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.
Feelings of Unreality marks the end of Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s first year on Topps’ licensed X-Files comic book.
It also marks the end of their extended arc. It became clear around six issue into their run that Petrucha and Adlard were really just telling one large and expansive story that could be broken down into small bite-sized chunks. From Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas through A Dismembrance of Things Past through Firebird and Silent Cities of the Mind, these were all separate pieces of a larger puzzle waiting to be fitted together. Feelings of Unreality marks a conclusion to this ambitious and expansive arc.
What has been fascinating about Petrucha and Adlard’s run on The X-Files comic book as been the way that the team has adapted the show’s format to fit within this distinct medium. Writing a tie-in like this, it would would be very tempting to do “a television episode, in comic book form!” There’s a very serious argument to be made that the comics would be pushed in that direction after Petrucha departed. However, there’s something much more compelling about a story that takes advantage of its own medium, rather than offering a flat imitation of another.
For all its flaws, Feelings of Unreality – like Petrucha and Adlard’s epic Firebird before it – feels like a comic book story. It’s pulpy, exciting, ambitious, expansive, silly. And just a little brilliant.
It’s interesting to think of how much DVD changed the cultural landscape. It seems like such a simple technology, but it had an absolutely massive impact. While home media had made it possible for people to watch movies in the comfort of their own home, VHS tapes were not the ideal format for television shows. You could only fit approximately two forty-five-minute episodes on VHS at a reasonable quality, which meant that most television shows would require twelve or thirteen tapes per season. Given the cost and size of VHS tapes, this was quite a commitment.
It is no wonder that relatively few shows enjoyed popular VHS release runs. All the Star Trek shows received nice two-episodes-to-a-tape releases, but a lot of television shows did not enjoy that popularity or care. For example, in the United States, The X-Files saw a staggered release on VHS, beginning in 1996. Even then, only twelve episodes of a given season would see official release. In the United Kingdom, sequential video releases only got as far as Ice before they began concentrating on the big mythology episodes.
This is to illustrate how different an experience television was in the nineties. Before DVD made it reasonably cheap and relatively effective to purchase whole seasons of a given show, “binge” watching was something that only existed among hardcore fans willing to circulate tapes recorded from broadcast amongst themselves. The production team could not necessarily count on the audience having seen a particular early episode. This reality set limitations and boundaries upon the show’s storytelling mode.
So something like Petrucha and Adlard’s opening twelve-issue arc could never really have worked on nineties television. By the time the show would have reached the climax, it would be past the point where it could assume the audience had seen – or had easy access to – the earlier stories. While it would perhaps work better in this era of “binge” watching and time-shifted viewing, doing a story this intricately connected and precise would simply not have been possible on network television during the mid-nineties.
On the other hand, it is a story almost perfectly suited to comic books. After all, the assumption is that fans are buying the comic books and holding on to them. Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas featured a “collector’s item” icon on the front cover. Unlike television, people could read their comic books at their leisure. More than that, people could re-read their comic books at their leisure. This is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the fascination with continuity in superhero comics, but it does mean the rules are a bit different writing for comics.
Petrucha and Adlard could assume that most people reading the comic had access to back issues. More than that, they could assume that these readers would be able to go back and read over those comics again. As such, the duo could fashion a story that would be much more densely-woven and inter-connected than any story that appeared on television. “It’s all connected, Scully!” Mulder insists early on in Feelings of Unreality, and the fact that this was a comic book story rather than a television episode meant that it all could be.
The result is a staggeringly ambitious comic book adaptation, one that acknowledges the folly of trying to reproduce a forty-five-minute episode of television within a twenty-odd page comic. Petrucha and Adlard’s run may have hit occasional bumps in the road, but it was certainly larger in scale and ambition that most tie-in comic books tended to be. Sadly, Feelings of Unreality would be the last time that Petrucha and Adlard got to attempt a story on this scale.
Petrucha would depart the comic less than a year and a half after it launched, and Adlard would become just one of a team of artists working on the book after that point. After their departure, The X-Files would become a more typical and familiar sort of tie-in comic book – a little more formulaic and comfortable, and probably more in line with what Ten Thirteen had expected when they agreed to allow Topps to publish a tie-in comic.
To be fair, there are moments when Feelings of Unreality gets a little bit over the top. The idea of a year-long arc of inter-connected stories is fine, but it felt like the arc occasionally undermined stories that might have worked better with more space afforded to themselves. Trepanning Opera is perhaps the best example of a story strong enough to stand on its own two feet that feels a little crowded out by tying into this larger conspiracy. Similarly, A Little Dream of Me is a story that feels like it could have been developed better on its own than as one small part of a larger arc.
It does, perhaps, seem a little excessive to have a double-page spread towards the end of the story where the Colleen Dunne handily explains how seemingly everything Mulder and Scully have done (in comic books, at least) was part of some large and convoluted plan to step outside the world. It does seem like Petrucha and Adlard might be trying a little too hard to show their work on the comic, and there are points where it seems like Feelings of Unreality is bogged down by it insistence that absolutely everything that has happened in the tie-in comic to this point is connected.
