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The X-Files (Topps) – The Silent Blade (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.

The Silent Blade is filler – one of those short stories that Topps produced as promotional material for wider consumption. In this case, as with The Pit, The Silent Blade was written as a short story to feature in the summer issue of The X-Files Magazine.

Writing a short story is tough. In some respects, writing a nine-page comic strip with a clear beginning, middle and end is harder than plotting a full-length issue or an entire arc. There is only so much space available, particularly when dealing with an exposition-heavy franchise like The X-Files. It can be tough to fit all the necessary ingredients in, let alone to put a novel twist on them. The temptation is to try to do too much with so little.

He won't be drawn on the matter...

He won’t be drawn on the matter…

Writer Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard had generally done well by their short stories, treating them as light and throwaway. They were not the strongest stories of the run, but they were aware of the limitations of the format and the expectations of the target audience. They were functional pieces of writing, aware of the limitations of the form. John Rozum’s first (and only) abridged X-Files story strains against those limitations.

After all, Rozum’s script for Thin Air had tried to fit too much into a full-length issue, so it makes sense that The Silent Blade is also a little too busy for its own good. This would be the last feature that Topps would produce for The X-Files Magazine, and the last of these sorts of short stories.

You have to do a lot of cutting to make a story this tight...

You have to do a lot of cutting to make a story this tight…

The Silent Blade is somewhat indicative to how Topps was approaching The X-Files at this point in its life-cycle. In fact, it serves as something of a precursor to John Rozum and Gordon Purcell’s Silver Lining – another story about a possibly insane man enticed to kill by a seemingly sentient object he stumbles across at random. However, more broadly speaking, the licensed tie-ins were going through something of a conservative phase.

Topps was producing X-Files comics that felt like throwbacks to the old fifties horror comics. Haunted objects and vengeful spirits were the order of the day, with ironic twist endings to boot. While the approach lacks the ambition that marked the first sixteen issues, it does make a certain amount of sense. It does feel like Mulder and Scully have wandered it a parallel universe that is not so much influenced by seventies paranoia as fifties horror.

Taking a stab at becoming a mass murderer...

Taking a stab at becoming a mass murderer…

Then again, seventies horror was itself heavily influenced by the work of E.C. Comics – look at the work George A. Romero. Still, these comics all have the sense of Mulder and Scully being one step removed from their default world. There’s nothing too incongruous or incompatible, just a sense of fuzziness to the stories. While Petrucha’s narratives felt a bit more metaphysical than those featured on the show, Rozum’s stories are a bit more simplistic.

The basic trappings of The Silent Blade are effective – an office worker visits an auction selling “the greatest single gathering of mysterious and occult artifacts ever assembled” where he is compelled to buy a hauntedsword which then drives him to a killing spree. Mulder and Scully arrive for a hostage stand-off, then the office worker kills himself. The basic structure and plot resembles that of The Pit.

The art of it all...

The art of it all…

This makes sense, as it’s a familiar set-up packed with recognisable tropes. The problem with The Silent Blade is that it tries to pack too much in. We see the worker buying the sword and turning it on his colleagues; we are a significant portion of the way through the story before Mulder and Scully even appear. As a result, the exposition becomes a little too crowded.

So there are parts of the mythology around the haunted sword that are only developed as needed. On the last page, finding that the worker has committed suicide by the sword, Mulder mournfully observes, “I was hoping to find another way, but according to the legend, only the blood of its wielder can make it stop.” It is implied in the sword’s origin story told earlier in the issue, but it might have been better to set this up explicitly.

Well, he's certainly losing the deposit on the room...

Well, he’s certainly losing the deposit on the room…

The episode’s twist feels at once inevitable and underdeveloped. It turns out that the sword bought at auction was not really the fabled haunted sword, and that the story’s protagonist was really just insane. “It appears that whatever demons Donald was hearing were his own,” Scully summarises. It’s a classic horror twist, and Rozum would use a similar ending to Silver Lining. Indeed, Glen Morgan and James Wong would end Never Again on a similar note.

The problem is that The Silent Blade tries to do too much in too short a time, and ends up tripping over itself. Transitioning through the story eats considerable time, rather than simply jumping in at the point of maximum conflict. Most of a page is devoted to the detailed back story of a relic that is not actually present in the story. The twist ending is the most predictable twist possible.

Walk quietly, but carry a big samurai sword...

Walk quietly, but carry a big samurai sword…

Still, The Silent Blade does serve as an example of the tone that Rozum was trying to strike with the series – in many ways, a blueprint that he would return to with Silver Lining.

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