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The X-Files (Topps) #17 – Thin Air (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.

By all accounts, this was the kind of creative team that Ten Thirteen Productions probably wanted on Topps’ X-Files comic since the start.

Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard had done a phenomenal amount of work on The X-Files comic line. They had written sixteen issues of the monthly series, an annual, two digests and a slew of short stories scattered across various forums. However, it was quite clear that their approach to the comic was not quite what Ten Thirteen had hoped for when they licensed the comic to Topps. Petrucha’s scripts were ambitious, bold and playful; they were occasionally downright cheeky. Adlard was a master of mood and expression; he was less suited to likeness.

Here come the men in black...

Here come the men in black…

This had caused no small amount of friction between the production company and the creative team. By all accounts, the working relationship between Petrucha and the production company was quite strained. Eventually they fired him from the comic, making Home of the Brave the last story written by Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard on Topps’ The X-Files comics. Given the two had been with the comic from the start, this was quite a radical change.

However, this did allow Topps to put a team more agreeable to Ten Thirteen’s demands on the comic.

"I call it blue steal..."

“I call it blue steal…”

In contrast, the creative team working on the seventeenth issue of The X-Files comic seems perfectly positioned to give Ten Thirteen what they want. While Petrucha was an established and experienced writer, John Rozum was an industry veteran used to the strains and demands of playing inside somebody else’s sandbox. He had written both Xombi and Kobalt for Milestone Media since 1994. Indeed, Rozum would go on to see a much-loved and short-lived revival of Xombi for DC in 2011 before the “new 52.”

Artist Gordon Purcell was also pretty much perfect for what Ten Thirteen wanted The X-Files comic to be. After all, the production company would hold up Jill Thompson’s artwork on Afterflight for a considerable length of time while she worked to get the likenesses of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson right. In contrast, Purcell is one of the best artists in the industry when it comes to likenesses, a veteran of DC’s licensed Star Trek line.

Mulder hates to be interrupted when he's watching his stories...

Mulder hates to be interrupted when he’s watching his stories…

And, in purely aesthetic terms, it pays off. Gordon Purcell’s artwork is absolutely beautiful. Every cast member looks like you would expect. This is the closest that Mulder has come to looking like David Duchovny since the comic began. Although Purcell’s proportions of Gillian Anderson may seem a little off – she appears quite tall in Thin Air – this is a comic that looks very much like you would expect a comic based on The X-Files to look.

Of course, none of this should be taken as a criticism of Charles Adlard. Adlard’s approach and style were very different. His characters were more stylised, and his artwork lent itself to expression and dynamism in a way that Purcell’s artwork doesn’t. Both artists have their strengths. It is just that Purcell’s strengths aligned more clearly with what Ten Thirteen wanted from their comic book license. Purceel would remain a part of the rotating art team on Topps’ X-Files comics through to May 1998.

The government's fingerprints are all over this...

The government’s fingerprints are all over this…

Despite the fact that Rozum was familiar with the give-and-take of working in comic books, and the fact that his relationship with Ten Thirteen never got quite as fraught as the relationship between his predecessor and the production company, Rozum has expressed some dissatisfaction about his time working on the title:

It’s always harder writing other people’s characters because you have less control over them and less input. I found my work on the X-Files to be almost completely unfruitful for this very reason. I felt like I was writing a series of formulaic fill-ins, which is what they wanted. I could tell you a dozen negative stories about that series, but they’re not as interesting as you’d think. But, put it this way, when the time came that I was asked to write for the X-Files TV show, I was too burned out by the experience.

It is interesting that Rozum was asked to pitch for the television show – it suggests a conducive and amicable relationship with Ten Thirteen. It is also interesting that Peter David pitched to write for the show, and then declined to write the comic book; while John Rozum wrote the comic book and declined to pitch for the show.

Where there's smoke...

Where there’s smoke…

Thin Air is a very formulaic X-Files story. It has men in black. It has aliens. It has a central mystery about an unexplained occurrence with some basis in popular folklore. It has an opening sequence setting up the mystery and a suitably ambiguous stinger scene. There’s a clear lack of resolution to the story, even as Mulder posits a theory that is plausible but unprovable. There is a clear sense that everything is unfolding according to very clear plan. Thin Air is a very clean X-Files story.

