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The X-Files (Topps) – Circle Game (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

There are any number of events that suggest The X-Files was on the cusp of exploding into a phenomenon. The show was spawning conventions and merchandise. It was becoming a hot property in international markets, moving from BBC 2 up to BBC 1 and then across to Sky. It was quickly becoming compelling water-cooler television. The first season had been lucky to avoid cancellation. The second season had rocketed up the ratings. The third was going to be a pretty big deal.

In light of all of this going on around it, a five-page comic doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Written by Stefan Petrucha and illustrated by Charles Adlard, Circle Game would almost seem as business-as-usual for Topps’ popular X-Files tie-in comic. The only significant difference was that Circle Game had been written and illustrated specifically for the July 15th issue of TV Guide. As part of their “stellar summer sci-fi issue!”, the magazine had given over five pages to Petrucha and Adlard to tell an entire X-Files story.

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

Even ignoring the narrative challenges posed by such an assignment, that’s a pretty big deal. Even in the age of the internet, time-shifted viewing and multi-channel television, TV Guide still has a circulation of over two million readers. To give a sense of scale, the biggest-selling contemporary comic books would have a readership of less than a tenth of that. To give it a more relevant sense of scale, the July 1995 issue of The X-Files comic book – the version on the stands at this point – sold approximately 72,000 copies.

All of this is just to stress that giving The X-Files comic book five pages of TV Guide was a pretty big deal.

Lights in the sky...

Lights in the sky…

Petrucha and Adlard deserve a great deal of credit for working in the space allotted. Constructing an entire X-Files story in twenty-odd pages is no small accomplishment, and the duo always managed a very clear and very precise structure. Although there were a few two- and three-part stories in their run, and the first year of publication amounted to a twelve-part epic, half of their run worked very well as a series of done-in-one stories.

However, it’s even more remarkable that the two were able to make a five-page X-Files comic book story work, particularly considering that the first page of the comic doubles as a splash page with an introduction, the logo and the “created by Chris Carter” brand. Despite that, Circle Game has a very clear and logical structure. Although there’s minimal room for character development or world-building, Petrucha and Adlard do tell a satisfying story.

Far afield...

Far afield…

Of course, compromises have to be made. Of course it turns out to be an easy case to solve. Of course the criminal is the one farmer to whom we see them talking. Of course it seems like the story is just beginning by the time that we reach the resolution. Of course the resolution is one of the most familiar and predictable horror story beats imaginable. “It was really a ghost that gave our heroes vital clues!” is a stock spooky story element, and it would be a bit cheap if used elsewhere, but here its familiarity is a charm.

After all, Circle Game is a story that works in five pages. It follows the standard structure of an episode of The X-Files, just at a very high speed. There’s a compelling opening image, as distinct from Mulder and Scully. There’s a slide show presented by Mulder introducing the story. There’s a back-and-forth between Mulder and Scully about whether the strange phenomenon has a basis in rational facts. There’s a reveal that a rural community has a dark secret. All that’s missing is an autopsy scene.

Holiday slides...

Holiday slides…

It is worth noting that Petrucha and Adlard move incredibly quickly here. Mulder suggests that aliens could be leaving crop circles, which would seem to be what you would expect in an episode of The X-Files. Scully points out that most are hoaxes, and have been revealed as such. Then Mulder catches a glimpse of a light in the sky, suggesting aliens. Then it turns out to be a small boy holding a torch, doing the crop circle as Scully had predicted. Then, in the last panel, it is revealed that the boy is actually dead.

That’s a pretty rapid-fire plot progression, and one that covers a lot of ground very quickly. As a result, the familiar twist feels a little comfortable. Anything more bold or outlandish may be difficult to reconcile with a plot moving so quickly. It’s a classic storytelling trope, and it is used well – it is a shortcut, but a shortcut that works very well in the context of a five-page comic that needs to stand independently.

Mapping it out...

Mapping it out…

On top of that, Petrucha even manages some nice light character touches. Mulder and Scully seem completely in-character for the comic, with Scully wondering how these crop circles are a federal case. Mulder admits that they aren’t, but won’t let that stop him from investigating it. “I’ve got some time off, so I thought I’d spend it travelling in important circles,” he quips, inviting Scully along with him.

This is a nice touch, even in the limited space available. Circle Game is essentially about Mulder and Scully taking a holiday together, working on the X-Files. It’s a nice understated way of making it clear that Mulder has no real life outside his work, and that Scully doesn’t really either. It’s a character beat that Petrucha doesn’t labour too heavily, but one that feels organic and logical in the context of The X-Files.

Talk about drive...

Talk about drive…

Circle Game is a pleasant distraction, more of a very effective and well-produced marketing tool than a compelling story of itself. Still, it does provide a demonstration of how well Petrucha and Adlard work together.

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

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