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The X-Files (Topps) #33 – Soma (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.

Soma is a done-in-one story that fits quite comfortably with the rest of John Rozum’s work on The X-Files.

Indeed, like a lot of Rozum’s output, Soma feels like a story recovered from a fifties horror comic. It is a very traditional ghost story hinging on a number of absurd contrivances and building to a suitably impressive climax. This is not a low-key supernatural thriller – it features vengeful smoke demons who materialise in front of countless witness and almost murder Mulder and Scully at the climax. Despite the insistence on the final page that it was too smoky to see anything, Soma feels a little too loud and campy for the world of The X-Files.

Burnt out...

Burnt out…

The script is very familiar. In many ways, Soma plays like an update of the script to Donor. It is another supernatural “beyond the grave” revenge story, similar in tone to first season episodes like Young at Heart or Lazarus or Born Again. As with Donor, the malicious spirit is a husband who plots a horrific revenge on a wife who disregarded his dying wishes. However, while Donor had an enjoyable pulpy charm to sustain it as an unwilling organ donor attempted to reclaim his harvested organs, Soma feels just a little bit too mean-spirited and malicious in tone.

Soma is a functional and efficient X-Files comic, but one that feels just a little bit too rote and familiar for its own good.

Burning love...

Burning love…

To be fair, it is quite clear that Rozum has done his research. Soma has a number of interesting little hooks and details that demonstrate Rozum is drawing from interesting source material. At one point, the fire marshal observes that his only experience with spontaneous combustion occurred when a bunch of latex gloves went up in smoke. The character cites 1955 as the year in question, but the FDA itself issued a formal warning about the risk in June 1996. This followed a warehouse fire in New York in August 1995.

Similarly, the plot of Soma is driven by the belief of the Suttee, a Hindu group who still adhere to Sati – the practice of widow burning. According to this belief, widows are to be burnt alive following the deaths of their husbands, so that they might join their beloved in the next life. In many cases, widows would willingly throw themselves into the flames. Although the practice has been outlawed, there are still scattered accounts of it occurring. In 2006, it was reported that one widow was beaten and dragged to the flames by the relatives of her deceased husband.

Smoke and mirrors...

Smoke and mirrors…

Sati is a pretty serious issue. It is something that affects women living in Hindu communities. Although countries like India and Nepal have officially outlawed the practice, it is something that exists and occurs in the real world. There is something just a little bit exploitative in using the practice as the basis of a pulpy and trashy story like this, perhaps reflecting a long-standing western fascination with the practice:

Within the city of Calcutta, under jurisdiction of British law, suttee had been prohibited since 1798, but outside Calcutta, the “dreadful practice” flourished in Bengal–indeed, some said, in epidemic proportions. As the debate over widow-burning intensified, officials took steps to suppress the practice in 1812, with a distinction between “legal” (voluntary) and “illegal” (involuntary) suttee.Its complete abolition came under Lord William Bentinck through Regulation XVII of the Bengal Code, December 4, 1829, declaring the practice of suttee, whether voluntary or not, illegal and punishable by the criminal courts.

The European fascination with suttee, expressed through traverlers’ accounts and in the debates over official policy, was mirrored in visual representations by both amateur and professional artists. Among the earliest portrayals of suttee is an engraving, 1598, to illustrate the account of the Dutch traveler, Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1611), who lived in India from 1583 to 1588. The print shows a widow, with arms raised, stepping off into a pit in which her husband is consumed in flames. The Hindu widow again leaps onto the pyre in the 1670 frontispiece engraving for the book by the Dutch missionary Abraham Roger.The early portrayals of suttee in prints were based on travelers’ descriptions, such as those by Linschoten and Roger, and are often highly fanciful, but by the late eighteenth century European artists in India were drawn to the subject and its powerful imagery. Tilly Kettle (1735-1786) painted the serene young widow bidding farewell to her relatives. Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), in one of at least three paintings he devoted to the subject, depicted suttee as a “heroic act,” as Giles Tillotson notes. “The widow here is not a sentimental figure inviting pity, but a moral exemplar to be admired.” The paintings by Kettle and Zoffany are idealized, and it is unlikely that they were based on first-hand observation, but in the early 1780s, William Hodges (1744-1797) witnessed a suttee near Banaras and made a drawing at the scene. He subsequently completed a painting, “Procession of a Hindu Woman to the Funeral Pile of her Husband,” that served as the basis for the engraving accompanying his description in Travels in India. There is in Hodges’s depiction a somber atmosphere of saddess, but it too is idealized and draws Solvyns’s criticism as not being “correct.” A later painting, 1831, by James Atkinson (1780-1852), is also romantic and conveys in its portrayal of the beautiful young widow an overtone of the erotic that was so often associated with the depiction of suttee. Archer and Lightbrown suggest that Atkinson “probably intended to express sympathy with the plight of young Indian womanhood condemned by inexorable custom to premature death.”Many European portrayals of suttee, as in written accounts, reflect ambivalence–admiration for the courage of the virtuous woman and sympathy for the victim of a heathen rite–but characterturist Thomas Rowlandson uses his 1815 engraving, “The Burning System,” as an attack upon the government for its complicity in permitting “voluntary” suttee. And over the course of the nineteenth century, with imagery of horror, missionary tracts and journals frequently depict suttee as the symbol of benighted India and Hindu “superstition.”

