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The X-Files (Topps) #2 – A Dismembrance of Things Past (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.

A Dismembrance of Things Past is an absolute delight, and a nice demonstration of how well writer Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard could tell stories set within The X-Files universe.

There are many interesting things about A Dismembrance of Things Past. It’s a fine piece of work, deftly balancing the demands on a new comic book set within the world of The X-Files with an urge to tell a story that fits very clearly and very comfortably within the show’s basic structure. It is easy to imagine A Dismembrance of Things Past receiving a live-action adaptation. Indeed, Petrucha’s script feels like something of a tribute to writer Darin Morgan before Darin Morgan had even written for the show, half-way between Blood and José Chung’s “From Outer Space.”

Something to remember them by...

Something to remember them by…

A Dismembrance of Things Past confronts the difficulties of writing a tie-in comic book to The X-Files, while using those constraints to tell an interesting story in its own right. After all, the comic book would have to tell an alien or U.F.O. story eventually. The words “The X-Files” are written on the cover, and that comes with the territory. At the same time, Petrucha and Adlard have to acknowledge the fact that the tie-in comic book cannot advance the on-screen mythology arc. Indeed, it seems unlikely Carter had shared too much of that arc with Petrucha or Adlard.

It takes a lot of skill to balance these competing demands of a tie-in comic book – to remain connected to the source material, but never pulling too far away or ahead, while remaining interesting. A Dismembrance of Things Past manages to satisfy all of its obligations and then some.

Through alien eyes...

Through alien eyes…

There are some minor bumps in the road here. Most obviously, colourist George Freeman has decided that Scully has blonde hair. While the mistake would be forgiveable had the comic been illustrated before the show went to air, or if source materials had not been readily available, Gillian Anderson is pictured on the cover of the comic book. Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas managed to get her hair colour right. Scully’s hair colour is one of the most distinctive visual identifiers of the series, and so the decision to colour her hair blonde is just strange.

It’s also clear that Petrucha is still working quite apart from the production of the show. As with Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas, there’s a sense that Petrucha was not being kept up to speed with the plotting and structure of the second season. In the first issue, both the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Skinner seemed a little out of character – which made sense, as the show was still trying to figure out their characters at that point. At this point in the production cycle, the writers were amazed to discover William B. Davis could act.

A gas old time...

A gas old time…

So the opening of A Dismembrance of Things Past feels a bit clunky, as Mulder is provided with a case file by a mysterious informant, pointing him in the direction of an old U.F.O. sighting. It’s a scene that feels a little overly elaborate, with Mulder and Scully being abducted by armed goons so they can be given the necessary information to get the plot moving. The script seems to simply use these goons as a way of spurring Mulder and Scully to action.

It’s the kind of scene that could easily have been given to Mr. X. However, given the tumultuous relationship between X and Mulder during the second season, as well as the lingering mystery around the character, it’s easy to see why it may have been too complicated to try and fit the character into the story. It is perhaps an example of the difficulties of writing a tie-in comic to a currently-airing television show. Petrucha would have been writing scripts several months before the release of the comic, meaning the book is quite a few episodes behind current continuity.

The truth is back there...

The truth is back there…

However, once you get past these minor hiccups in A Dismembrance of Things Past, the result is a delightful and thoughtful little story that manages to hit quite skilfully on the recurring themes of The X-Files as a television show. While Petrucha and Adlard don’t quite match Darin Morgan’s sense of humour – A Dismembrance of Things Past was released before Humbug aired, after all – but their second issue does touch on some of the ideas that Morgan would come to play with over his time working on The X-Files.

As the title implies, A Dismembrance of Things Past is a story about memory – and how fragile such a thing can be. It is a story about a small town in Kansas where all the locals remember the visit of a U.F.O. almost five decades earlier. “The incident is second only to Roswell for documentation, publicity, and a frustrating lack of conclusive evidence,” Mulder boasts. However, the witnesses to that infamous sighting are being slowly killed off, and there’s the repeated suggestion that the memories may not be real. If the memories are not real, what is?

Remember me...

Remember me…

While the eventual reveal calls to mind the early second season episode Blood, where the citizens of a small-town find themselves the victim of a sinister experiment that drives some to insanity, quite a lot of A Dismembrance of Things Past is channeled through Jose Chung’s From Outer Space. In that story, Darin Morgan explored the idea of the gap between perception and reality, offering several different accounts of an alien abduction, inviting the viewer to question whether Mulder’s so-called “truth” could be objectively said to exist.

A Dismembrance of Things Past plays on this idea – perhaps a bit too heavily. Early on, Mulder’s informants insist that they are not there and that Mulder is not reading a classified dossier, both statements that would appear to run counter to what is actually occurring – well, unless these characters accept their fictionality. While this is just typical X-Files double-talk and deniability, it sets the tone for the rest of the comic. If concepts like memory and perception are elastic, how can we ever say what is real?

Head shot...

Head shot…

“Memory itself may not be real,” Scully offers at one point in the comic, before the agents discover that at least some memories are definitely not real. Or are they? If you change a person’s memories, surely you change the person? Although seldom addressed as directly, memory is one of the recurring themes of The X-Files. The show is very much a trip through post-Cold War America, in the shadows of Watergate and Vietnam. It is set against the backdrop of lies and untruths and accepted narratives of history.

“They say history is written by the winner,” one disenfranchised member of the community reflects. “Maybe they re-write it, too.” The show is fond of cover-ups and misdirections, which are surely attempts to re-write history, to account for mistakes and to alter the public record to best suit their agenda. So much of The X-Files is anchored in the idea that a nation unwilling to remember or confront history is doomed to repeat it.

