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Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s Run on The X-Files (Topps) (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.

Topps’ X-Files comic was a massive success in the nineties.

The monthly series ran for forty-one issues between January 1995 and September 1998. In that time, Topps also produced an X-Files graphic novel, three digests, two annuals, a spin-off line of Season One comics and a miniseries adaptation of a Kevin Anderson novel. They also reprinted the series in quite a few formats, indicating that the comic sold well even outside the monthly schedule. The only reason that the series came to an end was because Topps eventually decided to retire from comic book publishing.

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After Topps withdrew from the comic book market following the Great Comic Crash of the mid-to-late nineties, the X-Files license lay fallow. Barring two Lone Gunman comics published by Dark Horse in 2001, there would be no new officially licensed X-Files comics written between September 1998 and September 2008, when Frank Spotnitz scripted a miniseries for Wildstorm. It is incredible to look back on the success of the Topps line for those three-and-a-half years when it held the license.

A lot of the credit for that success is owed to writer Stefan Petrucha, cover artist Miran Kim and interior artist Charles Adlard.

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The three were prolific during the first sixteen months of Topps’ X-Files line. Petrucha and Adlard seemed to work on just about every X-Files project. In an era where it seems too much to expect twelve consecutive comic book issues from the same creative team in the same calendar year, the two not only collaborated on the first sixteen issues of the month series, but also two digests and an annual – along with a number of smaller promotional projects that were published in magazines as diverse as TV Guide and Heroes Illustrated.

That is a phenomenal body of work in a relatively short period of time, and it really seemed like Petrucha and Adlard were curating the X-Files line, insuring some measure of creative consistency existed between all the books being published by Topps under the X-Files banner. While it is unlikely that this focus could have been maintained for much longer, or across multiple monthly books, it is still a very impressive accomplishment from the duo.

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Unfortunately, the collaboration was dissolved after the sixteenth issue of the monthly series. Ten Thirteen took exception to Petrucha and fired him, replacing him with Xombi and Kobalt creator John Rozum. He had already finished Afterflight, a graphic novel, but that was held back due to disagreements over Jill Thompson’s art. Charles Adlard would no longer serve as the series’ main artist, but would remain part of the rotating art team until May 1997.

In contrast, cover artist Miran Kim would remain part of the Topps X-Files line until it was retired. Indeed, Kim would return to provide the covers to IDW’s recent X-Files: Conspiracy miniseries, demonstrating that her distinctive photo-montage style is as effective as it ever was. Kim’s continued presence would lend the series a sense of consistency and a unique identity that spanned from its début until its conclusion.

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To be fair to Ten Thirteen, it is easy to see why Petrucha and Adlard’s approach to The X-Files was not to their taste. There is a tendency with licensed properties to play it safe; to believe that the tie-in exists solely to serve the television show. The idea is to offer a copy of what is available on television, something that can be sold to completionists or hardcore fanatics who don’t get enough X-Files in the twenty-odd episodes produced every year.

The comic book is not an end of itself, but one facet of a multimedia industry built up around the core brand; everything is secondary to the television show. This isn’t unique to The X-Files. This is just basic brand management. It is about ensuring that the tie-in comic knows its place on the pecking order. One need only ask Peter David about his battles with Richard Arnold while writing the Star Trek comic at DC comics.

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Petrucha and Adlard’s X-Files comics are not your standard formulaic cookie-cutter tie-in. These aren’t simply “monster of the week” episodes translated into comic book form. Instead, Adlard and Petrucha seem to build a comic book version of The X-Files from the ground up, tailoring their stories to the medium and playing with the different stylistic touches that make comic books distinct from television. Firebird works great in comic book form, but would work less well on film. The same is true of A Dismembrance of Things Past or One Player Only.

More than that, Petrucha and Adlard’s work is dense. It’s compressed. It moves quickly, and features a minimum of exposition. In some cases, it takes a second read to really process what Petrucha and Adlard are doing. In some cases, even the finer details of the plot only fall into place on a re-read. This isn’t a bad thing. After all, Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is a similarly ambitious and mixed-up story that rewards multiple viewings. This sort of density can be rewarding, and there is a definite sense that Petrucha and Adlard’s stories are rewarding on their own terms.

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There is a sense that Petrucha and Adlard are engaging with The X-Files on a fundamental level. They dare to play with the fundamental building blocks of the show in a manner that borders on provocative. A Dismembrance of Things Past dares to ask if Mulder’s entire life could be based on a single false memory, and what that might mean for him. Feelings of Unreality laughs at the idea of complex interconnected conspiracy theories that try to connect everything.

