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The X-Files (Topps) #3 – A Little Dream of Me/The Return (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.

There are inevitable challenges in working on a licensed property. You are effectively playing with somebody else’s toys. Since these tie-ins cannot drive a narrative currently unfolding in another medium, it’s often a challenge to maintain the illusion of forward momentum while existing at the behest of a story that can change from week-to-week. While The X-Files was a massive coup for Topps comics, and while Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard did a wonderful job, the comic had to face these constraints.

A Dismembrance of Things Past had brushed up against those limitations in trying to tell a U.F.O. story without meddling in the television show’s continuity. Petrucha used some fiendishly clever sleight of hand there, suggesting that the story would be about an alien visitation and possible cover-up, only to reveal that the story was actually an intimate meditation on the ideas of truth and memory. It was a rather ingenious bait-and-switch, resulting in a wonderful little story.

Pictures in his head...

Pictures in his head…

A Little Dream of Me is not quite as efficient in dealing with the external limitations imposed on a tie-in comic book. The unfortunate realities of comic book scheduling meant that A Little Dream of Me had the misfortune to hit the stands very shortly after the broadcast of Colony and End Game. Of course, the script for A Little Dream of Me would have been written long before the episodes aired (about six months), but the scheduling causes the comic to suffer.

After all, Colony and End Game had made it abundantly clear that Samantha Mulder was unlikely to be returning to her family any time soon. And that was in the television show. The third issue of the comic book teasing the return of Samantha Mulder seems like a rather cynical cheat.

The "X" file...

The “X” file…

To be fair, knowing the outcome doesn’t necessarily ruin the story. After all, The X-Files ran for nine years, with the audience knowing that Mulder and Scully wouldn’t actually get “the truth” until the final episode – every episode where proof was dangled in front of them was nothing but a crooked shell-game. However, even knowing that Mulder and Scully would never get the proof that they sought, the story could be thrilling and exciting and engaging.

The problem with A Little Dream of Me is that it doesn’t feel like a big deal. Even the faintest possibility of Samantha returning should be a massively epic storyline. Colony and End Game paired off the return of Samantha with the revelation of feuding alien factions, giving the story a suitably impressive scope. In A Little Dream of Me, it seems like the possibility of Samantha returning is just a cherry on top, a way to get the plot to work in the way that it needs to.

Punching above his weight?

Punching above his weight?

A Little Dream of Me is packed with ideas and sequences that need more room and more space than they can receive in a twenty-odd page comic. At one point in the story, Mulder breaks into the Pentagon to steal software that can delete a man named Dunne from every database on the planet. The sequence only takes two pages. This is Mulder venturing into the heart of darkness. This is Mulder at the very heart of the military industrial complex. This is a big deal.

And the sequence is over very quickly. It doesn’t seem like it took any effort to get in, and there isn’t enough time to build up suspense or paranoia about whether Mulder will get caught. He doesn’t seem to think about taking anything else. It is very functional. Compare this to Mulder’s adventures at the heart of the conspiracy in Momento Mori. In that episode, Mulder’s raid of the government facility is given room to breath. Here, it feels like it’s being checked off a list of items that need to be included in the space available.

No time to disc-uss...

No time to disc-uss…

It all feels just a little bit generic and a little too safe. It’s an issue that feels like it was composited together from a bunch of X-Files iconography, rather than standing as a story on its own two feet. In this light, teasing the return of Samantha feels more like cynical schmuck bait than tragic foreshadowing. The readers know that Mulder will not be reunited with his sister, but A Little Dream of Me struggles to exploit that awareness effectively.

Still, there are quite a few interesting ideas here. Most obviously, there’s Petrucha’s incredibly ambitious way of circumventing the fact that the television show has a monopoly on the forward momentum of the conspiracy arc. Petrucha accepts that sinister government conspiracies are a vital part of The X-Files, so he can’t really write a tie-in comic with out them. So Petrucha creates his own conspiracy, separate and unique to the conspiracy featured on the show.

A jarring discovery...