Faint traces of alien contact...

Faint traces of alien contact…

The second season premiere, Little Green Men, deals with the issue of memory directly. As Allison Graham notes in Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, the show links Mulder’s personal memory of Samantha’s abduction with the collective memory of past horrors:

‘Recovered memory’ is, of course, a central convention of abduction narratives, and Mulder’s flashback contains traditional features of such stories. The series seems to be staking out larger ground, however, implying that Mulder’s visions might be collective rather than personal. As in the first season, alien abduction is linked to government crime, but now the link has become psychological as well as political. What Mulder recovers is both the memory of erasure (Nixon’s) and the erasure of memory (his own). His ‘undeleted file’ of childhood memory stands in contrast to the ‘deleted file’ of official misconduct, but they both tell only one story: disappearance. The erasure of presidential crimes would be followed by the erasure of larger military and corporate crimes from national consciousness during the 1970s and 1980s (the “organised forgetting”, or planned apathy, so painstakingly chronicled by Noam Chomsky).

A Dismembrance of Things Past pushes the idea to the fore, with an entire town that has built itself up around a false memory, a narrative that is appealing and comfortable, but one that has no basis in fact.

Identified flying objects...

Identified flying objects…

Then again, what is truth or reality? Can these things exist as objectively verifiable fact? For all that Mulder uses “the Truth” as a proper noun, treating it as absolute and incorruptible, does truth exist in such a form? Or is it entirely subjective, unique to each individual? One witness struggles to convey her sense of memory, to accepting that her perception of events is intangible and impossible to share.

“At best I can try to conjure it for you with words, try to make you feel just a little bit of what I felt,” she tells and assembled group. “But can’t put it in your hands and say, ‘Here, here it is — touch it… just touch it… and you’ll know.'” In some respects, this is the tragedy of Mulder’s character – the need to have absolute and incontrovertible truth, refusing to acknowledge that it may not exist. Reflecting on her memory, the witness reflects, “If there is such a thing as truth out there, that’s the only place I’ve found it.” And even that most intimate version of truth cannot be trusted.

One breath...

One breath…

The theme even comes baked into the Kung-Fu re-run that is playing in the background as Mulder sleeps on his couch towards the start of the comic – another example of how well Petrucha captures the tone of the series. (Although it’s unlikely that Topps would have allowed the comic to suggest what else Mulder might be watching.) “Master,” one voice remarks, “we are taught that to know ourselves, we must know our past.” Dismembrance of Things Past suggests that a malleable past leads to erosion and decay and loss.

A Dismembrance of Things Past makes a few references to Samantha Mulder, but it never explicitly acknowledges that Mulder’s memory of the event may be flawed.However, the scene set in Mulder’s apartment opens with the episode’s government informant examining a picture of Samantha and Fox together as children, skilfully establishing the connection without feeling too forced or on-the-nose.

Sweet dreams...

Sweet dreams…

The implication, left unstated, is somewhat stark. Conduit revealed that Mulder’s lost memories of Samantha had been reawakened under hypnotherapy. These re-awakened memories may not be the most reliable of indicators, as the controversy around reawakened memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse in the late eighties and early nineties demonstrated. How can Mulder know his own memories are more reliable than those of this small town?

These are big philosophical questions that cut right to the heart of The X-Files. To tackle them in the tie-in comic book is quite ambitious. It demonstrates that Petrucha and Adlard are telling stories that fit within the framework of the show, and they are aware of the key themes of the series they are adapting. It isn’t too difficult to imagine A Dismembrance of Things Past as an episode of the show.

Cutting to the heart of the matter...

Cutting to the heart of the matter…

It’s worth pausing to note that Petrucha and Adlard are also quite familiar with the format of The X-Files. Although they only have twenty-odd pages of story, they are sure to follow the expected flow of an episode. Both Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas and A Dismembrance of Things Past open with a scene that could function as a cold open, distant from Mulder and Scully. Both also make sure to include a Scully autopsy sequence, because it’s just not The X-Files without a Scully autopsy sequence.

There are lots of little things to like about the story as well. The X-Files is a show that was often fascinated by the quirky eccentricities of the American small town, acknowledging that there’s often something delightfully weird about these communities, existing in a strange and ethereal realm where not everything is quite right. A Dismembrance of Things Past offers a small community that has built its entire personality and culture around aliens and space craft, filled with tacky monuments and strange imagery that prompts a surreal local pride. These are eccentric spaces.

It all falls apart...

It all falls apart…

There’s also something strangely intimate about the threat and the scale of the story. It’s quite clear that a tie-in comic book is not going to let Mulder get any close to the sinister government conspiracy or to finding his sister. At the same time, the alien-themed episodes of The X-Files were among the most popular that the show produced. This puts the comic in a strange position of really needing to do an alien story, but not able to do an alien story with consequences or revelations.

A Dismembrance of Things Past starts out as a rather large story about a widely-cited alien visitation that is compared to Roswell, but instead becomes something a lot smaller and sadder. The revelation that neither Mister Kent’s life and love is completely lost to history is heart-breaking. Kent is just a normal guy who happened to get caught up in something much larger and more powerful than himself – a recurring motif of the early seasons, whether with Max Fenig in Fallen Angel or the Morris family in Conduit.

The truth is out there...

The truth is out there…

A Dismembrance of Things Past is a surprisingly thoughtful and touching little story, and one the demonstrates the potential of the creative team of Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard.

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

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