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The X-Files (Topps) #13 – One Player Only (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.

After a twelve-issue opening mega-arc of interconnected stories about conspiracies-within-conspiracies and wheels-within-wheels, author Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard step back a little bit to close out their run with a series of standalone stories. The four issues (and three stories) that make up the rest of their run on Topps’ X-Files comic stand alone. They are connected by themes and subtext, but very clearly stand apart from what came before. Indeed, they play out almost like a postscript to the main body of work, a series of smaller bite-sized chunks.

In that light, it is interesting that One Player Only feels – superficially, at least – a lot more in step with the television show. The early issues of the comic had seen Petrucha and Adlard creating their own supporting cast and their own conspiracy, so as to avoid stepping on the toes of the production company. The Cigarette-Smoking Man was largely reduced to a number of cameos, with Skinner popping up once or twice along the way.

Ghosts in the machines?

Ghosts in the machines?

Not only does One Player Only feature a guest appearance from supporting characters like Mr. X or yhe Lone Gunmen, it also harks back to the structure and format of the first season of the show. On the most basic of levels, One Player Only feels like a more cyberpunk take on Ghost in the Machine, right down to the fact that Mulder is drawn into a murder at a tech company by an acquaintance from his days in the Violent Crimes Division. At one point, Mulder and Scully stumble on a ransacked house, for Mulder to deadpan, “Hm. Nothing new.”

However, if one peels back the layers, One Player Only is a fascinating piece that sets the tone for Petrucha and Adlard’s last three issues on the series, while infusing the comic with a host of fascinating cyberpunk stylings and body horror that seem to call forward to William Gibson’s future writing for the show.

Coding out...

Coding out…

The interface between mankind and technology is terrifying. In the nineties, the idea was really entering the mainstream; the idea that robots and artificial intelligences would necessarily be purely mechanical in nature, but may be a fushion between the organic and the synthetic. Fueled by the emergence of cyberpunk and success of movies like The Terminator, there was a clear anxiety about the limit between man and machine – and concerns that the line might somehow be blurred.

These concepts and anxieties can be traced back throughout the history of science-fiction as a genre. However, they had really come to the fore during the seventies and eighties, perhaps reflecting scientific advances that made these sorts of developments seem more and more plausible; to the point where they had entered the mainstream in the nineties. Although suggested and foreshadowed by decades of genre material, transhumanism managed to push its way into the mainstream during the nineties.

The files are IN the computer...?

The files are IN the computer…?

In 1992, Max More and Tom Bell (who later changed his last name to Morrow) founded the Extropy Institute, a think tank dedicated to advancing the cause of transhumanism. In 1993, Joe Strout launched The Mind Uploading Home Page, advocating for a future where human minds could become immortal by uploading them into a computer. Strout advocated mind uploading within the field of cryonics and beyond. Randal A. Koene is perhaps the most high-profile proponent of mind uploading working today.

As one expects from a story written by Petrucha, One Player Only is quite thoroughly researched. “Artificial emotions” are a major point of focus and debate within the scientific community when it comes to matters of artificial intelligence. The computer programmme cited here – ELIZA – not only exists, but was so successful that her name has been adapted by the company IPsoft, using the title to refer to their automated customer service application, which can process two-thirds of customer queries without any staff involvement.

It's no game...

It’s no game…

As such, One Player Only feels quite a bit like a first-season episode of The X-Files. It is fascinated with creepy pseudo-science in the way that stories like Ghost in the Machine or Roland were. Indeed, the reveal that the government conspiracy is interested in Capek’s work mirrors Deep Throat’s involvement in Ghost in the Machine. It makes a certain amount of sense, but it does feel like one more twist than the story actually needs.

In some respects, this could be seen as an attempt to do a more “conventional” X-Files story by Petrucha and Adlard. At this point, the monthly X-Files comics was coming off a string of bold and brilliant and bizarre stories. The last five issues had been devoted to Silent Cities of the Mind and Feelings of Unreality, two delightful gonzo multi-part stories that were tied into the larger arc of Petrucha and Adlard’s run. As such, it makes sense for One Player Only to serve as something of a palette cleanser.

A gripping thriller...

