved hard to mass produce. In mid-1995, Creations Entertainment began mass-producing X-Files merchandise. In the United Kingdom, Sky Gear began offering a range of X-Files goodies. Indeed, their X-Files range was publicised in the second issue of The X-Files Magazine, published by Manga Entertainment in the UK in July 1995. That issue of The X-Files Magazine also republished the second issue of The X-Files comics.

In this context, a comic book spin-off makes a great deal of sense. Within the context of the nineties, comic books were collectable merchandise in their own right, and the market was still enough of a niche industry that there was some cultural cache associated with comic books. Chris Carter would even use comic book framing for The Post-Modern Prometheus in the fifth season, and Carter’s Harsh Realm would draw heavily on a 1988 comic book premise by James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette.

Lights in the sky...

Lights in the sky…

And yet, despite Carter’s claims that he “loved” the X-Files comics, it seems that the monthly production cycle was a nightmare. According to Topps writer Tony Isabella, the comic had difficulty keeping to a monthly schedule because of feedback from Chris Carter’s office:

The basic problem was that whoever was approving the comics over in Chris Carter Land were the poster kids for anal retentiveness. Although it’s possible that they were so picky because they never wanted the comics out there in the first place.

The main reason the comics fell behind schedule was because it took so long to satisfy the X-Files people. They went over everything with a fine-tooth comb, including the letters columns.

It’s impossible to know whether the high-level of vetting was simply an attempt to frustrate the writers working on the comic, or a genuine effort to produce the best tie-in possible. (Both are possible; one need only look at the politicking that took place in the Star Trek licensing department in the early-to-mid-nineties.)

Caught in a blizzard of conspiracies...

Caught in a blizzard of conspiracies…

The writer chosen to launch the series was Stefan Petrucha, a novelist and comic book writer. Petrucha recalls watching the television show as it first aired, and eagerly pursuing the assignment:

So when The X-Files premiered, of course I was watching. After the first ep, I frantically dialed my old pal Jim Salicrup, told him he should absolutely get the rights and to please, please let me write it. I think his spouse made a similar suggestion to him (about the rights, not me). I’d been writing for Topps Comics, obviously knew the subject matter like crazy, so when Peter David said no, I got the gig.

The fact that Peter David was pursued to the write the title suggests that the company was interested in producing a quality tie-in. David was a veteran tie-in writer, who had pitched to the first season of The X-Files on the recommendation of director David Nutter. While David declined the offer, Petrucha was not a bad choice by any measure.

Unidentified Falling Object...

Unidentified Falling Object…

Petrucha wrote the first sixteen issues (and the first annual) of the comic, collaborating with artist Charlie Adlard on the title. Adlard worked on the title a little longer, although he was no longer the only (or even primary) penciller after Petrucha departed. The quality of the comic – as with so many tie-ins – varied from issue-to-issue. After all, there are a lot of constraints in writing a tie-in that don’t exist when working on a massive television show. There were stories that were disappointing or generic, but Petrucha and Adlard generally tried to keep things interesting.

There are quite a few points in Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas where Petrucha’s writing feels decidedly “comic-book-y.” At one point, Scully shoots down a UFO, which is an absurd sequence that is perhaps the type of excess you’d associate with “an X-Files tie-in comic book.” To be fair, Petrucha and Adlard handle the moment quite well, but it feels like something that would never happen in the world of the show. Similarly, Mulder and Scully wind up getting themselves involved in a black-market plutonium deal.

Cigarette-Smoking Man has a lot he wants to get off his chest...

Putting his big foot in his big mouth…

There are other moments that feel off. When Skinner and the Cigarette-Smoking Man get their obligatory first-issue cameo, the Cigarette-Smoking Man seems much more emotive than usual. “You’re off the case!” he warns Mulder. “Go chase Bigfoot!” Skinner is similarly emotive, “Damn it, man. We’re trying to keep you alive!” These are outbursts that seem rather strange from these two characters, treating them as stock plot obstructions whose primary function is to get in Mulder’s way.

It is easy enough to forgive these problems. After all, it seems like Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas was written around the time of One Breath, if not a little earlier. Scully includes a reference to her abduction that makes it seem like the story takes place immediately upon her return. (“I’ve missed your slide shows, Mulder,” she remarks early on.) At that point in the show, Skinner and the Cigarette-Smoking Man were only loosely defined. Both got their biggest moments to date in One Breath, and would get more to do at the end of the second season into the third.

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

These are understandable inconsistencies, considering the realities of writing a tie-in comic book. It is worth noting that Petrucha has the voices of Mulder and Scully down quite well, even if an early plot point of Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas relies on Scully making an amateur mistake. Fittingly for a story about Catholicism, Petrucha puts Mulder on the outside looking in and lets Scully get a little closer to the case than she might usually allow herself.

“I’m here for the FBI, not The Weekly World News,” Scully remarks to Mulder. “I’ll embrace that possibility only after the long list of things I can explain has been exhausted. But this is difficult. I may be a lapsed Catholic, but my father believed. And in any case, I don’t enjoy trampling on what these people believe.” While Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas doesn’t engage with Scully’s faith in the same way that Revelations or All Souls does, it does touch on the issue in a more direct way than any episode of the show’s first two years.

Prophecy and change...

Prophecy and change…

Similarly, Petrucha touches on the idea that Mulder’s skepticism about organised religion is perhaps an expression of his own quasi-religious faith. He’s interested in the Fatima Prophecy as a potential piece of UFO lore. “What if the prophecy reveals that angels are aliens?” he asks Scully. “I can see why the church might want to suppress that.” Petrucha does seem to prefigure some of the interesting twists on the dynamic that would become apparent in later shows exploring religious themes, even if Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas doesn’t get those beats entirely right.

