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The X-Files (Topps) #27-29 – Remote Control (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.

In many respects, Remote Control is a very “big” story.

It is the biggest story that writer John Rozum has told to date on the comic book, one that spans three issues and seems to brush against the edge of the mythology most associated with The X-Files. Not only does Remote Control feature secret CIA experiments into psychic phenomenon, it also involves a UFO that is being transported through the United States and is hijacked by a foreign power. To top it all off, there is a super-soldier who can render himself invisible and make himself immune to bullets.

Everything is under control...

Everything is under control…

There is a very clear sense of scale to Remote Control, one that suggests this is a blockbuster adventure. This is the comic book equivalent of those mythology episodes that air during sweeps. At the same time, however, Remote Control brushes up against the limitations imposed upon the comic book by Topps and Ten Thirteen. While Remote Control offers the highest stakes that the comic book has seen since Feelings of Unreality, the script is quite clear that this is a story separate and divorced from anything happening in the show.

There are points where it feels like Remote Control goes out of its way to remind readers that this is just a tie-in comic book, and is thus secondary to the television show.

Mulder is a little tied up right now...

Mulder is a little tied up right now…

To be fair, Remote Control hits on many of the same problems that faced the earlier comic book stories that wanted to engage with the mythology. The central mythology of The X-Files will always be driven by the television show. Any other media will find itself of secondary importance compared to the television show. More than that, Chris Carter is unlikely to share those toys with tie-in media, preferring to keep them firmly within the realm of the live action prime-time television show. The comic does not even get to play with them.

This was quite apparent during the first year or so of Topps’ tie-in comic book. The Cigarette-Smoking Man and Skinner made a couple of quick appearances, but elements of the larger mythology were largely absent. Mr. X only appeared once in the comic, as an informant in One Player Only. Because the show was not going to let the comic play with these story elements, and because of the time gap between writing a script and publishing a comic, the comic book simply could not play along with the mythology featured in the show.

An explosive entrance...

An explosive entrance…

So writer Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard did something quite bold and subversive. They created their own conspiracy and mythology. They imagined a secret cabal calling itself “Aquarius” that could exist alongside the other completely different conspiracy that Mulder was uncovering in episodes like Anasazi and Paper Clip. The idea of two massive far-reaching conspiracies dealing with aliens while infiltrating the American government is absurd, but the comic embraced the absurdity, using it to explore the idea of conspiracy as a concept.

However, it was quite clear that Topps and Ten Thirteen were not entirely pleased with this approach to the material. So John Rozum cannot do anything quite as overt when writing his own “mythology” story. The Cigarette-Smoking Man can appear in the epilogue to Thin Air, but the comic has mostly confined its interests to one- or two-part monster-of-the-week stories. However, Remote Control is the story of a crashed UFO and secret government programs; it has to engage with the mythology on some level.

Down, but not out...

Down, but not out…

To Rozum’s credit, he seems quite candid about the limitations of trying to tell a mythology story in this particular format. When Scully suggests that they should probably just leave this case alone, Mulder replies, “That’s what my source said, too. He said that it wasn’t worth the risk; that any truths we might find aren’t pertinent to the ones we seek.” This is a “truth” that sits quite apart from the truth that Mulder and Scully seek in episodes like Tunguska and Terma. This is something different; something that seems like it will have to exist as something inherently lesser.

Remote Control takes care to clarify that it is not setting up a rival or competitive mythology in the same way that A Dismembrance of Things Past or A Little Dream of Me had done. The comic introduces Mulder to the character of Crockett. Mulder’s source makes a big deal about the soldier. “Watch for Crockett. He likes being invisible; officially nonexistent. His superiors aren’t happy that you are now aware of him. Neither is he.” However, the comic also makes it clear he may not appear again. “Now that you’ve uncovered him, he’ll probably be reassigned.”

Shot down...

Shot down…

There is a faint sense of frustration about all this. While rescuing Mulder from the clutches of the Libyans, Crockett pauses to criticise the mythology as it is developing on the television show. “There you go again, Mulder,” he observes, cynically. “Always asking questions that will never be answered. It’s a wonder you don’t simply give up your search for the truth in frustration.” It certainly feels like a valid response to the show’s mythology as it developed in Herrenvolk, Tunguska and Terma. Crockett could be a television critic.

To be fair, Rozum tries a clever approach to telling a story using the trappings of the mythology that remains separate from the mythology itself. If Be Prepared felt like a classic X-Files story from somewhere in the first two seasons, then Remote Control plays like a first season mythology episode. It is a story that plays fast and loose with familiar elements, without feeling boxed in by the structure that Duane Barry and Ascension began to impose on the mythology. This is a story about government and aliens, without any concern for colonisation or invasion.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship...

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

There are a few elements of Remote Control that consciously evoke those early seasons of The X-Files. Most obviously, the image of a UFO being driven around the country in the back of a lorry feels like a nod to E.B.E. Even the close of the episode, Mulder narrowly missing proof, evokes Deep Throat. Mulder’s “source” on Capitol Hill seems to be Senator Matheson, although his face is kept in shadow and his name is never revealed. Matheson feels like a relic of the show’s early seasons, a character that the show has really moved past at this point in its life-cycle.

