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Roy Thomas’ Run on The X-Files: Season One (Topps) (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.

It is hard to figure out what exactly the point of the Season One line was meant to be.

In a very superficial way, the point was obvious. The intent was to add a second regular series to Topps’ line of comics based around The X-Files. Even during the comic book bubble burst of the mid- to late-nineties, The X-Files was a good seller for the company. The monthly book sold well enough that Topps’ eagerly supplemented it. New stories were published as Digest editions, published alongside the less successful Ray Bradbury comics. Annuals were published alongside the monthly book. Collections were published frequently.

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However, this was not enough to satisfy market demand. Topps wanted to publish more X-Files material with greater frequency. However, Ten Thirteen were less interested with the supervision that the line required. A compromise seemed in order. Rather than creating a new original series of comic books, they flooded with market with new adaptations of existing X-Files media. Writer Kevin J. Anderson and artist Gordon Purcell offered a four-part comic book miniseries adapting Anderson’s Ground Zero prose novel.

The publisher also decided to put out a series of adaptations of classic first season episodes, released once every two months. These would be adaptations of stories that had already been properly vetted by Ten Thirteen, having been produced in-house. The trick would simply be translating them into comic books.

Burn with me.

The Season One comics began with an experiment, the publishing of an adaptation of The Pilot written by comics veteran Roy Thomas and illustrated by John Van Fleet. This adaptation was originally released at the start of the fourth season as a once-off publication by the company, another attempt to put more X-Files content on the market for fans eager to supplement their weekly doses of Mulder and Scully. However, this adaptation of The Pilot was repackaged and re-released at the end of the fourth season, this time launching a new line of Topps X-Files comics.

In some respects, the experiment proved ideally suited to the aesthetic of the fourth season. The fourth season of The X-Files had proved quite reflective, turning its attention back to the earliest days of the show in an attempt to contextualise its own history. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man not only traced the history of the title character, with references to episodes like E.B.E. and One Breath, but it incorporated clips from The Pilot. First season characters like Max Fenig and Scott Blevins reappeared. The show even had its first time-travel episode.

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In this context, the Season One project seemed to make sense. The idea was to produce a line of comics that faithfully recreated all those early episodes in painstaking detail. There was no room for revisionism here; the comics would not massage the finer points of the script to help stories like Deep Throat or Conduit fit more comfortably in continuity. Conflicts with later continuity were preserved, the comic consciously favouring fidelity to source ahead of integration and consistency across the line.

That faithfulness could occasionally be an issue. In his fidelity to the source material, Roy Thomas sometimes had difficulty conveying information that needed to be conveyed. This is most obvious in Deep Throat, where the comic declines to focus the reader’s eye on relevant information before Mulder offers exposition about it. It is also quite apparent in Shadows, where it is difficult to follow the strange poltergeist activity from panel to panel, because the comic is translating filmed sequences that relied so heavily on movement.

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Similarly, this faithfulness caused problems when confronted with issues of dialogue and exposition. Fire is far too burdened with meaningless detail and embellishment for a comic book, with Roy Thomas declining to streamline Carter’s tendency towards verbose monologues and overly-detailed conversation. Television shows arguably have an easier time with this sort of exposition, with charismatic actors able to carry a lot of the burden. On the printed page, that exposition becomes more grating, sabotaging the pacing of the comic.

At the same time, there are points at which Thomas and his artists prove quite adept at the mysterious science of adaptation. This is particularly true at points where the first season of The X-Files lacked the technical ability to realise more ambitious visuals. Space might just be the best comic of the bunch, despite being the weakest episode of the first season. Skilfully realising special effects that were well outside the show’s capabilities in its debut season, Space demonstrates the potential of the Season One project as an opportunity to revise and expand past mistakes.

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In some respects, there is a sense that the Season One project arrived a little too early. The comic seems somewhat ill-suited to the fidelity promised by the fourth season’s fixation upon the show’s first year in production. Perhaps Season One might have done better to align itself with the tone and mood of the show’s fifth season, when it seemed like the writers’ had adopted a broader and more open-minded approach to the show’s internal history. The fifth season of the show offered no less than three different origin stories for The X-Files, for example.

Perhaps Season One might have been bolder if it had been willing to stretch itself a little bit, to revise some of the finer details of the stories that it was telling. Shadows would be a much more satisfying final issue if the poltergeist attacks were reconfigured to work in comics rather than simply emulating an approach that worked on film. Fire would certainly be a stronger adaptation if the comic were willing to revise some of the episode’s dialogue; it could even reinsert back in some of the character work for Cecil L’Ively that was dropped from the broadcast episode.

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This is not to suggest that the Season One line was a disaster by any stretch. It was rather unsatisfying from a narrative perspective, offering little new or exciting in its visits to classic stories. However, Season One also stands as a testament to the visual storytelling that underpins The X-Files. Quite a few of the Season One comics hold up quite well, offering effectively stylised depictions of iconic and influential episodes. The X-Files was always a television series that was extremely visual in its storytelling; as such, a comic book adaptation makes sense.

Generally speaking, what makes for a good X-Files episode makes for a good comic book; a good script, brought to live with a strong artistic eye. The willingness to use more stylised artists on the Season One line, as compared to the more conventional artists working on the monthly book at this stage of its life, worked very well. There is something interesting in seeing the visual style of episodes like The Pilot, Ice and Beyond the Sea filtered through the eyes of an artist with a unique artistic sensibility.

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The art of Season One captures the tone of the show quite well. Many of the artists borrow their framing from the episodes themselves, often mirroring specific shots in the broadcast cut. However, the artists also make effective use of darkness and shadow in their storytelling. It is an artistic approach that makes a great deal of sense; this darker and more abstract style feels much more suited to the world of The X-Files than the clear lines and careful likenesses that populated the monthly comic book and the Ground Zero miniseries towards the end of the Topps era.

In many ways, it is disappointing that Roy Thomas and these artists were never unleashed upon their own original X-Files story. It is fun to imagine what might have happened if the creators working on Season One had been given the freedom to develop their own ideas based around the tone and aesthetic of that first year. Indeed, it might have been interesting to bring artists like John Van Fleet or Sean Scofield to the monthly for an arc or two in order to tell a moodier sort of X-Files story. (Even Yanick Paquette worked on Season One, though his work was never published.)

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Season One is more of an interesting an experiment than a worthwhile diversion. The series is perhaps an example of the creative limitations imposed upon Topps in their attempts to exploit the X-Files as a licensed property. Given that this was the best possible choice for a second X-Files comic book series, it makes sense that the X-Files comic book line would lie fallow for the remainder of the show’s nine-season run.

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