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The X-Files: Season One (Topps) #7 – Fire (Review)

We’ve recently finished our reviews of the nine seasons of The X-Files. Along the way, we tried to do tie-ins and crossovers and spin-offs. However, some of those materials weren’t available at the right time. So this week will be spent finishing Topps’ line of “Season One” comics, published during the fifth season in the lead up to The X-Files: Fight the Future.

Space was perhaps the best of Topps’ Season One line of comics, a version of the first season episode that came much closer to realising the potential of Chris Carter’s outer space mystery than anything that appeared on a television screen during the show’s first year. In a way, Space suggested a possible sustainable model for the Season One line of comics beyond a rather cynical attempt to have two separate X-Files comics running in parallel. What if the Season One line could be used to “fix” stories that had misfired the first time around?

This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, there is little point in just rehashing the show’s strongest moments. The comic adaptation of Beyond the Sea might entertain, but it will never be the definitive or stronger example of that story. The comic adaptations lack the chemistry of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, but they do have an unlimited visual effects budget and the ability to filter a story through a unique artistic sensibility. So perhaps Season One should not fixate on a “greatest hits” tour of the first season, but should instead focus on the misfires.

Burn with me...

Burn with me…

In many respects, the adaptation of Fire serves as a limit case. It demonstrates that a unique artistic sensibility and an unlimited imaginary budget are not enough to salvage every story. After all, Space didn’t work for a number of very specific reasons that made it perfectly suited to a comic book adaptation. The first season lacked the resources and the technical skill to tell a particularly convincing story about space ghosts, even those confined to just one coast. The problem with the episode Space was largely that it was muddled and dull, surprisingly visually uninteresting.

A comic book is perfectly positioned to fix these issues. Artist Val Mayerick was able to create a more visually interesting approach to the material, but also to tell the story in a way that was easier to follow. On a basic storytelling level, Mayerick was much better at communicating necessary information to the audience than the episode’s original director, Will Graham. The comic book adaptation looks more impressive, but is also easier to follow, with Mayerick understanding how to convey all the plot beats to the audience in a clear and effective way.

Smoke 'em...

Smoke ’em…

While the process of adaptation worked very well for Space, it will not work as well for every misfire in the show’s first season. The comic book medium was perfectly suited to counteract the very specific flaws with how Space was filmed, but that does not mean that it is a magic bullet that will instantly render every flawed first season episode as a masterpiece. Fire is proof of that, an adaptation of a deeply flawed first season episode that manages very little improvement upon its troubled source material.

The art is impressive. One of the nicer approaches of the Season One line is a willingness to experiment with more impressionistic and atmospheric styles than Topps and Ten Thirteen would tolerate on the main X-Files book. The stylised depictions of Mulder and Scully in the Season One book capture the tone of the Vancouver era much better than the clean lines of artists like Alex Saviuk or Gordon Purcell, who both do very good work on their own terms. The look and feel of the Season One line is richer than that of the more major X-Files books.

Burning brightly...

Burning brightly…

John Van Fleet handles the art duties on Fire, and does great work. Van Fleet does all of his art digitally, lending it a washed out look with strong bursts of colour and thick linework. Van Fleet’s approach had worked beautifully for The Pilot, and heightened the claustrophobia of Ice. With the intense red and yellow light cast by an unpredictable fire, Van Fleet is the perfect artist. There are some beautiful panels of characters’ faces lit up by the episode’s bright and burning flames.

At the same time, the Season One line of comics demonstrates just how visual The X-Files was, even in its earliest days and even in its clumsiest stories. Fire is hardly the most memorable of first season episodes, however there are a number of instantly recognisable visual sequences that jump out on reading the comic; sequences borrowed directly from the episode. Even the blandest and most mundane of X-Files episodes can typically provide some memorable or distinctive visual; here, it is the sequence of Cecil L’ively offering a light to a lady at a bar.

Lighting up the room...

Lighting up the room…

This is not to diminish Van Fleet’s contributions to the comic. The splash page of Cecil consumed by his own flames is arguably even more nightmarish than the equivalent shot in the episode, a horror captured in a stylistic fashion that evokes the work of Mike Mignola. That splash page is horrific and disturbing for the fact that it does not appear photorealistic, instead offering thick blacks and rich colours to create an impressionist version of a man burned alive by flames he had previously controlled.

However, for all that, the comic adaptation cannot fix the core problems with Fire. The episode was very dull and heavy on exposition, and Roy Thomas’ script for the comic dutifully carries over a lot of that eye-rolling dialogue. There are only a handful of changes made. Unlike a key sequence in Deep Throat, Fire strains to properly convey all the relevent plot information that does not map easily across different media.Thomas is very much providing a faithful adaptation, just covering up some of the gaps created by transposing the story from live action to print.

Woah, woah, woah, I'm on fire...

Woah, woah, woah, I’m on fire…

In the televised episode, Cecil’s attempt at an American accent conveys that he is in disguise. In the comic, Thomas changes Sir Malcolm’s line to explicitly acknowledge that Cecil is passing as an American. (“Seems like a rather nice fellow” becomes “seems like rather a nice young American.”) However, as with the rest of the Season One adaptation, Thomas is incredible faithful to his source material. There is very editing or revision done here, no attempt to diminish the cringe-inducing dialogue that populates the episode.

(Perhaps the biggest change between the episode and the comic is a speech bubble that looks to have been misattributed. In the episode, Mulder explains that Phoebe’s reference to a “three-pipe problem” is private joke. In the comic, it appears that Scully gets the reference on her own terms. “That’s from Sherlock Holmes. A private joke.” It is a small – and likely accidental – change, but it stands as the most significant revision to the story, allowing Scully to do her own Holmesian deduction about Mulder and Phoebe.)

The name's Mulder. Fox Mulder.

The name’s Mulder. Fox Mulder.

In some respects, Fire works even worse as a comic book. The audience is forced to actively read some of the lines instead of just letting it wash over them passively. The script’s awkward attempts to identify Cecil as Irish and Phoebe as British become even more jarring, because the words are printed on the page for the reader to go back over and acknowledge. Cecil actually says “top of the mornin’ to ya.” Pheobe uses the phrases “crumb of evidence” and “dirty bugger” just in case the audience doesn’t get that she comes from England.

That said, there is a very faint sense some of the dialogue works better as part of a comic book. Carter’s dialogue for The X-Files could often seem hokey or staged, and Fire is populated with weird exchanges that feel like nothing an actual person would say. However, these lines feel more appropriate coming from a comic book character, perhaps capturing the pulpy tone in which they were written. “You’ve got quite a case for yourself here, Mulder,” remarks Beatty, the arson specialist. “I almost wish I could be in your shoes.” It plays like a line from a young adult novel.

If you can't stand the heat...

If you can’t stand the heat…

Fire demonstrates the limits of the ability for these Season One comics to “fix” flawed episodes from the show’s first season. Given the faithfulness of the scripting, there are some problems that cannot be fixed with so meticulous a do-over.

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