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The X-Files (Topps) #40 – Devil’s Advocate (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.

Devil’s Advocate is a perfectly serviceable comic.

Its most distinguishing feature is the fact that it was not written by John Rozum, even though the art is provided by Alex Saviuk. This is not the first time that Rozum had taken a break from the monthly title. Writer Kevin J. Anderson had substituted in for Family Portrait, providing a quick two-issue fill-in rather early in the run. Here, executive editor Dwight Jon Zimmerman steps in to script the issue, possibly freeing up Rozum to finish work on the adaptation of The X-Files: Fight the Future that Topps planned to publish to mark the release of the film.

Ghosts in the machine...

Ghosts in the machine…

Dwight Jon Zimmerman was an industry veteran. He had worked at Marvel during the late eighties, writing for characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine. He joined Topps when they announced their plan to expand into the world of comic book publishing. Zimmerman worked as both an executive editor and as a writer. He worked on the company’s Mars Attacks! line. He also wrote Once Upon a Time…, the illustrated biography of Princess Diana that was published by the company in 1997.

Zimmerman’s interests tend towards the military. He has written articles on American military history for American Heritage, the Naval Institute Press, and Vietnam Magazine. He served as President of the Military Writers’ Society of America. As such, it is no surprise that Devil’s Advocate plays to those strengths. It is an old-fashioned “military cover-up” story, with little to distinguish or define it from dozens of similar stories told using these characters over years and years.

"This is why we should go rafting in the daytime, Scully."

“This is why we should go rafting in the daytime, Scully.”

Devil’s Advocate is competent. It demonstrates a reasonable familiarity with the material, and a solid understanding of the stock tropes that are employed by these sorts of stories. Devil’s Advocate reads almost as a checklist of familiar plot elements. There is a military cover-up, a mysterious disappearance, an inexplicable death, suspicious late-night activity, and rhetoric about the greater good. In this case, it is suggested that the United States military has been very cleverly undermining nuclear disarmament treaties by hiding their nukes at the bottom of lakes.

These are all elements that can be used in service of an interesting story. It is quite telling that Devil’s Advocate feels like it might have made a passable early first-season episode. It has the feel of something like The Pilot or Deep Throat, where the show is very consciously working its way through tropes that will become its stock and trade. However, the show has come a long way since The Pilot and Deep Throat. Those familiar elements are still used in episodes like Max and Tempus Fugit, but in service of a more compelling story.

Pack a lunch...

Pack a lunch…

The idea of devoting so much attention to these tropes in early scripts was to develop something akin to a televisual shorthand – for both the writers and the viewers. Spending so much time introducing the idea of a conspiracy, or the men in black, or the military officers in contamination suits meant that the show could figure out how well they worked in drawing a response from the audience. That way, they could become narrative tricks in the writers’ toolbox, shortcuts that could help tell other stories with their own objectives.

Devil’s Advocate feels like scaffolding around an interesting story. All the moving parts are in place, all the little details are correct. There is a mystery at the heart of the story; there are clear indications of a sinister cover-up. However, it all feels relatively banal. In presenting the case to Scully, Mulder produces a radiation indicator that proves there is radiation in Devil’s Lake. The revelation that the radiation in Devil’s Lake comes from nuclear bombs hidden by the United States military feels like the next organic step in the mystery, rather than the mystery itself.

xfiles-devilsadvocate1

Gone fishin’…

It’s anticlimactic. It’s a reveal that just fizzles. This is a world where the government is plotting with aliens to wipe out mankind. Even within the world of the comic book, the government has been covering up the fact that it trained killer dolphins. The suggestion that the government might be hiding nuclear weapons in the sorts of places where private companies would illegally dump toxic waste feels rather hollow. It is a pretty terrible thing to do, but it is not anywhere near the worst thing that the government has done on the show.

Devil’s Advocate feels like filler. It is like a paint-by-numbers X-Files story that Topps published because John Rozum was not available and because they didn’t want to have to skip a month in the schedule. It’s generic and bland and boring, even if it is competently written.

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