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The X-Files (Wildstorm) #5-6 – Dante’s Muse (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.

And Wildstorm’s X-Files comic dies a quiet death.

The seven-issue (six monthly issues and a special “zero” comic) miniseries is an oddity. These seven comics tell four self-contained mysteries that stand quite separate from another, even as they echo the show’s creative peak. These four self-contained stories are credited to three different writers; the first two stories are written by producer and writer of the classic show, while each of the final two stories is credited to an established industry veteran with a long history working at DC comics.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

Still, the miniseries feels like something of a damn squib. Barring that X-Files/30 Days of Night crossover, these seven issues represent everything that Wildstorm chose to do with the license. It certainly pales in comparison to the more comprehensive and thorough exploitation of the property by previous owner Topps and future owner IDW. While part of that is likely down to the simple fact that Wildstorm was in its extended death throes, perhaps it also speaks to where The X-Files was at that point in time.

Perhaps there simply was not that big a market for The X-Files in late 2008 and into 2009. Perhaps the memory of the show’s final season lingered too strongly in the cultural memory, or perhaps the cultural remembrance of show had faded entirely. The spark of nostalgia that would resurrect the show half a decade later had yet to be kindled. For whatever reason, it seemed like The X-Files was not quite ready to return to the popular consciousness.

EVERYTHING DIES

EVERYTHING DIES

It is perhaps telling that the show’s revival emerged from the twentieth anniversary celebrations of The X-Files. (Quite literally, with Chris Carter only beginning to seriously consider the idea when he saw the audience reaction to the suggestion of a revival at New York Comic Con in 2013.) Twenty years is a long time in popular culture; it is enough time for fads to rise and fall, for generations of imitators and successors to disappear into the ether. It is enough time for nostalgia to smooth away the blemishes of the reality so that the ideal might stand unencumbered.

IDW’s line of comics emerged as part of the nostalgic enthusiasm that led to the revival. It was a nostalgia that was arguably rooted more in the collective memory of the show than the show as it had actually existed. That nostalgia also led, quite organically, towards the revival. My Struggle I owes a lot to The X-Files: I Want to Believe, with Chris Carter maintaining a strong thematic continuity between his 2008 and 2016 returns to the franchise. The implication seems to be that the audience – rather than Chris Carter – has changed in the intervening years.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

Perhaps I Want to Believe simply arrived too early to prompt a nostalgic revival of the show. The X-Files was too fresh in the minds of audiences, still a mere television show rather than a historical institution. The wounds and scars associated with the show’s slow decline were still lingering, phantom limbs still twitching just over half-a-decade after the show went off the air. If time heals all wounds, to quote a cliché, than not enough time had passed in 2008 to make a resurrection viable.

Of course, there are other issues with I Want to Believe; it is a very flawed film in a number of crucial ways. These flaws explain why the film never found a cult audience, and why it had no legs at the box office. Word of mouth and a disappointed fandom are enough to sink a film’s chances of long-term financial success. The issues with the film itself (and the reaction of fans and critics to those issues) explain why the film feels like a footnote rather than a full stop in the history of The X-Files.

Carry on, regardless...

Carry on, regardless…

However, the quality of the film does little to explain the film’s poor opening weekend. Plenty of films have opened to terrible reviews and massive success; even discounting hyped films like Transformers. Bad reviews only have so much impact on a film’s opening weekend, and the revival found much greater success with similar reviews. While the linger box office domination of The Dark Knight undoubtedly played a part in the film’s under-performance, it also seems quite likely that the audience simply wasn’t hungry for more X-Files.

In some respects, this phase of X-Files history feels like an awkward (and somewhat half-hearted) attempt at a revival for the franchise; it stops and starts, never quite coming to life. It is interesting how many lessons the production team seem to have learned from this weird lacuna of X-Files activity that sits between The Truth and My Struggle I. It plays almost as a pencil outline of the revival that would bring The X-Files roaring back into the popular consciousness less than a decade later.

Lightning strikes...

Lightning strikes…

Nevertheless The X-Files license died a death at Wildstorm, lacking even the fanfare afforded to other licensed properties like World of Warcraft or Star Trek. A seven-issue miniseries with a rotating team of writers, followed by a six-issue crossover. While long-time DC staffer Marv Wolfman got to put his mark on the series with the previous story, it falls to his fellow DC veteran Doug Moench to close out the miniseries. As with Marv Wolfman, there is a lot to recommend Moench to this particular job.

Most notably, Moench has long held an interest in conspiracy theories. This interest has recurred throughout his career; even hanging out with Richard Belzer. During his run on Moon Knight in the eighties, the character of Morpheus was heavily influenced by Moench’s research into the MK-ULTRA project. In the nineties, Moench scripted (along with a variety of artists) The Big Book of Conspiracies. The comic anthology won an Eisner and annoyed the Freemasons. It was even optioned for television by none other than Richard Belzer.