Although he did not appear until Little Green Men, Richard Matheson was alluded to throughout the first season. It was repeatedly suggested that Mulder was being protected by somebody relatively high in the government. He became an important character briefly in the second season – Mulder consulted with him in Little Green Men and sought his counsel in Ascension. However, after a short appearance in Nisei early in the third season, Matheson would largely disappear from the mythology until a surprise return late in the sixth season.

On the road again...

On the road again…

There is also a sense that Remote Control writes to the lower stakes of those earlier mythology episodes. There is a wonderful little sequence towards the end of the story as Mulder faces death by firing squad. He has one last request. “I’d like to see it,” he asks. “I’d like to see the object that was in those trucks you hijacked.” Perhaps Mulder seems a little too earnest towards his captors, but it is a solid character beat. The problem is that Remote Control returns to the idea of Mulder wanting to see what is inside the trunk again and again during the climax.

During their escape, Crockett warns Mulder, “If I let you see what’s on those trucks, I’ll have to kill you afterwards. You’d die without finding the answers you’ve been seeking. Is it worth it?” However, it feels like Remote Control is a little behind the curve. Mulder’s desire to see a UFO was a driving force in the first season and into the second – that’s why his mindwipe in Deep Throat was so brutal, and why he was so eager in E.B.E. However, the show as moved beyond that. Mulder already got a pretty good look at a space ship in Paper Clip, to pick one example.

Ship shape...

Ship shape…

Paradoxically, despite this minimalist back-to-basics approach to the mythology, Remote Control features the introduction of what is basically a super soldier as part of the conspiracy. To be fair, this isn’t a completely random development – Sleepless suggests that the government is interested in the idea – but the introduction of a character who can literally make himself invisible and immune to bullets jars with an otherwise low-key approach to the mythology elements. It is at odds with the set-up in the same way that letting Scully see the alien in Firebird was.

Interestingly, John Rozum seems to have accidentally stumbled upon the alpha and the omega of the show’s mythology-based storytelling. The general mood and aesthetic of the story evokes the loose mythology of the first season. In contrast, the introduction of a very “comic-book-y” super soldier seems to hark forward to the final season of the television show. Bizarrely, this makes Remote Control feel like something of an averaging of the two extremes; perhaps this is appropriate for a comic released almost half-way through the show’s run.

Super trooper...

Super trooper…

Still, there are moments when Remote Control works well enough. Mulder’s desire to see the space ship may gloss over years of plot development, but it feels true to the character. Similarly, the decision to force Scully to use pseudo-science to help her find Mulder is a delightful character beat. Scully may not believe in the paranormal, but she believes in Mulder. She will use any tool at her disposal to help her recover he partner. In fact, Remote Control seems to build to a big hug between Mulder and Scully, a big moment that feels earned.

It is interesting to note that this is Rozum’s first big three-part story. The structuring of the stories in the X-Files comic book is quite clever. The summer months see a glut of material – lots of done-in-one stories, more supplemental material – in order to capitalise on the lack of new “official” X-Files material on prime-time television. The idea seems to be to flood the market with as many individual X-Files stories as possible. In contrast, the comic is a lot more willing to tell multi-part stories while the television show is on the air.

Hug it out...

Hug it out…

The three-issue structure affords Remote Control a bit of space. There is room for lots of splash pages; the first two issues in the story announce the title with a double splash page, helping to convey a sense of scale. This also means that there is room to devote an entire splash page to the reunion of Mulder and Scully, treating their hung as a pretty significant dramatic beat. The done-in-one format can often feel a little too stuffed or crowded. The three issues given to Remote Control allow Rozum, Adlard and Purcell freedom in telling their story.

Of course, Remote Control also features some rather notable art shifts. The three-part storyline is an interesting collaboration between the two rotating artists on the title since Stefan Petrucha departed. Charles Adlard seems to illustrate most of the action and conversation beats in the issue, but it seems like Topps and Ten Thirteen then had artist Gordon Purcell got back and draw the faces of Mulder and Scully. This would be a questionable choice even if Charles Adlard and Gordon Purcell had compatible artistic styles. However, they are markedly different.

Making an entrance...

Making an entrance…

Charles Adlard is very good at atmosphere and mood. His work feels like a comic book version of The X-Files as filmed in Vancouver. It is dark and shadowy and mysterious. It is easy to see why Adlard found such success collaborating on The Walking Dead with Robert Kirkman. Adlard’s style lends itself to a horror comic. However, Adlard himself has conceded that he was not very good at capturing particular characters. “I was drafted in because I could generate the right ‘atmosphere’… certainly not because I could draw likenesses!” he has joked of his time on The X-Files.

In contrast, Gordon Purcell has an incredible talent for likenesses. He is one of the best artists of licensed comic books working in America; he has a wonderful knack for capturing actors and actresses and casting them in comic book adventures. Purcell’s approach is perhaps less stylised and atmospheric than Adlard, but he adds a dose of realism to the comic book as a whole. It is an art style that is not necessarily better or worse than Adlard’s approach to the comic, but it is very different.