A gripping thriller…

Superficially, at least, One Player Only is the most conventional X-Files story featured in the monthly series since Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas. It is not too difficult to imagine One Player Only as a reworked episode of the first season of the show – you could even swap Mr. X out for Deep Throat and you’d have a stronger version of Ghost in the Machine. A lot of the standard tropes are in effect – recurring guest stars from the show, ransacked apartments, references to Mulder’s history as a criminal profiling.

However, if one peels back that surface layer, One Player Only is a delightfully creepy and unsettling piece of work. It takes the stock science-fiction idea of uploading a human brain into a computer and inverts it. If we can dream of putting a person inside a machine, perhaps we can put a machine inside a person. What if there were a computer programme that could run on organic tissue rather than electronic hardware?

Face the future...

Face the future…

Discussing Capek with Mulder and Scully, Shirley Atwood observes that “he had this freaky idea about converting the binary code into a series of audio pulses that could be stored in his brain.” Using eidetic memory, Capek was able to convert an computer program to sound and story it in his own memory to sneak it past security. It is a concept worthy of a William Gibson story. Scully wonders, “Even if Capek could somehow remember the patterns of the sounds, how could a program function in living tissue?”

The answer is terrifying, because it implies a truly horrifying idea. What if human beings and computer programmes are not so different? “You expect me to believe that your computer experts couldn’t distinguish between a program and a living being?” Scully asks during a meeting with the head of the company. “As Agent Mulder pointed out, perhaps we’ve reached a point where the dividing line isn’t quite so clear,” he replies. This is a truly unsettling idea; the idea that humanity is little more than an organic machine – computers built of meat rather than circuitry.

A messy case...

A messy case…

It is a delightful piece of body horror, quite similar to the suggestion in Død Kälm that Mulder and Scully’s bodies are really no different from the ship decaying around them – that their bodies are subject to the same forces which erode the components of the inanimate vessel housing them. The idea of a computer program that can run inside the human brain is a delightfully unnerving concept.

However, One Player Only also does something a bit more interesting. It sets the tone for Petrucha and Adlard’s final three stories on The X-Files, establishing themes and ideas that the duo will touch upon in their final stretch of issues. The basic idea is something that the show itself has touched on from time to time – the idea that, in a show about monsters, mankind are the ultimate monsters. These aren’t coming entirely out of left-field – if anything, it is building off stories like Big Foot, Warm Heart, suggesting man is the most inhumane of creatures.

Fatality!

Fatality!

One Player Only, Falling and Home of the Brave all feature Mulder and Scully investigating a paranormal case, only to come face-to-face with the horrors that mankind inflicts upon itself. One Player Only is perhaps the most effective use of the theme, and sets up the following two stories rather well. From the opening pages of One Player Only, we are led to believe that Capek’s spree-killing was the force of some otherworldly force. Mulder wryly suggests that Capek might have been “literally, possessed by his work.”

It makes a great deal of sense and plays off audience expectations. Films like The Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey had taught audiences to be wary of hyper-evolved computers. They inevitably mean trouble. Once it becomes clear that Capek had devised a way to store a computer programme in his brain, the pieces fit together quite well. Based on the rules of this sort of story, Capek was obviously “hijacked” by his computer programme, which used him to wreak a terrible vengeance on the other programmers.

Shoot 'em up...

Shoot ’em up…

“Sort of the Twinkie Defense gone wild,” Mulder quips – which is a nice indicator of where Petrucha is going with this. The “Twinkie Defense” was the infamous legal defense employed by Dan White during his trial for the murders of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone. White claimed that he was depressed – the fact that he was primarily subsisting on a diet Twinkies was cited in support of this position. The defense largely worked, and White was not convicted of murder, but of voluntary manslaughter.

Over the years, however, pop culture has largely developed the “Twinkie Defense” as equivalent to the argument that “eating too many Twinkies made Dan White do it.” It is not entirely (or even remotely) accurate, but serves as a snappy expression of the way that people tend to offset responsibility for horrible actions. It is easy to blame external factors than to face the possibility that a person could be capable of such horrific actions. The X-Files itself has touched on this tendency to externalise evil repeatedly, most notably in episodes like Irresistible or Grotesque.

Bullet time...

