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The X-Files (Topps) #30-31 – Surrounded (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.

Surrounded marks the beginning of the end for Topps’ licensed X-Files tie-in comic book. There are only twelve issues remaining before Ten Thirteen would decided not to renew the contact, making this the last year for the comic. Of course, Topps would rather relentlessly milk the comic for whatever it was worth over the next year, publishing both a range of Season One adaptations and an adaptation of Kevin J. Anderson’s Ground Zero novel. They would also finally get around to releasing Stefan Petrucha and Jill Thompson’s AfterFlight graphic novel.

So there is a lot of content coming in the final year of Topps’ hold on that license. The X-Files was clearly a massive success for the newly-minted comic book wing of the company. Indeed, The X-Files was the last comic standing for Topps, and there is ample evidence that Topps was hoping to continue the line beyond The X-Files: Fight the Future, with several Season One adaptations solicited, but never published. Much like for the show itself, this was a boom time for Topps.

What's eating you?

What’s eating you?

However, the final year of the comic ultimately feels rather safe and generic. John Rozum is a competent comic writer; he understands the medium, and he knows how to play with other peoples’ toys. However, there is a sense that the comic book is really just marking time. There is very little that stands out about this last stretch of the comic; nothing which really demands to be read or to be added to the great X-Files canon. It is not bad, by any measure; it is just there.

Surrounded is a prime example of the comic book marking time. It feels like a retread of familiar ground – both for the comic book and for the parent show. When Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard set stories like Silent Cities of the Mind or Home of the Brave in militia compounds, they were very much ahead of the television. By the time that Surrounded was published at the end of the fourth season, the show itself had already told stories about this world in episodes like The Field Where I Died, Tunguska, Terma and Unrequited.

Shining some light on the matter...

Shining some light on the matter…

Surrounded is ultimately a very generic story. Indeed, the opening sequence cannot help but evoke the opening sequence to Silent Cities of the Mind; a militia group finds itself under siege, and Mulder is sent in to investigate and/or negotiate amid a tense stand-off. This time, Scully joins him, and the visit is a launching pad to an investigation inside the compound itself rather than a journey around the world. Nevertheless, Surrounded feels like the kind of story that the show has already told repeatedly.

In a way, this feels very much in the style of some of Rozum’s one-shot stories for the comic – stories like The Kanashibari, Donor, or Silver Lining. It is a story that could easily have come from some forgotten fifties horror. Indeed, the monster at the heart of the story is rather interesting. The idea of flesh-easting dirt mites that have grown ravenous is quite terrifying. They are invisible creatures that could hide in the shadows to feast on their prey, conjuring up images of Darkness Falls or even Steven Moffat’s Forest of the Dead.

He really let them get under his skin...

He really let them get under his skin…

There is nothing wrong with this story, except that it feels fairly rote. Even the ending – which features the villain escaping with a box full of the monsters and heading towards “Washington, D.C.” – feels very much like an attempt to do a stock horror ending. The X-Files is absolutely packed with “the monster is still dangerous” endings, right back to its very earliest episodes. The ending to Squeeze suggested that the authorities would have a great deal of trouble holding Eugene Victor Tooms; the ending of The Host proudly declared, “Flukeman lives!”

There is just nothing particularly exciting about the execution of Surrounded, a problem that only becomes more severe once the script is extended across two issues. Rozum has generally adopted a more self-contained approach to storytelling than his predecessor; there is nothing on Rozum’s tenure on the comic that can compare with the raw ambition of Petrucha’s “Aquarius” mega-arc. Instead, Rozum largely turned the comic into something of a horror anthology. It is not a bad approach, but it does mean that multi-issue stories have to carry weight.

Don't let the bed bugs bite...

Don’t let the bed bugs bite…

This is not the first time that Rozum has had difficulty plotting across multiple issues. After all, Night Lights suffered from some terrible pacing problems – a two-issue story that only really got interesting in the final couple of pages. However, Rozum has grown more comfortable with the comic as he spent more time writing on it. Be Prepared and Remote Control are two effective multi-issue comics. Be Prepared is a script that feels more like The X-Files than most of his stand-alones, and Remote Control is a three-part mythology story.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in Surrounded that quite justifies the additional length. Indeed, the comic might even have been stronger had it been whittled down to a done-in-one monster story. The additional space doesn’t add any room for character or nuance, but it also does not add to the scale of the story. There are no splash pages as effective as those used in Remote Control, for example. Mulder and Scully feel very much like stock action heroes in this comic, rather than unique individuals.

We mite have a problem...

We mite have a problem…

Still, Surrounded is notable for the introduction of Alex Saviuk, the new penciller. Gordon Purcell had been poached to work on the high-profile Ground Zero comic strip, and Ten Thirteen were not entirely happy with Charles Adlard’s more atmospheric style. Saviuk was an industry veteran – he had been working steadily since the late seventies. He had done high-profile work at both Marvel and DC. More than that, he was something of a work-horse. At the same time as doing a year-long run on The X-Files, he was illustrating The Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip.

It is quite easy to see why Saviuk was chosen for this assignment. He works quite quickly. Unlike Gordon Purcell, he could commit to a monthly book for an extended period. At the same time, he also proves quite adept at likenesses. While he does not capture Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny quite as effectively as Gordon Purcell, his style is considerably more photo-realistic than Charles Adlard’s atmospheric work. Saviuk’s work is solid, and he never misses a beat; he would illustrate every script between here and the end of the series.

Action!

Action!

Surrounded is a rather generic comic book adventure. It is not incompetent or terrible or anything like that, it just sort of is.

2 Responses

  1. Maybe due to the fact that I have severe allergies to dust mites made this story more compelling for me. I can get serious headaches from them. I have been treating it with shots, nasal sprays, allegra and I have special protective sheets on my bed. I definitely found the story very creepy and I loved the end where they are in the dark with the creatures and Mulder starts screaming as they swarm all over him. This was honestly one of my favorite stories in the Topps run.

    • Ha! I think subjective fears play a huge part in horror.

      I suspect part of the reason I like Donor so much is that I am terrified of doctors, to pick an example.

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