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The X-Files (Topps) #34 – Skybuster (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.

There is an interesting divide in John Rozum’s work on The X-Files.

Half the time, it seems like Rozum is writing classic EC horror stories that just happen to feature Mulder and Scully. There are stretches of his work on the title where it seems like the stories might easily have been found in the desk drawer of some classic editor, tweaked and altered slightly so as to update them forty years, and published with the addition of Mulder and Scully. Stories like Silver Lining, Donor and Soma comfortably fit this classic pulpy horror mould. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, although it is quite striking.

Death from above!

Death from above!

When Rozum does write a story that feels particular to The X-Files, it often feels a little disconnected from the season unfolding around it. Scripts like Be Prepared, Remote Control and N.D.E. feel like they hark back to the first season of the show. The characterisation is familiar, if simplistic; shades of the mythology is present, but underdeveloped; there is a very traditional approach to big paranormal ideas like the Wendigo or “remote viewing.” It feels like these comics make a solid companion piece to the Season One comics written by Roy Thomas.

Skybuster is a pretty perfect example of this style of storytelling, offering an environmental parable about the arrogance of mankind’s tampering with nature.

Quoth the raven...

Quoth the raven…

Chris Carter is a writer who is quite interested in the whole “meddling scientist” trope. It is no surprise that Frankenstein is such a frequent touchstone for The X-Files, right down to the structure and climax of the Colony and End Game two-parter. He used the made scientist trope with a considerable amount self-awareness and irony in The Post-Modern Prometheus, but he tended to play it straight in the early seasons of the show. Mankind tampering with nature led to unfortunate results in first season episodes like Young at Heart or Darkness Falls, both episodes credited to Carter.

Skybuster feels of a spirit with those early instalments, a more-than-slightly cautionary tale about the infamous HAARP project in Alaska. It is a story about nature striking back at mankind’s arrogance, one that resonates quite well with some of Carter’s more heavy-handed explorations of the subject. In fact, Skybuster even features a wise old Native American character who relates a fable to Mulder and Scully – albeit in a manner that does feel a little less stereotypical than some of the characters featured in episodes like The Blessing Way.

Just imagine it as a monologue over the teaser and you're all set...

Just imagine it as a monologue over the teaser and you’re all set…

With Skybuster, Rozum is returning to themes and ideas that he has touched on in earlier stories. E.L.F. was another story fascinated by the impact that low-level background material could have on the human body. As ever, Rozum has done his research and picked a subject that feels appropriate for an X-Files story. HAARP really existed. It was no stranger to controversy, and became a suspect in just about every conspiracy theory:

Name a natural phenomenon, and someone probably suspects HAARP of being behind it. Online, conspiracy theorists suggest that HAARP was to blame for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan; the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado of 2013; a landslide in 2006 in the Philippines; and many more natural disasters. Other conspiracy theories hold that HAARP controls people’s minds or is capable of altering the very fabric of reality.

In reality, it seems like HAARP was decidedly more innocuous. Its most significant accomplishment may have been orchestrating the first man-made aurora in 2005. The facility cost approximately $300m and provided an economic boom to Alaska. It was officially discontinued in 2014, although some theorists undoubtedly believe that this is just a cover story. It is perfect fodder for a story like this.

The pecking order...

The pecking order…

Skybuster is certainly less than subtle. No sooner is Mulder introduced to Doctor Lewis Montgomery than he accuses Montgomery of incredible arrogance. “You’re playing around with something that could potentially destroy all life on Earth,” Mulder warns the scientist. “And knowing that, you still intend to continue.” Sure, it’s not out of character for Mulder to annoy local authority figures and challenge conventional wisdom, but it really feels like a loaded observation to make having just met the guy. (It’s okay. Montgomery proves to be corrupt and gets what’s coming to him.)

The script does make a few half-hearted attempts to connect Montgomery’s drive to that of Mulder. Despite the fact that he has only just met Mulder, Montgomery quickly turns the question back on the intrepid federal agent. “Is the search for the truth so important that you’d risk destroying everything to uncover it?” It is a nice little trick, one that invites the audience to wonder whether Mulder is really any different from those mad scientists who push the boundaries of human knowledge – oblivious to the consequences of their discoveries.

Skeletons in the closet...

Skeletons in the closet…

However, it also comes out of nowhere and quickly disappears again. Skybuster never quite develops the point as well as it might. Montgomery’s question might land a glancing blow, but the script quickly makes it clear that Montgomery is far from an idealist – his final confrontation with Mulder and Scully suggests that he ignored (and possibly helped bury) research that demonstrated the risk of what he was doing. As such, it is hard to take any of Montgomery’s criticisms of Mulder at face value. He is an unambiguously bad guy.

This cements that “first season” feel of Rozum’s X-Files scripts. It seems like Rozum is dealing with a lot of very basic and superficial characterisation for his two leads, but never really digging into their characters. His presentation of Mulder in scripts like Thin Air, Remote Control and Skybuster feels akin to the way that the writers approached the character in scripts like Conduit. While Scully makes passing reference to Queequeeg in Skybuster, N.D.E. feels like it was written about a version of Scully who existed in scripts like Squeeze or The Jersey Devil or Lazarus.

Holy flock!

Holy flock!

Rozum’s work on The X-Files lacks any real sense of progression. In terms of plotting, this is likely a result of mandates from Ten Thirteen that pushed towards a more episodic structure and firmly rejected any attempt to give the comic a unique identity. However, it also seems like Rozum doesn’t really have any idea what to do with the characters of Mulder and Scully, instead hitting on the same beats over and over. There is nothing as satisfying as the scene that Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard produced at the end of Feelings of Unreality, bringing the characters a full circle.

It doesn’t help that Rozum’s script is more than a little heavy-handed. To be fair, this is very much in keeping with the mood and aesthetic of the show – particularly the early episodes. Skybuster closes with a philosophical monologue playing over scenes of a government cover-up with more than a few ominous details. The monologue is less than subtle, complete with purple prose and clumsy metaphors. “How many times can mankind poke at the sleeping bear that is the earth with a sharp stick in order to find out what will happen, before the bear finally bites back?”

Driven out...

Driven out…

There is a sense that Rozum is really writing for a version of The X-Files that is set in early 1993. It doesn’t feel like the comic has evolved and kept with the show it was designed to compliment. When Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard began working on The X-Files, they arrived just as the show’s mythology was solidifying into a single long-form story at the end of the second season and the start of the third. Their own ambitious long-form conspiracy arc played into that mood, even if it wasn’t allowed to play with the same toys.

In contrast, Skybuster feels like a relic from a much earlier stage of the show’s evolution. The problem is that the show has moved past that. The comic really should have moved past that as well. At this point, Rozum has been writing the book for over a year and a half. With Skybuster, Rozum has written as many single issues of the series as Stefan Petrucha, but has struggled to put his own stamp on the series. It is hard to define exactly what makes John Rozum’s vision of The X-Files distinct or unique, beyond its tendency towards nostalgia.

A murder of crows?

A murder of crows?

Although there are undoubtedly lots of factors that account for this reality, it is still highly disappointing for a tie-in that started so promisingly.

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