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The X-Files (Topps) Digest #2 – Dead to the World (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.

Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard are winding at this point in their curatorship of Topps’ The X-Files comic book. The duo have contributed an absolutely staggering volume of work to the line. On top of monthly issues and short stories, there have been annuals and digests. The volume of the output has been staggering. All of it has been written by Petrucha and the vast majority was illustrated by Adlard. The quality has – generally speaking – been quite impressive.

Dead to the World is the headline story in the second “digest” published by Topps comics. As with Big Foot, Warm Heart before it, the format of the “digest” feels a little strange. There is a single (and rather long) comic written by Petrucha and illustrated by Adlard, following by a collection of shorts taken from Ray Bradbury Comics, a somewhat less popular feature of Topps’ comic book publishing line. There is a sense that the format might have worked better as a collection of short X-Files-themed stories for a variety of creators.

Face to face...

Face to face…

Nevertheless, the result is interesting. In many ways, Big Foot, Warm Heart seemed to point at where Petrucha and Adlard would go when they wrapped up their massive twelve-part “Aquarius” mega-arc. With its reflections on human failings and human abuses, it seemed like Big Foot, Warm Heart set the tone for the stories that would follow – like One Player Only or Falling. It offered a tease of things to come, suggesting the humanity could be more monstrous than any mythological creature.

In contrast, it is very tough to see where Dead to the World might have been pointing. Then again, Petrucha and Adlard would be gone from the comic a month after its publication. So perhaps the story’s funereal atmosphere feels appropriate.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Dead to the World is structured very strangely. There is a sense that the story would work very well as a single regular-length issue, or even a two-parter. The story is structured in such a way that it seems to build to a typical X-Files conclusion. Mulder and Scully find their man. Mulder leads a team to arrest Surmount, only for Surmount to burn himself alive in front of the agent. However, agents are unable to verify that the remains are those of Surmount – leaving a question mark hanging over the case.

Petrucha and Adlard do manage a clever spin on this familiar set-up. The very next scene features Doctor Alekseev, a supporting character convinced that Surmount survived, setting a trap and poisoning the still-living monster – damning the vampiric monster to a painful existence consumed by necrotizing fasciitis. This is already one scene further than the typical closing scene of an episode of The X-Files, and it would seem like a logical (if slightly subversive) place to bring the curtain down on Dead to the World.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

Indeed, it would serve as a very effective and clever twist on the classic “… but the monster survives!” conclusions that people have come to expect from The X-Files. In this case, the monster endures, but it had been wounded and scarred. It has been cursed. The monster’s survival may not be in its own best interests; Surmount has simply bought himself months or years of unrelenting agony. It is a very clever twist on a familiar set-up.

However, Dead to the World keeps on pushing past that. There is a sense that Petrucha and Adlard are having a bit of trouble pacing and structuring the story. The story pushes on after the point where a regular instalment of The X-Files would have ended, but it also feels a little bloated and padded. After being infected with the flesh-eating bug, Surmount gets himself caught in a sting by Mulder and Scully. This leads to an action sequence where he escapes. Following this, he kidnaps Scully, leading to the final confrontation.

There's a terrible comedy episode in here somewhere...

There’s a terrible comedy episode in here somewhere…

There is something rather inelegant about this structure – there’s a sense that pages of the story might easily have been trimmed and that Dead to the World would have been the stronger for it. The story moves in fits and starts, never quite gaining the momentum that it needs to pull off what it seems to want to do. There is a wealth of clever material here, but a sense that it got a bit jumbled in the execution of it all.

The central idea is more than solid. Dead to the World is a story that is – first and foremost – about alchemy. Alchemy is the mystical art of transforming objects from one thing into another. The legends tell stories of alchemists who could transform lead into gold, changing the metal’s base properties. These mysterious figures from mythology and folklore seemed to exist in a hazily-defined world between science and magic – operating with chemistry in a way that could not be reconciled with science as we understand it.

Explosive revelations...

Explosive revelations…

And so the story shift in the middle of Dead to the World seems quite clever – a case of storytelling alchemy to cleverly reflect the core themes of the story. Dead to the World begins as very typical “monster of the week” story. In fact, it begins as the most typical “monster of the week” story. Surmount is designed to remind the reader of Eugene Victor Tooms, the show’s first true monster – the monster who defined what “monster” means on The X-Files.

Tooms is very much the platonic ideal of an X-Files monster. He can trace his roots back to a classical movie monster – very clearly a vampire – but is updated in such a way that he is relevant to the show – Tooms is the embodiment of twentieth-century horror. It is no wonder that Tooms haunts the show. Although Mulder and Scully defeat the creature in Tooms, his spectre remains; there are creatures quite similar to Tooms throughout the series’ run, in shows like Leonard Betts or 2shy or Badlaa or Teliko.

Feeding time!

Feeding time!

Surmount is very clearly designed to evoke Tooms. Like Toomes, Surmount is a functionally immortal predator who has drifted between the pages of history books. Like Tooms, Surmount preys on the weak before retreating to darkness and reinventing himself. Like Tooms, Surmount feeds on a very particularly part of his victims anatomy in order to sustain himself. Tooms consumed the livers of his victims; Surmount feeds on their adrenal glands.

