Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

The X-Files (Topps) – Afterflight (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

And so we reach the end of Stefan Petrucha’s work on The X-Files.

It is quite a delayed end. Petrucha had originally written Afterflight three months before Home of the Brave, his last script for the monthly tie-in comic book. It was published fifteen months after the publication of Home of the Brave. That meant a year and a half had passed between Petrucha finished and Topps actually publishing it. The delay was rooted in disagreements with Ten Thirteen over the artwork. Still, Afterflight offers just a hint of closure to the sixteen-issue (and more) run that launched Topps’ licensed X-Files comic book line.

The truth is up there...

The truth is up there…

Afterflight is a mournful little comic, a story that takes a lot of the core themes of Petrucha’s X-Files work and distills them down to a single story. Interviewed about his work, Petrucha contended that his writing for The X-Files primarily meditated on themes of “memory, the self and what is reality.” All of these ideas are brought to the fore in Afterflight, a comic that offers a similar thematic resolution to Home of the Brave, suggesting the faintest hint of hope can be found beyond the world of men.

Afterflight is a beautiful piece of work, and a suitable conclusion to a fantastic run.

Aliens among us...

Aliens among us…

One of the more interesting aspect of Stefan Petrucha’s work on The X-Files is the way that he seemed to pitch the comic book as something quite close to the work being overseen by Karen Berger at Vertigo. Vertigo was the line of mature reader comics being published at DC, which had helped to jumpstart the career of various British writers in American comics. Berger was responsible for encouraging work by writers like Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis that tended towards more philosophical and political issues.

Petrucha’s work on The X-Files often aimed for that sort of aesthetic. Petrucha eschewed the “monster of the week” format associated with the show, even after wrapping up his year-long introductory mega-arc. His work on The X-Files broached big moral and philosophical issues about the relationship between memory and identity, reality and self. It was an approach that felt heavily influenced by the work being published at Vertigo at around the same time, and the comparison was reinforced by the art styles of Petrucha’s collaborators, Charles Adlard and Miram Kim.

Here come the men in black...

Here come the men in black…

This was not the only – or even the most obvious – way to approach a monthly X-Files comic. His successor on the title, John Rozum, pitched the monthly comic book as a classic fifties or sixties horror comic updated for the present day and starring Mulder and Scully. Ten Thirteen wanted a more conventional comic book, as can be seen on the artwork for the monthly book after Petrucha’s departure. Charles Adlard’s atmospheric artwork was phased out in favour of the photorealistic approaches of artists like Gordon Purcell and Alex Saviuk.

In a way, Afterflight feels like the last gasp of that “The X-Files as a secret Vertigo book” mindset. The standalone graphic novel was illustrated by artist Jill Thompson. In the years since, Thompson has won no less than six Eisner awards for her work in comics. Thompson had been working in the industry since the late eighties and enjoyed an almost two-year collaboration with George Perez on Wonder Woman between 1990 and 1992, towards the end of his run on the title he had relaunched following Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

Providing a nice Vertigo connection, Karen Berger had edited the entirety of Perez’s sixty-four issue run on Wonder Woman. After Thompson finished on Wonder Woman, she would collaborate with Neil Gaiman on Brief Lives, an arc of the celebrated (and best-selling) Sandman. She also illustrated the first six issues of the monthly Black Orchid comic that was picking up from Neil Gaiman and David McKean’s celebrated miniseries. She illustrated four issues of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles and an issue of Mark Millar’s Swamp Thing.

So Thompson was a pretty impressive artist with a long history of working in horror and fantasy comics. She was perfectly tailored to the mood of The X-Files, and a logic choice for a story like Afterflight. After all, Stefan Petrucha’s script is clearly geared towards a magical realist aesthetic, with mystery airships and reflections on what it must be like to grow old trying to realise a long-held dream. One of the characters cites Jules Verne. In interviews, Thompson has cited Afterflight as a project that she illustrated “more realistically” than usual.

Looking for answers...

Looking for answers…

However, this was apparently not enough for Ten Thirteen, who objected to Thompson’s style. Discussing the noticeable time lag between the completion of the script and the publication of the comic, Petrucha stated, “Afterflight was delayed solely because FOX and Ten Thirteen would not approve of the artwork.” As the artistic credits on the finished graphic novel suggest, Ten Thirteen and Topps brought in artist Alex Saviuk to “patch” Thompson’s artwork. He adjusted the faces so that they would more closely resemble Mulder and Scully.

