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The X-Files (Topps) #24 – Silver Lining (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.

After the wacky and delightful excess of Donor, John Rozum steers the comic back into much more traditional fare.

There is little in Silver Lining that the comic hasn’t touched on quite recently. Guest writer Kevin J. Anderson already wrote a “vampiric object” story about a killer camera the two-part Family Portrait story only a few months earlier. John Rozum had already drafted a “haunted object drives a man to kill, but the voices are only in his head” story for The Silent Blade, a short story written specifically for The X-Files Magazine. As a result, Silver Lining feels a little overly familiar. There is nothing here that the reader hasn’t seen before; and recently, too.

Fashioning a story...

Fashioning a story…

Silver Lining reinforces the sense that Topps and Ten Thirteen are making a conscious effort to frame The X-Files as a classic horror comic book. Certainly, Silver Lining adopts the same basic storytelling elements associated with those pulpy adventures from the fifties; there is a scientist who unwittingly unleashes a horror upon the world, a physically deformed villain, a moral about how beauty is only skin deep and that vanity is called a “deadly” sin for a reason. There’s even a poetic justice to the story, where the guest villain finds themselves tormented in an ironic fashion.

There’s nothing particularly objectionable about Silver Lining, beyond how repetitive it feels. It feels like The X-Files has taken something of a step backwards since Topps and Ten Thirteen decided to part ways with writer Stefan Petrucha. The first sixteen issues of The X-Files felt like something of a Vertigo comic book, an ambitious horror anthology with no shortage of big ideas. Now the comic feels very much like an old E.C. comic without the nostalgia factor. The decline is quite striking, but no less disheartening for it.

Moral decay...

Moral decay…

To be fair to the creative team of John Rozum and Gordon Purcell, this change in direction was very clearly an editorial decision. The departure of Stefan Petrucha marked a clear change in tone for the series. Petrucha had structured his first year as one single story, an arc comprised of various constituent elements. Even after that first year wrapped up, the remaining stories were linked by core themes about what it meant to be human and the nature of reality. These were all very philosophical ideas.

In contrast, Petrucha’s departure saw the comic taking a much more episodic approach. While Charles Adlard had collaborated with Petrucha for the vast majority of his run, the comic began rotating artists; in fact, writer Kevin J. Anderson even filled in for John Rozum for a two-part story. The stories told in the comic were not so much linked by recurring themes so much as recurring story elements. Demonic objects; the dead returning for vengeance; insanity masquerading as the supernatural.

Shine on, you crazy coat...

Shine on, you crazy coat…

Silver Lining hits on a lot of these core ideas. The guest character in Silver Lining was disfigured in a car accident. While working in a charity shop, he discovers a strange black coat with a reflective interior lining. The coat seems to speak to him. It promises that it can make him handsome again. Our guest character, tired of feeling rejected and unwanted, strikes a Faustian bargain with the overcoat. Quickly, it becomes clear what the coat wants; it hungers. It feeds off people, sucking them dry and leaving them as husks. However, it does seem to restore our guest character’s face.

It is worth pausing there just to unpack all that. “You think we’re dealing with a… vampiric overcoat?” Scully asks Mulder at one point, and that is not even the strangest part of the plot. It turns out that the vampiric overcoat was invented by a scientist in the fifties, and that it may not actually be self-aware. Instead, in a twist that Rozum has somewhat overplayed at this point, it seems that the threat was really inside the head of the comic’s primary guest character. (Just like Ronald’s ghost in The Kanashibari was actually Phil, and the sword in The Silent Blade was not cursed at all.)

It hungers...

It hungers…

Of course, if the coat is not self-aware and that character is simply acting on his own insanity, it does open a whole host of basic plotting questions. How was the character able to intuit that the coat could restore his looks? (After all, it objectively could.) How did the character figure out how to use the coat? (Because it seems like he is unaware of how to kill using the coat, directed by the coat itself.) It seems like a rather complex set-up, one that cannot necessarily support the twist that Rozum is trying to impose on the narrative.

It does not help that Silver Lining feels somewhat ill-suited to the comic book format. The coat seems to attract its prey with swirling patterns of light. However, that is something quite difficult to convey in static comic book panels. As a result, Rozum has to fall back on clunky exposition – including that horrible audio book cliché where the victim narrates their own inevitable demise. “… the images I need see keep swirling deeper and deeper into your coat,” the first victim offers, mere seconds before she becomes a cautionary tale about staring into the coats of strange men.

Oh, oh, oh, he's on fire!

Oh, oh, oh, he’s on fire!

There is something quite tired and fatigued about Silver Lining, a sense that there are only so many times that this familiar storytelling formula can be applied before it starts to grate. A significant portion of Silver Lining feels recycled and reused; elements that the comic has used more effectively more recently. Even the story’s best gag is appropriated from Ice, as Mulder makes a joke about how certain parts of his anatomy respond to the cold. “Lymph nodes were shriveled so badly I had difficulty finding them,” Scully comments. Mulder quips, “The cold will do that to me, too.”

Silver Lining does have some nice artwork from Gordon Purcell, demonstrating why he is so keenly sought for his work in licensed comics. His likeness of Scully has improved since Thin Air; while still looking as attractive as Gillian Anderson, she no longer seems as tall as a supermodel. Perhaps a more dynamic artist could have done more with the coat at the centre of the story, but Purcell is an artist better with faces, so he is a good fit for a story about a character obsessed with his facial appearance.

The tear is an inspired touch...

The tear is an inspired touch…

Silver Lining is a story that emphasises problems with the new approach to The X-Files comic book. Without any of the underlying ambition that defined the earlier issues, a generic or bland story becomes a lot more noticeable. Petrucha’s run included a few disappointing stories, but those stories compensated with a wealth of bold ideas. In fact, the biggest problems with Dream a Little Dream of Me and Trepanning Opera was that there was too much going on. Reading Silver Lining, it seems like there’s next to nothing.

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