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The X-Files/30 Days of Night (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/30 Days of Night is the most satisfying X-Files story of the interregnum between The Truth and My Struggle I.

The comic book miniseries is notable for a number of reasons. It is the simultaneously the last X-Files comic to be published by Wildstorm and the first X-Files comic to be published by IDW. It is the first comic book crossover between X-Files characters and another established comic book franchise, and it crosses over directly through Mulder and Scully rather than using the Lone Gunmen to insulate the franchise. It is also the first X-Files comic to be illustrated by Tom Mandrake, who would later work with Joe Harris.

Darkness falls...

Darkness falls…

There are other reasons that The X-Files/30 Days of Night stands out. The comic is the work of a creative team (much) more strongly associated with 30 Days of Night than The X-Files, and there is a sense the comic services that franchise more than The X-Files. Barring the first twelve-issues of Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s Topps run, which was really more of a series of shorter interlocking stories, The X-Files/30 Days of Night is also the longest single X-Files comic book story published to this point in the franchise’s history.

It is also just really good.

Due North...

Due North…

Crossovers are a very difficult artform, particularly those involving licensed properties. On a very basic level, there is something inherently crass about them. In many ways, crossovers could be seen to emphasise the economic nature of these high-profile franchises. Crossovers rarely exist because they are organic or logical progressions of any of the franchises crossing over with one another; they exist because the two license holders think that the resulting crossover might sell. These crossovers are then subject to intensely complicated agreements and horse-trading.

In purely practical terms, this means that many crossovers disappear from print as the ownership of various licenses shift and contractual terms make it very difficult to keep these stories in circulation. The character of Rom: Spaceknight is one such example, a character developed by Marvel but whose likeness was owned by the Parker Brothers; as a result, many of the character’s appearances remain out of print and modern comics only reference the character in the most oblique of terms.

Mulder, most foul...

Mulder, most foul…

These sorts of licensing agreements are quite common, and can frequently make long-term storytelling difficult. For example, Warren Ellis scripted WildC.A.T.s/Aliens as something of a bridge between his work on Stormwatch and his work on The Authority, but rights issues made it very difficult to keep that comic in circulation with the rest of his Wildstorm work. As such, comic book crossovers are frequently a reminder of the commercial concerns of the medium rather than its artistic sensibilities. (The same might be said of “events.”)

More than that, it is often difficult to figure out what exactly is gained by mashing certain properties together. Is there much to be said for crossing Batman over with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beyond a convenient sales booth for both titles? This is particularly apparent given the contortions that the script has to go through to set up the premise. It can all feel very rote and by-the-numbers, a necessary evil of comic book publishing that contributes little to either property.

Surrounded...

Surrounded…

To be fair, some comic book crossovers make a great deal of sense. These stories allowing for thematic overlap and worldbuilding, creative contrast and character definition. However, it is entirely possible for those crossovers to degenerate to little more than fan service. For example, Assimilation2 mashes up Star Trek: The Next Generation and Doctor Who, two cult science-fiction shows with interesting philosophical distinctions; unfortunately, the comic book does nothing with that great premise.

Incorporating The X-Files into a comic book crossover feels like a risky endeavour. After all, mainstream comic books tend towards more extreme possibilities than even Mulder would allow. Given how hard Mulder has struggled to prove the existence of extraterrestrials, it is hard to believe that the character might occupy the same conceptual space with characters like Superman or The Authority; or, to foreshadow the future holder of the X-Files comic book licensing, the Transformers or the Ghostbusters or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

White out...

White out…

The X-Files is a property that runs a very serious risk of collapsing into self-parody if subjected to the logic of comic book crossovers. The series dances on a razor-blade between serious and ridiculous as it stands, and a comic book crossover would make the perfect tipping point. Given Chris Carter’s stated anxieties about cynically franchising and merchandising The X-Files, it makes sense that the series has been kept removed from crossovers in a way that other properties have not.

With that in mind, it makes sense that the two biggest X-Files comic book crossovers – The X-Files/30 Days of Night and Conspiracy – took place in the long cold winter between the release of The X-Files: I Want to Believe and My Struggle I. Indeed, The X-Files/30 Days of Night seemed to arrive at a point where Wildstorm had absolutely no idea what they wanted to do with their X-Files license. It arrived more than a year after Doug Moench closed out their monthly miniseries with the two-part story Dante’s Muse.

