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The X-Files (Wildstorm) #3-4 (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.

Frank Spotnitz could not stick around forever.

The veteran X-Files writer and producer could not stick around for even half a year. These days, it is customary for “big name” authors to commit to a very short run of comic book issues before jumping off; while comic book veterans like Marv Wolfman or Chuck Dixon or Chris Claremont would have committed to years on a particular title during the seventies and eighties, it became increasingly common for higher profile writers to enjoy shorter stints. While this is the case for high-profile industry veterans like Warren Ellis, it is particularly true of celebrity authors.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

Brad Meltzer wrote thirteen issues of Justice League of America. Kevin Smith wrote eight (and a bit) issues of Daredevil and fifteen issues of Green Arrow. Richard Donner wrote seven issues of Action Comics, and contributed a short story to the anniversary special. Sam Hamm wrote three issues of Detective Comics. While these creators might have had great stories to tell with these characters, they were also not necessarily comfortable with committing to a month schedule indefinitely. (They also had careers outside the medium, to be fair.)

Still, there is something quite jarring about Frank Spotnitz’s departure from Wildstorm’s X-Files comic book after only three issues. Spotnitz barely had time to define what the comic was supposed to be, beyond a glimpse into a weird alternate universe where Mulder and Scully are trapped in a perpetual 1998. It is debatable whether a licensed tie-in really needs anything more than that, given the tendency to treat such tie-ins as little more than a supplement to a more mainstream iteration of the same basic product.

DECEIVE INVEIGLE OBFUSCATE

DECEIVE INVEIGLE OBFUSCATE

At the same time, it feels like Spotnitz’s departure leaves an already confused monthly series with no strong identity of its own. Quite pointedly, Spotnitz’s name still appears on the full cover to the first issue written by Marv Wolfman; whether this suggests that Spotnitz was intended to write the issue or simply the result of a rush to press is unclear. As a result, Wildstorm ended up passing its X-Files monthly series from one writer to another, with industry (and DC comics) veterans Marv Wolfman and Doug Moench each handling a two-part story.

The results are intriguing, if not particularly compelling. Wildstorm’s X-Files comics are most remarkable for its sense of detachment from anything and everything. It is “unstuck” in a way that none of the franchise’s other flirtations with comic book storytelling are not. In its own way, this feels entirely appropriate; this is The X-Files as published by one of the two most largest and most iconic comic book publishers.Wildstorm has an interesting history. The studio is rooted in the artist boom of the early nineties, in the period when artists like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane were exerting greater pull over the monthly comic book industry. The relationship between comic book writer and artist has always been unique, often making it hard to clearly assign credit to one or the other. For example, the famous “Marvel method” would see writers like Stan Lee delegating a lot of authorial authority to artists like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko.

However, the late eighties saw the emergence of the “superstar artist”, with comic book artists becoming much more powerful and influential in how stories were told and how comics were discussed. Although Chris Clarement had been writing Uncanny X-Men for over a decade-and-a-half, his young artistic collaborator Jim Lee came to hold a lot of creative control over the direction of the book. Perhaps spurred on by the success of Frank Miller as an artist and writer, Marvel allowed Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld to script their own monthlies.

Spiraling out of control...

Spiraling out of control…

It is hard to overstate just how much influence these artists had; they became celebrities in their own right, in a way that very few people involved in the comic book industry could claim to be celebrities. Director Spike Lee would direct Liefeld in a commercial for Levis. Todd McFarlane would launch his own licensed toy-manufacturer. Given the influence that they held, it was inevitable that these artists would seek to strike out on their own. In late 1991, a bunch of huge Marvel artists broke from the company and announced the launch of their own studio.

It is worth noting that the foundation of Image was a huge event in the early nineties, even outside of the comic book world. The day that the plan was announced, Marvel’s stock price dropped more than eleven dollars a share. At the heart of Image was the idea of creator ownership, with Image incorporating the studios run by several of these prominent artists. Image did quite well during the comic book boom of the nineties, the boom that had seen outside companies like Topps try to break into the market with their own licensed properties.