Bullet time…

So One Player Only pulls a pretty significant swerve at the last minute when it reveals that Capek was not compelled to murder his colleagues by the programme running inside his head; indeed, the computer tried to stop him from engaging in such brutality. The evil in One Player Only does not stem from an external source; it is native to mankind. Capek did what he did, and the blame for his violence cannot be conveniently placed on some other entity.

As such, One Player Only works very well as a commentary on the nature of horror stories – tales that frequently externalise fears about man’s inhumanity unto supernatural outside forces. After all, many medeval murderers were credited to werewolves or wild beasts, as if people were incapable of fathoming the depths of depravity resting within the soul of man. Even today, the media will frequently refer to serial killers as “wolves” or “beasts” or “monsters.”

Try to out-Fox him, eh?

Try to out-Fox him, eh?

Of course, the video game trappings of One Player Only also touch on the moral panic surrounding video games. Public concern about video games was nothing new, and had been raging since the seventies. However, the nineties saw things getting pushed up a gear. In 1993, Senator Joseph Lieberman used the violence of games like Mortal Kombat and Night Traps to propose the regulation of video games. In 1994, the industry proposed self-regulation, in order to avoid government regulation.

In the mid-nineties, violent video games were becoming more and more common, with titles like Doom and Mortal Kombat increasing the level of gore and brutality available on (highly pixelated) screens. There was a corresponding rise in parental concern about these games, as people began to fear that violent video games would turn their children into psychopaths. Never mind that the evidence supporting this position is dubious at best, or that part of the job of a parent is regulate the media their child consumes. Video games were presented as a subversive and corrupting force.

Game over...

Game over…

One Player Only completely dismisses this line of thought. Most obviously, Capek is revealed to be responsible for the murders, while the artificial programme that has “infected” him is ultimately good-natured. Citing ELIZA’s success as an artificial psychotherapist, Petrucha seems to suggest that computer programmes simply allow people to see themselves reflected back. The comic wryly observes that violence as entertainment is not a new idea. Mulder meets Mr. X at a fairground shooting gallery, an experience that arguably teaches kids more about firearms than any video game.

It is also worth pausing to note the art style of One Player Only. Adlard provides the interior art as usual, but the comic is a bit more visually adventurous than the surrounding stories. Most notably, in the sequences illustrating the computer’s perspective. It works very effectively at delineating levels of reality – a recurring theme of Petrucha and Adlard’s work on the comic – but also feels like the comic making a few nods towards an obvious inspiration. These photo-montage-esque representations of artificial reality seem to reflect the work of British illustrator Dave McKean.

Pictures within pictures...

Pictures within pictures…

From the outset, it seems like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was a significant thematic and stylistic influence on Petrucha and Adlard’s X-Files work. Miran Kim’s beautifully expressionistic covers cannot help but evoke Dave McKean’s rather beautiful work on the covers to Gaiman’s comic book magnum opus. Petrucha’s style – blending standalone narratives and occasionally episodic adventures with longer thematic and story arcs – overlaps with the work of Neil Gaiman. Even Petrucha’s core themes about reality and dreams resonate with Gaiman’s work.

In many respects, Petrucha and Adlard’s run on The X-Files feels much closer to that “British invasion” style of storytelling that defined the DC/Vertigo titles edited by Karen Berger than conventional contemporary mainstream American comic books. Episodes from the third season of the show – like D.P.O. or Pusher – feel more like pulpy mainstream comic book narratives than the bulk of Petrucha and Adlard’s run.

Dammit, Mulder, a man just died!

Dammit, Mulder, a man just died!

It is quite easy to imagine Petrucha and Adlard’s version of Mulder and Scully investigating the aftermath of one of Alan Moore’s classic Swamp Thing stories or swapping trenchcoat stories with John Constantine. Even Petrucha’s tendency to compress complex narratives to fit them into single issues while minimising unnecessary plot exposition feels vaguely similar to Grant Morrison’s rapid-fire approach to comic book plotting. This connection would be cemented when Petrucha collaborated with Sandman artist Jill Thompson on the much-delayed graphic novel Afterflight.

If this overlap was more than just coincidence, it was a very smart move. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is regarded as a comic book masterpiece, but it is a book that transcends mainstream comic book fandom. It is a comic book that is extremely popular with people who do not read comics. It is a saga that is inclusive and welcoming in a way that many mainstream comic books are not. It sold well in bookstores. It continues to sell well today, and has been reprinted in just about every format known to man. It has spawned annotations and journal articles and essay books.