Similarly, the situation involving Colleen Dunne herself is left ambiguous. There’s a level of abstraction here which feels a little odd, structurally speaking. Dunne was granted mystical powers by the events uncovered in A Dismembrance of Things Past. How Dunne gained the power to manipulate reality from a chemical gas that manipulated memory is left unanswered by the comic – “perhaps because I was pregnant,” she suggests – but fits thematically with Petrucha’s run. After all, the link between memory and reality is one of the key themes of his run.
However, it all feels just a little bit convenient and contrived. There is something very interesting about the idea that sometimes X-files spawn more X-files. Just as Mulder explains that conspiracies “divide, then multiply, then disappear”, this plot development suggests that monsters breed monsters. This would seem to be a great way to capitalise on the idea that everything is connected – that these individual stories have consequences outside of the individual issues.
It is the kind of story that the show flirted with on occasion, but always awkwardly. Orison comes to mind as the most obvious example, where a previously featured character happens to blunder into another supernatural case by accident, as if to illustrate how weird the world of The X-Files must be. So Colleen Dunner represents an interesting potential to develop this story arc. Sadly, while this is a fascinating set-up, it feels like an idea that isn’t given the space it needs to develop. It is a detail tucked away at the end of the story, when it could have worked as the centre.
More than that, Colleen Dunne’s supernatural powers feel a little too all-powerful and science-fiction-y for the comic to sustain. The ability to control minds and bend reality itself is something that feels like it came from a particularly pulpy paperback. When the show did its own mind-control episode, Pusher, it was careful to ground Robert Patrick Modell and to anchor him. In contrast, Dunne feels almost like a walking god; to the point where one wonders why she can’t just manipulate the show’s proper conspiracy to get what she wants. She claims to be weakening, but she’s still pretty powerful.
The script does defuse some of these problems somewhat by acknowledging how crazy the whole situation is. Mulder’s frantic fascination with “a conspiracy within a conspiracy” leads him to connect anything and everything in a late-night bout of apophenia. Even “the Bavarian Illuminati” and “the German Freemasons” are drawn into Mulder’s web as historical examples, with a handy circle diagram indicating how they fit in the larger scheme of things. Scully wonders, “So when did they have time to kill JFK?”
Similarly, the decision to bring everything a full circle could feel forced and awkward, but play surprisingly well. The return to the church from Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas brings a sense of closure to everything, as does the closing scene – an affectionate echo of the closing scene from that first issue, with Mulder and Scully exchanging gifts. They might be “three steps forward, three steps back” from where they started, but they still have each other.
It’s a nice way of acknowledging the limitation of a story set within The X-Files universe, particularly a comic book. Much like Petrucha and Adlard cleverly allowed themselves creative freedom by introducing their own completely separate conspiracy to play with, Feelings of Unreality acknowledges that Mulder and Scully will never actually get proof before the end of the television show, and certainly not in a tie-in comic book. As a result, the feeling that the duo are simply running in place is inevitable.
In a sequence that seems to hark forward to Vince Giligan’s sixth season episode Field Trip, Petrucha and Adlard demonstrate that The X-Files must end the moment that Mulder gets his hands on “the Truth.” In a delightful dream sequence, Mulder and Scully get ahold of an alien human “hybrid” that they can present to the world, with the Cigarette-Smoking Man appearing in as a defendant. Mulder gets his validation and public spectacle; Scully gets the boundaries of science pushed forward.
Once Mulder and Scully find proof, it’s all over. Their reason for working together is done. Mulder is out of the basement; Scully is pursuing hard science instead of trying to debunk an eccentric. Feelings of Unreality makes it quite clear that the only time that the agents will ever lay their hands on genuine proof is as the series comes to an end. Such is the nature of The X-Files as a television show, meaning that Mulder’s progress is limited even within the show itself.
The result is a delightful multi-page sequence towards the end of the second part, including a beautiful double-page spread, of Mulder finally getting to talk with aliens and getting the answers he has wanted all his life. Again, Petrucha seems to be on a wave-length quite similar to the show, foreseeing that Mulder’s character arc is logically and inevitably building towards an abduction. It’s the logical conclusion of Mulder’s character arc, a chance for Mulder to experience something he has investigated and pursued all his life.
To Mulder, abduction represents a literal transcendence that allows him to connect spiritually with Samantha and to experience something he only really knows through investigations. It is his faith, validated. Indeed, the only detail missing from this “it’s a wonderful X-Files” sequence – which is also missing from Gilligan’s Field Trip – is the question of Samantha Mulder. Surely giving Mulder everything he wanted would feature the return of his long-lost sister? Then again, it is quite possible that Samantha’s return would have been such a big deal that it would have cluttered or distorted the narrative.