Light 'em up, light 'em up...

Light ’em up, light ’em up…

Moench’s fascination with the topic even spilled over into his more mainstream work. Moench was credited as writer on an arc of the Batman anthology series Legends of the Dark Knight handily titled Conspiracy. His extended run on Batman during the nineties was filled with conspiratorial touches, from government sleep-deprivation experiments to secret military research projects attempting to harness the raw power of the planet’s magnetic fields. As written by Moench, Batman might find a lot to like about Mulder.

More than that, Moench had considerable experience writing horror comics – or, at least, horror-tinged superhero comics. His run on Moon Knight had largely spun out of his tenure on Werewolf by Night. Although not as successful as Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night was still part of Marvel’s attempt to relaunch the horror genre during the seventies. His eighties run on Batman featured the appearance of recurring vampire character Nocturna, who was woven into the fabric of the Batman line.

The big picture...

The big picture…

As with Wolfman, Moench brings a very strong comic book sensibility to his plotting of Dante’s Muse. Indeed, the final two-parter deviates from the format established by the opening five issues of the miniseries in a number of ways. Most obviously, Moench provides his arc with a clear title that is printed within the pages of the story itself. However, Moench also breaks the “widescreen” format of the comic on several occasions, departing from the “three horizontal panels” format to which the first five issues so rigourously adhered.

The result is an X-Files comic that feels more like a comic book, even before Moench gets into the actual plot of his adventure. Dante’s Muse focuses on the classic “Hollow Earth” conspiracy theory, which feels like a very comic book idea for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it is patently absurd; it operates on the short of hazy internal logic that is easier to sell on the page than on the screen. However, it also feels like an acknowledgment comic book legend Neal Adams – the classic Batman artist who is among the most vocal adherents to the theory.

Monster men...

Monster men…

However, there is also a lot to be said for the fact that Moench is basically writing his own gonzo horror crossover here; Dante’s Muse plays like a twist on “The X-Files meets The Descent, Neil Marshall’s cult horror about a bunch of cave-divers who encounter horrific monsters stalking underground caverns. This is a clever idea on a number of levels. The Descent is a great horror film, so mashing it up with The X-Files just works. However, it also harks back to the show’s early tendency to riff on popular horror in episodes like Ice or Beyond the Sea.

However, Moench struggles with writing a believable or compelling Mulder and Scully. Moench opts to have Scully “ticked” at Mulder early in the story; this is quite transparently a pretense to justify Mulder going off and encounter a whole host of underground demons while Scully remains (relatively) insulated from the story’s more absurd elements. However, this storytelling decision feels more than a little contrived; it seems strange that this one time should be the point at which Scully just has enough, and at which Mulder decides to strike out alone.

Into night...

Into night…

The decision to split Mudler and Scully also feels underwhelming, with Dante’s Muse feeling like it would be much more interesting to have Mulder and Scully wandering the caves together. After all, many of the show’s most memorable episodes feature Mulder and Scully trapped in a remote location together, from Ice to Darkness Falls to Firewalker to Quagmire to Detour. (In fact, Medusa even serves as something of a spiritual successor, sending Doggett into such a situation without Scully.)

“The Descent meets Darkness Falls” is a great elevator pitch, and the biggest issue with Dante’s Muse is the simple fact that the comic never fulfills the potential that such a premise offers. Indeed, for a story that features Mulder encountering a secret society of underground monsters that have convinced a local to “sacrifice” innocent victims to them, Dante’s Muse is a surprisingly lifeless comic book. There is little excitement or urgency to it; there is no real thrill to the adventure unfolding on the page. It just sort of is.

The usual suspects...

The usual suspects…

Moench’s comic book aesthetic seems to work against him here, particularly when it comes to the matter of exposition. Separating Mulder and Scully is a bad idea on multiple levels, but it also means that Mudler spends most of the comic talking to himself. He is recording a voice log of his adventures, but it just feels like heavy-handed exposition that stops the story dead. Moench is a veteran comic book writer with decades of experience, his prose style reflects that more traditional exposition-driven approach to plotting.

Dante’s Muse feels like a disappointment, because of the opportunity that it represented. While the first five issues of the miniseries felt anchored in the mid-nineties, the “prehistorical cave people” premise of Dante’s Muse served to ground the story in a more modern horror sensibility. Instead of feeling like a forgotten script plucked from the show’s golden age, Dante’s Muse mashes up a classic X-Files narrative trope with a more modern cult horror film. It feels like a compromise between nostalgia and modernity, in a way none of the other stories do.

Carrying the torch...

Carrying the torch…

Then again, it feels oddly appropriate to close out this weird seven-issue miniseries with a disappointing misfire. The entire miniseries feels like a weird failed experiment to figure out how to do The X-Files in the world of 2008. In some respects, the Wildstorm comics feel like the perfect companion piece to I Want to Believe.

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