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The X-Files (Topps) #18-19 – Night Lights (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.

With Night Lights, incoming X-Files writer John Rozum teams up with veteran X-Files artist Charles Adlard. While Stefan Petrucha’s involvement in the line was pretty much finished, pending the release of Afterflight, Adlard would work as part of the book’s rotating art team for a while longer.

Thin Air made it quite clear that Rozum was going to be writing a more traditional X-Files comic book than his predecessor. Stefan Petrucha seemed happy to stretch the series as far as possible, to tease out big ideas about The X-Files and to play with the show’s sacred cows. The result was always intriguing, even if it sometimes went a little beyond what readers would have expected from a comic book based on The X-Files.

We will be gods, on night lights...

We will be gods, on night lights…

Rozum’s stories tend to be a bit more straightforward. They are very much conventional X-Files stories. They hue closer to the standard formula, and feature a whole host of expected ingredients. Thin Air was a very conventional and fairly rote X-Files story, particularly following on from stories like Falling or Home of the Brave. Rozum appeared to have some teething troubles, particularly when it came to pacing and characterisation.

While Night Lights feels a little too jumbled and confused to really work, it does seem a lot more confident and assured. The comic has a host of good ideas, and moves considerably smoother than Thin Air did. In fact, there is a rather brilliant idea nestled at the heart of the story. Rozum just buries it a little too well.

Keep watching the skies...

Keep watching the skies…

The X-Files tends to fixate on the terrifying. It is a show that has been frequently classified as “horror.” The series frequently features monsters preying on innocent people, with Mulder and Scully trying desperately to ward off the darkness. However, there is another side to the paranormal as well. There is the hope that comes with the belief in life after death, or the awe and wonder at the infinite diversity of the natural world.

The X-Files has touched on these themes in stories like One Breath or Quagmire, but they are very much the exception rather than the rule. Rozum suggested it through Scully’s “clumsily state the subtext of the story” closing monologue at the end of Thin Air. Mulder’s pursuit of the paranormal is inherently optimistic. He chases little green men not out of fear or dread, but as an expression of hope.It’s a heartwarming piece of characterisation.

Blinded by the light...

Blinded by the light…

At his core, Rozum suggests, Mulder hopes that Samantha might come home; he hopes that the world makes sense; he hopes that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his (or anybody else’s) philosophy. The best moments in Night Lights come towards the end of the story, as Mulder and Scully move forward with their hypothesis that the strange lights in the sky are actually “atmospheric creatures”, an idea Byers dismisses as a “forgotten theory.”

Mulder is typically enthused by the possibility of a strange new life form. While in the car with Scully, he formulates theory after theory about the nature of the beast. When he suggests that the creature might have confused telemetry data from a weather balloon as a mating call, Scully breaks out giggling. “The fact that you have the mating rituals worked out for what is more likely an anomalous atmospheric condition, I find very entertaining.” It is a lovely scene between the duo.

Great balls of fire!

Great balls of fire!

Mulder and Scully set out to contact the creature, but find themselves confronting local Police Chief Hambridge. Hambridge does’t want to study the creature. He wants to kill it. “You can hardly call a ball of light an endangered species if you can’t be certain it’s alive,” he bluntly informs the agents. “Your investigation is interfering with the safety of my community.” As much as Mulder and Scully want to learn from this strange phenomenon, Hambridge just wants to kill it.

In fact, Hambridge makes a very solid point about Mulder and Scully. The duo are outsiders who come into a community and impose their own perspective upon it. They have no cultural context with which to inform their understanding of the phenomenon. To Mulder and Scully, the Brown Mountain Lights are a curiosity, but they are a day-to-day reality for people living in this remote North Carolina town.

Into the wild...

Into the wild…

Hambridge seems to make an appeal for the town’s own folklore and mythology, before Mulder and Scully try to fashion their own narrative for the creatures. “You don’t need to suggest that they’re alive to make them strange,” Hambridge advises Mulder. “They’re strange enough just being lights.” That is enough for the local community. Who is Mulder to come in and insist that these lights be more? Mulder is an outsider, while Hambridge has seen the lights repeatedly. “I grew up here. Of course I have. Dozens of times.”

The conflict between Mulder and Hambridge is a very effective hook, one which builds on the idea that Mulder is chasing hope – that the character’s deadpan sarcasm masks an optimism and idealism that has yet to be worn down. Throwing Mulder into conflict with the authorities over a creature like this is a clever development, one building off television episodes as diverse as The Jersey Devil, The Host and Quagmire. It is a moment when it seems like Rozum has really understood The X-Files and how to write for it.

