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The X-Files (Topps) #8-9 – Silent Cities of the Mind (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.

Silent Cities of the Mind is a very “comic book” story – it’s a story that might easily seem outlandish or ridiculous if committed to film, but which works very well within its medium. After all, the plot centres around a bunch of ancient Aztec priests who built an elaborate underground city that could project itself above ground as a mirage. Indeed, the story seems to accept this as a given, with Scully instead spending most of the adventure questioning whether memories can be transmitted via cannibalism.

It’s a concept that could easily seem ridiculous, and it’s a testament to writer Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard that it works as well as it does. Silent Cities of the Mind is a decidedly pulpy adventure, but that lends the story an undeniable charm. It’s a story packed to the brim with clever and fascinating ideas – from ancient aliens to ritual cannibalism to hidden cities to crystal skulls. All this is crammed tightly into two issues, meaning that everything moves so fast there’s no real time to stop and nitpick it all.

It's all in the mind...

It’s all in the mind…

Mulder is negotiating with survivalists! There are memories transferred through the act of ritual cannibalism! Mulder and Scully are shot down over Alaska! Mulder is trapped with a cannibal! There’s a hidden Aztec city buried underground! Mulder has discovered ancient Aztec mythology! There’s an army rescue team that isn’t a rescue team! There’s a macguffin that allows its wearer to commune with the gods! There’s a stand-off!

It’s all rather exhausting, but in a fun and exciting sort of way. Silent Cities of the Mind is perhaps the best example of how Petrucha and Adlard were writing The X-Files as a comic book, positioning the show’s tropes and iconography within the framework of comic book conventions.

Bonfire of the vanities...

Bonfire of the vanities…

Of course, even the title of Silent Cities of the Mind feels decidedly pulpy. It’s a title that sounds at once incredibly pretentious and also very silly, which is something of a sweet spot for The X-Files. It conjures up both image and mood, while also seeming suitably ethereal. It sounds like it could just as easily be the title of a Brian Eno concept album or a cheesy self-help book. It’s ominous and mysterious, while still being composed of words that make perfect sense in isolation.

It is worth pausing to note the basic structure of Silent Cities of the Mind. Despite all the interesting elements playing out in the background, Petrucha and Adlard structure it as one of the most basic – and effective – X-Files templates. It’s the “agents trapped in a remote location with guest stars and under pressure” plot, something the show would do quite well for the bulk of its run. Ice is perhaps the best example from the first few seasons, but Darkness Falls and Firewalker also count. (Later seasons would offer Detour and Medusa.)

Snow escape!

Snow escape!

Here, Mulder and Scully find themselves trapped in some ancient Aztec ruins, between a cannibal and an armed platoon of hostile soldiers. It feels like Petrucha and Adlard are consciously channeling those isolated horror stories. Silent Cities of the Mind even opens with a haunting radio communication with a remote scientific station, culminating in an insane scientist destroying the radio as a means of symbolically disconnecting himself from the wider world.

This is another example of how well Petrucha and Adlard understand their source material. The duo aren’t just writing horror stories featuring the same characters, they are consciously writing stories that fit within the framework of The X-Files. Earlier issues have featured mysterious teasers and even autopsy scenes, while Silent Cities of the Mind plays with one of the show’s most successful episode formats. Getting that tone and structure right can be one of the challenges facing any adaptation, and Petrucha and Adlard do good work.

High-tec Aztecs...

High-tec Aztecs…

Reading Silent Cities of the Mind, it is striking just how much of the comic draws from paranormal phenomenon that are widely and broadly accepted as hoaxes. Any paranormal phenomenon will inevitably attract its fair-share of skeptics and detractors, but several of the elements that Petrucka and Adlard bake into Silent Cities of the Mind have been roundly debunked. It is as if the story is inviting the reader to question the absurdity of it all. Playing into the existential themes of Petrucha and Adlard’s run, if what is real is fake, can what is fake be real?

The most obvious example is the eponymous Silent City of Alaska, first documented by prospector Dick Willoughby in June 1888. Willoughby snapped an haunting shot of a seemingly abandoned industrial town that he claimed to have seen in the Alaskan wilderness – suggesting that it was perhaps a reflection of a city in Russia. The photography was quickly and efficiently debunked, with The San Francisco Chronicle almost immediately confirming that it was actually a photograph of Bristol.

There's. Something. On the Wing!

There’s. Something. On the Wing!

Interestingly, interest in the so-called “silent city” was not entirely diminished by the revelation that it was a hoax. People other than Willoughby claim to have seen it, as Ed Ferrell explains in Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon:

However, several people still claimed to have seen the real ‘Silent City.’ George T. Hall, a mining engineer, was one. In an interview with the Seattle Post Intelligencer in February of 1901, he reaffirmed his sighting of the mirage.

There are documented claims of people other than Willoughby having seen the illusion, including the Duke of Abruzzi in 1897. Even after it was disproved, it remained reasonable popular piece of local folklore.

Crystal clear...

