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The X-Files (Topps) #14 – Falling (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.

Falling is a delightfully nasty piece of work.

It is, to be fair, something that has been gestating for quite a while in Petrucha and Adlard’s extended run on The X-Files. If their first year on the title explored the loose boundary between reality and unreality, their final few issues shifted to more grounded and cynical themes. Most explicitly, the idea that humanity makes the best monsters. It is a gleefully subversive twist on one of the core elements of The X-Files: the idea that monsters are real.

Falling to pieces...

Falling to pieces…

Petrucha and Adlard had broached this before. This was the key point in Big Foot, Warm Heart, where the eponymous creature shows more humanity than the human antagonist of the story. One Player Only featured a delightful red herring when it suggested a murderous artificial intelligence had driven a developer to a killing spree at a software company, only to reveal that the developer’s actions were entirely his own. It will be taken to the logical extreme in Home of the Brave, essentially the duo’s grand finalé.

Blending together the Americana and nostalgia of Stand By Me with the brutal cynicism of Lord of the Flies, Falling is a compelling and unsettling read.

If a tree falls in the woods...

If a tree falls in the woods…

Falling was released in April 1996, the same month that saw the broadcast of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Both feel like rather cynical April Fools’ jokes on fans, setting up familiar premises only to twist them around into something completely unexpected. Both stories feel like sucker punches designed to catch the audience off-guard, giving them something they would never have seen coming. Certainly, it feels like Falling was something that even the publisher wasn’t sure how to process.

Miran Kim’s suitably evocative cover comes with a teaser of the action, scrawled across the front in yellow letters. Obviously intended to catch the eye of potential readers, the text promises, “Mulder and Scully face a secret UFO crash site, radiation poisoning and governmental interference in ‘Falling’…” While the statement is technically true, it cannot help but feel a little misleading. These are elements of the story, but they are not what the story is about. They do not form the centre of the story.

Toxic...

Toxic…

The description makes Falling sound a lot more generic than it actually is, as if trying to reel in readers with the promise of something familiar. After all, that summary promises a lot of the key hooks of a classic X-Files story, something like Fallen Angel or E.B.E. One gets a sense that the publisher was not entirely sure how to sell a story like Falling, and so fell back on the familiar X-Files tropes contained within the narrative.

It is worth noting that Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” begins with a similar enough set up. It opens with a classic alien abduction scenario so familiar to the show’s premise that it was even discussed within The Pilot. It then becomes something altogether weirder. Both Morgan and Petrucha have a tendency to deconstruct The X-Files, examining and questioning the show’s underlying assumptions about the way the world works – stretching and bending the familiar narrative beats to produce something a great deal more unpleasant.

Everything falls into place...

Everything falls into place…

Morgan’s scripts affectionately ridiculed the conventions of The X-Files, the unspoken assumptions at the heart of the series. Morgan repeatedly suggested that Mulder and Scully were as alien and strange as any of the objects they pursued. His stories – from Blood to War of the Coprophages to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” – are broadly critical of the sort of paranoia that powers The X-Files. There’s a suggestion that the show takes quite a lot of uncomfortable ideas for granted.

There is significant thematic overlap between Darin Morgan’s work on the show and Petrucha’s scripting in the comics. Petrucha and Adlard’s A Dismembrance of Things Past touched on the idea of memory as a fragile and easily distorted thing, something Morgan would touch upon in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Darin Morgan’s Humbug had a great deal of fun with the idea of conspiracies in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, just as Petrucha and Adlard did during their first year writing the comic.

Murdering Mulder...

Murdering Mulder…

It seems appropriate, then, that Petrucha and Adlard’s final stretch of issues circles back around to ideas that Morgan broached in his first full script for the show. Humbug rejected the idea of monsters, having Mulder and Scully visit a community of self-named “freaks.” It was a slyly subversive take on the traditional X-Files case, painting Mulder and Scully as more dysfunctional than most of the town’s residents, remarking on how every community is strange in its own way.

The final four issues of the monthly X-Files comic written by Petrucha and illustrated by Adlard push that idea even further. What if the monsters are not monsters? What if the monsters are humane and the humans are monstrous? What if people are aliens? Discussing why he prefers the term “E.B.E.” to “alien”, Mulder explains, “The difference, I believe, is that proof will one day reveal which E.B.E.s are real and which are imagined, while some aliens will never be recognised at all… particularly those which, in the end, turn out to be us.”

Here there be aliens...

Here there be aliens…

It is not the most subtle piece of dialogue ever written, but it works well in context. Again, Petrucha is doing the work of a great tie-in writer. The X-Files would frequently play with the idea that humanity was as alien as any little green men that Mulder chases, emphasised with the reminder that most Americans were European settlers in episodes like Anasazi, and the reveal that the grey aliens might by human victims of experimentation in 731. The series would really hammer the point much later in the run, with scripts like Biogenesis.

