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The X-Files (Topps) #25-26 – Be Prepared (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.

What’s interesting about Be Prepared is how much it feels like an episode of The X-Files.

A lot Rozum’s earlier scripts felt like Mulder and Scully had wandered into old E.C. horror stories, cautionary supernatural tales about vengeful ghosts and poetic justice. In contrast, Be Prepared feels very much in tune with the aesthetic of the show itself. Mulder and Scully investigate a uniquely American piece of folklore, finding themselves in an isolated location dealing with human monstrosity at least as much as any paranormal element.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

Indeed, Be Prepared feels very much like an episode from the first two seasons of the show, evoking stories like Ice or Darkness Falls or Firewalker. Indeed, Be Prepared arguably sits comfortably alongside Topps’ range of Season One comics – feeling like a lost episode from the show’s early years. Be Prepared feels like the first time that Rozum is constructing a story specifically from tropes associated with The X-Files, rather than from horror tropes in general.

The result is a fun little adventure that feels more like The X-Files than the comic has in quite a while.

The right to bear arms...

The right to bear arms…

It helps that Rozum’s wry sense of humour is back in play. The writer’s best story to date – Donor – worked largely because it embraced absurd black comedy, cleverly pushing against the trappings of the classic “undead revenge” story. Be Prepared has a similarly dark sense of humour, a sense that the story is aware of its own grim excesses. After all, Mulder and Scully spend most of the story believing they are in pursuit of a cannibalistic troupe leader.

The title of the story clearly refers to the motto of the Boy Scouts of America, an obvious influence on the young wilderness explorers feature here; however, it is also an allusion to the cannibalistic themes of the story. (In fact, the title card on both issues has a bite taken out of it, appropriately enough.) More than that, Mulder and Scully banter back and forth quite a bit, helping to lighten what might be an oppressive mood.

Hungry like the wolf...

Hungry like the wolf…

Rozum demonstrates a clear understanding of the dynamic between the two. While Scully might often be wrong about matters of pseudo-science, Rozum presents her as a character with a keen understanding of her partner. In Donor, she successfully predicted Mulder’s crazy theory. Here, she picks up on a turn of phrase hinting at his interest in the case. “I suspect it has something to do with the way you said that Dave Shepard wasn’t the man he used to be.”

Despite some teething troubles writing the character dynamic in Thin Air, Rozum seems have found a handle on two leads. One of the nice aspects of the two-issue structure of Be Prepared is the freedom that it allows Mulder and Scully to interact with one another, whether trading theories or discussing snow shoes. It is a shame that the Topps series had so little time for two-parters, largely favouring a done-in-one format from here to the end of the series.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Of course, Be Prepared has a suitably intriguing plot. In many ways, it represents an inversion of Rozum’s plotting for the comic to date. Scripts like The Silent Blade, The Kanashibari and Silver Lining focused on the idea that demons were not necessarily external; guest characters in those stories were not so much victims of external threats so much as expressions of their own damaged psyches. Be Prepared twists that around.

Mulder and Scully believe that they are chasing a cannibal preying on children lost in the woods. It seems like Dave Shepard has given into his own worst nature, perhaps hiding behind “wendigo psychosis” in the same way that Rozum’s other characters have hid behind demonic swords or vampiric coats. Be Prepared ultimately subverts that idea. There is a Wendigo lurking in the wilderness, and that Shepard was trying to save the children from an insane bear.

Snowed under...

Snowed under…

That said, Be Prepared states that the bear was driven insane by a poisoned trap laid by poachers – an element that echoes of opening of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s iconic four-issue Wolverine miniseries. Rozum makes several nods towards mainstream superhero comics in his work. Mulder refers to the Wendigo as a “Shaggy Man”, a possible nod to the classic DC villain. The scientist who created the vampiric overcoat in Silver Lining was named Stark.

However, even allowing for the fact that the bear’s rampage is explicitly the result of human poaching, the closing panels of Be Prepared are careful to feature that ominous and mysterious shape lurking in the wilderness. The Wendigo seems to be out there in one form or another; there are supernatural monsters lurking in the world, not just insane men.

A feast for the senses... mainly taste...

A feast for the senses… mainly taste…

Be Prepared presents its monster in an utterly fascinating way. When the creature appears, it is presented as a black void on the page. Gordon Purcell’s usually crisp perspective is blurred. Be Prepared presents the Wendigo largely as an absence; a monster that cannot be clearly defined. In essence, Be Prepared presents its central monster as an unknown darkness lurking in the American wilderness.