Still, there are some very nice touches here. The closing page even cleverly ties back Mulder and Scully’s two very different forms of faith back to their lost loved ones. Scully is certain her father is up there watching over her. Mulder’s faith suggests another fate for Samantha. “I envy you. It would be such a relief to think my sister’s happy, but when I look up at the heavens… all I see are the stars.” It’s a nice little scene that seems to point a little bit towards Sein und Zeit and Closure, albeit indirectly.

Mulder's got drive...

Mulder’s got drive…

Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas does touch on some stuff that the television show largely ignored. The X-Files would do a couple of episodes covering religion and faith in its nine-year run, but it never engaged with the issue as a recurring concern. In some ways, this is quite odd. After all, the early nineties saw revelations about systemic cover-ups of horrific abuse by the Catholic Church organisations, with a concerted effort made to hide or downplay the victimisation of those unable to defend themselves.

This is the kind of story that The X-Files did so well – the story of horrific crimes committed by those in positions of authority, protected by their power. The show wouldn’t really address the controversy until I Want to Believe in 2008, in a rather ham-fisted and awkward manner. Still, perhaps a television network drama in the mid-nineties was not the best place to explore these issues or controversies.

Oh, Mulder...

Oh, Mulder…

Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas only touches lightly on issues surrounding the divide between church and state, but realises that these sorts of shadowy deals play quite well into the themes of The X-Files about abuses of power. The Vatican enlists the assistance of what appears to be the United States government in reacquiring the stolen relic. “We’ve always respected the Chuch’s jurisdiction over such items, your eminence,” the official assures him. “We’re very adept at keeping out of the public eye.”

Millennium was actually more interested in matters of religious philosophy than The X-Files. In some respects, Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas can be seen as another example of Millennium gestating among The X-Files. After all, the second season is populated with nods and hints at Chris Carter’s other multi-season nineties show, from the serial-killer hunting of Irresistible through to the epic battle between the forces of good and evil in The Calisuri. Perhaps this suggests that the ideas for Millennium were a natural off-shoot of The X-Files.

I do like that there is apparently a threshold on how much plutonium this guy can provide...

I do like that there is apparently a threshold on how much plutonium this guy can provide…

There is indeed some nice coincidental foreshadowing of that show to be found in Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas. Evoking the conflict between various factions over religious artifacts in second-season episodes like The Hand of St. Sebastian, Owls and Roosters, Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas features various parties competing to get their hands on the Third Prophecy of Fatima. “Call it a hunch,” Mulder, “but I think there’s more than one group after the prophecy.”

It would not take too much work to adapt Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas as a second-season Millennium episode. There’s an argument that it fits better as an episode of Millennium than as an episode of The X-Files. Petrucha has very shrewdly picked a story that lends itself to the sort of conspiratorial and vaguely mystic storytelling of The X-Files. The Third Prophecy of Fatima provides a wonderful intersection of conspiracy theories, millennial anxieties, institutional paranoia and the supernatural.

Holy conspiracy, Mulder!

Holy conspiracy, Mulder!

After all, there was significant speculation around the content of the prophecy. When it was finally revealed to the public in 2000, there was a sense of disappoint at how mundane it was, predicting a long-past assassination attempt on John Paul II. The other possibilities were much more compelling:

Versions of the secret, broadcast on hundreds of Web sites (usually under headlines like, ”Third Secret Revealed!”) range from worldwide nuclear annihilation to deep rifts in the Roman Catholic Church that lead to rival papacies.

Fatima fanatics have held hunger strikes — one even hijacked a plane — to try to force the Vatican to disclose the secret. During John Paul’s first visit to the shrine in 1982, on the first anniversary of the assassination attempt, a knife-wielding Spanish priest tried to kill the pope, but was wrestled to the ground by security officers.

Revealing the prophecy in 2000 was unlikely to be a coincidence. It seems likely that the the Catholic Church was trying to disarm some of the rumours and speculations about a potentially apocalyptic element of the prophecy. Like all good conspiracy theories, official pronouncements have done little to dissuade those convinced that the truth is more sinister.

Snow escape!

Snow escape!

The result is an entertaining – if rather light – X-Files story. Still, the comic was a massive success for Topps. It became the publisher’s top-selling comic, placing eighty-one on the January 1995 sales chart. Interestingly, an article on the comics in New Straits Times suggested the readership was more diverse than most contemporary popular comics:

“I think it’s important for the book to have the weight of reality, and the things I find out make for terrific fodder for stories,” says Paetrucha, who’s also happy that many of the readers are female, unlike superhero comics where the readership is overwhelmingly male.

The comic book industry historically had trouble courting and keeping female readers, with breakout comics like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman becoming particularly notable for welcoming female readers to the medium.

Confessing the truth...

Confessing the truth…

Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas is an effective (if not spectacular) first issue from Petrucha and Adlard, demonstrating that the duo understand how the show works, and are able to tell stories within that framework.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of The X-Files:

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2 Responses

  1. My great regret on reading this is that I had this first issue, but threw it away when I got the collected edition of the first six issues. What a maroon, eh?

    I remember enjoying these comics immensely, especially their alternate take on the Tunguska incident. It would never have worked as an actual episode, as you note with issue one here, but was still an enjoyable and epic-feeling sci-fi adventure.

    • I have a huge fondness for Petrucha’s X-Files comics. They don’t always work as well as they might, but they are typically very ambitious and – when they do work – they sing. A Dismembrance of Things Past is all sorts of brilliant, and I also like Silent Cities of the Mind as well.

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