It is a lot to process...

It is a lot to process…

As Stephen R. Bissette notes in Prince of Stories, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman did a lot to make the comic book medium accessible to a wider audience, and was instrumental in earning the medium a lot of mainstream respect and credibility:

The careful cultivation and cross-marketing of the Sandman comic book series in conjunction with the release of the first colleted “graphic novel” trade paperback editions was instrumental not only in building Sandman readership, but also in pushing the graphic novel as a format into bookstores. The Sandman collections thrived within the direct sales market, but more importantly sold well in bookstores and other markets. This diversified the medium and format beyond the narrow parametres of genre (primarily superheroes) that had previously alienated all but the indoctrinated readers of those genres. You didn’t have to be a Batman or a Spider-Man fan. There was nothing in any way childish about the look, feel, read, or packaging of Sandman. Sandman crossed party lines, if you will, and by doing so carved out sorely needed new audiences – and shelf space. Sandman spoke to a new generation, and not only to those frequenting comic shops.

It is no surprise that the comic has proven at once so alluring to those who would adapt it into other media, and also so daunting. It has been pitched as both movie and television show, and looks to be happening almost two decades after the final issue of the comic was published.

All the way to the top...

All the way to the top…

Sandman was a particularly popular comic book with that rarest of nineties comic book demographics, the female reader. Gaiman has joked that Sandman was frequently “sexually transmitted.” His editor, Karen Berger, has remarked on how unusual this was at the time:

According to Berger, it was the first modern comic to attract a large female readership. “Young women dressed in black and black eyeliner would walk into the comic store and pick up ‘Sandman’ and just walk out,” she said. “You look around a room where Neil is, and half of the fans are women, if not more.” The success of Sandman outside the typical comic-book demographic helped Berger form Vertigo, an imprint at DC devoted to graphic novels and edgier, more literary fare. It also allowed Gaiman to negotiate for the right to end “Sandman” where he wanted to, without DC hiring another writer to replace him, which was standard practice at the time.

According to interviews with Petrucha, The X-Files comic was a similar breakout success. A substantial portion of its readership was female, especially when compared to many of its comic book contemporaries.

The IT crowd...

The IT crowd…

By just about any measure, Sandman was a massive hit. A Midsummer Night’s Dream claimed the “Short Fiction” prize at the 1991 World Fantasy Awards. This was a victory that caused enough of a stir to ensure that any future comic book contenders were relegated to the ghetto of the “Special Professional Award” category. It was a book that was extremely popular outside comic book stores. It also concluded its seventy-five issue run in March 1996, the month after One Player Only hit the stands.

Gaiman is an avowed fan of The X-Files. As an author who works in the overlapping realms of fantasy and horror, his tone is almost perfect for something like The X-Files. Given that Gaiman has worked on licensed properties – including in television and comics – it is a surprise that Gaiman has never actually written for The X-Files. As such, there is a very reasonable argument to be made that Petrucha and Adlard had honed in on just about the perfect tone for an X-Files comic book. Whether by accident or design, Petrucha and Adlard had cracked it.

Bodies of evidence...

Bodies of evidence…

The connections between Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and The X-Files stretched even beyond the text itself. For the first year or so of the comic’s run, Topps saturated the market with digests and trade collections. Along with special comics commissioned for various magazines, or reprints in UK magazines, there was a definite impression that the publisher was courting readers from outside the normal pool of comic book fans.

Coupled with Miran Kim’s beautifully ethereal covers evoking Sandman, it seemed like The X-Files was trying to hone in on a section of the market that had responded so enthusiastically towards Sandman and (perhaps) felt otherwise neglected. It was a technique that worked. It sold particularly well for a non-superhero comic book published by a relatively minor player in the comic book market. The X-Files was Topps’ big comic book success story, with the company publishing the book until it withdrew from the comic book market in 1998.

Does not compute...

Does not compute…

One Player Only marks the beginning of the final leg of Petrucha and Adlard’s run The X-Files. Although these comics are somewhat overshadowed by the twelve-issue mega-arc proceeding them, they still make for fascinating and compelling reading. One Player Only marks the beginning of a thoughtful – if somewhat pessimistic – coda to a very impressive run of comics.

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

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