Petrucha simply pushes that idea in his own direction, suggesting that human beings can truly alien to one another without the need to incorporate extraterrestrials or visitors from other planets. One can see man’s capacity for inhumanity by simply looking at the world, without a need to apply any fantastical elements. Falling is a story that could easily be told stripping out the X-Files elements. Instead, they simply provide a nice thematic structure for the story.

Gunning for the leadership role...

Gunning for the leadership role…

While Morgan pitches his deconstruction of The X-Files as broad comedy, Petrucha plays it as heart-breaking tragedy. Behind the cover promising stereotypical alien-hunting and conspiracy-exposing shenanigans, Falling is the story of a little kid who brutally murders four of his friends for no good reason. When Mulder asks Timmy why he did it, Timmy simply responds, “I don’t know. I guess I never liked any of them.”

Much like One Player Only before it, Falling shrewdly denies its audience an easy answer. In One Player Only, it seemed like a killer artificial intelligence might be on the loose; instead, it was just a deranged human being. Here, the story initially implies that Timmy may be influenced by the radiation leak from the alien craft. That would be a nice resolution – to suggest that there were some external forces at play that had guided Timmy’s hand.

Just as long, as you stand... stand by me...

Just as long, as you stand… stand by me…

However, the final two pages dismiss the possibility. “If you want me to say radiation triggered his murderous rampage… I can’t,” Scully tells Mulder. The radiation only penetrates skin, and it does not affect children. There is no easy scapegoat for Timmy’s violence, as much as we might want there to be. In a way, it seems to foreshadow the resolution to the similarly subversive Never Again in the show’s fourth season.

Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote Never Again as their last script for The X-Files, setting up what looked like a clearly supernatural case. Ed Jerse was clearly motivated by the psychotropic agent that was used in the ink in his tattoo. It makes sense, right? Ultimately, the episode dismisses the possibility, rejecting the audience’s hope for an easy or comforting answer. Ed Jerse’s violence and brutality came from nothing but his own self.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

In Falling, Petrucha and Adlard wear their influences on their sleeves. Just in case the audience doesn’t recognise Falling as an entry in the long list of stories about how kids can be monsters, Mulder is seen reading Lord of the Flies in his hospital bed at the end of the comic. However, Falling is particularly interesting for its clever juxtaposition of Lord of the Flies with more traditionally American narratives about children.

In particular, Falling seems to play off the iconography and imagery associated with Stand By Me, the feature film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Body. As in Stand By Me, a bunch of kids find something interesting in the woods and seek to claim it as their own. The object of interest is quite macabre: in Stand By Me, it is a dead body up the railway line; in Falling, it is a crashed UFO leaking radiation into the surrounding countryside. One of the kids in Falling even suggests poking Mulder with a stick, albeit a bit more maliciously.

Kids these days...

Kids these days…

Of course, Stand By Me is part of a long tradition of stories about young boys treating adventure as a rite of passage, a feature of stories dating back to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and beyond. As Stuart Hanson notes in Children in Film:

The myth of the male hero on an adventurous quest is deeply rooted in Western popular culture, as articulated by Teddy’s obsession with war. The exploration and articulation of boys coming of age through adversity, bravado, facing up to fear, loyalty and comradeship make Stand By Me a source of identification for many men. Moreover, one suspects that, given its range of nostalgic cultural references, the film might be especially appealing to American men.

As such, Falling represents a rather bleak and cynical deconstruction of that myth, blending Stand By Me with Lord of the Flies for suitably unsettling results. (The story’s fascination with childhood is even reflected in the setting, the real-life town of Childwold, New York.)

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

The teenage body in Stand By Me represents the death of innocence, and is a subject of grim fascination for the young heroes. In Falling, Timmy is responsible for creating several dead bodies all by himself. The climax of Stand By Me has the protagonist standing up to a bunch of bullies by brandishing a firearm, treating holding a gun as a rite of passage. In Falling, Timmy uses a gun with a casual ease – perhaps a none-too-subtle criticism of any story that would treat a child brandishing a gun as a moment where the audience should cheer.

It is worth noting that Falling was published in the mid-nineties, at a time when parents were paradoxically frightened for and frightened by their children. There was a sense that the younger generation was growing up in a culture of casual brutality, without any social mores to anchor them. In the nineties – perhaps spurred on by horrible cases like the murder of Jamie Bulger in the United Kingdom and gang violence in the United States – it seemed like society was scared of its own children.

Child killer...