Ten Thirteen were clearly impressed with Saviuk’s work. Saviuk would serve as the artist on the monthly X-Files title through to the end of its run. His art style fits quite comfortably with that of Gordon Purcell, who had illustrated a few issues of the monthly comic with John Rozum and who would handle the art chores on a four-issue adaptation of Kevin J. Anderson’s Ground Zero comic. While artists like John Van Fleet would continue to do stylised work on the Season One comics, it was clear that Ten Thirteen were moving to a more conventional photorealistic art style.

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

It is a shame, because Afterflight is a very beautiful and thoughtful piece of work. As with a lot of Petrucha’s work on The X-Files, there is a sense that he is taking the property and making it his own, in a way. In the same way that writers like Vince Gilligan or Darin Morgan bring their own authorial styles to The X-Files, Petrucha knows just how far he can stretch the property. Thompson’s artwork fits beautifully with Petrucha’s script, providing an atmospher that is not quite as heavy as that evoked by Charles Adlard’s artwork.

At the heart of Afterflight are questions about age and mortality. It is a story about growing old and what that means for a person. Professor Wilson is an old man who is watching his faculties slowly slip away from him. “If all those things you thought were important in your life were somehow magically over — if you’d aged past your problems or outlived your ambitions, what would you do with your time?” he asks Mulder. When the agent can’t answer, Wilson suggests, “Then take my advice and don’t ever grow old.”

A spanner in the works...

A spanner in the works…

Afterflight was a very personal story for Petrucha, one informed by his own personal experiences:

My mother-in-law was just diagnosed with multi-infarct dementia, a condition which mimics Alzheimer’s, so it was on my mind a lot. I’d been dealing with the concept of the self becoming “alien” or “other” throughout the series – so it seemed like a natural extension, and a good way to express the thoughts I was having on the subject. I’d also wanted very much to do something with the 1896 UFO flap.

The trappings are beautiful, but the heart of the story is rooted in its guest cast.

Executive decision...

Executive decision…

Petrucha and Thompson beautifully sketch out a portrait of life for the Wilson family in Texas. Candice Wilson struggles to take care of her father, woken at all hours by the sound of Professor Wilson cursing at grey squirrels on the property. She is so lonely that she is forced to find comfort in the arms of Clyde Benton, their “handy man” – a man who Mulder describes as a “drifter” and who Candice dismisses as a “servant.” As Candice struggles with whether she (or her father) can live under these conditions, Clyde pushes his own agenda.

There is a wonderful contrast between the portrait of southern life captured by Petrucha’s script and the intrusion of aliens and men in black. A lot of the elements of Afterflight might easily be structured into a more conventional dramatic story, with the men in black ultimately revealed to be executives seeking to exploit Professor Wilson and Clyde trying to pry lucrative secrets from the increasingly impaired old man. There is something fascinating about seeing elements of The X-Files intrude into this story, suggesting a more fantastical world than the characters realise.

Sleep of reason...

Sleep of reason…

It also helps to underscore just how precarious Professor Wilson’s situation might actually be. After all, any character seeing aliens in The X-Files will most likely turn out to be correct; the show exists in a world where aliens have been hanging around Earth for the longest possible time. As such, playing the familiar grey alien iconography against a more grounded and traditional narrative provides a clear contrast. Is Professor Wilson losing his grip on reality, or is he the only person who can see the magic of the world as it really is?

Afterflight is a heartbreaking story of a family dealing with a very real tragedy. Candice Wilson is asking herself the same questions that haunt a lot of men and women with parents of that age; a question about whether there come a point where you are incapable of caring for an elderly relative on your own, and whether sending them away is the best choice for you or for them. There is a beautiful sequence of Professor Wilson firmly rejecting life inside a care home, instead deciding to face the end on his own terms as his own man.

A design for life...

A design for life…

In a way, the conclusion to Afterflight mirrors the conclusion to Home of the Brave. Petrucha’s last script for The X-Files featured Nadia simply walking away from the world of men in pursuit of a better life some place else. “She said that whatever was out there just had to be better than this,” Mulder explained, a rather bittersweet conclusion to a story about the worst aspects of the American experience. Afterflight has Professor Wilson making a similar choice, with his invention becoming a means of escape from a harsh world – no matter how that escape actually ends.

