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The X-Files: Season One (Topps) #9 – Shadows (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.

And, with Shadows, the Season One line comes to a close.

Although The X-Files was at the very peak of its popularity between the fifth and sixth seasons, the Topps line of comics was winding to a close. Although Topps had turned a very tidy profit on the line, Ten Thirteen had been less enthused by the relationship. The production company decided not to renew their contract with Topps, and so the X-Files line of comics was quietly retired. Shadows was published in July 1998, a month following the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future.

A shadow of itself...

A shadow of itself…

It was not the last X-Files comic book to be published by Topps. The company would release one more issue of the regular series – Severed – shortly before the start of the sixth season. There was little indication that Topps expected the contract to come to an end; the publisher had actually solicited two further issues of the Season One line beyond Shadows, adaptations of The Jersey Devil and Ghost in the Machine. These were somewhat lackluster first season episodes, but episodes with the sort of impressive visual ideas that might translate well to the comic book medium.

An adaptation of The Jersey Devil and Ghost in the Machine would certainly have made for a more visually satisfying final issue than an adaptation of Shadows.

What we do in the shadows...

What we do in the shadows…

One of the more interesting aspects of the whole Season One project is the simple fact that bad episodes do not always make for bad comics. In many ways, Space is the best issue of the nine comic run, despite ranking as one of the worst episodes that show ever produced. It goes almost without saying, but comic books and television are different media; what works in one medium does not always work in the other, and what doesn’t work in one medium will not necessarily fail in the other.

Space demonstrated that some of the show’s pulpier high-concept scripts worked quite well in print, where the only restriction on what could be shown was the artist’s imagination. Freed from the constraints of budget, the comic was able to conjure up imagery that would never have been possible for the show in its first season. More than that, the comic book format lent itself to sillier dialogue and heightened storytelling in a way that did not always work on television.

No (fire) escape...

No (fire) escape…

However, it should also be noted that stories that work well on television tended to translate rather well to the comic book. The X-Files was always a very visual series, so season highlights like Ice and Beyond the Sea were rich in a moody atmosphere that translated to the page very well. The dialogue was written well enough that it never killed momentum or suffocated the comic book. While bad episodes did not always make for bad comics, good episodes did generally make for good comics. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

Writer Roy Thomas and artist Sean Scofield had collaborated on Beyond the Sea, a fine example of how a good script and strong visual style could translate into satisfying comic book storytelling. Thomas was a veteran writer with a wealth of experience in adaptation, which meant that he knew how to handle one of the show’s best scripts. Scofield was a great likeness artist, meaning that he could capture a lot of the nuances from central performers Gillian Anderson and Brad Dourif. He was also very good at atmosphere, capturing the tone set by director David Nutter.

Glass act...

Glass act…

Shadows does not play to the strength of either contributor. Glen Morgan and James Wong have acknowledges that Shadows was one of their less inspired scripts from the first season, an episode largely driven by the network’s expectations that Mulder and Scully should be involved in some sort of procedural framework tackling conventional horror movie monsters. The result is a story that fixates upon its guest character, treating Mulder and Scully as passengers along for the ride in a convoluted industrial drama of fathers, daughters and terrorism.

The problem is not so much the focus on guest character Lauren Kyte and deceased guest character Howard Graves, although it is even harder to invest in a one-shot guest character when they are already deceased by the start of the episode and do not actually appear on screen. The X-Files has a wealth of classic stories with memorable one-shot guest characters. There is Luther Lee Boggs from Beyond the Sea, Clyde Bruckman from Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, Marty Glenn from Mind’s Eye, Patrick Crump from Drive.

Under lockdown...

Under lockdown…

However, Lauren Kyte is not a particularly memorable guest character by any stretch. The show’s strongest guest characters are defined by powerful scripts and stunning performances; many of the show’s standout guest characters were portrayed by actors who became far more recognisable in the years following their appearance of the show. Quite simply, Lauren Kyte is not compelling enough to support the episode. Morgan and Wong’s script struggled to define her, but so did actress Lisa Waltz.