Much like Petrucha and Adlard’s Project Aquarius plays like a self-aware (and occasionally quite wry) attempt to write around the limitations imposed on a tie-in comic, this sequence serves to justify why the truth must inevitably slip from Mulder’s grasp in the cruelest of fashions. Simply put, the show could not withstand so radical a shift. The narrative would break, and there would be no way to stitch it back together. Tellingly, the only way Petrucha and Adlard can end the sequence is by having Skinner show up and reveal that it was all a dream.
Still, Feelings of Unreality does allow Petrucha’s themes come to the fore. The idea of memory as it links to identity is developed and addressed. “Is memory real?” Mulder wonders, reflecting on how much of his life has been shaped by his memory of Samantha. Petrucha cleverly incorporates the contemporary Whitewater Committee into the scene. On a purely structural level, it’s a nice juxtaposition against the Watergate footage that played during Samantha’s abduction in Little Green Men.
However, there is more to it than that. As Mulder watches the testimony of Susan Thomases, it becomes clear that these issues of memory and identity apply on a broader level. Thomases infamously stated “I don’t recall” 184 times during her testimony, an example of obfuscation and selective memory. With the Whitewater Committee sitting in 1995, it provides a contemporary example of Noam Chonsky’s “organised forgetting.” It also demonstrates that to deny memory is often to deny reality.
As with the rest of his run, Petrucha has Mulder confront the possibility that there is no single unifying “Truth” – that his attempts to impose order on a chaotic universe are doomed to failure, because they do not understand the complexities of perception. “The brain is wider than the sky, Agent,” a scientist assures Scully at one point in the story. He seems to present aliens as creatures of the collective imagination, brought into being by the popular consciousness.
“The brain supplies cultural details,” he insists. “It used to be faeries and witches. Now it’s little grey aliens.” To this doctor, the aliens are products of human imagination. Colleen Dunne fears the opposite. She is certain that “the Eidolon” are real, she just doubts whether humanity actually exists. “Sometimes I think we are just a game they play,” she admits to Mulder. Reality and imagination blur together, one of the underlying themes of Petrucha’s run.
There are points when it seems that Colleen Dunne is almost aware of her nature as a fictional character. The first page of Feelings of Unreality features dialogue recycled from earlier in the story. “I have read creation,” the voice muses. “All else is false.” The suggestion that reality can be “read” (rather than “seen” or “experienced”) suggests that it is a book. Perhaps a comic book. Colleen Dunne’s questions about the nature of her reality seem astute; maybe she is a puppet who can see the strings.
Dunne is ready and willing to admit that her search was just an attempt to make sense of the impossible. “All I wanted was to wake up, to find a single truth that felt real, rather than face the billion equal shadows that pummelled me daily,” she confesses. Dunne seeks an answer that makes sense of everything; it’s no coincidence that Mulder and Scully finally find her in a church. Is Mulder’s quest any different? “There is no truth out there,” Dunne admits on her arrest, having spent longer than Mulder searching for it.
It is an interesting and critical way of looking at Mulder’s quest. In some ways, Stefan Petrucha’s approach to the show feels like it resonates with that of Darin Morgan. Although lacking the humour and the humanity that defined Morgan’s work, and burdened with countless editorial limitations, Petrucha engages in the same sort of skeptical deconstruction as Morgan, inviting the viewer to take a critical look at the show’s underlying concepts.
Sadly, Feelings of Unreality was really that last truly epic X-Files story that Petrucha and Adlard would produce for the comic. This wasn’t the actual end of Petrucha and Adlard’s run; the duo would remain on the book for four more issues, and do a few more bits and pieces here and there. Afterflight, the graphic novel by Petrucha and artist Jill Thompson, would be so delayed it was only published in 1997. Still, it feels like the beginning of the end. For its flaws, Feelings of Unreality was perhaps the most ambitious X-Files comic ever published.
There were tensions between Topps and the show’s production team over the comic. Discussing the situation with Cinefantastique, Petrucha gives an example of the sorts of objections they would raise to his scripts:
Even the small scene that served as the coda to Feelings of Unreality fell victim to a change required by Ten Thirteen. Scully gives Mulder a tee- shirt, a gift that echoes his giving her a tee-shirt at the end of Not to Be Opened Until X- Mas. Topps had held a contest for the readers, asking what would Mulder and Scully give each other for Christmas. Petrucha had hoped to use the winning entry for Mulder’s gift (a tee-shirt that read “I’m with Spooky”) but Ten Thirteen would not let him use the phrase “for reasons which were vague at best,” he noted. “They felt it was “not appropriate” and I had to come up with something that I don’t think was nearly as good.”
These sorts of arbitrary notes and observations caused all sorts of problems in the production cycle. It was incredibly tough to get the comic out on time while still satisfying all these requests.
In light of all this, it makes sense that Petrucha and Adlard were closer to the end of their run than the beginning. While the duo had told exciting and intriguing stories within the confines of The X-Files, it was clear that they were not the type of stories that the production team wanted told in the comics. Feelings of Unreality starts to bring the curtains down on this phase of the X-Files tie-in comic book.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:
- The Blessing Way
- Paper Clip
- Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
- The List
- The Walk
- X-tra: (Topps) #10-12 – Feelings of Unreality