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The X-Files (Topps) #41 – Severed (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.

This is the end.

Severed is the last X-Files comic book to be published by Topps. It was released in September 1998, after the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future and before the broadcast of The Beginning. The company had actually solicited a number of X-Files comics that were never actually published – including Season One adaptations of The Jersey Devil and Ghost in the Machine. It seems quite likely that Severed was the last comic book to be published by the comic book division of Topps, who had decided to retreat from the industry following market trends.

Filed away...

Filed away…

Topps wrapped up the bulk of its publishing operations over the summer of 1998, releasing the last few tie-in comics for Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Severed was actually delayed significantly. Devil’s Advocate had been published in June, leaving a three-month gap between the two issues. It is interesting to wonder what the delays behind publication might have been; certainly writer John Rozum and Alex Saviuk had proven themselves quite capable of managing a monthly schedule.

Whatever was happening behind the scenes, Severed is very much damp squib of an ending. It’s a bland and forgettable story, but one that is sadly par for the course in the stage of the book’s life cycle.

The transformed man...

The transformed man…

In order to understand the cancellation of The X-Files, it is worth looking at the comic book industry as it stood in the late nineties. The industry had enjoyed a boom during the early years of the decade, attracting speculators who were keen to buy up “important” issues with the hope of preserving them and selling them on for a massive profit years later. This model spurred comics like Spider-Man #1 and X-Men #1 to massive success, with people buying the books so they could wrap them up in plastic bags and turn a tidy profit.

The industry began to cater to this mindset, promoting the idea of comics as collectables rather than as books. Gimmicks became part of the way that the industry operated – foil covers, holograms, plastic bags, cover variants. It is no coincidence that this era coincided with the arrive of Topps into the comic book industry. Topps might not have known a lot about comics, but they understood the collectables industry. The comic book industry was caught in bubble. Unfortunately, bubbles tend to burst. Such is the nature of bubbles.

On the prowl...

On the prowl…

In the mid to late nineties, the industry came crashing down. Marvel filed for bankruptcy in December 1996. Given the company’s place in the industry, that was very much a warning sign. Topps editor Dwight Jon Zimmerman argued that the collapse of Marvel led Topps to retreat from the industry:

The comic book industry collapsed in the wake of Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1998. Though Topps Comics was still making money, the company decided to fold the comics division shortly thereafter and I was laid off.

Ironically, Marvel would actually emerge from bankruptcy in October 1998, only a month after Topps published Severed. If their collapse signalled the poor health of the industry, their return signalled a recovery. Certainly, it played a significant role in the current comic book movie boom.

Putting the dog down...

Putting the dog down…

Of course, the spectre of Marvel’s collapse haunts even the current superhero boom. Marvel signed many of its movie contracts during its financial troubles, selling Spider-Man to Sony and the X-Men (and Fantastic Four) to Fox at a point where they desperately needed the money. The terms of these agreements were not favourable to Marvel, cutting the company off from feature film adaptations of its most popular characters and forcing them to accept relatively meagre shares of the profits. The terms of the deals remain contentious to today.

Still, there are other accounts that suggest the cancellation of The X-Files was not due to market trends. The comic was quite a profitable book for Topps, as evidenced by their eagerness to franchise it. Even with the collapse of the comic book industry in the late nineties, The X-Files was still popular enough that it could hold down two different on-going series and a miniseries adaptation of a novel at the same time. It seems like Topps had not yet hit saturation point as The X-Files built towards its big feature film release.

The wolf among us...

The wolf among us…

Artist Alex Saviuk, who worked on the final year of the comic, has suggested that the cancellation of the book had nothing to do with Topps and everything to do with Ten Thirteen:

Ten Thirteen who did the television show had script and art approval over everything we did. In 1998, when the X-Files movie came out, they decided not to renew the contract on the comic book. They said that with the movie being so successful they were thinking about franchising the movie and they really didn’t have the time to set up a new department where they would be going over scripts, and art and approvals and so they weren’t going to renew the contract at that time, but they would eventually get to it. That basically meant that they weren’t interested.

Whatever the actual reason, Severed would be the last X-Files comic to be published by Topps. It is hardly the most auspicious ending to a monthly series that ran over three years.