It’s a fascinating approach to the material, and it’s no wonder that there’s significant thematic overlap between these comics written by Petrucha and Adlard and episodes written by Darin Morgan, James Wong, Glen Morgan and Vince Gilligan. There are points where Petrucha and Adlard are even ahead of the show. Firebird draws from the Tunguska incident ahead of Terma and Tunguska. Silent Cities of the Mind and Home of the Brave feature nineties militia and survivalist movements before The Field Where I Died.

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Their last four issues on the monthly comic even question the idea of “monsters”, asking whether mankind is so monstrous that any other supernatural evil is superfluous and unnecessary. There is incredible ambition here, and a willingness to just go with big ideas that is hard to resist. When Ten Thirteen insisted they stay away from the show’s central conspiracy, Petrucha and Adlard simply created their own alternate and divorced conspiracy that they could use to tell their own stories.

It is a very cheeky move. Having two gigantic top secret government conspiracies operating independently of one another stretches credibility, after all. Cleverly, Petrucha and Adlard made this one of the central ideas of their run, suggesting that these sorts of boogeymen are as likely to be works of collective fiction as anything that actually exists. Conspiracies like this are, by their nature, ethereal and unreal.

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Petrucha himself conceded that this was not necessarily the simplest solution to the problem facing him, but did suggest it was the one that gave him the greatest number of options when it came to writing a faithful comic book companion piece to The X-Files:

Of course, it would’ve been easier to stick with the monster-of-the-week sort of stuff, but that would’ve skipped half of what made The X-Files work. As a writer with my particular proclivities, I felt like I had a rare opportunity, and wanted to go for the gold. But in terms of continuity, I was flailing in the dark. I tried to work around that by coming up with my own conspiracy, and I’m pleased that folks are still reading the stories.

The result was an ambitious opening mega-arc that ran over the first year of the comic’s life, featuring a secret conspiracy named “Aquarius.” While it didn’t always work as well as it might (in stories like A Little Dream of Me or The Trepanning Opera), it was a bold and ambitious plotting decision that led to some wonderful storytelling opportunities.

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There’s a beautiful thematic consistency to Petrucha and Adlard’s work. One can trace core ideas running through their collaborations. The first year is fascinated by ideas of identity, reality and memory. The issues after that are more interested in questions of humanity and inhumanity. These are very big ideas, as worthy as any of the ideas being tackled on the show. Once the duo left, the comics lost that sense of a thematic through-line.

The problem is that these aren’t what people – particularly executives and business people – expect from a licensed tie-in. The idea is to tell a fairly clean X-Files story that feels like an imitation of (or maybe even a substitute for) the television show, rather than to tell an ambitious story that seems to ask “what would The X-Files look like if it were a comic book?” It’s bold and daring, and utterly unlike most contemporary comic book tie-ins.

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There is a sense that Petrucha and Adlard were trying to create something big and epic and sprawling, rather than simply offering an imitation of television storytelling in comic book form. The book took advantage of the differences between a comic book and a television show – it was safe to assume that the reader could re-read the story to get all necessary details, there were no budgetary constraints or stunt limitations.

Petrucha and Adlard’s work on Topps’ The X-Files comic is a beautiful example of the potential of licensed tie-ins. They are stories that could never really work in any other medium, and which are tailored to the strengths of comic books. These issues have a clear and big ideas, even if those ideas occasionally don’t land as well as they might. The fact that these sixteen issues were produced while the show was on the air is a testament to all involved, particularly the editorial staff at Topps.

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However, all things must end. A run as bold and unconventional as this would eventually have to give way to something that fit more comfortably with Ten Thirteen’s ideas about what the comic book tie-in should be. Stefan Petrucha was replaced by veteran Milestone writer John Rozum, who enjoyed a similarly restrictive brief, but managed to remain on the comic through to its cancellation. There is no doubt that Rozum was producing material that Ten Thirteen considered more compatible with the brand.

It’s a shame, because these are some great comics.

You might be interested in our reviews of other seasons of The X-Files:

You might be interested in our reviews of Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s run on The X-Files:

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6 Responses

  1. Just come across your site, and am bowled over by these X-Files reviews. I’ve never seen anyone take on the Topps comics in such detail – I was thinking of doing the same thing! Everthing here is so comprehensive and lovingly detailed – do you think you’ll do a book of the X-Files stuff once you’re done? Let me know as I’d buy one ASAP!

    • Thanks!

      Current plan is to release three volumes next year, when I’m finished. Looking like:

      Volume 1: Seasons 1-3, Space: Above and Beyond, Petrucha/Adlard comics
      Volume 2: Seasons 4-6, Millennium, Fight the Future, Other TOPPS comics,
      Volume 3: Seasons 7-9, Harsh Realm, Lone Gunmen, I Want to Believe, Wildstorm, Season 10 comics, misc

      Depending on schedule, revival may go in Volume 3 or may spin off a Volume 4 with The After and other stuff.

  2. Wow. Can’t wait to get them all!

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