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The X-Files (Topps) #35-36 – N.D.E. (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.

N.D.E. is a nice clever character-driven story, one that perhaps suggests a direction that John Rozum might have taken the monthly tie-in comic.

Ten Thirteen had made it quite clear that they did not want long arcs or ambitious storytelling from their licensed comic books. They wanted reliable straight-down-the-middle storytelling, with none of the playful self-awareness and meta-narratives that drove Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s work on the title. As a result, the comic has been rather more conservative in approach since John Rozum took over. His time on the title has not produced anything as cynical or grim as One Player Only or Home of the Brave.

Healing palm...

Healing palm…

While Rozum is undoubtedly limited by constraints imposed by Ten Thirteen, there is something disappointing about his run on the comic. Rozum has tended to favour done-in-one stories, single issue adventures that wrap up everything quite neatly within twenty-four pages. Rozum has grown quite efficient at this, but there is little room for nuance in stories like The Kanishibari, Silver Lining, Crop Duster or Soma. Rozum’s stories tend to work better when stretched out a little, with Be Prepared and Remote Control allowing room for nice character moments.

N.D.E. is another two-part story that takes advantage of that additional space to tell a story about Scully. N.D.E. has a fascinating central idea, and a number of clever twists, but it also allows room to explore Scully’s character and philosophy in more depth than the comic has really afforded her. N.D.E. is perhaps a bit clunkier than Be Prepared or Remote Control, but it is the strongest story of Rozum’s final year on the title. Looking at how well this approach works in those stories, it is a shame that Rozum did not employ it more frequently.

You can play the theme to The X-Files in your head if it helps...

You can play the theme to The X-Files in your head if it helps…

There are problems with N.D.E. Most obviously, Rozum has never quite managed the art of delivering the necessary exposition without slowing down the plot. This was an issue with his writing dating back to the script to Thin Air, but he has improved significantly over time. There is a sense that Rozum works to hard to fit story details into his comic books, over-complicating and over-detailing the narrative to the point where there is little room for the interesting stuff that usually unfolds between plot developments.

In N.D.E., this happens twice. At one point, Scully is having a heart-to-heart conversation with an old friend about the death of a mutual acquaintance. It is a big emotional moment, even if it feels like it would have greater impact if the friend had enjoyed a larger role in that story leading up to this moment. However, the moment of the scene grinds to a halt when the character attempts to offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for a supernatural event that relies on “a particle beam using microwave technology.”

Hell and back...

Hell and back…

That would be a weird theory if it were coming from Fox Mulder, the show’s resident crackpot conspiracy theorist. It feels even stranger to have it come from a character who is presented in opposition to Mulder; this character is one of Scully’s friends dating back to the days before she threw her lot in with Mulder and moved down to the basement on a full-time basis. He is the last character in a story who should be proposing an idea like this, even if it veers away from the paranormal into speculative science. (After all, it is as ridiculous as the plot to Død Kälm or Soft Light.)

More than that, it is a ridiculous detail to randomly toss into a narrative as a red herring. It is obviously designed to present Scully with an alternative to “demons did it”, so as to set up a logical conflict between the rational and the irrational. Unfortunately, that contrast only works if one idea is noticeably more absurd than the other. The idea of organised criminals assassinating an informant using a particle weapon from several blocks away might have some basis in science, but it is an image so surreal that there is no appreciable distinction to be made.

Scully gets her "Silence of the Lambs" on...

Scully gets her “Silence of the Lambs” on…

There is another instance towards the end of the story – when the mobsters make an attempt on the life of the informant during a routine prison transfer. Characters seem to narrate the sequence to one another, explaining the intricacies of the chase in lavish detail to one another in a way that seems forced and contrived. “Why move Schiff?” Ensign asks, seemingly rhetorically. It is never entirely clear to whom he is explaining all this. Certainly, Mulder and Scully are not particularly engaged.

When the mobsters show up, Ensign observes, “I knew taking a van without windows in the back was going to be a problem. Our guys in the back can’t fire on them. I don’t know if it was dumb luck on their part or if they anticipated the trees interfering with the helicopter.” This is dialogue that serves a purpose – letting the audience know the stakes that might be difficult to convey through imagery. At the same time, it all feels overly elaborate. For the story to continue, the reader only needs to know that the FBI are outgunned, and not in that level of detail.

When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.

When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.

Similarly, it feels a little clunky to have the mobsters explain in detail how they figured out the FBI were moving their target, in a manner which evokes the boasting of a Bond villain. There are ways to convey this information without drawing attention away from what should be a tense emotional climax to fill in what might be considered plot holes. The dialogue could easily be trimmed and relegated to caption boxes, so as to minimise the intrusion into the story. It is not a major problem with the story, but it does undercut what is otherwise an interesting character study.

N.D.E. has two very clever ideas underpinning it. The one that drives the plot concerns the epnymous “near-death experiences.” It is an aspect of the paranormal with which the show has only fleetingly engaged. It was an integral part of One Breath, included by writers Glen Morgan and James Wong as a way of demonstrating that the supernatural does not have to be horrific or terrifying. Everybody is familiar with the standard near-death experience narrative – the bright light, the tunnel, the urge to move beyond the mortal coil.