It is much more clear-cut than the stories that Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard were telling. After all, Petrucha and Adlard had opened their run with a twelve-part mega-arc featuring a twisted alternate conspiracy involving completely different aliens; they had then followed that up with three stories about how humans are the worst kind of monsters. Thin Air is the most straightforward (if also the least ambitious) that The X-Files comic has been to date.

Mulder phones home...

Mulder phones home…

One senses that that this is part of the point. Rozum has talked about the way that he tended to craft his stories for the series according to a very specific formula:

The X-Files was particularly difficult because you had to deal with three things for each story. You needed to have the strange phenomena aspect of the story. You also had to have a way in which this phenomena could plausibly be explained through science, and you had to be able to turn it into a crime that would involve the FBI. I had a lot of stories that would have one or two of those elements worked out, but not the final piece.

It’s almost a mathematical formula, a mechanical story-generating engine. You put in the right ingredients in the right amounts, and you get out a solid X-Files story.

Picture imperfect...

Picture imperfect…

Rozum’s approach was a lot more rote than that adopted by his predecessor, something he readily acknowledges. However, it seems likely that this is why Petrucha was let go after sixteen issues, but Rozum remained the writer on the comic until Topps eventually wound down its comic book division. It may not be an elegant or ambitious approach to storytelling, but it was what Ten Thirteen expected from The X-Files comic book tie-in.

That said, Thin Air feels rather unsatisfying. There is a sense that Rozum is still getting to grips with The X-Files, that he hasn’t quite worked out the formula that he would hone in his later scripts. Somewhat ironically, given Rozum’s experience in comic book storytelling, the pacing in Thin Air seems rather awkward. There is a phenomenal amount of clunky (if well-researched) exposition here, and there’s a sense that the story might have worked better in prose than in a comic book.

Hopes are sky high...

Hopes are sky high…

Five of the final six pages of Thin Air detail a conversation in the office between Mulder and Scully. It feels like a waste of Gordon Purcell’s talent, even before you consider all the panel space allocated to detailed word balloons. There is a very definite sense that Thin Air is telling rather than showing. Perhaps the story might have flowed better if it were given more space, or perhaps certain expositional moments could have been trimmed or refined.

The story concludes with Scully explaining explicitly why this case matters so much to Mulder. “During his search for his sister, Mulder had been feeling the constant pressure of a ticking clock,” she remarks. “He was racing agaisnt time. If Lawrence had really been abducted and returned unaged after having been missing for 51 years, than why wouldn’t the same hold for Samantha who’s only been missing thirteen years? If she returned as a nine-year-old girl, she’d finally get to experience the childhood of which she was robbed.”

"It was a nice piece of work, government. You shouldn't have signed it."

“It was a nice piece of work, government. You shouldn’t have signed it.”

It’s a nice character beat, but it is positioned to feel like a clumsy retroactive epilogue rather than a vital part of the story. It is a great idea, but it feels like Thin Air never capitalises on it. Samantha is a major touchstone for Mulder as a character, and while not everything has to come back to her, there is the potential to tell great stories using that relationship. Petrucha played off Mulder’s memory of the abduction in A Dismembrance of Things Past and A Little Dream of Me, in ways that felt more effective than this postscript.

It also seems like Rozum is a bit less familiar with the source material than his predecessor. Petrucha’s second issue very cleverly reconciled a continuity issue that existed between Conduit and Little Green Men, in a way that played quite cleverly into his recurring themes. In contrast, Thin Air seems to struggle to get the voices of Mulder and Scully right in ways that feel pretty fundamental to the characters.

Flyboy...

Flyboy…

Thin Air positions Mulder as the skeptic in the relationship. He is completely dismissive of the Bermuda Triangle as a paranormal phenomenon. “There’s nothing mysterious about the bermuda triangle. The entire phenomenon was concocted by a bunch of hack writers who did almost no research and used the ‘as if’ scenario — and the omission of essential details — tying together a number of nautical and aviation disasters to make it seem as if something paranormal was going on.”

