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The X-Files (Wildstorm) #1-2 (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.

In some respects, comic books represent the perfect medium for The X-Files.

After all, mainstream American superhero comic books seem to exist in a perpetual “now”, a present tense that stretches out indefinitely. Peter Parker might be more than fifty years old, but he will always be a young adult immune to the ravages of time. What little material growth the character had came early in his publication history; he graduated high school just over two years into the run of The Amazing Spider-Man, the rest of his life unfolding at a much slower pace. Batman and Superman are spared the ravages of age.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

So it is with Wildstorm’s adaptation of The X-Files, a comic book that seems to operate on the same “sliding” time scale as the major superhero universes, where it seems like the characters (and their general status quo) are immune to the passage of the years. Here, it feels like the fifth season has continued indefinitely, to the point that Frank Spotnitz’s second X-Files comic book is very much a sequel to the events of Redux II. The comic picks up from the threads left hanging by that season premiere more than a decade earlier.

This is an approach that seems perfectly suited to The X-Files. Comic book stories are notorious for their long-form (albeit haphazard) serialisation, the fiction that the entirety (or even the bulk) of a fictional character’s history can be condensed down into a single story published over forty years by different creative teams under different creative circumstances. This an elaborate fiction, of course. Attempting to argue that the Marvel or DC universes are a single unified storyline requires some distortion of the truth.

BELIEVE THE LIE

BELIEVE THE LIE

In truth, these universes frequently feel like a backdrop against which individual writers can tell their own stories; a status quo from which a creative team might begin and to which they may return. Batman’s rich decades-long history is perfect fodder for Grant Morrison’s take on the character; Daredevil provides a template against which Frank Miller may define himself; Brian Michael Bendis can use the rich history of the Avengers as a springboard for his own story. These stories frequently contrast and critique, using the background as a jumping off point.

In a way, the same is true of The X-Files. Although there was definite narrative progression to the mythology, with a few major exceptions (Patient X, The Red and the Black, Two Fathers, One Son), the mythology often felt like a backdrop that could be used to tell interesting and unique stories. The X-Files receives (and deserves) a lot of credit for re-popularising serialisation in mainstream genre entertainment, but perhaps the mythology is best examined as a springboard for storytelling rather than a story of itself.

Not alone...

Not alone…

This might be a bold argument to make, but it holds up to a reasonable amount of scrutiny. What does Mulder actually accomplish in the end? What material progress does he make in his quest? When the conspiracy comes tumbling down like a house of cards, it collapses through no action on Mulder’s part. As of the end of The Truth, Mulder fails to either stop colonisation or expose it to the public. If anything, Mulder becomes complicit in the conspiracy; he becomes the keeper of secrets rather than the exposer of lies.

Indeed, the way that The X-Files approaches its own continuity lends itself to these sorts of comic book adaptations. Although criticised by many people for failing to engage with the mythology, The X-Files: I Want to Believe tinkered and toyed with the series’ iconography and imagery. Familiar elements were used in unfamiliar ways, key themes developed in strange directions. It recalls a retooling of comic book continuity, along the lines of the work of writers like Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis.

Things come to a head...

Things come to a head…

(The X-Files even did this during its own run. Nothing Important Happened Today I radically reworked the material continuity of Existence. The seventh season mythology seemed to lumber around in an undead state; as if unsure of just how much damage One Son had wrought upon the status quo. Even Mulder’s new-found scepticism in Redux I was hard to reconcile with the finer points of continuity in episodes like Colony and End Game. The show seemed to be continually reworking and reinventing its own themes and ideas, rather than following defined plot beats.)

As a result, there is something almost appropriate about this seven-issue miniseries, which finds Mulder and Scully unstuck in time. The comic pays little attention to continuity. While much fuss would be made about how Season 10 and Season 11 were in continuityat least until they weren’t – these seven issues are explicitly non-canonical. There is no pretence of slipping the issues into some “lost” adventures during the mid-nineties, as Resist or Serve had attempted to do with the late seventh season. Spotnitz explicitly described them as “a sort of parallel universe.”

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

Instead, they just are. These comics frequently seem unstuck in time, providing weirdly dissonant images of Mulder and Scully operating in the modern world but looking exactly like they did in The X-Files: Fight the Future. This second arc features Mulder and the Lone Gunmen operating a USB flashdrive; although the technology did exist towards the end of the show’s run, it only really took off once the show had ended. Similarly, the next story features Mulder and Scully using a far more modern mobile phone than they would have on the show.

