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The X-Files (Wildstorm) #0 (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe marks a point of transition for The X-Files.

It seems to represent the point at which The X-Files truly stops its forward momentum; the point at which the show embraces its status as an artifact of the nineties rather than a living (and evolving) entity. There had been indications of this with the release of Resist or Serve, a video game which seemed to treat the seventh season as the “end” of The X-Files, but I Want to Believe embraced it on a much larger scale and on a much larger platform. The X-Files was not so much pushing forward as looking backwards.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

This reality was reflected in a number of ways. The importance of the eighth and ninth seasons was consciously downplayed, to the point where a gag in I Want to Believe hinges on the audience forgetting that both Mulder and Scully had worked at the FBI during the Bush administration. Doggett and Reyes were consigned to a blu ray bonus feature, an evolutionary branch of The X-Files to be cut off for the sake of convenience. I Want to Believe even took Mulder and Scully back to snowy Vancouver, a literal journey backwards.

The Wildstorm comic book pushes this reconceptualisation of the show to its logical conclusion, as if imaging some alternate world where The X-Files‘ so-called “golden age” of the second through fifth seasons had somehow lasted over a decade. The Wildstorm comics tease a glimpse of The X-Files frozen in amber, trapped for an eternity.

I WANT TO BELIEVE

I WANT TO BELIEVE

Nostalgia is a powerful force. There is a very strong desire to believe that the past was a beautiful and idyllic place. Part of that is down to the belief that our own childhoods – or earlier years – were somehow less complicated than our current situations. Part of that is because it’s easier to hope that mankind might find their way to utopia if we’ve been closer before than we are now. Memory tends to accentuate the positive and disregard the negative, and it is better to imagine the past was perfect than to face an uncertain future.

Even The X-Files itself was nostalgic; sitting at the very end of the twentieth century, The X-Files felt by turns anxious and uneasy at the changes wrought by globalisation, often affectionate in its portrayal of quirky American small town life. The X-Files frequently seemed mournful as its monsters were inevitably exposed and vanquished, as if the eccentric spaces within the American consciousness were being eroded. (Glen Morgan and James Wong viciously tore into this nostalgic streak in Home.)

Bullet time...

Bullet time…

Nostalgia takes many forms, and spans the length and breadth of any cultural history. It cuts across generations; baby boomers are nostalgic for the idealism of the sixties, while Generation X yearns longingly for the reassurance of familiar pop culture. Although initially considered a disorder, nostalgia is currently considered a useful tool in fighting depression and anxiety. It makes sense that nostalgia would grow even stronger in periods of distress or uncertainty, with the past providing a rock against which expectations might be anchored.

Unsurprisingly, given the turbulent nature of the twenty-first century, nostalgia has become increasingly pronounced in recent years. The past few years have seen a massive resurgence of nineties nostalgia, for example. The revival of The X-Files is undoubted a part of that, but it is part of a broader cultural shift that included the release of films like Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys, both films that eagerly sought to reimagine and recreate (rather than simply extend and elaborate upon) beloved childhood memories.

The red and the blue...

The red and the blue…

Although not quite as prominent as it would become, by 2008 nostalgia was becoming an increasingly influential force. The term “reboot” had already entered the popular lexicon to describe the act of stripping down a property to its most iconic elements so that it might be built anew. Superhero cinema had already begun reinventing popular characters like Superman and Batman. Russell T. Davies had resurrected Doctor Who after an extended absence from television.

Even the Star Trek franchise, always a helpful bellwether in gauging franchise trends, had undergone two attempts at a reboot. Star Trek: Enterprise was a conscious effort to take the franchise “back to basics” and evoke the spirit of James T. Kirk, although it strained to retain the continuity of everything that came afterwards. However, the failure of that television series meant that more drastic action was taken. In 2009, JJ Abrams would release a stronger reboot with Star Trek taking the franchise back to its original cast.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

There is a sense that The X-Files was not immune to these cultural (and market) forces. A huge part of I Want to Believe was an effort to return to the “iconic” set-up that had made the show so popular. Mulder and Scully investigated a “monster of the week” in the atmospheric surroundings of Vancouver. Doggett’s arrival in Within was completely forgotten, as was Mulder’s murder of Knowle Rohrer in The Truth. Although I Want to Believe retained continuity, it was a conscious effort to get “back to basics.”

The Wildstorm comic books released in conjunction with I Want to Believe push this idea slightly further. As a rule, comics tend to be a narratively conservative medium; that is part of the reason why it is so hard to make superhero comics so diverse. Although writers might introduce a female Thor or a black Captain America or a black/Latino Spider-Man, the nostalgia of the genre will always pull comics back towards the most iconic iteration of the character in question. Sam Wilson will always give way to Steve Rogers, John Stewart to Hal Jordan.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

With all of that going on, it makes sense that Wildstorm’s adaptation of The X-Files should be consciously conservative. After all, without having to worry about the availability of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, it makes sense for the series to focus on the adventures of Mulder and Scully. To fans, Mulder and Scully were very much the selling point for the series, what made The X-Files so special when compared to the wide variety of imitators it had spawned during and after its initial run.