Child killer…

Professor John Dilulio helped to spur on public fear of these so-called “superpredators”, children without compassion or empathy, capable of anything:

To cite just a few examples, following my May 1995 address to the district attorneys association, big-city prosecutors inundated me with war stories about the ever-growing numbers of hardened, remorseless juveniles who were showing up in the system. “They kill or maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive,” said one. Likewise, a veteran beat policeman confided: “I never used to be scared. Now I say a quick Hail Mary every time I get a call at night involving juveniles. I pray I go home in one piece to my own kids.” On a recent visit to a New Jersey maximum-security prison, I spoke to a group of life-term inmates, many of them black males from inner-city Newark and Camden. In a typical remark, one prisoner fretted, “I was a bad-ass street gladiator, but these kids are stone-cold predators.”

This helped to solidify fears and concerns about children, and the introduction of various laws designed to protect society from kids – like the introduction of ASBOs in the United Kingdom.

Not-so-timid Timmy...

Not-so-timid Timmy…

It is worth noting that – despite any number of high-profile cases – this “superpredator” fear seemed somewhat overstated. After all, one might wonder what happened to all those “superpredators” in the years since the nineties:

The short answer is that the large cadre of superpredators that Dilulio described never existed, and the growth of this mythical group never happened. Several researchers have debunked the superpredator myth and doomsday projections. The illogical nature of Dilulio’s projection is readily apparent. He assumed that 6% of babies and children as well as juveniles would be chronic offenders. If we were to apply the 6% figure to the 1996 population under age 18, according to Dilulio’s analysis, there already were 1.9 million superpredator juvenile offenders in the United States. This number is larger than the total number of children and adolescents referred to juvenile courts each year.

However, fears are seldom grounded in rational concerns. They are governed by complex factors that often have little relation to material factors or simple probability. The fear of children had worked its way into the popular consciousness, and there was no escaping it. The X-Files had even played with the idea in Eve.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

Here, Petrucha does something quite similar to what he did with One Player Only, setting up something that looks like a stock moral panic plot. In One Player Only, a developer working at a company making violent video games goes crazy – one might forgive the assumption that his constant exposure to violence played a part. In Falling, Petrucha introduces us to pint-sized psychopath, reflecting contemporary fears about new breed of remorseless killing machines. In both cases, Petrucha swerves sharply.

In One Player Only, it turns out that the video games have nothing to do with the killing spree that starts the plot. In Falling, it is suggested that at least some of Timmy’s attitudes towards guns and violence were inherited. Falling is a story that seems wryly critical of the fetishisation of authority in certain aspects of American life. Timmy’s father is the sheriff. His older brother serves in the army. The script suggests that Timmy may have been encouraged by his father’s attitudes towards authority and power.

Playing with guns...

Playing with guns…

“Well, you know how kids are, Scully,” Mulder suggests in the closing pages of the comic. “They never listen to adults. But they always manage to imitate us.” The dialogue is set over a picture of well-armed American soldiers helping to take away the wreckage of the crashed alien space ship. It is no coincidence that Timmy’s first murder occurs while he is role-playing as sheriff, with the story treating the reveal of his father’s identity as a major plot twist.

Mulder cautions Timmy when the young boy takes his weapon. “Nah, I’m okay,” Timmy replies, simply. “I’ve seen guns before.” He certainly has. Although he does not adhere to the rules of gun safety, casually pointing the weapon at his fellow children and Mulder. A scene in the story taking place before the reveal features his father casually (and unsettlingly) playing with his gun in front of Scully. There is a very clear sense that Timmy has not been taught to respect firearms, and has grown up in a household that treats them far too casually.

The truly alien...

The truly alien…

Even outside of the script’s commentary on gun culture and children, Falling is quite clear that society played some role in turning Timmy into a monster. At the very least, it taught him how to hone his urges to fine point, and how to disguise them until it is too late to stop him. He casts the other children as “alien”, as different. When Timmy returns from the murder of his friends, Mulder sarcastically quips, “No aliens?” Timmy replies, “Not any more.”

As Mulder reflects at the start of the story, “Alien, while rich in connotation, is simply another way of saying ‘other.’ It is used to denote any threat, from faery folk to witches, to communists.” This could be read as a rather cynical and sarcastic take on The X-Files‘ fascination with aliens. After all, one of the most consistently successful justifications for exploitation and barbarity has been a willingness to dehumanise others. What if aliens and monsters are nothing but excuses?

After all, in what feels like a grim twist on a joke The Simpsons would make the following year, it turns out that the “alien” haunting Childwold is nothing but a lonely old veteran who has been ostracised and ignored by the community. In the cynical world of Falling, the alien is nothing more than a concept that we create to justify those we dehumanise. Falling is very cynical piece of work, one that feels scathing in its assessment of humanity.

This is the penultimate issue of Petrucha and Adlard’s run on The X-Files, and it feels strangely fitting. It is interesting to wonder where the duo might have taken the comic with a little more time, but One Player Only and Falling feel quite funereal in nature. There’s a sense that this is all building inexorably towards the climax of Home of the Brave, where wandering off with unknown aliens is presented as a rational choice because it has to be better than life on this rock.

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

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