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The X-Files (Topps) #22 – The Kanashibari (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 Kanashibari confirms what readers should expect from Topps’ licensed comics based on The X-Files. It is another atmospheric and episodic horror story, tightly plotted and written, with a grim sense of moral certainty underpinning it. The Kanashibari feels like something of a throwback, a modern-day take on those classic E.C. Comics horror stories – morality tales where the vengeance is exacted against those who have committed an injustice.

It is a throwback in other ways as well. The Kanashibari and Donor are both old-fashioned “supernatural revenge stories”, the kind of stories that would sit comfortably in the first season of The X-Files. Episodes like Shadows, Lazarus, Young at Heart, Born Again and Roland were all stories about characters seemingly returning from beyond the grave to wreak a terrible revenge against those had wronged them.

Who ya gonna call?

Who ya gonna call?

There are lots of similar stories in the later seasons of The X-Files (The List, Sanguinarium and Unrequited come to mind), but never with the same frequency or intensity as they enjoyed in the first year of the show. There is a sense that The X-Files had learned to broaden its palette beyond that classic horror cliché, accepting that all things work in moderation.

So it feels a little disappointing that Topps allowed its comic to fall into that sort of routine. Since the departure of writer Stefan Petrucha, the company has a adopted a clear “back to basics” approach to the X-Files comic book. There are no vast alternative conspiracies; no interlocking twelve-part super-story. There are no meditations on the nature of reality, no explorations of memory as the thread that binds identity.

Strangling by the theme...

Strangling by the theme…

Instead, there are recurring classic horror tropes. Family Portrait, The Silent Blade and Silver Lining are all classic “cursed object” stories, in which a villain is compelled by a haunted prop to commit horrific acts; both The Silent Blade and Silver Lining end on the twist that the “cursed object” man not be alive at all, while both Family Portrait and Silver Lining both identify the object as vampiric in nature.

In contrast, both The Kanashibari and Donor are classic “revenge from beyond the grave” stories, where a past wrong returns to wreak supernatural vengeance upon those it deems to be guilt. To be fair, the execution on The Kanashibari and Donor is more interesting than writer John Rozum’s earliest work on The X-Files, but there is still something very familiar about the set up.

The facts of the case jump out at Mulder and Scully...

The facts of the case jump out at Mulder and Scully…

(That familiarity extends even beyond the use of the eponymous demonic creature, which draws from the same myths and legends that informed the depiction of the hag in Avatar. That late third season episode was so confused and disorganised that the idea never had room to breath. There is nothing wrong in returning to an idea to develop it in more death; even the show itself would do that.)

However, there is something just a little too formulaic about the whole story. It seems weird that Mulder and Scully would arrive on the third related death, but have no real interest in exploring the first instance. Even without knowing that Ronald died under different circumstances that the other victims, it would make sense to develop a profile and pathology; then, Scully would identify that Ronald’s death was different, and the story could flow from there.

All alone...

All alone…

Instead, The Kanashibari presents Mulder and Scully as extraordinarily passive – even by the standards of The X-Files. Rather than actively investigating the case and peeling back the layers, The Kanashibari reveals everything to the audience via exposition and flashback. It is not the most nuanced of stories, and it certainly lacks a clear flow. They effectively wait for Jordan and Phil to confess everything to them.

It doesn’t help that The Kanashibari builds to essentially the same twist as most of the other stories in this sequence of John Rozum’s run. It turns out that the supposedly supernatural element is actually just the main guest character’s subconscious. Phil’s guilt is murdering his fellow students, just as the murders in The Silent Blade and Silver Lining are implied to be motivated by the instability of the lead characters rather than a cursed object.

Don't look now...

Don’t look now…

Given the prevalence of this sort of ending, it makes sense that Mulder and Scully should propose a similar solution in Donor. Maybe the last victim really was the perpetrator, and had simply been committing a crime that made it look supernatural? That would certainly fit the pattern in the stories surrounding Donor, adding to that issue’s endearingly dark sense of humour.

Yet, despite these sizable problems, The Kanashibari comes very close to working. While the ultimate reveal that Phil is responsible for the murders feels like an overused twist during this stretch of issues, at least The Kanashibari does not waiver in its portrayal of the supernatural. It turns out that this is not a ghost, but instead some secret psychic powers – one crazy paranormal twist disguised as another. It is entertainingly gonzo.

You won't have Ronald to push around...

You won’t have Ronald to push around…

While The Kanashibari is packed with familiar horror story tics and tropes, it deploys a number of them quite skilfully. In particular, it is quite clever that the victims did not actually die from suffocation. “Despite the obvious contusions on the victim’s throat, he did not die from asphyxiation due to strangulation,” Scully tells Mulder. “Then what killed him?” Mulder asks. Scully answers, “Fear.” There’s also nice irony in the way that their deaths mirror that of Ronald.

The episode even gets a nice variation on the classic “bathroom mirror” jump scare as Andy is attacked while brushed his teeth. There is something very old-school about The Kanashibari, something decidedly ruthless in way that it uses classic horror tropes and techniques without hesitation. While John Rozum might write a much more straightforward version of The X-Files than Stefan Petrucha, he still has some fun with the material.

She's behind you!

She’s behind you!

Indeed, there’s something deliciously mean-spirited in the way that The Kanashibari follows its old-school “poetic justice” through to its logical conclusion. The idea of young adults suffering horribly for incidents of poor judgement is a classic horror story trope, as it allows both the storyteller and the audience to justify any number of horrific fates. The students in The Kanashibari are generally presented as fair game following the death of Ronald.

The story seems to avoid any real effort to humanise them. Even Jordan explains they were motivated by ruthless (almost sociopathic) self-interest. “We used to joke about that, until he started killing us off. We were too ashamed by what we did to come forward. We were afraid of what kind of trouble we’d get in if we did tell the truth. We figured we’d get expelled from school, at the very least.”

Cashing it in...

Cashing it in…

Phil seems to be the only one of the group bothered by the death of Ronald, but the story is never too sympathetic towards Phil either. While he is clearly upset by what happened, his subconscious responds by brutally murdering several of his close friends. Similarly, he seems more preoccupied with the dread of asking his father to send more money after losing sixty dollars while drinking than he is with the murders happening around him.

There is a very harsh morality at play here, recalling the poetic justice that would often close out those classic E.C. Horror stories. It seems that everybody gets what they deserve, in the end. In many respects, the world of The X-Files as developed by John Rozum seems more ironic (and more just, if also more mean-spirited) than the world of The X-Files as developed by Chris Carter.

That is pretty damn bleak.

That is pretty damn bleak.

The television show was fond of stingers suggesting that the monster of the week survived to live another day – think of the endings to Squeeze, The Host or Home, to pick three obvious examples. In contrast, John Rozum seems quite fond of underlining stories with some bitter and ironic closure. In this case, Phil kills himself after brutally murdering all of his closest friends.

The Kanashibari is not the strongest story that John Rozum will write for The X-Files, but it does hint at an approach towards The X-Files that could work. Stefan Petrucha took the idea of “a comic book version of The X-Files” and ran in a bold direction; his options restricted by those overseeing the license, John Rozum has fewer options. The compromise seems to be “an E.C. version of the The X-Files.”

Dead to the world...

Dead to the world…

While it might not be as ambitious and as exciting as the work of his predecessor, this is not the worst case scenario.

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