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The X-Files (Topps) #20-21 – Family Portrait (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.

Kevin J. Anderson is a very experienced hand when it comes to tie-in fiction.

Although Assemblers of Infinity was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1993, Anderson is perhaps best known for his work with licenced properties. He has written a significant number of Star Wars novels. He has published a trio of books set in the world of The X-Files. Indeed, Anderson would even adapt his first novel – Ground Zero – into a comic book miniseries for Topps. When Brian Herbert decided to finish his father’s Dune series, he collaborated with Anderson.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

So Anderson is very much a safe pair of hands. He is a writer you can trust to construct a functional two-part X-Files story with a logical structure and a solid central premise. Anderson knows how to work within the boundaries of tie-in media, and he knows how to write a solid science-fiction or fantasy story. Pairing him with artist Gordon Purcell makes a great deal of sense, particularly for comic book that is trying hard to cement its place as a good old-fashioned tie-in.

Family Portrait is not exceptional, but it doesn’t try to be. Instead, it is functional. It is more efficient than ambitious, feeling very much like a classic horror comic that just happens to feature Mulder and Scully than a compelling episode of The X-Files in its own right.

Let's see what develops...

Let’s see what develops…

It is interesting to compare the experience that Anderson enjoyed as an established X-Files prose writer with the experiences of the other writers to work on the monthly comic book. While John Rozum and Stefan Petrucha have both talked about being kept in the dark by the production team, it seems like Anderson enjoyed a more collaborative relationship:

For X-Files I had indeed seen every episode, and I flew out to Hollywood to meet with the show’s creator Chris Carter and discussed my ideas with him.

Do you take a certain form of pleasure, when immersing yourself in these universes ? There is maybe some kind of comfort in this exercise ?

Yes, when I was working on X-Files, for instance, I had videotapes of all the episodes from the studio; I had the music soundtrack, and I just played everything all the time, keeping myself immersed.

Of course, Anderson had already published Ground Zero in collaboration with Ten Thirteen. Ruins would hit stands at the same time as his two-issue stint writing The X-Files monthly comic book. This feels like a more cordial and more warm dynamic than the dynamic that existed between Ten Thirteen and the other writers working on the comics.

Snapshots...

Snapshots…

There is a charmingly pulpy atmosphere to Family Portrait. In many respects, it is the sort of generic horror associated with trashy fifties horror comics. It is, after all, based around a vampire camera. While The X-Files itself would feature several stories featuring paranormal photography – The CalusariOubliette, Unruhe and Tithonis among them – this is a much more direct horror story. The camera is literally sucking the life out of its victims so that it (and its holder) may live forever.

These heightened comic book atmosphere is only enhanced by the other details of the story. There are souls that are kept in jars, stacked high in the back room. The story features one supporting character who travels all the way from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Both are locations steeped in local myth. Many stories by the Brothers Grimm were reported inspired by the Black Forest, while the Black Hills are a major part of the American frontier myth.

A pretty picture...

A pretty picture…

There is something decidedly silly and cartoonish about the plot to Family Portrait. The camera itself is obvious demonic – to the point where it has mystical engravings and ruins. Characters seem to spend a lot of time talking to themselves, and talking in clichés. When the German decides to reclaim his stolen camera, he observes, “I have no choice… I must get the camera back — now!” It is a line that is very clearly directed at the audience – there is no way that line makes sense in the context of the story.

Similarly, the comic ends with Scully blacking out while Mulder wrestles with an evil photographic demon. Naturally, Scully is unconscious for all the spectacular supernatural goings-on. It feels like fairly clumsy writing, the easiest possible way to write a story this absurd while keeping Scully skeptical. It even ends with Mulder cracked a cheesy joke about how he is going to write up the report on this particular case. All the comic is missing is a panel where Mulder winks at the audience.

A driving compulsion...

A driving compulsion…

Family Portrait is largely based around that cliché that cameras steal souls. It is a belief that is often attributed to indigenous people around the world. “Many Native American cultures are uneasy about cameras, claiming photographs can steal a person’s soul,” Mulder observes at one point, going into much less depth than usual. After all, this is a rather charged cliché. it is one that is largely based around condescending to indigenous people who do not understand how photography works.

After all, while that particular belief is frequently attributed to Native American leader Crazy Horse, it does feel somewhat outdated. Indeed, many Native American tribes will actually incorporate photographs of their relatives and ancestors into their rituals. It is a cliché that often seems trite and patronising – one that often diminishes and dismisses legitimate objections that native people may have, particularly when dealing with photographers who are taking the pictures for their own purposes and uses.

A jarring transition...

A jarring transition…

That said, there is some evidence that the belief has some basis in fact among certain populations. Reportedly, the Kayapo tribe in the Amazon use the same verb for “to take a photo” as “to steal a soul.” Early Japanese photographer Ueno Hikoma worked mostly in landscapes, and took photos of foreigners, because native Japanese believed that having a photograph taken could make a person ill. The Yao people of Africa believe that damaging a photo of person damages the person, in an expression of sympathetic magic.

However, Family Portrait has no room for that sort of nuance or definition. Instead, the camera literally and parasitically feeds off the subject – draining them in the same way that a vampire might. It is a nice horror premise, albeit one that feels pretty “far out” for The X-Files. It contributes to the sense that Family portrait is channelling those classic EC comics. One almost expects the Crypt Keeper to bookend the story with a wry anecdote.

A bright spark...

A bright spark…

Which is a bit of a shame, because there’s a lot of potentially interesting material here. While the death of Princess Diana was still a year away, the early-to-mid-nineties had seen the issue of the paparazzi come more to the fore. Stories about celebrities confronting these freelance photographers were becoming more and more common. It seemed like the situation would inevitably come to a head – as it did tragically in August 1997.

These paparazzi were continually encroaching upon and exploiting celebrities in order to profit themselves. The goal seemed to be to strip away any hint of privacy from these famous figures, to expose their personal moments to the entire world, selling trashy photos for huge sums of money. In a way, they were the perfect metaphor for the vampire camera that appears in Family Portrait – a camera that takes a little bit away from its subject in order to feed its owner.

Ruined... totally ruined...

Ruined… totally ruined…

While there is a sense that Family Portrait never explores this angle as well as it might – being much more interested in traditional horror scares and cheesy bombast – there is something quite clever about Anderson’s script and Purcell’s visuals. At one point, the story of how the camera came to Dakota is told, conveyed through a sequence of snapshots. The journal recounting the story explains, “My memories are like snapshots… freeze frames of events from long ago.”

The use of a camera in a comic book story is quite shrewd. After all, a comic is composed of nothing but still images. The lives of these characters are composed entirely of snapshots – of moments frozen in time. The reader can intuit a narrative from the pictures and the captions, but these are characters who only exist as still images. In many respects, using a camera in this way works better than it might have worked on television; it is a story about still images told in still images.

Lighten up, Mulder...

Lighten up, Mulder…

Still, it is great to see Gordon Purcell on the book again. Purcell’s likenesses make him the perfect choice for a licensed property like this, and he has great fun with the comic’s pulpy atmospheric vibe. The inks and colours on the two issues only enhance this aspect of Family Portrait. The comic embraces its larger-than-life tone and atmosphere, feeling like an exceptionally well-produced classic horror comic.

Family Portrait ultimately seems a little shallow. A little rote. Family Portrait is big and silly and bombastic and over-the-top. It is a very cartoony two-parter, more like diversion than a worthwhile story in its own right. In a way, it fits with the general mood of the comic after the departure of Petrucha and Adlard. Efficient, if not essential.

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