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The X-Files (Topps) – Trick of the Light (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.

The X-Files tie-in comic book was a massive success for Topps. It’s interesting to note the amount of cross-promotion that went into the comic. Factoring in short stories and tie-ins and annuals and other obligations, the output from writer Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard was nothing short of astounding. Topps worked very hard to promote the book, an approach that paid off – the comic would frequently appear in Diamond’s top 100 and was the publisher’s most successful monthly book.

Trick of the Light was a short twelve-page comic that was published as part of the The X-Files/Hero Illustrated Special, featuring an interview with Petrucha and packaged with Hero Illustrated #22 in March 1995. It was something of a glorified advertising gimmick, but one that demonstrates the popularity of the comic in question.

Don't go into the light!

Don’t go into the light!

In many respects, The X-Files was a product of the nineties comic book market. It was a comic published by a company relatively new to the market, best known for their collectibles. It seemed to sell itself more as a piece of merchandise than as a narrative in its own right, with the cover to the first issue identifying it as a collector’s item. This isn’t to undermine or dismiss the fantastic work done by Petrucha or Adlard, simply to put it all in the proper context.

Comic books had become such a high-profile industry in the nineties that there were even magazines written to document the business. Wizard is perhaps the most prominent of these magazines, enjoying a twenty-year run from 1991 through to 2011. The book enjoyed a circulation of over 100,000 readers at its peak in the late nineties, although that dwindled into the twenty-first century. Still, Wizard was popular enough to prompt copy cats. Hero Illustrated was one of the most high profile imitators, seeking to carve out its own niche.

Buried treasure?

Buried treasure?

Hero Illustrated was launched in 1993, and enjoyed some initial success. Crucially, the magazine was willing to spend the advertising revenue necessary to compete with Wizard. The first issue came with a scratchcard awarding readers various free comic books. There were a number of “specials” that came packaged with the comic as advertising gimmicks. For a while, it looked like Hero Illustrated might be able to compete. It won an Eisner Award in 1995 for its comic book coverage.

However, this was not to be. Hero Illustrated closed its shutters in 1996, coinciding with the collapse of the comic book market. It was perhaps one of the indicators that the comic book market as it had developed in the nineties was not sustainable – along with Marvel’s decision to file for bankruptcy in December of that year. The closing of Topps Comics in 1998, which also ended on the on-going X-Files comic, could also be seen as an indication of the declining market.

Shady dealings...

Shady dealings…

Trick of the Light is, admittedly, a rather light twelve-page comic. There isn’t too much room for innovation here. Mulder and Scully investigate a bunch of missing models, in what feels like some light foreshadowing of David Duchovny’s cameo in Zoolander. It turns out that they have been abducted, and the latest victim is recovered in the home of the photographer who took their photographs. He claims that he is trying to protect them. In a twist, the comic ends with a photo of the photographer himself being abducted.

None of this is really important. The plot for Trick of the Light is pretty straight-forward. What is more interesting is the fact that Petrucha and Adlard are very much playing inside baseball here. Trick of the Light is packed with in-jokes and references, as befits a comic to be packaged with a comic book magazine. Petrucha and Adlard know their audience here. This isn’t a comic book aimed at a broad audience, this is a nice short gag script for a very particular set of readers.

X-over time!

X-over time!

At the end of the story, the text tells us that we are visiting “a reputable comic book publisher” – Adlard fuzzes up the logo a bit, but the reader can clearly discern the words “Topp” and “Comics.” When we get to see the aliens abducting the photographer, they look a little unusual for The X-Files. “So this is Thurber’s stuff for the new Mars Attacks cards?” the editor muses, acknowledging the sly nod to Topps’ other major science-fiction property.

Petrucha includes a few rather cheeky nods towards the medium of the story. The photographer is terrified of aliens with a particularly sinister agenda. “W-well, they like to collect us, you know,” he warns Mulder and Scully. “Don’t know w-why, really.” When he speculates, he draws attention to the limitations of comic books as a medium. “I think it might just be the sounds we make when they p-poke us,” he suggests. “I think they might just l-like to hear us scream.” Ironic, given that’s one thing you can’t do with a comic book character.

An alien business model...

An alien business model…

Of course, it is worth noting that Topps were meticulous in collecting various odds-and-ends of their X-Files tie-ins. It’s very hard to come up with a comprehensive list of X-Files comics, because there are so many scattered across so many publications – from short strips for magazines to additional stories for digests to promotional adventures. However, Topps weren’t about to let novelties like Trick of the Light go to waste. Instead, it was reprinted as The X-Files #-1 in September 1996, at the start of the show’s fourth season.

Trick of the Light is hardly a classic X-Files story, but it isn’t meant to be. However, it does serve as an effective indicator of just how prolific the team of Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard were during their sixteen-odd months on the comic.

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

2 Responses

  1. Great to see some recognition of the comics because there were some great stories being told in them. Have you managed to find the new comic, season 10? It’s a really good continuation of the show.

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