Roy Thomas cannot tweak the script enough to make Lisa a more compelling character, and Sean Scofield isn’t able to pick up the same sort of visual cues from Lisa Waltz as he did with Brad Dourif in Beyond the Sea. Much like the episode itself, there is a recurring sense that Mulder and Scully are just spectators along for the ride. However, the structure of the comic book makes this all the more jarring; the comic’s narrative repeatedly jumps back to panels of Mulder and Scully observing the plot happening, interspaced with the actual plot.

FBI's most unwanted narrative intrusions...

FBI’s most unwanted narrative intrusions…

Then again, it is interesting to read Shadows alongside the issues of the main X-Files title being written by John Rozum and illustrated by Alex Saviuk at the same point in time. Rozum had been drafted in to succeed Stefan Petrucha as the writer on the monthly X-Files title with an understanding that he would push the title towards more formulaic and episodic adventures. Stories like The Face of Extinction, Cam Rahn Bay, Scum of the Earth and Severed felt very much like issues in an anthology series that just happened to star Mulder and Scully.

Shadows feels very much of a piece with these sorts of single-issue stories, an episode in an anthology series that is less interested in Mulder and Scully than the guest star or the weird phenomena of the week. It could be argued that the creative restrictions imposed by Ten Thirteen upon the writers and artists working at Topps were very much equivalent to the restrictions that had been imposed on The X-Files itself in its first season by network executives who did not understand the show. In a way, Season One provides an interesting point of comparison.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…

To be fair, Morgan and Wong’s dialogue tends to work relatively well in the comic book form, avoiding the sort of long-winded exposition that defines some of Carter’s scripts. While Shadows is a little too convoluted and generic for its own good, the comic does pace itself around some of the episode’s stronger dialogue moments. Of particular note is John Workman’s lettering in Mulder’s triumphant declaration that only one person has ever successfully faked their own death (“Elvis”) and Scully’s incredibly endearing Poltergeist reference.

Visually, the storytelling suffers from the fact that a lot of the major sequences in Shadows depend on movement. Shadows is a ghost story, but it is a ghost story that hinges on things moving when they really shouldn’t. In the episode, this is conveyed through characters being thrown or objects being shifted. This is obviously something that is quite difficult to convey in still artwork, even with the use of sound effects. In some ways, this type of story is unsuited to comic book storytelling.

Mulder's got drive...

Mulder’s got drive…

Comics are a collection of still images; often, these images are structured to present the illusion of movement, the mind filling in the blanks between the still images. Without the frame of reference of the episode itself, it is often quite difficult to work out what is happening from panel to panel within the context of Shadows. Because the actual movements themselves (rather than the end results of the action) are meant to be jarring, a lot is lost in the space between the panels. Shadows has difficulty conveying its ghost story in the same manner as the episode did.

This makes sense. Again, one of the challenges of the Season One line is striking the right balance between the original story and the demands of the new medium. Space was able to capitalise on the differences between the original teleplay and the realities of comic book publishing in order to tell an improved version of the source material. The problem with Shadows is that the adaptation is unable to fundamentally change the big set pieces so that they would feel more appropriate to a comic book. The result is an unsatisfying comic book story.

Shady dealings...

Shady dealings…

Shadows would be the last Season One comic, and it proves to be a disappointing conclusion. The comic book adaptation of The Jersey Devil by writer Roy Thomas and Yanick Paquette was fully inked by the time that Ten Thirteen decided not to renew the license. It seems highly likely that those comic book pages have been lost to history. It would have been very interesting to see what Paquette would have done with the basic premise of the story, another example of the first season botching the execution on a fascinating concept.

Shadows is not the worst episode of the first season by a considerable stretch. It is an extremely mediocre episode of television, but one that speaks to a show still finding itself in the very early stages of its long life. However, its flaws are not those that can be salvaged in a translation to another medium, and its major set pieces are very difficult to render using only static shots. The result is a comic that feels rather limp and lifeless. It is bland and generic; failing to improve on (or even match) its squarely mediocre source material.

Ghost stories...

Ghost stories…

This is not a particularly impressive final issue, but it feels in some ways representative of the large Season One project.

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