However, after establishing a character very much like the typical X-Files monster, Dead to the World takes a very clear and very sharp turn around half-way through the story. Surmount himself is transformed, and the story transforms around him. Dead to the World begins as a story that feels like an extended tribute to Squeeze, only to suddenly become a much more traditional old-fashioned monster story. Mulder even has to race to the top of the tower to confront Surmount and to save Scully.

A whole other scale of problem...

A whole other scale of problem…

Dead to the World is just as explicit in acknowledging its references for this sudden change in direction. The cover features Surmount with a mask covering half his face – an obvious reference to The Phantom of the Opera. Mulder even makes a casual reference to the similarities. When Scully points out that her uncle was an amateur magician, Mulder replies, “What about his face? Was your uncle the Phantom of the Opera too?”

Surmount’s kidnapping of Scully and taking her to the top of a tower marks him as a much more old-school (and traditional) style of monster. As Surmount’s appearance deteriorates, the story around him degenerates. He was introduced as a sleek X-Files monster, but devolved into something a lot more generic and a lot more primal. Surmount is introduced as a typical X-Files monster, but becomes a typical monster by the end of the story. There is a clever transformation in there.

The man in black...

The man in black…

It makes sense that alchemy would interest Petrucha and Adlard. The duo have been fascinated with themes around reality and existence. Surmount is quite the philosopher. “My old friend Xenon said that if you shoot an arrow at a tree, it has to pass a point halfway between the bow and the tree, then halfway between the mid-point and the tree and so on and so forth forever,” he reflects to one of his victims. “Since the arrow can’t traverse an infinite number of points, movement itself must be impossible.”

It seems like a particularly pointed question for a character in a comic book. After all, movement itself is impossible within the realities of a comic book. All that people see are static shots of characters in motion – the movement itself is intuited by the reader between the frames. The same is also true of film and television – a series of static shots ordered in such a way that the brain interprets them as movement.

The answer to this question should always be "no"...

The answer to this question should always be “no”…

There are hints that Surmount even questions the nature of his own existence. “I’m wondering if we’re really alive,” he confesses. “Are we alive or just moved by the wind?”  Surmount only exists because the story needs a monster; he moves according to the whims of the story. He does not have any real agency, as a character trapped inside that narrative. He seems to push the boundaries of his comic book existence – playing a violin, another attempt to draw the reader’s attention to restrictions of the medium.

In keeping with these self-aware touches, the focus on alchemy seems oddly appropriate. After all, alchemy is a potent metaphorical force. Before burning himself alive, Surmount warns Mulder, “In alchemy, gold and immortality are metaphors.” Alchemy has a long history with metaphor. Indeed, the first recorded usage of the word in English (derived from the Greek “metepherein”, meaning “to change over”) was in Thomas Norton’s The Ordinal of Alchemy in 1477.

Mulder closes the book on this one...

Mulder closes the book on this one…

As such, it seems like an appropriate subject for an X-Files stories. After all, aren’t most monsters metaphors? Aren’t vampires and werewolves a way of giving form to unsettling ideas that might be too terrifying or too unsettling to express directly? They allow us to create demons that can stand-in for real-world fears and concerns, metaphors for terrors that cannot even be properly articulated. These fears are “changed over” into larger-then-life monsters, so they may be tackled in that way.

It is also interesting to note that Petrucha and Adlard suggest that Surmount himself may serve as a metaphor for Mulder and Scully. Surmount feasts on the adrenal glands of his victims – in a very real sense, he could be said to feed on fear. In a less direct way, The X-Files sustains itself off a sense of fear. It became so popular precisely because it could terrify audiences and catch them off guard. In their own way, Mulder and Scully survive just as much on fear as Surmount does.

Gold! Always believe in your soul!

Gold! Always believe in your soul!

More than that, Surmount suggests that “the goal of the alchemist is to be re-born in a manner combining both the masculine and feminine principles… in a form complete unto itself.” It seems that Surmount is very much seeking what Mulder and Scully already have; a perfect balance between male and female – masculine and feminine. Chris Carter touched on the same idea – albeit more directly – in Syzygy in the middle of the third season.

There is a rake of other interesting material as well, even if Dead to the World never manages to centre its core themes and push them to the fore. The clever twist of infecting a pseudo-vampire with tainted meat is a wonderful plot point. It suggests a vampire story for the AIDS era, with Scully warning Mulder, “Don’t touch his blood! We can’t cure it!” At the same time, it also suggests that vampires need to be as careful about what they consume as regular people – touching on themes familiar to Red Museum or Our Town.

Drink it down...

Drink it down…

Even the little touches of the story are fascinating – for example, the incorporation of masonic and occult imagery into Surmount’s character. Both his coffin and his tombstone are designed to mirror the Eye of Providence. He even lives inside a gigantic pyramid, to underscore the connection. It is clever way of suggesting a lot about Surmount without explicitly saying anything; it is a nice touch that adds a level of intrigue to Dead to the World.

Dead to the World is a story packed with interesting ideas, but one that suffers from structuring. It is a story that would work a lot better if were tightened a little bit, streamlined.

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

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