The Wildstorm comic was not simply going to focus on Mulder and Scully in the present day. It was not going to run alongside (or spin out of) the events of I Want to Believe. It can be very difficult to align continuity between a series of movies and a monthly comic book; Wildstorm was owned by DC, who had learned their lesson publishing Star Trek comics between Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Indeed, future rightsholder IDW would face this very issue concerning Season 10 and the revival.

Like he never left...

Like he never left…

The comic would be launched by none other than Frank Spotnitz, the veteran X-Files writer who had co-written I Want to Believe. In consultation with Wildstorm, it was decided that the comic series would unfold in some sort of mysterious ethereal realm where time had stopped at the show’s peak:

“It’s just fun to play with again,” he explained. “This is kind of an interesting thing about the comic books – in my imagination anyway – [it’s] that they’re sort of ‘out of time.’ The situation is the situation that we found between seasons two and five of the series. And yet, they’re wearing clothes and using technology that is contemporary of today. It’s not like they’re period pieces. It’s sort of like they’re unstuck from time. I look at them as if that situation in The X-Files were still going on today; a sort of parallel universe to the one that we have in the movie.”

As such, the comics would adopt the status quo of the second through fifth seasons, but would still unfold in a world with modern technology and gadgetry. (Spotnitz’s second story has the Lone Gunmen tinkering with a USB flashdrive.)

Axing the right questions...

Axing the right questions…

The result is to make The X-Files feel unstuck in time, with Mulder and Scully stuck in a moment that had lasted a decade. The comic offers an even more iconic version of Mulder and Scully than was possible within the constraints of I Want to Believe; without having to accommodate for the aging of the actors or the events in between. Spotnitz would contend that the show was set in “the classic period” of The X-Files. Not coincidentally, this was The X-Files at the peak of its popularity, its moment on top of the world.

The comics seem to offer a glimpse of a world where The X-Files managed to remain at its peak in perpetuity, where there was no decline or ratings slump. In a way, it is a world that seems to realise the nightmare proposed early in the sixth season, the world that Scully dreaded as she wondered whether the duo would ever “get out of the damn car” in Dreamland I. During the sixth season, this frozen moment (Monday) and this immortality (Tithonus) seemed like the worst possible outcome, a waking nightmare that rejected the natural order of things.

They've got the suspect dead to rights...

They’ve got the suspect dead to rights…

In the back matter of the pilot issue, Spotnitz boasts about how this setting allowed the comic the freedom to indulge nostalgia, to ignore the storytelling decisions that had been made since:

And the thing that’s really exciting about setting it in the past – roughly between seasons 2 and 5 of the series – is that it allows us to use so many great characters from those days, such as Walter Skinner, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, X, the Lone Gunmen, and on and on.

It doesn’t matter that X died in Herrenvolk or that the Lone Gunmen perished in Jump the Shark. Death and time were not inevitable for The X-Files. The comic affords the production team the chance to arrest those forces; even reverse them.

Investigating this case is murder...

Investigating this case is murder…

This is a recurring theme in The X-Files from this point. Season 10 and Season 11 bring back a whole host of favourite characters. There are certainly elements of that to the revival as well, which taps into some of the same basic nostalgia. Monica Reyes only appears in a single episode of the six-episode revival, while John Doggett is entirely absent. The Cigarette-Smoking Man endures, despite the fact that the audience watched as the flesh was roasted from his bones at the climax of The Truth.

Indeed, the Wildstorm comic seems to acknowledge this nostalgia head-on. One of the smarter (and more visually impressive) aspects of the seven-issue series is the decision to devote two-thirds of each opening page to a recreation of the classic opening credits sequence. The comic is so dedicated to nostalgia that it even evokes a television show’s opening credits. Notably, the comic uses the credits from the first seven seasons. In some ways, it prefigures the use of those same credits on the revival.

Driving determination...

Driving determination…

These pages look very impressive, serving and a mission statement for the comics themselves; they beautifully capture the spirit of the show on the opening page, setting the tone for what follows. This format was the brainchild of series artist Brian Denham, who proposed the idea to Spotnitz:

I asked my editor if I could draw 6 panels above it, which would be shots from the opening of the show. Shannon pitched the idea to Frank and sent along some drawings I did, and Frank sent his blessings. I was really excited. I wanted the reader to really get into the feel of the comic, and hear the show’s theme song as they read the credits. I think it works.

A lot of people have told me they really loved that as the first page. I can tell you that I’ll change images every issue, so that’s my favorite page to draw each month. I may eventually do shots that weren’t on the TV opening, but may be from the comic or from other episodes. I don’t want to be held down by an opening that they used in the first show, but then they introduced more creepy stuff that would look cool in the opening. I think I’ll see if fans might like to see that before I try it.