One of these faces in not like the other...

One of these panels is not like the other…

There are several really jarring sequences where Purcell’s clear and crisp Mulder and Scully converse with Adlard’s more cartoonish random guest characters. The comic does the best that it can to integrate the two styles, but Remote Control looks rather stitched together. Sometimes a three-panel grid is divided between the two artists; sometimes Purcell is simply drawing facial features in a larger panel illustrated by Adlard. It is not an approach that plays to the strengths of either artist, with much of Remote Control seeming at odds with itself.

The reason for the strange decision to combine the work of Charles Adlard with Gordon Purcell in this manner seems easy enough to deduce. Ten Thirteen had fairly significant issues with the way that Mulder and Scully were portrayed in the comics. In fact, Remote Control was published in the middle of on-going disagreements around artist Jill Thompson’s work on Afterflight, where the company did not care for the likenesses of Mulder and Scully. (Thompson would observe that “they wanted it to look like Scully and Mulder but not Gillian and David.”)

Pinned down...

Pinned down…

This would seem to sum up Remote Control in a nutshell. The comic seems boxed in by restrictions imposed on this licensed tie-in. Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard subverted those restrictions, but it is clear that such an approach will no longer be tolerated. Instead, Remote Control can simply wryly acknowledge its limitations while it tries to balance a desire to tell its own story with the imperative to avoid infringing on the television show’s purview. To the credit of Rozum, Adlard and Purcell, the comic does the best job possible; however, it not clear that this enough.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the fourth season of The X-Files:

11 Responses

  1. Great review! What do you think/Have you read the Season 10 comics? I would love to hear more about those!

    • I’ve dipped in and out of the Season Ten comics. I have very mixed feelings on them. They pretty immediately bring back a lot of the stuff that burdened the mythology, and are decidedly backwards-looking. But there are interesting ideas. Looking forward to digging into their Millennium.

      But I’ll be doing arc-by-arc reviews hopefully next year before the revival hits the air.

      • An arc-by-arc review! Wow! I look forward to reading those!

      • Yep. It’ll be pretty much like the Topps reviews are now. So if it’s a multi-part story, I’ll review it as a single story. (I’m not big on issue-by-issue reviews of multi-part stories in general.)

      • I’m guessing they would read almost as awkwardly as the review of a two part series on TV!

      • Ha! Fair point!

        That said, I think that television two-parters are more substantive than single comic book issues in the current market. There’s generally enough material in a two-part X-Files episode to split out to about 7,000 words that I can divide into two broad thematic points, even if I end up writing about both episodes in each of the two essays.

        (To say nothing of the importance of treating a season finalé and premiere as their own entities, regardless of the cliffhanger joining them.)

      • For someone who reads comics only sporadically, this is a fascinating conversation! Depending on the television show, I can either write a short review of 600-700 words, or a long, ten page essay (Fringe reviews were both my favourite and the bane of my existence lol). I wonder how I would do reviewing comic books.

      • It depends on the author, I suspect.

        Grant Morrison is a writers whose work tends to be hypercompressed. There are thousands of words to be written on each individual issue of Multiversity. (Or even his mainstream superhero runs.) He tends to pack the ideas in a bit more densely. There are books to be written on most of his individual works, even ones running to only six or seven issues.

        Somebody like Brian Michael Bendis doesn’t tend to do great on single issues. Functionally and formally, they are great, but his storytelling works a lot better spread over a large distance. His Daredevil run is phenomenal and deserves to be read, but it works infinitely better read as a single book with fifty-odd chapters. (To pick one example, one issue of Hardcore ends on a cliffhanger; the next issue flashes back to show how the characters got to that cliffhanger, ending on pretty much exactly the same cliffhanger.)

      • Makes perfect sense. It seems comparable to how some authors are able to pack it all into a 10 page short story while others take 500+ pages to tell a story.

  2. Thanks for this! I actually found it one of the most interesting issues by Rozum, up there with the “NDE” two-parter, while all the single issue story arcs felt very flat and short.

    It definitely tries to be ambitious and grand and mythology-like without stepping on the show’s mythology — which by that time in season 4 has completely compartmentalized itself from the stand-alone episodes, as opposed to the more loose structure in seasons 1-2 when Petrucha did his thing. But I wouldn’t go as far as reading every line in the dialogue of “Remote Control” as an oblique reference to what is going on behind the scenes: the lines are coherent with what Mulder stands for in his quest for the truth.

    I found “Remote Control” touched on issues that could have easily been on the show, with all the CIA-sponsored ESP experiments. These ended up being used in “Millennium” (season 3 opening). And these issues also felt like they could be the start of a comics mythology for Rozum — sadly there was none of that afterwards.

    • Yep. I feel a bit sorry for Rozum, because a lot of the criticisms that I make of his work on the title are undoubtedly outside of his control. As much as I might adore the ambition and energy of the Adlard/Petrucha run, it seems clear that Ten Thirteen wanted something more like the Rozum run. Safe, familiar, generic.

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