There is something slightly disconcerting about all this. The comic unfolds in a world where Mulder and Scully can never grow, where the situation can never change. Even the evolutions of other characters are lost in the shuffle. Senator Matheson is the heroic figure he appeared to be in Little Green Men rather than the more human character who appeared in S.R. 819. The Lone Gunmen are spared the ignominy of their death in Jump the Shark, but are stuck as the providers of little more than exposition.

Lone voices of authority...

Lone voices of authority…

Mulder is deprived of his eighth season growth, his journey towards embracing Scully and William as a new family in the place of the family shattered with Samantha’s abduction. Scully is denied a life beyond the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Instead, the agents carry on as though it were business as usual, as if this is what they have always done and what they will always do. While setting the series during Mulder and Scully’s work on the X-files make sense, there is something faintly unsettling about unmooring that moment in time, letting it last forever.

There is also something faintly familiar about all this. While it might be more charitable to describe them as “archetypal”, the plot beats of the story are largely familiar. Spotnitz’s first story traded on a host of familiar X-Files themes and imagery to offer a fairly standard “monster of the week” story that felt like a companion piece to Grotesque or Empedocles. It makes sense that his mythology two-parter should similarly trade upon recognisable plot elements and storytelling tropes.

Face-off...

Face-off…

For Spotnitz, part of the appeal of writing the comic was the ability to revisit threads that had been left dangling from the mythology the first time around. He specifically cited plot elements from the Gethsemane three-parter, elements that had never really been explored:

“They are connected with a part of the mythology that we introduced but did very little with at the beginning of season five,” said writer Frank Spotnitz, a longtime scribe for the series and co-writer of July’s I Want To Believe film. “We introduced this corporation Roush and so that was part of the mythology that we could have gone a lot deeper with but never got the chance. So the next two books connect with Roush. And I’m going to take a little break from writing comics after this and get back to my screenwriting career, but at some point I hope to get back to write more and do more with the mythology.”

It is worth noting that Spotnitz was not the only former X-Files staff writer to seize upon the idea of incorporating Roush into some superfluous X-Files material. Thomas Schnauz had made the corporation a significant part of the mythos of Resist or Serve.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

In some respects, this speaks to the cultural shift between the nineties and the new millennium. The X-Files had touched on corporate interests a couple of times in its run, even incorporating large corporations into several mythology episodes around the fourth and fifth seasons. Tempus Fugit and Max focused on private contractors working with alien technology provided by the government. Redux II suggested that members of the conspiracy might have been exploiting their connections to industry for their own ends.

However, by and large, the series was far more interested in government abuse than corporate malfeasance. However, the political climate had changed somewhat in the years since the show had been retired. The War on Terror had seen the United States engaged in two costly wars in the Middle East, both of which had seen the influence of private contractors and security firms increase. (This was, in many ways, a logical extension of what had occurred during the first Gulf War.)

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

The Bush administration had strong connections to these firms, particularly through Vice President Dick Cheney. These connections between the Bush administration and various private security firms were the source of much political speculation. In fact, this overlap between public government and private sector became one of the most fertile sources of left-wing conspiracy theories during the War on Terror. (Although it never quite reached the mass awareness of the “truther” movement.)

As such, it makes sense that Spotnitz would return to Roush upon writing an X-Files comic. The connection between government and corporations feels like a slightly new twist on the established mythology. Unfortunately, Spotnitz doesn’t actually do much with the idea, beyond suggesting that perhaps the dynamic between big corporations and government interests might not be entirely above board. There is a sense that the comic could have had a bit more bite, particularly in the context of the early twenty-first century.

Talkin' to the man in the mirror...

Talkin’ to the man in the mirror…

Other aspects of the two-part story feel very much like an X-Files mythology mad lib, with Spotnitz drawing from a wealth of pre-existing stories in much the same way that his first issue felt like the scientifically-calculated mean of a “monster of the week” story. In his second (and final) story, Spotnitz borrows familiar beats like have Mulder paranoia descend into paranoia as in Anasazi, having Mulder suspect his apartment bugged as in E.B.E. and Gethsemane, and having Mulder being driven towards suicide as in Gethsemane.

The comic is populated with little nods and winks to the show’s history. Byers notes that the flashdrive is “black and falu red”, a key detail that also alludes to another vital piece of fifth season mythology. While Skinner is watching television, he catches a cameo appearance from Holman Hardt from The Rain King. (Indeed, the first issue of the miniseries even featured a cameo from Frank Black appearing on a television set.) In many respects, the comic feels like a pastiche stitched together from the show’s history.