A jarring discovery…

Here, reference is made to “Project Vanishing Point.” In Firebird, characters will reference “Project Aquarius.” Although Petrucha doesn’t embrace and acknowledge the sheer audacity of introducing his own other secret world-ruling cabal that he can write at will until Firebird, it’s hard not to smile at the ambition on display. It’s a completely ridiculous contrivance, but one necessary by virtue of the nature of tie-in comics.

The candidness of this revelation is charming; this is, after all, the logical solution to all the problematic continuity entanglements facing the comic book. It provides a nice way to tidy away any potential continuity errors. “Oh! That? That was the other conspiracy!”  To be fair, the comic is very clearly in on the gag. While the Roswell Incident was under the purview of the sinister cabal on the show, this second conspiracy was behind the Neola Incident; the second biggest U.F.O. sighting, albeit one that didn’t happen.

You really think that the Cigarette-Smoking Man would be more concerned with the gigantic other conspiracy at work...

You really think that the Cigarette-Smoking Man would be more concerned with the gigantic other conspiracy at work…

More than that, though, this idea that there isn’t a single unified conspiracy is more than just a clever continuity excuse. It fits quite well with the themes of Petrucha’s run. Petrucha’s run suggests that there may not be a singular and objective “truth” for Mulder to pursue. As such, the revelation that there is not a single cabal of all-powerful men running the world feels like an extension of this. There are just several little cabals of men who think they are running the world.

Petrucha manages a rather clever bit of continuity work here, acknowledging the continuity issues that exist between Mulder’s memory of Samantha’s abduction in Conduit and the scene filmed for Little Green Men. Writers Morgan and Wong have conceded that these errors were “sloppy”, but Petrucha turns them into something of a plot point. “The details are always odd, often at odds,” Mulder reflects, suggesting that memory itself is malleable and flexible. It’s a core theme of A Dismembrance of Things Past.

A vial plot...

A vial plot…

The implication is a delightfully wry twist on the show’s central premise. “The truth is out there,” the credits assured viewers at the start of almost every episode. However, that presupposes that the truth exists as an objective object, independent of individual perceptions of it. “The truth is a whore,” General Palmer reflects early in the issue. “She’ll belong to any man for an hour if the price is right. When the time’s done, you’re back where you started – alone.”

Petrucha touches on an interesting idea here. For all that Mulder pursues “the Truth”, it could be argued that he has an agenda just as obvious and just as biased as those he seeks to expose. Mulder is looking for Samantha. He would not be working on the X-Files if she had not been abducted. More to the relevant to the themes of Petrucha’s run, Mulder would not be searching for the truth if he didn’t remember Samantha’s abduction. He would probably be on the fast track for a glorious career.

An inside job...

An inside job…

At the start of the issue, Mulder acknowledges his agenda. Considering his quest, he concedes, “It is, if nothing else, completely selfish.” This is a rather candid and cynical way of looking at Mulder as a character, and it is one that makes a great deal of sense. Mulder is a character who has a great deal of empathy for those who have been victimised by more powerful forces. However, that empathy is grounded in his own experiences and his own sense of loss.

While A Little Dream of Me has some serious plotting problems, it is clear that Petrucha and Adlard have their voices down. The comic is packed with the sorts of long-form philosophical monologues that fans expect from The X-Files. Both Mulder and Scully seem in character. When Mulder is captured after trying to break into the Pentagon, he quips, “This mean I won’t be getting my performance bonus this year?” It’s a line that Duchovny would have loved.

General distress...

General distress…

(That said, there is still a sense that Petrucha and Adlard are having difficulty with the supporting cast. The Cigarette-Smoking Man still seems a little too excited and energetic – he doesn’t seem like the weary old power-broker who sits quietly in the corner. “Ha!” he laughs at one point. “You think you’ve found the damn Holy Grail, don’t you!” It’s a line of dialogue that might work as a smug put-down, but the comic plays it as a gloriously over-the-top taunt. On the other hand, Skinner feels in-character.)

A Little Dream of Me is not a strong story. It’s a mess of ideas that are crammed on top of one another, struggling to find room to breath in the space available. However, even when the comic misfires, it seems clear that Petrucha and Adlard are an effective creative team. The essentials and the core functions remain in place. The artwork is solid and expressive, the themes are cleverly constructed, the voices sound right. Though A Little Dream of Me is not a success, that is no small accomplishment.

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

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