At the same time, while it provides a more definitive ending for Professor Wilson than Home of the Brave did for Nadia, Afterflight is not as bleak as Petrucha’s final story. There is a very faint trace of romance to the story, which is built around a nineteenth century folk tale. Afterflight is fascinated by the rash of “mystery airship” sightings that occurred in California in 1896. This is not the first time that Petrucha has written around a similar historical paranormal event. Silent Cities of the Mind explored the myth of “the Silent City of Alaska”, dating to 1888.

Lifting spirits...

Lifting spirits…

In keeping with its themes about age and memory, Afterflight suggests that the past was a more romantic time. As Professor Wilson dreams about his grandfathers invention, he reflects, “A new meandering opened up, and if you had the courage to poke in the corners of God’s world… anything was possible.” On the one hand, it presents a vital and enthusiastic notion of the past. However, it also suggest that those corners and those “meanderings” get fewer and fewer as time marches on.

This is, in its own way, Petrucha’s own rumination on some of the core themes of The X-Files. The show frequently suggested that globalisation and expansion were removing a lot of the magic and mystery of the world around us, destroying those eccentric spaces at the heart of the American identity. However, Chris Carter and his writers are generally interested in history and legacy, while Petrucha filters the same ideas through the lens of memory and identity. The results are subtly different, even as they complement one another.

Ghosts...

Ghosts…

Tying back to themes he established as early as A Dismembrance of Things Past, Petrucha reaffirms the links between memory and identity by demonstrating how the erosion of Professor Wilson’s memory is affecting his identity. “Bit by bit, he’s losing his memory, his ability to use numbers, his orientation,” Candice Wilson explains. “Sometimes he doesn’t even know where he is. He has these fantasies that the squirrels are aliens, spying on him. Some days, he keeps saying he wants to go home — and I can’t convince him he already is home.”

Similarly, memory helps to bring some measure of closure to the case. Mulder and Scully manage to apprehend the executives responsible for Professor Wilson’s breakdown based on witnesses at a local bar. “Everyone remembered you really well,” Mulder assures them, underscoring just how essential memory is. Memory is not just a function of self and identity, but also of justice. As Professor Wilson struggles to remember who he is, he also struggles to remember his family’s legacy and his grandfather’s work.

Running out the clock...

Running out the clock…

The theme is even reflected in the aliens who appear over the course of Afterflight. Speculating as to how they could possibly tie back into the case, Mulder observes, “Could be there’s something they’re not saying. Like maybe somebody up there’s trying to recover something they lost a long time ago?” They provide a nice thematic mirror to Professor Wilson, mounting a literal excavation and exploration in contrast his more existential one. Afterflight does a great job dovetailing its X-files into its character drama.

Appropriately enough, Afterflight ends with the suggestion that perhaps other people are the greatest X-file of all. It sounds cheesy, and it is a little, but it does connect to the broader ideas in Petrucha’s run – particularly in the stories published after his introductory year-long arc. Contemplating death at the end of the story, Mulder confesses to Scully, “I never really considered that people sometimes first might become unintelligible, unrecognisable — even to themselves.”

They'll never tire of this...

They’ll never tire of this…

As he files away the case for later ready, Mulder ponders, “Now I’m wondering if one day I’ll be treated the same way that science treats an uncomfortable fact. As a difficulty, or worse, an inconvenience, something to be locked away and ignored. So where do I think I’ll end up?” The closing panel of the comic suggests an answer, focusing on one of the “unsolved” drawers in the office. It is a nice piece of inadvertent foreshadowing of Requiem, but is also a suitable closing note in its own right.

Life is complicated and messy and impossible to sort properly. In his introductory scene, Mulder jokes that the same is true of the X-files when Scully wonders why he doesn’t try to keep them in order. Petrucha’s final stretch of work on The X-Files repeatedly and thoroughly reinforces this idea, suggesting that perhaps even the most mundane of lives is nothing but a combination of unexplained events and freak occurences; the biggest mysteries of the universe do not confine themselves to Mulder’s filing drawers.

Banding together...

Banding together…

It feels like a suitable note for Petrucha to take his bow.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: