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The X-Files (Topps) – Ground Zero #1-4 (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.

Ground Zero offers an indication of just how much success Topps was enjoying with their line of licensed X-Files comic books.

The monthly series was still being published, and Season One was on a bimonthly schedule. Both books had stable creative teams, and there was no indication that they were likely to wrap up any time soon. Of course, Topps would pull of the comic book market in late 1998, but there was no indication that they considered their X-Files line to be anything other than a complete success. As such, it made sense to expand the line. After all, the company had already used the brand to sell annuals and digests.

Eye see all...

Eye see all…

However, there was reportedly a considerable amount of friction between Topps and Ten Thirteen over the comic book line. Ten Thirteen was reportedly quite firm in what they would and would not allow to be published. Writers John Rozum and Stefan Petrucha have talked about how difficult it was to get their scripts published for the monthly series. It seems that Topps was eager to work around these restrictions. It is telling that neither Season One nor Ground Zero were original concepts; they were adaptations of ideas and stories Ten Thirteen had already approved.

Ground Zero is written by veteran tie-in author Kevin J. Anderson. Anderson had already written a number of popular X-Files tie-in books and had provided a fill-in arc on the monthly comic book with Family Portrait. The artwork for Ground Zero is provided by Gordon Purcell, one of the best likeness artists in the business. Publishing a four-issue adaptation of a tie-in novel is the very definition of a “safe” choice to expand the line, and only illustrates some of the wasted opportunities towards the end of Topps’ stewardship of the license.

Doomsday clock...

Doomsday clock…

Anderson was a safe pair of hands. He was an experienced writer; he had been writing published material since high school. Anderson had published his first novel in 1988, receiving a nomination for the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. In 1994, Anderson took his first work in the Star Wars expanded universe, writing the Jedi Academy trilogy. He would quickly become an established fixture of the Star Wars expanded universe, even writing an entire fourteen-volume young adult series under the banner.

When it came time to expand the X-Files brand, Anderson was among the first tie-in writers to work with Ten Thirteen. Charles L. Grant wrote the first original tie-in novels for The X-Files, publishing Goblins in 1994 and Whirlwind in 1995. However, Anderson was quite an early adaptor. He published Ground Zero in 1995, Ruins in 1996 and Antibodies in 1997. Ground Zero reached the top of the London Sunday Times Best Seller List and Ruins made the New York Times Best Seller list.

Here there be ghosts...

Here there be ghosts…

According to Anderson, Chris Carter specifically sought him out to work on the franchise:

Ironically, I received the X-Files assignment because Chris Carter (the creator of the show) had read some of my Star Wars novels and thought that I had managed to capture exactly the right “look and feel” of the universe. Now, I worked for the US government for many years in a research laboratory, I had a security clearance, I had visited all sorts of classified facilities, and so I felt I could get a good handle on much of the background necessary for the X-Files.

In fact, Anderson enjoyed a significant level of access, much greater than that afforded to Petrucha or Rozum.

A shadow of what might have been...

A shadow of what might have been…

As such, it made sense to assign Anderson to adapt his first novel as a four-issue miniseries that could be published alongside the on-going monthly title and the Season One adaptations. Anderson was quite the versatile tie-in writer, willing to work in comics as well as prose. He had already scripted a two-issue fill-in for the monthly comic book. Even after his involvement with The X-Files ceased, he would remain interested in comic books – he would write a prequel to his Saga of the Seven Suns for Wildstorm in 2002.

Anderson’s pre-existing relationship with Ten Thirteen likely made it easier for Topps to greenlight an adaptation of Ground Zero than to push ahead with a more original project. Gordon Purcell’s skill with character likeness meant that the editorial staff at Topps did not have to worry about complaints relating to the artwork. Ground Zero is very much a safe choice as far as a companion project for Topps’ X-Files comic books tend to go. It would have made the process of getting the book to stands a lot smoother.

Keep barreling on...

Keep barreling on…

It really seems like Ground Zero met no resistance as it made its way from proposal to release. The project feels clumsy and awkward in many different ways, with Anderson’s script struggling to capitalise on the story’s dramatic beats and the dialogue feeling woefully ill-suited to the comic book medium. Ground Zero reads almost like a first draft proposal rather than a finished project, a script that might have benefited from a stronger editorial hand to help maximise its impact.

It is quite clear that Anderson is a writer more familiar with prose than with comic book storytelling. The script to Ground Zero seems reluctant to trust Purcell to convey all the necessary information. As a result, a surprising amount of dialogue is devoted to stilted exposition that either provides unnecessary information or simply reiterates what is already on the page. On receiving a mysterious package, a scientist observes, “No letter, just… hm… it’s filled with a powdery substance… like ash. Black ash.” All of this should be clear from the corresponding images.

A brimful of asha...

A brimful of asha…

Similarly, as things get weird, Anderson has the character remark, “Uh oh. Lights are flickering.” Given that comic books are composed of static images, it is not easy to convey the idea that the lights are flickering, but it is certainly possible. Instead of trusting Purcell to convey that information to the reader, Anderson instead inserts some clumsy monologuing from a character who is essentially in a room by himself. It is frequently and incredibly distracting. It is dialogue that could be incorporated into prose rather easily, but which does not work in this format.

(There is an equally distracting scene later on, featuring the fifth victim. Nancy Scheck arrives home to an empty house and declares, “Hot and humid… I’ll be glad to get out of these clothes.” Not only does it feel like a sleazy excuse to draw the character in a sexy swimsuit, it feels like a particularly forced justification for that decision. It is the kind of dialogue that characters provide in those adult movies that Mulder watches; lazy and stilted, with no real consideration for how characters actually interact.)

