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The X-Files: Season One (Topps) #0 – Pilot (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Given the success of the monthly comic book series, it made sense for Topps to try to capitalise on The X-Files as much as possible. The series was exploding into the mainstream. Chris Carter was launched a second television show, Millennium, to capitalise on the success. Fox were planning to move the series to Sunday nights. There was already talk about a possible movie franchise. This was a great time to be publishing X-Files comics.

Topps had already used the series to sell “digests” packed with unrelated comics, and had published annuals to get a little extra sales revenue into the fiscal year. However, there was a clear desire to publish more X-Files work with more consistency. Ideas began to percolate – Kevin J. Anderson would pen a miniseries based on his Ground Zero novel during the show’s fifth season, for example. The company also decided to publish a series of comic books adapting early episodes of the series.

The truth is out there...

The truth is out there…

The series didn’t properly launch until the following year, with a series of monthly adaptations of first season episodes running from the start of the fifth season through to the month following the release of X-Files: Fight the Future. Conveniently titled Season One, these comics were only cancelled when Topps folded its comic book division – vanishing quite suddenly from the stands, with little warning.

The adaptation of The Pilot was actually released a year earlier than the monthly series – it was re-packaged and re-released once Topps committed to a monthly series of adaptations. As such, it makes for a strange teaser of things to come.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship...

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

To be fair, there are still a few comic book adaptations of cinematic releases and novels. Recently, Vertigo released a well-received set of comics adapting Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire trilogy. However, the industry was much more dynamic and successful in the nineties – possibly owing to the wider financial success of the comic book industry as a whole. DC would release comic book adaptations of superhero films like Tim Burton’s Batman.

Topps had done quite well for itself with direct adaptations, even outside of their licensing of familiar film and television properties. Roy Thomas had adapted Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula into a successful comic book with artist Mike Mignola. They also adapted GoldenEye, Dragonheart and Jurassic Park. There was clearly an industry for fans who wanted to own a comic book adaptation of a major motion picture.

Watching the skies...

Watching the skies…

In the modern media age, the idea of directly adapting television shows into comic book stories feels a little redundant. In the era of Netflick and DVD box sets, it seems that everybody has access to anything they might ever want. A forty-eight-page comic of a television episode from three years earlier feels just a little bit gratuitous. Why would anybody want to read a verbatim adaptation of a story they already knew quite well in another medium?

It is worth noting that these adaptations were the product of a different time – that is probably why comic book adaptations are less frequent today than they were two decades ago. Now, fans can own the movie or the television show in its entirety. If it isn’t available via an on-line streaming service, it can probably be ordered from a major on-line retailer. The advent of DVDs and blu rays has made it possible to store vast amounts of physical media in a way that simply would not have been possible in the nineties.

Mulder and Scully share a Killing Joke moment...

Mulder and Scully share a Killing Joke moment…

So, in a way, a series of comic books adapting the first season of The X-Files makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the show was now massively popular and iconic. Its stature was only growing. The show had become a pop culture phenomenon, to the point where Mulder and Scully were only a few months away from appearing in The Simpsons. However, the first season had been a cult show. It had secured a relatively small and devoted audience that had expanded through word of mouth and press coverage.

As such, there were probably large numbers of young fans out there who had never seen the early episodes. After all, while Fox was releasing special VHS releases of “important” episodes like Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip, the company never really rolled out a comprehensive VHS release of every episode. (That said, Fox Home Entertainment did release the first eight episode on VHS in the UK, but the line did not progress any further.)

Bumps in the road...

Bumps in the road…

Fans had been circulating VHS recordings of early episodes among themselves. Often, posters on message boards would show up requesting specific episodes – although they often couldn’t even identify the episodes by name. There was no centralised and organised distribution method for those early episodes of the series. As The X-Files was reaching its pop culture zenith, it made sense to put out those stories in one form or another so fans could take a trip back in time.