There is something just a little bit exploitative about how the ritual is incorporated into the script to Soma, as a hook for a very familiar “vengeance from beyond the grave” narrative. The script to Soma never seems particularly interested in the cultural context of the ritual, or in Sarita’s experience. Indeed, Sarita is only introduced towards the end of the story, and never really develops into a character with her own agency or personality.

Burning bright...

Burning bright…

Soma is not interested in Sarita’s story or her experiences. The comic never feels too concerned with what it must be like to live under such pressure and such conditions. It never explores how difficult it must have been for Sarita to break away from those traditions, or with the weight of expectations pushing down on her. At one point, in a display of rather uncharacteristic insensitivity, Mulder actually has to ask Sarita why she didn’t want to burn herself alive as a monument to her husband – “other than what would seem obvious.” When dealing with a person’s reluctance to engage in self-immolation, it seems like the “obvious” should really be reason enough.

It doesn’t really matter. Soma is not interested in this potentially interesting world and culture. It feels like a rather clumsy “subculture” episode of the show, a story interested in the loose trappings of an exotic culture that might work as the backdrop to a scary story. It feels as superficial and insensitive as Excelsis Dei or The Calusari, a story that portrays the foreign as inherently suspicious or alien, but with no real depth or breadth. The story never delves into the Hindu experience (whether fringe or mainstream) in the way that Fresh Bones explored Haitian refugees, Hell Money dug into San Francisco’s Chinatown or Kaddish investigated the New York Jewish community.

It's a good thing Mulder's not afraid of fire... Oh, wait.

It’s a good thing Mulder’s not afraid of fire…
Oh, wait.

Instead, Soma is purely interested in plot and function. It seems like this was the most logical way to tell a “vengeance from beyond the grave” story that just happened to feature spontaneous human combustion. This raw utility is also evidenced in the way that the script accounts for the victims murdered before the vengeful spirit finds Sarita. “Before he died, my husband had a stroke which caused him to have difficulty recognising faces,” Sarita explains. “Even my own. I believe he has come back for me, and cremated these other women out of mistaken identity. He should have recognised my soul, but perhaps there is something similar in the souls of all widowed Indian women my age.” It is a nice explanation for the high body count, but feels a little contrived and forced.

It doesn’t help that it effectively suggests that all widowed Indian women at the age of sixty-two are almost indistinguishable when you get down to their very essence. It feels like a rather clumsy and unfortunate argument for Soma to make, in light of its refusal to either develop Sarita as a character in her own right or delve into the actual experience of the Hindu community. Soma plays out like one of the clumsiest examples of the classic “Mulder and Scully investigate a themed paranormal event in a particular subculture” episodes. Soma is very much in line with the clichés and borderline racism of episodes like Teso Dos Bichos or El Mundo Gira.

Their relationship went up in smoke...

Their relationship went up in smoke…

Soma is a familiar story, but it is a familiar story that John Rozum has told better before. It hits many of the same broad beats as Donor did, but with none of the same pulpy charm or malevolent fun. Instead, Soma feels clumsy and clichéd, embodying some of the worst traits of the fifties horror comics that appear to have inspired Rozum.

 

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2 Responses

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