Warding off evil spirits...

Warding off evil spirits…

Rozum puts a clever twist on the concept by asking what such an experience might be like for a character who was not going to an afterlife of peace and bliss. Discussing the concept with Scully, Mulder reflects, “There’s even speculation that visions of hell, rather than heaven, are common, but are seldom reported. The theory being that what person would want to admit that they were destined for eternal damnation instead of salvation?” It is a nice set-up for a story, with Schiff receiving nightmarish visions of eternal suffering.

More than that, it appears that something followed Schiff back from his bungee jump off the mortal coil. This is something of a classic horror trope, the idea that somebody “comes back wrong” from an experience close to (or actually) death. The most obvious example might be Stephen King’s Pet Cemetary, but the idea recurs throughout popular culture. The idea of a character escaping their eternal rest only to hunted by supernatural forces would become a cornerstone of Glen Morgan and James Wong’s Final Destination series.

Dead to the world...

Dead to the world…

So the central story of N.D.E. is very clever on its own terms. Rozum has always had a keen understanding of the kinds of supernatural material that lend themselves to these sorts of stories. While his storytelling might not always match the inspiration, there is generally a bold and fascinating idea underpinning his stories. The concept of N.D.E. is something that could actually work on the television show – imagine Mulder and Scully assigned to protect a witness being chased by his own looming death and damnation.

However, Rozum very cleverly and very shrewdly uses this interesting story as a backdrop to a more personal drama centred on Scully. Scully’s past has been relatively unexplored since the early days of the first season. Ove the course of the series, Mulder keeps digging into his own family history and encountering old acquaintances (and flames) as he realises just how deeply rooted the Mulder family is in this vast international conspiracy. In contrast, Scully has found herself more and more disconnected from the life that she had before her time on the X-files.

Who we are in the dark...

Who we are in the dark…

Rozum’s scripts tend to lean back towards the first season of the show. They can often feel like relics unearthed. In many respects, N.D.E. feels like an early Scully episode. The stock suggestion when it comes to “early Scully episodes” based around death and forgiveness would seem to be Beyond the Sea. However, N.D.E. owes a conscious debt to stories like Squeeze, The Jersey Devil and Lazarus. It is a story about how Scully had a very different life before she joined Fox Mulder’s quest for the truth.

The opening sequence of the comic (and other flashbacks) are frequently desaturated, a very effective way of underscoring just how long ago it must seem. Scully’s world has been restricted to her partner and her immediate family since the second season. It feels strange to see Scully hanging out with people she met at the Academy, even though that was the basis of scripts like Squeeze or Lazarus. It is an incongruous image, but a very effective one. It underscores something that the series never directly addresses after Squeeze; Mulder took a lot from Scully.

A dead end...

A dead end…

Rozum writes Scully quite well. Some of his extended monologues in other stories can feel over-written or heavy-handed. Here, he perfectly captures the character’s voice. One can imagine Gillian Anderson intoning the words as the camera cuts between her conversation with Schiff and the filing of some report or other. “I understand that I’m not going to get what I want,” she narrates. “Monsters look just like the rest of us. They only reveal themselves through their actions, and even though Schiff’s monstrous actions have ended, I know what they were.”

It helps that there are echoes of Beyond the Sea to be found in the script, even though they never overwhelm or consume N.D.E. With her religious background, Scully arguably lends herself to narratives about eternal life and forgiveness in a way that Mulder does not. N.D.E. is a story about Scully dealing with a very human monster who is being punished for what he has done, and dealing with the difficulty of forgiving somebody so horrific and brutal as the death of somebody very close weighs on her conscience.

Night terrors...

Night terrors…

Rozum very cleverly plays into these big themes. Light and darkness are very big ideas in the context of N.D.E. The image of Schiff sitting in darkness is very effective, leading to the memorable image of Mulder and Scully interviewing him while wearing night goggles. However, it also works as a nice piece of symbolism. Scully is working through her own metaphorical dark night of the soul. Artist Alex Saviuk very cleverly ensures that Scully’s crucifix is clearly visible for extended portions of the comic.

Indeed, Rozum even throws Mulder and Scully into conflict about her difficult getting the necessary distance from the case. When Mulder questions her, Scully rightly calls him on it. “There have been plenty of times where we were told to close a case or where I felt one was over and you weren’t willing to drop it. I always went along with you, and let you follow it through.” After all, compare Mulder’s defensive reaction to Scully’s vulnerability in Beyond the Sea or Never Again to Scully’s compassion and empathy in Little Green Men or Paper Hearts.

Lighting up the room...

Lighting up the room…

N.D.E. is not perfect. It is a bit too clunky in places to really rank with best of Rozum’s work on the book. However, it does stand as the best work in this final stretch of issues, demonstrating that Rozum does have a firm grasp of these characters and their worlds. It is just a shame that he could not demonstrate it more consistently.

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