Crystal clear…

Petrucha seems to be playing with the idea of unreality here. There’s a sense that the writer is toying with the idea that Darrin Morgan broached in Humbug, that a “genuine fake” is interesting on its own merits. Author Robert Campbell makes the same connection in Darkest Alaska, discussing the similar “Phantom City of Glacier Bay”, identified around the same time:

Perhaps the confabulation was little more than a Barnumesque trick. “The public,” as Barnum recognised, “appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.” Barnum biographer Neil Harris identifies the role of these Barnum-like hoaxes in training Americans to absorb knowledge. “This was an aesthetic of the operational,” Harris writes, “a delight in observing process and examining for literal truth. In place of intensive spiritual absorption, Barnum’s exhibitions concentrated on information and the problem of deception.” Through this “operational aesthetic”, onlookers were relieved from the burden of coping with more abstract problems. “Beauty, significance, spiritual values, could be bypassed in favour of seeing what was odd, or what worked, or was genuine,” he argues. The so-called Phantom City of Glacier Bay deflected tourists’ fears of the unknown, their sense of their having no significance in the face of all that grinding ice.

It touches on one of the show’s recurring themes – the idea that Mulder’s pursuit of little green men and secret government conspiracies is simply a way of distracting from more terrifying realities and uncertainties.

Talk about takeout...

Talk about takeout…

It is interesting that Petrucha and Adlard decide to play with the idea of the Silent City as a mirage or illusion. It turns out that the Silent City of Alaska is not some ethereal other-worldly city intruding on the mortal realm, like Carcosa or some other horrific location. The Silent City is confirmed to be an illusion. It is a mirage, a trick of the eyes. The city that appears in the Alaskan wilderness does not exist.

However, while acknowledging that city as it appears is an illusion, Petrucha and Adlard establish that the city is still something truly fantastic. It isn’t really there, but it is instead the reflection of a massive underground city projected on to the ice above. It’s a wonderfully surreal twist, one that is all the more effective for how casually Petrucha and Adlard address it. Sure, Scully’s right; the city is an illusion. However, it’s an illusion projected by a secret city hidden deep beneath Alaska built to house a two-way radio to the gods.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

The other “fake” element that Petrucha and Adlard draw into Silent Cities of the Mind concerns the mysterious Ilbal. In keeping with the adventure’s Indiana Jones themes, the Ilbal could be described as “a transmitter… a radio for talking to [gods].” The design evokes the infamous crystal skulls that are associated with various new age philosophies, and have retroactively been associated with various indigenous people. The crystal skulls obviously played a part in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008.

The connection between the Ilbal and the crystal skulls would be made explicit in Feelings of Unreality. However, their design seems like an obvious shout-out. Crystal skulls first came to prominence in the eighteen hundreds, attracting the attention of archeologists and museums fascinated in exploring the history of distant cultures. Though many claim that these skulls are legitimate relics of ancient civilisations, both the Smithsonian and the British Museum have dated their skulls to the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

A shot in the dark...

A shot in the dark…

The skulls took on a mythical quality in the twentieth century. In the thirties, archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges claimed that his daughter had found a skull as a remnant of an ancient advanced civilisation and used it to further his claim that the civilisation began in Central America. Not all were convinced, as Philip Jenkins discusses in Dream Catchers:

Critics argue that the whole account of the discovery was fictional, and that the item was actually purchased at auction years later. The skull itself is certainly a modern creation, as are the many others that have appeared subsequently. Nevertheless, Mitchell-Hedges made the skull the focus of some baroque legends, linking it to Mayan human sacrifice rites, and portraying it as ‘the embodiment of all evil.’ By the 1970s, the crystal skulls entered New Age mythology as potent relics of ancient Atlantis, and they even acquired a canonical number: there were exactly thirteen skulls.

In a nice bit of mythological conspiracy interconnectivity, Petrucha uses the Ilbal to tie together the Aztecs and Atlantis, suggesting a link between the lost Aztec city of Aztlan and the lost city of Atlantis.

Where's her head at?

Where’s her head at?

“Aztlan was a city surrounded by water,” Enoch tells Mulder. “Designed in a series of rings. The accounts resemble Plato’s description of Atlantis. Aztlan. Atlantis.” Enoch then pauses to mock the theory, insisting that his own paranoid history of ancient Aztec civilisation is obviously much more valid. Never mind that Enoch is a rambling and murderous mad man. Naturally, the similarity between the names “Aztlan” and “Atlantis” has attracted some attention, mostly to dismiss the possibility of a connection.

However, there’s a sense that Petrucha is having a great deal of fun here, throwing together all sorts of humbug to form a rather playful and absurd tapestry. While Enoch and Mulder are willing to buy into a theory based on debunked mythologies like silent cities and crystal skulls, the possibility of a connection between Atlantis and Aztlan is dismissed as ridiculous. The line between reality and fantasy is intentionally blurred, as reality itself seems to bend and distort.

Chow down...

Chow down…

At one point, Enoch pauses to tell Mulder about the infamous cargo cults on the Pacific Islands during the Second World War, where the natives tried to make sense of things outside their frames of reference. They constructed bamboo radar dishes and makeshift runways, without any real understanding of how these things worked. Is it possible that Enoch and Mulder are doing the same thing here, struggling to fit something alien to their own understanding of the world?