Who is on the hook for this?

Who is on the hook for this?

However, the boom could not last. Image changed dramatically in the mid- to late-nineties. Creative disagreements would push the founding members apart; Top Cow would depart (and later rejoin) the collective, and Liefeld would resign as President of Image in 1996. In 1998, DC would arrange to purchase Wildstorm, one of the studios that made up Image. It was generally agreed that DC wanted three things from the studio: the colourists; artist/founder Jim Lee; and writer Alan Moore. (Moore had vowed never to work with DC again by this point.)

The deal was very good for DC and Jim Lee. Jim Lee would be named Co-Publisher of DC Comics in 2010, making him one of the most influential members of the company. It afforded DC comics access to a number of classic comic book runs, most notably Warren Ellis’ runs on The Authority and Planetary, which became foundation texts for the medium into the twenty-first century. Even the look and feel of this X-Files run is rooted in the “widescreen” aesthetic that Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch popularised in The Authority.

Shoot to thrill...

Shoot to thrill…

However, the deal was not very good for Wildstorm. DC’s editorial practices were a lot less flexible than those at Wildstorm, with the parent company censoring several of the company’s books. Mark Millar’s run on The Authority was brutally shut down when DC publisher Paul Levitz objected to some of Millar’s more charged content. (Millar nicknamed the rebranded studio “Mildstorm.”) Levitz took similar offense to Garth Ennis’ superhero parody The Boys, canning the book and forcing it to find a new life elsewhere.

As a result, the life was slowly leached away from Wildstorm. While the publisher had once been at the bleeding edge of mainstream comic book publishing, it was reduced to a shell of itself. DC would officially draw the shutters down on Wildstorm in December 2010. As part of the “new 52” relaunch of September 2011, DC would official fold Wildstorm’s intellectual property into their own shared superhero universe. Characters like Grifter and the Authority stood alongside Superman and the Justice League. The Wildstorm characters did not fare well.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

As such, The X-Files landed at Wildstorm at a very odd time for the publisher, closure to the increasing inevitable shuttering of the line than to the bold creative peak at the turn of the millennium. Although Wildstorm had been home to create writers and artists working on create industry-defining titles, by the time that The X-Files had been brought under the company’s umbrella Wildstorm was largely a home for the licensed properties owned by DC comics. However, even that had waned; the Star Trek license had expired in 2002.

In January 2009, the most successful comic published by the Wildstorm imprint was a World of Warcraft tie-in. The Authority was the second-best-selling Wildstorm comic for the month, with The X-Files in third place; none of the imprint’s books cracked the top hundred comics published that much, none selling more than fifteen thousand units. The same was true of February 2009. (It should be noted that Garth Ennis had taken his concept for The Boys to Dynamite and was outselling any book in the Wildstorm imprint.)

"It's just been revoked..."

“It’s just been revoked…”

As a result, it seems highly unlikely that The X-Files was considered a long-term project for Wildstorm at the time; the imprint (and its parent company) had more pressing concerns than the viability or sustainability of a single tie-in comic book. These factors perhaps explain why Wildstorm did so little with the license; even the final four issues of the seven-issue run feel like an after-thought. Certainly, Wildstorm would not be developing a three-year plan for the comic with crossovers and “seasons.” The comic felt like something of an after-thought on the line.

It is, however, a very well-produced after-thought. Although it is debatable whether The X-Files lends itself to Brian Denham’s photorealistic style (as opposed to a more impressionistic approach), his work has a very click professional quality to it. The first five issues of the comic favour strong colours that help lend a more stylistic quality to The X-Files; these two issues have a bold (and eerie) green colour scheme that harks back to the Vancouver era of the show and captures the mood to which the comic aspires.

Birth of a legend...

Birth of a legend…

Still, one of the more interesting aspects of seeing The X-Files published under the umbrella of DC comics in the early years of the twenty-first century was the talent that it made available to the book. The last four issues of the miniseries are given over to writers Marv Wolfman and Doug Moench, two industry veterans with a long and rich history at DC comics. Indeed “The X-Files as written by Marv Wolfman” and “The X-Files as written by Doug Moench” are interesting concepts, even if the results are not entirely satisfying.