It is a very clever design decision, and one that acknowledges the comic book’s purpose. The Wildstorm X-Files comic book is largely an attempt to evoke nostalgia, yearning for the show’s golden age.

"Y'all must be the governm'nt people."

“Y’all must be the governm’nt people.”

Indeed, the structure of the Wildstorm comic series is very telling. In strictly formal terms, the artistic approach remarkably rigid. The first five (of seven) issues adopt a very firm three-panels-per-page structure, allowing for smaller insets within these panels. Even the final two issues only vary the layout to offer extended panels taking up two-thirds of the page or a single one-page splash. The effect is very much to emulate a widescreen television shot, recalling the medium from which the material originated.

There is something quite appropriate about Wildstorm adopting this approach to The X-Files. After all, Wildstorm had pioneered (or at least popularised) the “widescreen” approach to mainstream American comic books with Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s run on The Authority in the late nineties. Ellis himself described the comic as “the superhero book gone widescreen.” The page structure was quite similar to that adopted by Denham on The X-Files, with wide panels on a single page evoking the dimensions of a widescreen television.

Negotiating the medium...

Negotiating the medium…

As with the later years of the Topps run, the comic put an emphasis on photorealism. Brian Denham offers a good likeness of both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Indeed, the comic seems structured to offer several close-ups and head-on shots of the two leads as if to emphasise Denham’s skill with likenesses. The book avoids the heavy atmosphere that Charles Adlard brought to those early Topps books, although colourists like Kelsey Shannon are afforded the freedom to give the book’s palette a stylised tinge.

In some respects, this feels appropriate for a book written by Frank Spotnitz. During his time producing Night Stalker, Spotnitz had chosen to shoot on digital; it was an approach that allowed the production team to film using natural light sources. The comic’s colour scheme mimics that approach, with many of the series’ colourists putting an emphasis on the light sources around the agents. (For example, strong blues and reds while talking near a police car.) While the line work is very conventional, the colouring is stylised.

Pregnant pause...

Pregnant pause…

Spotnitz’s storytelling on the comic is pretty archetypal, demonstrating his familiarity with the story beats and rhythms of an X-Files episode. The first comic runs like clockwork, ticking through everything a reader might expect from The X-Files; a cold open, conversation between the leads in a car, an autopsy report, a crazy theory, a tense stand-off, a stinger ending. The script even allows Spotnitz to play with some of his own recurring themes, common to his work on both The X-Files and Night Stalker.

The first issue is effectively a monster of the week, but one that finds Mulder and Scully investigating “a force of evil. That dwelled in that girl’s body in the basement for all these years, keeping her from aging.” It is effectively a story about contagious and infectious evil, one of the recurring themes of The X-Files that recalls stories like Grotesque and Piper Maru. In fact, the basic plot and structure of the episode seems to recall Empedocles, to the point where the final twist seems to be that the story somehow isn’t a prequel to that eighth season episode.

Both of Spotnitz’s stories for Wildstorm are incredibly archetypal, feeling like spiritual companions to I Want to Believe. In many ways, I Want to Believe had boiled down much of the imagery and symbolism of the mythology into a single “monster of the week” story; Spotnitz’s Wildstorm work plays on some of the show’s most familiar plot beats and themes. There is a sense that the Wildstorm series is not hoping to provide its own unique take on The X-Files, instead aspiring to recreate the texture of the much-loved original.

Ironically, this serves to provide the comic with its own unique identity. Unlike Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s work at Topps, the Wildstorm comic is not trying to do something unique in parallel with the show itself. Unlike John Rozum’s work at Topps, the Wildstorm comic is not using Mulder and Scully to tell anthology horror stories. Unlike Roy Thomas’ Season One, the Wildstorm comic is not adapting classic stories. Unlike Joe Harris’ work on Season 10 and Season 11, the Wildstorm comic is not extrapolating a new future for the show and its characters.

Instead, the Wildstorm comic instead teases readers with a world in which The X-Files never changed, never grew up, never got old. It is a world in which Mulder and Scully never had a child and in which the Lone Gunmen never moved on. It is a world in which Mulder still tapes an “X” to his window and in which super soldiers never usurped more human conspirators. Even the set-up of the comic’s central mystery teases this, with Mulder reflecting,  “Yeah, well, it’s not every day a missing woman turns up after 17 years… not having aged a day.”

The comic seems to suggest that a show might have faded from view almost a decade ago, but return with no visible signs of aging. “One thing I’m sure of, Mulder,” Scully observes at one point, “time stops for no one.” As ever, it seems Mulder is right. However, it’s hard not to feel that maybe Scully has a point.

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6 Responses

  1. I’ll need to pick these up. I started collecting Season 10 but when the revival was announced it took the wind out the sails. Do you know the plan for the comics now?

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