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John Rozum and Alex Saviuk/Charles Adlard/Gordon Purcell’s Run on The X-Files (Topps) (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.

It is amazing to think that Topps’ licensed comic book tie-in to The X-Files lasted three-and-a-half years, let alone that it was such a success that it spawned a second on-going series, a miniseries and a considerable volume of one-shots and digests and annuals. If anything, Topps enjoyed greater success exploiting the license than even IDW has – despite the fact that Topps was a relatively young company with minimal experience in comic book publishing while IDW has a reputation for (and a lot of experience at) skilfully leveraging these sorts of tie-in properties.

This success would be remarkable in any context, but the comic book succeeded at a time of turmoil for the entire comic book industry. The late nineties were not a good time for comics, with the speculation bubble imploding and Marvel filing for bankruptcy. The success of Topps’ X-Files comic book is in many way a triumph of the brand, yet another reminder of how the series was on top of the world. There were lots of others – the ratings, the film, the tie-in video game – but the success of the comic was part of the narrative of The X-Files at this stage of its life.

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The comics themselves are actually surprisingly good. There is a reason that one of the first things that IDW did upon receiving the license was to publish “classic” collections of these comics. One of the more interesting aspects of the monthly series was the way that it managed to feel like The X-Files while still seeming suited to the medium in question. Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard pitched their run as something akin to a Vertigo comic, feeling like a crossover between The X-Files and the work of Grant Morrison or Neil Gaiman.

The influences on John Rozum’s run are a lot less ambitious. Time and time again, Rozum seems to position his run on The X-Files as a rather strange hybrid between the first season of the television series and pulpy fifties horror comics. There are quite a few stories in Rozum’s run that might easily be read alongside Fantagraphics’ E.C. Comics archives, albeit guest starring Mulder and Scully. (And modern fashions. And phones. And so on.) It is a perfectly reasonable and legitimate way to approach the idea of “X-Files comic books.”

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Indeed, it seems especially reasonable given the existing tensions between Ten Thirteen and Topps over the comics. The relationship had been fraught since the early days of the comic, with Ten Thirteen objecting to both Petrucha’s dense and ambitious plotting and Adlard’s moody and atmospheric art. Petrucha was fired from the title after sixteen issues, while Adlard was phased out in favour of better likeness artists like Gordon Purcell or Alex Saviuk. Ten Thirteen wanted a safer and more conventional comic book under Rozum’s pen, and they got it.

While it is easy to understand why these creative decisions were made, it does not make them any more palatable. Rozum’s work on The X-Files is generally quite consistent and occasionally even impressive. But it seldom seems ambitious or exciting. Under Petrucha, the tie-in comic carved out its own space that intersected with the parent show. Under Rozum, the comic book seems to do nothing but skirt the margins.

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It should be noted that there are good stories under Rozum’s tenure. His three-part Remote Control is probably the best story in this stretch of the title, even if it does feel a little safe and familiar. Be Prepared captures the feel and mood of an early X-Files episode, with a number of nice plot twists. Even scripts like Donor and Scum of the Earth deliver on the gleeful pulp promised by the descriptor “The X-Files by way of EC Comics.” The comic is rarely actively bad in this stretch of the run, although it does become quite monotonous at points.

The stories under Rozum tend to split into two different styles. The first style has the feel of a pulpy throwback. Stories like The Kanashibari, Donor, Silver Lining, Soma, Scum of the Earth and Severed all have the feel of classic throw-away horror comics. They are very traditional supernatural horror stories, often meditating on the idea of revenge – particularly revenge from beyond the grave. These stories tend to treat Mulder and Scully as interlopers into stories that could easily have been told around them.

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These stories are largely episodic. While Petrucha wove his first twelve issues into a tightly-interconnected mythology, Rozum tends to let his stories stand alone. Remote Control alludes to a conspiracy and back story which is never mentioned again. When the character of Kristof Van Handorf from Surrounded reappears in Scum of the Earth, it is massive surprise. Then again, Rozum promptly kills the returning character off, so as hint at the possibility of continuity rather than actually developing continuity.