There are a lot of reasons why Marv Wolfman might seem to be the perfect writer for The X-Files. Wolfman was a writer with a lot of experience who had worked on a variety of successful and high-profile books. Along with artist George Perez, Wolfman had been responsible for turning Teen Titans into one of the company’s most successful and popular franchises; his work is frequently compared to that of Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men. Marv Wolfman knows comics.

Smash cut...

Smash cut…

More to the point, Marv Wolfman knows horror comics. The dominance of the superhero genre over the comic book medium tended to squeeze out other kinds of stories; although horror comics had been huge during the early days of the medium, they struggled during the Silver and Bronze ages. (For a variety of reasons, not least of which was the self-censorship of the Comics Code Authority.) Marvel attempted to launch a number of horror-themed comics like The Frankenstein Monster, Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing; they petered out quite quickly.

There was one notable exception to the rule. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan enjoyed a long collaborative run on The Tomb of Dracula, a seventy-issue series that ran from April 1972 to August 1979. As such, Wolfman proved quite adept at horror storytelling in the comic book medium, a skill set that would seem to serve him well for the purposes of writing a monthly X-Files comic book. Wolfman had also been one of the primary editors on DC’s Star Trek comics during the eighties, so he knew his way around a licensed property.

Drive of your life...

Drive of your life…

To a certain extent this works well enough for Wolfman. His two issues offer a fairly standard “monster of the week” story that is very consciously geared towards the comic book medium. Wolfman understands the beats necessary for a story like this, and that the comic book format lends itself to somewhat heightened plotting as compared to the television series. His story deals with an army of identical men who wage a one-man (sort of) gang warfare in an effort to gain control of the Tongs.

The comic has a very tangible sense of scale. The cliffhanger bridging the two issues features a massive explosion that simply would not have been possible on the budget of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Characters are shot while in the middle of offering big reveals. The comic is packed with scientific mysteries, but it is also incredibly pulpy; the plotting moves fast and the stakes are kept consistently high throughout. Wolfman offers a very heightened version of The X-Files, an approach that seems quite suited to the medium in question.

Shot in the arm...

Shot in the arm…

There are, however, several problems with Wolfman’s take on The X-Files. The most obvious is that Wolfman does not seem completely comfortable with the characters or the show itself. The story is very much an X-file, but the finer details of the two-parter seem slightly off. This is most notable in how Wolfman chooses to have Mulder and Scully interact with one another. At the end of the first issue, the pair have a strangely profound conversation that comes out of nowhere; it feels strangely disconnected from the “monster of the week” story they are investigating.

More than that, Wolfman seems to struggle with the voices of the characters. As a truck comes barreling towards them, Scully reflexively refers to Mulder as “Fox.” It is a very strange moment, and one that seems quite inappropriate for these two character. Later on, Fox asks, “Dana…?” During an action scene, Scully even gets a stock one-liner. “You made a mistake following me,” teases an assassin as he bears down on Mulder. “But you won’t live to regret it.” Scully shoot him in the back. “Think again,” she quips. It is a very strange beat.

All fired up...

All fired up…

However, the two-parter also struggles with the strange “neverwhere” feeling of the miniseries as a whole. The miniseries unfolds in a weird alternative world where Mulder and Scully are forever frozen around the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future. Technology has moved on, but they remain anchored in the familiar status quo. This is most apparent in a shot of Mulder’s mobile phone that appears in the first issue of this story. The comic series offers a version of The X-Files that is very much anchored in the mid-nineties, even as times have changed.

This tension is referenced repeatedly in the context of Wolfman’s issues. There are repeated references to “CSI” at various crime scenes; while crime scene investigators are nothing new, they had not yet permeated popular culture during the peak years of The X-Files. When Mulder suspects the investigation ties back to the Tongs, Scully reflects, “I didn’t think the Tongs still existed.” Mulder wryly responds, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” That is certainly true in the case of this series.