That is, in effect, the justification for Topps’ Season One series of comics. These deluxe double-sized comics would feature adaptations of early episodes drawing from the original shooting scripts and from the finished episode. They would allow readers a chance to journey back to the beginning of The X-Files and get a sense of where the show had started. After all, three years is a phenomenally long time in television. It is hard to believe that The Pilot and Herrenvolk are the same show.

Snap happy...

Snap happy…

As if to demonstrate how seriously they treated this project, Topps drafted in comic book legend Roy Thomas to script the series. Thomas has been a mainstay in the American comic book industry since the sixties, with former Marvel editor Jim Shooter claiming he was the man who “saved Marvel.” Thomas himself has admitted that The X-Files lined up with his own interests:

I had seen the X-Files a few times and like it because I’m very interested in that kind of thing. I’m not an active pursuer of information about flying saucers, but I’ve always maintained an interest in that sort of thing ever since the 50s, off and on. With adapting the X-Files, the combination of my interest in that sort of thing and the fact that I’ve been affiliated with a lot of adaptations such as some of the Conan stories and the original Star Wars comics, so it was a natural to get into that area. I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

Roy Thomas is a very respected name, and a writer who brings a certain amount of cache in comic book circles. In particular, he is an artist who works very well within the confines of continuity. He is notable for succeeding Stan Lee on high-profile titles like The Avengers and X-Men, producing two much-loved runs on those iconic books. He is a very solid choice for an assignment like this.

Marking the spot...

Marking the spot…

In this case, Thomas wasn’t just picking up a book following an industry legend. Here, Thomas was working within the confines of a universe crafted and overseen by Chris Carter. His first assignment on Season One would be to adapt an episode that had been written by Carter himself. That is a lot of pressure on a writer, and trying to transition a story from one medium to another can be quite the challenge.

It is interesting to imagine the creative discussions about a project like Season One. How was Thomas to approach the material? How close did the adaptations have to be? How much improvisation could be allowed? Given how much the show had changed since that first season, would the comic book tweak the script a little bit – work in some more obvious foreshadowing or continuity as a way of bridging the first season of the show with what followed?

Old news...

Old news…

It seems that Ten Thirteen wanted a very tight and very controlled adaptation. Roy Thomas’ script is an almost verbatim adaptation of Chris Carter’s teleplay. At certain points, artist John Van Fleet seems to just use the framing from the episode. According to the artist, this was the preferred approach:

Stuff like the X-Files was already laid out visually for me. They just kind of said, “We want you to adapt it.” So that was pretty much like you’ve got more than just the script, you’ve got the visual script, and then you just went and did it.

The result is a comic that feels like the episode has been transposed or transcribed more than adapted. It can be read in tandem with the episode, rarely moving out of sync. There is an occasional line added or missing, but there are no substantial changes or amendments to the episode itself.

We have top men working on it. Top men.

We have top men working on it. Top men.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this approach. After all, Season One sets out to adapt first season episodes into the comic book medium. It certainly does that. It is a very professional, very efficient job. Roy Thomas is very good at what he does, and that shows here. The pacing holds up, despite the transition from screen to page. The atmosphere is layered on heavy Thomas is careful to preserve not only plot but also character in his work translating the comic.

Indeed, John Van Fleet’s artwork is beautiful. Although he frames certain sequences so as to mimic the episode, his comic book adaptation looks like its own animal. It is moody and heavy, dripping with murky shadows and blurry shapes. It is arguably a much better reflection of the show’s early visual style than the clearly defined pencil work of artists like Gordon Purcell. John Van Fleet manages to capture the look and feel of those shadowy early episodes perfectly, while keeping everything recognisable.

Shaking it up...

Shaking it up…

This is The X-Files digging back into its own past, which makes a certain amount of sense at this point in time. It is a very well-constructed adaptation, albeit one that doesn’t ever seem to take on a life or identity of its own. While that may have been a major selling point in the era before DVD boxsets, it does make the comic feel rather redundant in retrospect.

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

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