The result is that Rozum’s run feels largely disconnected and disengaged from itself, let alone the source material or the other comics. There are recurring themes and ideas, but these tend to be rather bland and unspecific. Stories like E.L.F.sSkybuster and Cam Ranh Bay are all environmental stories concerned with man’s impact on the world – with a strange fixation on the impact of “extremely low frequency” radiation. These fit with stories like Darkness Falls or F. Emasculata or Detour.

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However, there is nothing in these stories that hints at any broader themes or larger truths. At its best, The X-Files dealt with grand themes about human nature and the big questions of the universe. Stefan Petrucha’s work on the comic dared to ask questions about the nature of reality itself and conspiracies in particular. Rozum’s run lacks any real philosophical throughline. The final pages of Thin Air bring up the subject of Samantha Mulder, but there is no sense that Rozum has much to say about either Mulder or Scully.

There are entertaining stories there. In particular, Donor and Scum of the Earth are pretty much perfect examples of why these sorts of horror stories can be so much fun. The genre elements at work in them are obvious and predictable, but the comic embraces those ideas and just runs with them. It is almost impossible to imagine Scum of the Earth airing as part of the show that inspired the comic, but that is okay. Television and comic books are different media; it makes sense that stories should be tailored to the strengths of their medium.

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At the same time, there is something quite frustrating about all of these stories. The fact that these stories are so generic and predictable becomes distracting, particularly when there are so many of them. There are points where Rozum has an interesting idea at the heart of the story, but never develops or expands it. Soma is a story about the horrific practice of “widow burning”, but the story never actually engages with the horror of the act. Instead, it uses it to frame a very generic supernatural revenge story.

There are stories in the run that seem ambitious on the surface. The Face of Extinction embraces high fantasy in a way that very few X-Files stories really can, as Mulder and Scully discover that mankind shares the planet with a race of goat people. Cam Ranh Bay features murderous dolphins driven to kill, with parts of the story told from their perspective. However, neither of these stories seizes on those big ideas; neither delivers on the potential. The narrative is still basic, the prose is still familiar. The experimentation is minimalised.

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To be fair, some this might be down to pacing issues. Rozum is a writer who is very fond of driving his plot by way of exposition. This was quite apparent in Thin Air, his first script for the show. Rozum got a lot more reliable as he worked on the comic, but occasionally it seemed like his scripts would just spin their wheels for pages while characters explain the plot to the reader. It can be seen in his script for the short story The Silent Blade, where space should be at a premium. It is particularly bad in Cam Ranh Bay, but it also really hurts the climax of N.D.E.

As a result of Rozum’s preference for detailed info-dumps and talking heads, there is a sense that he is not a writer best suited to single-issue storytelling. Some of his stories might have worked better had they been given room to breathe a little. Be Prepared is a very basic story told over two issues, but it takes advantage of the extra pages to build mood and character. Similarly, Rozum’s best story might be Remote Control, which the author’s longest storyline that spans three whole issues.

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At the same time, not all of Rozum’s multi-issue stories work better than his single-issue adventures. Surrounded is just as bland and generic as any of the surrounding done-in-one comics. N.D.E. works well for most of its two issues, but hits a major roadblock at the climax when character begin narrating the action scene. This is the opposite of the problem with Night Lights, which starts out as a very bland and generic story before morphing into something very interesting in its final handful of pages.

Again, it is hard to tell how many of these problems can be laid at Rozum’s feet. His exposition is a little clunky, but it seems quite likely that his plotting was dictated by the tense working relationship between Topps and Ten Thirteen. After all, the series was only cancelled because Ten Thirteen decided that they didn’t want to be bothered by need to license comic books any longer. The simple stories and the emphasis on single-issue storytelling feel like they could have come from the top down.

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If pulp fifties horror comics are one big influence on Rozum’s work, then the first season of The X-Files is another key influence. Then again, this overlap feels quite appropriate. There is an aesthetic similarity. Although The X-Files was never embarrassed of its pulpier elements, the first season was packed with the sorts of supernatural revenge stories that populate this stretch of the comic. The Kanashibari, Donor and Soma could easily fit alongside Lazarus, Young at Heart and Born Again.