It ain't easy being green...

It ain’t easy being green…

However, the tension between old and new is most explicit in the actual story of Wolfman’s two-parter. Quite simply, Wolfman has crafted a mystery set within the Chinese American community. This is not a big deal of itself. The X-Files was populated with episodes engaging with (and exploring) various subcultures, from Fresh Bones to Kaddish. The actual quality (and sensitivity) of these stories varied from episode to episode, with surprisingly nuanced portrayals balanced against more stereotypical storytelling.

In particular, the setting of the two-parter consciously recalls the basic plot of Hell Money. In both stories, Mulder and Scully travel to California to investigate a murder linked to the local Chinese American population. In Hell Money, Detective Glen Chao complains that he is as much an outsider to the community as Mulder and Scully. Here, Agent Oh makes a similar observation. “I’m fifth generation American,” he explains to his fellow agents. “My ancestors came here during the Gold Rush. They do not see me as one of them.”

It's all gone Pete Tong...

It’s all gone (Pete) Tong…

However, cultural expectations had shifted in the years since Hell Money aired. Modern storytellers are generally more sensitive to cultural issues. This shift was evident even during the initial run of The X-Files. These sorts of subculture episodes become less frequent once the show moved to Los Angeles, with the show engaging more frequently with issues of class than with issues of race. Even Badlaa, the infamous “butt genie” episode, links the two by having its Indian antagonist disguise himself as a janitor.

As a result, the two-parter feels a little awkward in the context of 2009. It does not help that the comic book tropes only emphasis the story’s treatment of the Chinese American community as exotic and other. “We could be dealing with Chinese mysticism,” Mulder states early in the case, with little evidence to go on beyond the fact that the case involves Chinese people. The two-parter features repeated references to “mysticism” and in particular “Chinese mysticism”, with Mulder’s theories never getting more detailed.

Executive orders...

Executive orders…

There is a sense that the comic is willing to treat “Chinese mysticism” as a sufficiently specific label for whatever is happening, with no need for more detailed theory or more comprehensive analysis. In fact, it is a surprise when the antagonist actually explains the mystery at the heart of the story; it honestly seems like the comic book (and Mulder) were satisfied with the idea that Chinese immigrants are simply more “mystical” than other communities. (Mulder would never explain Tooms as “American mysticism”, for example.)

On a similar note, almost every major Chinese character in the two-parter is tied to the Tongs. Agent Oh is the only real exception, but he is brutally killed off towards the climax of the story. It is a very strange storytelling choice, one that seems to suggest that the vast majority of Chinese Americans are part of an elaborate secret society that could be fashioned into a criminal empire without any real work. It is akin to setting a story in the Italian American community and suggesting that all the major characters are mobsters.

Crossed lines...

Crossed lines…

To be fair, these mistakes are largely a result of Wolfman tailoring the story for the medium. Mainstream American comic book stories tend to feature a heightened reality, with a tighter application of the law of conservation of detail. Wolfman is crafting a pulpy page-turning story, and has chosen to set that pulpy thriller within the Chinese American community. It is a choice that feels quite outdated almost a decade into the twentieth-century, demonstrating how far tastes and sensitivities have come in the intervening years.

At the same time, it does feel like this story is the logical conclusion of the decision to write X-Files stories as if it were still the mid-nineties. While the technology in the comic has evolved, it seems like the aesthetics are frozen in a particular moment. In some respects, this makes the comic a perfect companion piece to I Want to Believe, which fell into a similar trap when trying to homage The Silence of the Lambs and Frankenstein while incorporating a pair of gay antagonists.

Taking a dive...

Taking a dive…

When it came to tackling social issues, The X-Files was not always a progressive television show. Episodes like Gender Bender and X-Cops seem very outdated when dealing with issues of sex and sexuality, even if some of those criticisms can be tempered by arguing that the show was the product of another time. Unfortunately, that other time has faded into history. The X-Files needs to embrace the twenty-first century in some small way, it cannot keep conducting its business as if the clocks all froze in June 1998.

As tempting as that might be.

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