On one level, this works a potent expression of the way that The X-Files tends to approach these monster stories. In many respects, The X-Files suggests that the United States is a landscape getting less mysterious and less unpredictable with each passing day; soon the shadows will be gone, as will the monsters that lurk in them. There is something almost mournful about this, with The X-Files noting the passing of these figures into history.

He came prepared...

He came prepared…

Episodes like Gender Bender, Darkness Falls, Humbug, Our Town, Quagmire, Home and Detour present America as a landscape of eccentric spaces that are being gradually eroded and exposed by the forces of globalisation and advancing technology. Often, the show is a little sad to see these oddities disappear, even if those monsters lurking on the edge of the map are carnivorous and violent.

Aside from serving as a potent visual metaphor for this core aspect of The X-Files, the Wendigo also serves as an expression of the implied monstrosity at the heart of Be Prepared. The Wendigo is a monster associated with the Algonquian-speaking tribes of North America, most potently tied into the idea of cannibalism. The most popular myth concerning the Wendigo suggests that the creature is born from men who feasted upon human flesh.

The dark heart of America...

The dark heart of America…

Interestingly, it has been suggested that the monstrous Wendigo was not solely a creation of the Algonquian-speaking tribes. As Marlene Goldman notes in Rewriting Apocalypse in Canadian Fiction, there is anthropological evidence to suggest the belief was inspired or cultivated by European settlers:

Owing to significant changes in the representation of the monster, a number of anthropologists now believe that “the attribute of cannibalism or the concept of the Wendigo as a category or race of non-human entities developed after European contact.” In the light of the evidence, anthropologist Lou Marano concludes that the Europeans played a significant role in creating the cannibal monster on which they looked with such revulsion and fascination.

After all, there are several rather infamous documented cases of cannibalism within the history of the European settlers, particularly when it came to adjusting to the harsh North American climate. The Donner Party and Jamestown are two particularly well-known examples.

Into the woods...

Into the woods…

As such, the dark outline of the Wendigo in Be Prepared serves as an effective reminder of how mankind projects its own fears and monstrous qualities on to external boogeymen. To the European settlers, the Wendigo is a creation of the “other” – a foreign entity that exists as the expression of a primal taboo, perhaps as a way of avoiding confronting the reality that the horror is all too human.

Scully even gets a nice little rebuke to Mulder where she expresses a similar argument. “Cannibalistic impulses in psychotic people are common to all societies, especially during the months when food is scarce,” she contends. “In North America, that’s winter. In West Africa, the Yoruba people have a baby-eating monster that strikes during the drought months. Guess why.”

Monstrous...

Monstrous…

Indeed, it could be argued that the psychological disorder that Mulder describes as “wendigo psychosis” is arguably just a modern expression of the same distancing process:

When cannibalism figured in a crime, people assumed that it had to be because of this cultural psychosis, rather than being an aspect of violent crime that can happen anywhere, and happens for many different reasons. A good story and a few dramatic tales that no one was a first-hand witness to, and soon a psychosis had been invented. One that conveniently vanished before it could be verified.

There is a sense that these monstrous ideas exist as a way of externalising something deeply unsettling and uncomfortable. It is easier to blame these horrors on some external source.

They'll be chewed out over this one...

They’ll be chewed out over this one…

In a way, it reflects back to the themes that Rozum suggested in The Silent Blade or Silver Lining, this idea that monsters and demons are rooted in individuals rather than existing as external forces. It arguably also played into The Kanashibari. However, Be Prepared makes that idea work a lot better by unpacking the idea immediately. It does not save the whole “man is the real monster” idea for a final twist, treating it as part of the set up.

Be Prepared just feels like an X-Files story through-and-through. Mulder is interested in a routine case, because it ties into local folklore; Scully is able to explain how that folklore came about and why it has taken root. There is playful banter and giddy fun, as well as some clever twists and subversions. Mulder even loses his gun along the way. “Scully, how come you never lose your gun?” Mulder asks, riffing on the joke from Nisei.

Scully will have to do some cliffhanging of her own...

Scully will have to do some cliffhanging of her own…

Be Prepared is a fun two-part story that demonstrates how comfortable John Rozum has become with the material. Rozum seemed to struggle with the comic book quite a bit, trying to figure out how to tell stories that felt like The X-Files while still operating within the guidelines established by Topps and Ten Thirteen. The comic lost a lot of its ambition with the departure of Stefan Petrucha; Be Prepared suggests that it need not lose all of its charm.

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