Clouded perspective...

Clouded perspective…

There is also a sense that Anderson is reluctant to edit his own prose. There are a lot of strange moments where characters talk to themselves in empty rooms to make seemingly witty observations. “Screwy office numbers,” Mulder notes as he walks through a military base. “You can tell when things are designed by the military…” It is a nice zinger, but it is a line that would work a lot better were it included in an internal monologue rather than a dialogue box.

In fact, a lot of the more incongruous elements of Ground Zero would work better if Anderson were willing to employ caption boxes rather than dialogue bubbles. After leaving a general store, Oscar McCarron remarks to his horse, “Let’s get out of here… as far away as we can, just so I can let my nerves settle after dealing with that idiot.” This is just bland and generic exposition that is designed to explain why McCarron would wander into the site of the Trinity Test. It does not explain why he talks so profoundly to his horse.

Winding it up...

Winding it up…

There are other examples that suggest Anderson is not entirely comfortable with the comic book form. Notably, the cliffhangers to Ground Zero leave a lot to be desired. To be fair, they do improve as they go along. The final cliffhanger has Scully discover barrels and barrels full of human remains that are being smuggled to a nuclear test site; a haunting image that feels almost like something that belongs on Millennium rather than The X-Files. However, the other two cliffhangers are abysmal.

The second issue ends with the death of the fifth victim; by this point in the narrative, the viewer has seen this horror unfold three separate times for four different people. There is nothing particularly horrifying or striking about the death of Nancy Scheck that has not already been shown to the reader three times. It is the safest possible choice for a cliffhanger, certainly less effective than the use of a similar death as a hook at the start of the very first issue of this four-part miniseries.

Ringing true...

Ringing true…

Still, the death of Nancy Scheck is much more effective than the cliffhanger to the first issue. The first issue actually has a pretty horrific sequence only a couple of pages from the end of the comic – two army officers buried in a nuclear silo are attacked after the phone rings. It is a moment that demonstrates just how powerful this primal force might be, and just what the stakes are. However, the first issue does not close on this image. Instead, it closes on an already sleazy government scientist complaining, “I’m just anxious to get away from these FBI investigators.”

Being honest, it would be a bigger surprise if the head of this mysterious and ominous nuclear experiment was happy that Mulder and Scully were investigating the mysterious on-site death. The implication that there might be something shady going on at this secret nuclear research programme is barely a solid scene transition, let alone a cliffhanger strong enough to support a four-issue comic book series. With a little tweaking, Ground Zero could be structured in a more interesting way.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

That said, there are some more serious problems underlying the story here. As becomes increasingly obvious as the comic goes on, Ground Zero is the story of a supernatural vengeance inflicted by the last survivor of a tribe from the Pacific Ocean upon the white researchers who conducted haphazard and immoral experiments in the region. It is very much a classic horror trope – evoking the legend of King Tutankhamun, among others – but it is also something that feels a little unpleasant in the context of the mid-nineties.

The X-Files frequently faced problems in how it dealt with supernatural stories based around foreign cultures; it was easy to trivialise or stereotype or “other” different ethnic groups, as in John Shiban’s scripts for Teso Dos Bichos or El Mundo Gira. The best scripts dealing with these themes tended to embrace the idea of cultural appropriation directly, as in Howard Gordon’s Fresh Bones or Frank Spotnitz’s Our Town. The problem with Ground Zero is that it feels as ill-judged as Badlaa, but without anything as distinctive as the butt-dwelling Indian fakir.

The truth is blinding...

The truth is blinding…

Ryan Kamida is the last survivor of a tribe wiped out by nuclear testing. He is taken to the United States, where he seems to do quite well for himself. “I made a life for myself in the civilised world,” Kamida explains, in a line of dialogue that is troubling even out of context. Although blinded by the detonation, Kamida remains connected with the ghosts of his people, and so channels them into revenge against those responsible for the detonation of the nuclear bomb. It doesn’t help matters that he is treated as something like a wise old mystic.

The idea of exploring the impact of nuclear testing upon indigenous populations is fascinating, but it feels cheap to present those indigenous populations as inherently mystical or magical feels crass and ill-judged, an example of how fiction tends to exoticise the foreign. We never learn that much about Kamida or his secret tribe beyond their mystical gifts, to the point where it feels like the thread about government guilt of atomic testing is set up primarily so Kamida can use those gifts to exact a terrible revenge upon those who killed his family.

Talk about a negative reaction...

Talk about a negative reaction…

Ground Zero feels ill-judged and ill-considered. It is a disappointing four-issue miniseries, a poor story poorly told. It feels like an example of how Ten Thirteen’s increasing reluctance to allow experimentation or novelty slowly strangled the comic book line.

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2 Responses

  1. I know this article is old but I am wondering if there is a place online to read all of the old txf comics??

    • A hoy hoy!

      No worries. I generally see comments when they’re added, whether they’re old or new.

      There is a master list of my X-Files reviews, including comics:
      https://them0vieblog.com/2016/07/21/the-x-files-reviews-master-list/

      That’ll have all the Topps/Wildstorm/IDW stuff on there. In fact, most comics “runs” will have links to the constituent stories. So Petrucha’s run will have links to his individual stories. Ditto Joe Harris’ “Season Ten” and “Season Eleven.”

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