However, that is not the only basis for the comparison. When Rozum’s comics feel particularly “X-Files-y”, they tend to feel like first season episodes of the show. Remote Control evokes E.B.E., with Mulder chasing unmarked trucks and desperate to catch a glimpse of an alien. N.D.E. recalls Beyond the Sea, with personal attachments compromising Scully’s ability to remain detached from a case. Be Prepared harks back to Darkness Falls, although the show was always fond of “send the agents into the wilderness” plots.

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Rozum’s broader disinterest in characterisation probably contributes to this. While there are exceptions (like Be Prepared or N.D.E.), Rozum tends to treat Mulder and Scully like cyphers. The characterisation in Thin Air is dumped on the reader in the last couple of pages, feeling more like an after-thought than a twist. These don’t feel like the characters with whom viewer shave spent four or five years. They feel undefined and hazy, as they did all those years ago. There are points where the monthly comic feels like a companion to the Season One books.

(In contrast, Petrucha and Adlard seemed to intersect with the show as it was – or even as it would be. A Dismembrance or Things Past landed around the same time that Darin Morgan arrived on staff. Silent Cities of the Mind and Home of the Brave preempted the fourth and fifth seasons’ fascination with militia movement in episodes like The Field Where I Died, Tunguska, Terma, Unrequited and The Pine Bluff Variant. Even the cynical (and almost nihilistic) tone of Petrucha and Adlard’s final few issues foreshadow the mood of the fourth season.)

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There is something rather unfortunate about all this. John Rozum wrote The X-Files – with a few fill-in guest writers – from the end of the third season through to the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future. In many respects, he was writing these comics during the “golden age” of the show. When Frank Spotnitz returned to write X-Files comics with Wildstorm, he would set those stories in a nebulous period (“out of time”) between the second and fifth seasons. It was perhaps the best time to be writing X-Files comics.

As such, it feels like something of a waste to spend that period telling stories that feel like they belong to an earlier and rougher part of the show’s history. The dynamic between Mulder and Scully was so essential to the show that it would anchor the feature film, but Rozum writes the duo as if they’ve barely begun to know one another. This awkwardness is excusable in his early comics. It takes a while to find the right voice for the two characters. The problem is that Rozum’s run never really improved.

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The conservatism of this stretch of Topps’ X-Files comic is perhaps reflected in the choice of art time. After Stefan Petrucha departed, Charles Adlard was demoted from the position of regular artist on the title. He was sent into rotation with Gordon Purcell, with the two collaborating in a rather disjointed fashion on Remote Control. Adlard’s decidedly atmospheric style was phased out in favour of stronger character likenesses. In fact, the graphic novel Afterflight was delayed for over a year while Ten Thirteen “patched” Jill Thompson’s art work.

In the second half of its run, The X-Files looked less and less like a weird Vertigo comic, and more and more like a familair tie-in product. This is not a knock on Gordon Purcell or Alex Saviuk. Both artists are very good at what they do. Gordon Purcell is one of the best likeness artists in the business. However, it was clear that a transition had taken place. The X-Files tie-in comic book had become a lot more conventional and generic. In its first sixteen issues, it had been bizarre and bold; now it felt curiously safe.

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Had Ten Thirteen decided to pull the plug out from under the tie-in comic book after those sixteen issues, it would have been a tragedy. The comic would have been gone before its time. It likely would have remained little more than a curiosity for hardcore X-Files fans, but bringing the axe down after Home of the Brave would have suggested a tie-in series struck down in its prime. Those few devoted fans who sought out the comics would wonder at the waste potential cut sort by fickle corporate mandates.

In contrast, the decision to kill the comic after forty-one issues feels almost like a relief. It was a good run, a long run. There were not too many embarrassing stories in there, but it had been years since the comic had actually surprised. If the comic was to be missed, its absence would be noted through dull routine; if there was no forty-second issue, a reader’s pull list might just seem a little lighter rather than incomplete. There would be no tears shed for brilliant plots lost to history, no laments for themes to be brought to a conclusion.

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John Rozum’s run on The X-Files is competent. It is efficient. It manages to satisfy a lot of the requirements imposed upon him, while still telling stories that (mostly) work. It is not exceptional or brilliant or transcendental. Few tie-in comics ever are.

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