Facing up to himself...

Facing up to himself…

However, the two-parter also ties into some of Spotnitz’s (and the show’s recurring themes. X-Files critic and scholar Christopher Knowles has argued that The X-Files is fundamentally about “Acid, Abuse and Ancient Astronauts.” Indeed, Knowles argues that the show’s frequent use of hallucinations and psychic imagery is one of its more overlooked themes and is quite tightly tied to the mythology:

Through the series, episodes centered alien identity and AAT would be preceded by episodes dealing with either hallucinations and/or hallucinogens. The first explicit inclusion of AAT in the Mythology was The End, which was preceded by an episode about an insectoid vampire (nearly identical to the ancient Martians from Quatermass and the Pit) that disguised its appearance by psychically implanting a hallucination of itself as human in the observer.

The major revelations of Biogenesis/The Sixth Extinction (with “Dr. Sandoz” and his revelatory “alien tablets”) was preceded by the giant magic mushroom in Field Trip, as we looked at previously. The episode in which we first saw Scully’s baby (conceived following her exposure to ancient alien technology) was produced right after Via Negativa, an episode about a Iboga guru who kills his victims in their dreams. William’s alien identity was explored in two separate arcs: in TrustNo1, aired after Lord of the Flies which had a Syd Barrett subplot, and in Providence/Provenance, preceded by Hellbound which dealt with hallucinations of murder victims.

As such, it makes sense that Spotnitz’s two stories for Wildstorm’s X-Files comic books should deal with the idea of infectious evil (perhaps a metaphor for trauma and abuse) and with violent mind-altering hallucinations tied to the mythology. Indeed, the chemical weapon feature here is “powerful enough to drive a man’s paranoia to the point that his mind literally takes his own life.”

Gunning for answers...

Gunning for answers…

There is an interesting symbolic element to all this, in that that the hallucinogen causes its victim to see their own body as a decaying husk. While a visceral image, it also plays into the broader themes of the show. So much of The X-Files is about peeling back the layers and assumptions that people take for granted; what is the mythology but a critical examination of the American moment, suggesting that something is rotten beneath all the peace and prosperity of the nineties?

At the same time, there is something very hollow about the story told here. After The X-Files ended, it became quite common to criticise mythology stories for being unsatisfying or distracting, for setting up questions the show failed to answer in any meaningful way. Indeed, it seems like even the production team would acknowledge the criticism. It is telling that I Want to Believe was written as a stand alone monster of the week story, just as it was telling Frank Spotnitz opened the comic book miniseries with a monster of the week before doing a mythology story.

Building trust...

Building trust…

While this criticism of the show’s mythology took root in the popular consciousness, it was never entirely fair. Certainly, the wheels came off with The Truth, which played more like a clip show than a finalé. It is hard to disagree with the assertion that the conspiracy storyline lacks a meaningful resolution. However, even knowing that the mythology does not have a strong conclusion, stories like The Erlenmeyer Flash or Nisei and 731 or Patient X and The Red and the Black still pack a punch. They still work on a visceral storytelling level.

Unfortunately, this two-parter does not work on the same level. Spotnitz’s two-part mythology story does not work particularly well on its own terms. It offers familiar story elements, but does little worthwhile with them. Indeed, even Mulder’s hallucinations in the middle act of Resist or Serve were populated with little character touches that are largely absent here. It is not that Mulder and Scully fail to accomplish anything by the end of the story; that is taken for granted in a mythology adventure. The problem is that they seem completely passive.

Police help...

Police help…

There is little here that makes the story feel particularly rooted in The X-Files beyond the superficial trappings like the Lone Gunmen and Senator Matheson. It would be easy enough to strip those elements out and rework the story as an episode of Night Stalker. There is nothing that anchors this case specifically to Mulder and Scully, nothing that explains why this particular story is an X-Files story beyond the fact that Wildstorm were publishing a miniseries. It is hard to quantify the absence, but it is in keenly felt.

In many ways, the problem is that the Wildstorm comic feels more like an X-Files cover band than a spiritual successor to the show itself. At the moment, the veteran member is opening the concert by playing a medley of the greatest hits, offering perhaps the closest thing possible to putting the band back together. Unfortunately, he cannot hold the stage for long.

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One Response

  1. Awesome post. Listen, I’m creating a one post per day for a year thingy for movie/TV geeks on my blog for y’all. Would love some suggestions, yay’s or nay’s on the idea: https://bhatiayash60.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/2016-starts-on-february-1/

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