Mulder works very hard to fit the events of Silent Cities of the Mind to fit his own frame of reference. Telling Scully the story he heard from Enoch, Mulder describes “a pre-Columbian conspiracy” and accounts for a spiritual vision as standard abduction experience. Mulder is very much bending the story to fit his own perceptions, his own way of looking at things. Silent Cities of the Mind is reluctant to provide too many answers, and that works to the story’s advantage.

Matters come to a head...

Matters come to a head…

Petrucha plays through some of his core themes in Silent Cities of the Mind. In particular, there’s the idea that memory and reality are intrinsically linked. Enoch feasts on others, consuming their memories. At some points, these memories affect him dramatically. Eating an ancient Aztec body, Enoch seems taller and thinner – he throws on a ceremonial outfit and starts carrying knives. At the end, he struggles to keep his own identity straight, confusing the details of his own life with those of his victims.

At the end of Silent Cities of the Mind, it turns out that the Aztecs simply wanted to go home. “I know what they wanted,” Enoch rambles, as his mind starts to fade. “I caught a glimpse of it. Nomadic, wandering tribe. Borrowed culture. Borrowed territory. What else could they want but what we all want. Home. A desire so ubiquitous, it’s invisible. Maybe you have to be a cannibal to see it. Heh-heh. Moctezuma believed home was with the gods. The sorcerers knew home was a memory — it can’t exist on the Earth.”

Same Az(tek) it ever was...

Same Az(tec) it ever was…

In a way, this is arguably what Mulder wants – at least according to Petrucha. The comic has repeatedly suggested that Mulder is more fixated on the idea of Samantha returning than he is with any objective notion of truth. He simply wants his sister back so his life might return to what it was. He wants to go home. Enoch reveals that a similar urge inspired the Aztecs to build this ethereal city. “It isn’t the stones they craved — it’s the mirage they longed to enter. The image we all long to return to. The place we’ve never been except in dreams. Heh.”

There are lots of other nice touches to be found in Silent Cities of the Mind. In particular, the comic introduces Mulder in the midst of an FBI siege of a survivalist compound. It’s a potent image, one that evokes memories of the infamous Waco siege. It’s something that underscores the uneasy relationship that exists between conspiracy theorists and militant survivalists. After all, many of these cults believe in the same sort of paranoid theories as Mulder.

Under siege...

Under siege…

Petrucha draws attention to this. Enoch’s followers ramble and truth and betrayal in a way that seems to resonate with Mulder. When Mulder suggests that “small truths are accessible”, they respond in absolutist terms, “Can’t measure truth that way, Mulder. One size fits all.” It’s a sentiment that fits with Mulder’s world view. After all, Mulder has dedicated his life to the idea that “the truth” can make the world a better place, and that it cannot be compromised or controlled.

Petrucha and Adlard would return to the idea of survivalist communes more thoroughly in Home of the Brave, their final collaboration on the comic. Over the space of two issues, the duo would have a a chance to explore these sorts of organisations in a more in-depth manner. Silent Cities of the Mind breezes through the sequence very quickly in order to make room for the rest of the plot. It is worth noting that the show would not touch on these sorts of issues until a year later, in The Field Where I Died during the fourth season.

Check your fax, sir!

Check your fax, sir!

Silent Cities of the Mind can be seen as a companion piece to the Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip trilogy that was airing at this point in the show’s production cycle. Both stories are based around the idea of ancient contact between Native Americans and extraterrestrials. However, the two tales approach that subject matter rather differently. There are points where the earnest appropriation of Native American culture in The Blessing Way seems a little exploitative; Silent Cities of the Mind is a bit shrewder in the way that it deals with this cultural appropriation.

While Chris Carter has Mulder go through a very spiritual Native American healing ceremony in a way that feels very much in keeping with the way that the nineties New Age movement appropriated Native American iconography for its modern mysticism. In contrast, Petrucha and Adlard cast the man culturally appropriating Native American iconography as a psychotic cannibal. Enoch’s consumption of other identities to feed his own hunger is not merely literal. It’s a clever twist, on par with how Fresh Bones managed a culturally-sensitive voodoo story.

Into darkness...

Caving to pressure…

Of course, Petrucha and Adlard had not planned Silent Cities of the Mind as a companion piece. According to Petrucha, he was even explicitly informed to stay away from the idea of aliens and Native Americans, as that was the purview of the show:

We were all new to the process, the show quickly became huge, and 1013 wasn’t providing any advance info on their plans. I think the only “heads-up” I was ever given was something like, “Don’t write anything about the Anasazi or Native American myths.” Unfortunately, that was after I’d scripted the Aztec-based Silent Cities of the Mind.

This revelation offers some insight into how the production process worked for The X-Files comic books. Petrucha and Adlard were very much on the outside, with a minimal attempt made to involve them. As such, it is impressive that they remained so in-step with the show.

Radio silence...

Radio silence…

Silent Cities of the Mind is a delightful two-part adventure that demonstrates how well Petrucha and Adlard work with The X-Files within the comic book medium. As their year-long mega-arc reaches a conclusion, Silent Cities of the Mind manages to set things up rather nicely.

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

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