He is right, of course, but the dialogue feels a little awkward coming from him. After all, he showed no such disdain when he made passing reference to the Bermuda Triangle in Død Kälm. To be fair, this isn’t the first time Mulder has played skeptic. Sometimes – as in Revelations – it is consistent with his character. Other times – as in Excelsis Dei – it feels like terrible writing. Here, it feels like Mulder is reading lines written for Scully.

Somethings you can't ex-Spain...

Lights in the sky…

After all, as Thin Air points out, Scully is a navy brat. Her father was in the service. It seems quite likely that she would have done a lot of research about the Bermuda Triangle. At one point in Thin Air, it even seems like Mulder and Scully have swapped places. When Mulder suggests forgery, Scully wonders, “Why would they do that?” Mulder replies, “I don’t know… but it’s more believable than a man returning after disappearing for fifty years without having aged a day.” That’s the most Scully line possible, suggesting the implausible ahead of the impossible.

There are points where Thin Air seems to run counter to Mulder’s core characterisation, and not in an insightful or revelatory way. “If that’s true, then why are you bothering with this?” Scully asks him. “I need to be sure,” he replies – an idea diametrically opposed to “I want to believe” and perhaps a more effective summary of Scully’s philosophical position when it comes to the supernatural. Thin Air seems to struggle with the voices of its two leads in a fundamental manner.

Sometimes he doesn't want to believe...

Sometimes he doesn’t want to believe…

Citing the navy’s reports into the Bermuda Triangle and the disappearance of Flight 19, Mulder even seems to question this characterisation himself. “I’m skeptical, but the air force claims that the object found at Roswell was a weather balloon, not an alien spacecraft. If I don’t trust that, why should I trust this navy report?” Yes, this is all to set up Scully’s closing meditation on how this ties back to Samantha, but it still feels like clumsy awkward writing.

Weirdly enough, despite this, there are little moments where it seems like Rozum is in tune with the finer details of the characters. In conversation with a pilot who returned from 1945, Mulder responds to the typical “man of time in an age of wonders” speech with a deadpan quip, “If you want to be truly stunned… maybe we should get you an adult video.” He also cracks wise about Reagan in a scene that very much feels like Mulder-esque banter.

It is worth noting that the basic plot of Thin Air is much more compelling than the final comic. A pilot missing since the end of the Second World War returns mysteriously, with the agents attempting to determine the veracity of his claim. In the context of The X-Files in 1996, this was a chance for Rozum to put his own spin on the themes that Carter and his writers had been developing. After all, the teaser for Piper Maru had featured a pilot from a downed Second World War fighter who was still alive.

The third season of The X-Files was absolutely fascinated by the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and had devoted considerable time to exploring the consequences and legacies of America’s involvement in the conflict and the decisions made in the wake of that conflict. Actually bringing back a fighter pilot from 1945 would have been a very powerful way to explore these themes in a distinct manner.

Petrucha and Adlard had been able to put their own spin on some of the core themes and ideas that Carter had woven into The X-Files, in their own unique way. They had offered their opinion on impossibly complicated conspiracies, on the delicacy of memory, and even touched on the idea that monsters and aliens only really exist as projections of mankind’s own fears and uncertainties. They approached these ideas from different angles, but Petrucha and Adlard often felt like they were moving in parallel with Carter and his team.

In contrast, Rozum feels a bit more distant from the show. There is a sense that he is a lot more willing to leave certain ideas and themes in the purview of Chris Carter and the production staff. There’s minimal sense of overlap, and it never seems like Rozum is dancing between the raindrops worrying about stepping on anybody’s toes. He is simply producing competent X-Files stories while trying to give the television show whatever space it needs.

Thin Air heralds in a new and different era for Topps’ X-Files comics. Rozum brings with him a sense of consistency, but also compromise. There’s none of the mad ambition or off-the-wall plotting that made Petrucha’s version of The X-Files feel like the show translated into comic book form. Instead, Thin Air feels like a more generic (and somewhat safer) sort of tie-in. It is a reliable and competent tie-in work, for better or for worse.

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