Locked and loaded...

Locked and loaded…

Ten Thirteen’s decision to simply let the license lapse highlights one of the paradoxes of this stretch of The X-Files. The show was at the very height of its popularity, to the point where it felt comfortable cancelling its monthly comic book series. However, there was always a sense that his peak might be fleeting. The release of Fight the Future represented something of a pinnacle for The X-Files, the moment at which it seemed like the franchise had conquered the world. Although the show’s decline did not begin immediately, there were indications of trouble ahead.

The comic book had never been a major concern for Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen; instead, it represented a reliable licensing opportunity. The decision not to renew with Topps was a perfectly reasonable decision under the circumstances. However, it would also serve as something of an indication of the show’s decline. The issue is not so much the decision to let Topps’ interest in the property expire, but the failure to find another party eager or willing enough to publish another monthly X-Files comic book on terms that would satisfy Ten Thirteen.

Something's eating at her...

Something’s eating at her…

Barring a couple of Lone Gunmen stories from Dark Horse, Severed would be the last official X-Files comic published until 2008. This issue marks the beginning of a decade-long lull in the publication of X-Files comic books. Comic books were no longer the huge market that they had been in the early (or even mid) nineties, but the lack of an X-Files comic book on the stands did serve to make the brand a bit less ubiquitous than it might otherwise have been. It is not a massive indicator on its own, but it does suggest that The X-Files was not quite the juggernaut it had been.

Then again, perhaps this is a good thing. The first sixteen issues of the monthly X-Files comic rank as some of the best tie-in comics ever produced – a bold and imaginative take on a television property that was willing to reinvent and reimagine it for the new medium. However, the comic lost a lot of its spirit with the departure of Petrucha and Adlard. John Rozum has written some solid X-Files comics – DonorBe PreparedRemote ControlN.D.E., Scum of the Earth – but he has also written a lot of generic nonsense.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

There is no real life or verve in The X-Files comic book any more. It is just a very bland and familiar anthology comic that happens to star two characters with name recognition. There are some recurring themes and some distinctive tropes, but there is no real sense of purpose to the tie-in comic. There is no sense that Rozum has any idea where he wishes to take the comic. More than that, there is no sense that Ten Thirteen would let him take the comic anywhere even if he wanted to.

Severed is an indication of this. It is a very standard werewolf story, with Mulder and Scully investigating a serial killer who might or might not have been a werewolf. As ever, there are some interesting ideas here. Stories like Irresistible or Grotesque explored the tendency to transform human evil into something more monstrous and absurd. There are a whole host of historical precedents for blaming vampires and werewolves for crimes committed by very human villains; telling that story in a modern context might be interesting.

Shooting from the hip...

Shooting from the hip…

Instead, Severed follows a very familiar and predictable pattern. The killer actually is a werewolf, but he was working with another infected person to kill the werewolf who originally infected them. If they could kill the original wolf, the curse would be lifted. There are any number of potent metaphors or ideas suggested by the set-up. After all, the nineties was a decade when everybody was deeply concerned about the spread of certain infections – particularly those transmitted through intimate contact like biting.

John Rozum’s script for Severed follows the path of least resistance, with Mulder and Scully doing very little that could not be done by two other anonymous characters. Although the script contains all the requisite speculation about the nature of the transformation and a host of unnecessary exposition about the condition, there is very little investigation. Mulder and Scully are given the address of the original werewolf by a character who was apprehended by local law enforcement, rather than finding it themselves. Mulder is attacked, Scully kills the wolf.

Trained to hunt...

Trained to hunt…

There is nothing particular special about all this. There is nothing that marks this as a special or important story, and certainly not a suitable ending for a monthly comic book. Of course, this is not necessarily a flaw. There is a certain dignity in wrapping up the comic with a standard “business as usual” story rather than trying to go large for the sake of going large. More to the point, it seems quite likely that Rozum did not know this would be his last X-Files story when he wrote it. The real problem is that “business as usual” is so lifeless and so banal.

Severed is a story that is perfectly indicative of where The X-Files is at this point in its run, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps it is for the best that the comic is coming to a close, even if it ends on a whimper rather than a bang.

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