That'll teach him to try to swear in X-Files comic...

That’ll teach him to try to swear in X-Files comic…

The problem is that this sequence comes at the end of a somewhat messy and unfocused two-part story. Indeed, Police Chief Hambridge isn’t even introduced until the second issue of the story, sharing only one scene with Mulder and Scully before we reach the tense stand-off between the characters. The entire first issue and the first half of the second issue seem to spin their wheels setting up a standard monster story. It is only in the final few pages that Rozum decides to do something with that set-up.

Night Lights struggles a little bit with its pacing. Rozum seems to have gone to a great deal of effort to pace the first issue like a standard episode of The X-Files. We don’t get a Scully autopsy scene, but we get a very effective and mood-setting cold-open. We also get a second attack by the creature towards the middle of the story, in the same way that the show would kill off guest characters to help get the act breaks a sense of weight.

"They're here..."

“They’re here…”

However, it seems like this structuring hampers the story that Rozum wants to tell, rather than helping it. The pacing in the first issue is very tight, but the second feels like it stops and starts. There’s a large amount of exposition and wandering dialogue before we get to a very effective finalé that could have used both more room to breath and more dynamic set-up. There is a great story buried on Night Lights, one which might have set a very effective tone for Rozum’s run, but it struggles to get out.

To be fair, Rozum has clearly done his home work on The X-Files. Like Petrucha, Rozum has done enough research to construct a fairly plausible and intriguing case for our intrepid investigators. Occasionally, Rozum is too keen to show his work. There are two pages at the start of the second issue devoted to a brief history of “atmospheric creatures” as explained by Byers. The material is interesting, but it still feels like an info-dump.

Falling to Earth...

Falling to Earth…

Still, the Brown Mountain Lights are an intriguing piece of local folklore. As John Harden tells it in The Devil’s Tramping Ground and Other North Carolina Mystery Stories:

The lights are extremely faithful and make their appearance with remarkable regularity – when the weather is such that the presence of the lights can be checked on. Sometimes they can be seen and sometimes they can’t. But usually, in fair weather, not too much patience is required for a look at the bobbing lights.

There is something quite striking about these strange – but reliable – lights in the sky. They have developed their own folklore, as documented in Randy Russell & Janet Barnett’s Mountain Ghost Stories – are they aliens, bootleggers, rubies or something else?

Light of his life...

Light of his life…

Much like Petrucha would hit on ideas that the show would later explore, Rozum seems to be ahead of the curve here. Mulder and Scully go investigating strange in North Carolina in Field Trip at the end of the sixth season. That episode even touches on a few of the ideas broached by Night Lights, particularly the idea that the pursuit of the paranormal might one day allow the duo to find proof of something wondrous and almost magical.

“Ball lightning” is also a fascinating subject, a natural mystery that Rozum very cleverly ties into these inexplicable lights. Even in 2014, ball lightning remains largely inexplicableencounters with the phenomenon seem more like fairy tales or ghost stories than scientific accounts. It is the perfect fodder for an X-Files story, the kind of strange little details that could easily have been worked into an episode like D.P.O.

Simply shocking...

Simply shocking…

Still, there is some evidence that Rozum is struggling to get the voice of the characters. The conversation in the car between Mulder and Scully is inspired, but there is a sense that Rozum isn’t entirely comfortable with the dynamic. After all, Mulder pauses half-way through his closing monologue to dismiss Scully’s scepticism. “I know that Scully still insists it was little more than an atmospheric trick of the light, but I suspect her beliefs aren’t as strong as she lets on.” This feels like cheap shot.

After all, the relationship between Mulder and Scully has to built on trust and some measure of mutual respect. Having Mulder dismiss Scully’s scepticism as denial seems trite and cynical. It implies that he doesn’t think Scully is arguing in good faith; it does not allow her the conviction of her position. It’s a line that feels very out of place, particularly when Scully confesses that she finds Mulder’s enthusiasm and intuitive leaps to be endearing. (If perhaps a little too abstract.)

Up, up and away...

Up, up and away…

Still, Rozum is finding his feet here. There is potential. Rozum has been recruited to tell fairly formulaic and generic X-Files stories. However, the closing couple of pages of Night Lights suggest that he still has tremendous freedom and that he can do a lot while working within that mandate. Night Lights struggles to get off the ground, but there are a wealth of good ideas. The light just seems to flicker rather than glow.

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