Over the hill and far away...

Over the hill and far away…

It should be noted that 30 Days of Night is very much the dominant partner here, even if it takes second billing on the title. Writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith had launched 30 Days of Night in August 2002, only a few months after The Truth was broadcast. The three-issue miniseries had originally been pitched as a movie, before Niles decided to develop it at IDW Publishing. The series went on to become a fairly significant success, launching a slew of spin-offs and sequels.

Ironically, the idea became easier to sell as a film after the comic book was published. 30 Days of Night was released in October 2007, nine months before I Want to Believe arrived in cinemas. The contrast between the two films is striking. Both are very clearly aspiring towards cult status, with a highly stylised aesthetic set against a (mostly) stark white backdrop. They both even had similar production budgets, with the production teams given approximately thirty million dollars to realise their horror stories.

"I guess we're crashing here..."

“I guess we’re crashing here…”

However, the end results were remarkably different. 30 Days of Night opened at the top of the box office, earning fifteen million dollars in its opening weekend and making forty million at the domestic box office with an R rating. I Want to Believe opened fourth at the box office, earning ten million dollars in its opening weekend and making twenty million at the domestic box office with a PG-13 rating. Of course, scheduling played a part, but critics were considerably kinder to 30 Days of Night than they were to I Want to Believe.

All of this is to say that 30 Days of Night was certainly the more vibrant and dynamic of the two franchises involved in the crossover. The X-Files was arguably something of a spent cultural force at this point in its history, a franchise about to enter an extended hibernation – if it had not already. This is very much reflected in the miniseries itself, both with the plotting and even in the creative team. Steve Niles is credited as co-writer on the comic; there is no equivalent X-Files veteran working on the book.

Death comes to town...

Death comes to town…

The crossover very clearly serves the 30 Days of Night mythos. Indeed, Niles has acknowledged that he was only convinced to sign off on the six-issue miniseries when his co-writer came up with a clever hook into the larger 30 Days of Night story:

“There’s one big surprise that I can’t give away, but it’s more about the history of the Arctic Circle,” he said. “As it turns out, there is a long history of disappearances, all the way from the first Arctic explorers looking for new trading routes. We have entire ships going missing and never [being] found again. The crew, everybody, gone. So, a big part of this isn’t just Alaska. As they discover, there is a long history of these attacks and disappearances. That was an aspect of it that really lent itself to the X-Files.”

The twist is that The X-Files/30 Days of Night is actually a prequel to the original 30 Days of Night miniseries. As such, the comic is more firmly anchored in the world of 30 Days of Night. However, this does also serve the X-Files aspect of the crossover in a more thematic sense.

Hold that thought...

Hold that thought…

As such, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of The X-Files/30 Days of Night, particularly given how little interest Wildstorm had shown in developing the license to this point. This makes it all the more surprising that The X-Files/30 Days of Night works out so well. In fact, it is probably the best story to feature Mulder and Scully in the long fourteen-year period that the duo were off the air. While The X-Files/30 Days of Night is more firmly anchored in the continuity of 30 Days of Night, it remains eagerly invested in the atmosphere and tone of The X-Files.

A lot of this is down to the compatibility of the two properties. Put simply, 30 Days of Night feels like it could easily have been a Vancouver-era episode of The X-Files; it is the tale of bunch of people trapped in an isolated (and snowy) location as a primal force lays siege to them. It is not too far removed from episodes like Ice or Darkness Falls or Detour. There is a very visceral quality to the horror of 30 Days of Night that fits quite comfortably with the tone of those early X-Files episodes.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

In particular, 30 Days of Night‘s grind house horror tone fits very well with scripts by veteran X-Files staffers Glen Morgan and James Wong. The genetic deformities and sheer brutality of the vampire horde calls to mind the Peacock family for Home. It helps that one member of the clan is left dismembered in a cave so as to provide exposition for Mulder and Scully, a haunting set-up that recalls the discovery of Misses Peacock beneath the bed. (Director Kim Manners had suggested that the horror resonated on a primal level.)

Similarly, the apocalyptic tone of the comic recalls Wong and Morgan’s work on the second season of Millennium, particularly Beware of the Dog. The idea of roaming packs of predatory blood-thirsty vampires wandering through the wasteland and massacring entire families and communities evokes the same apocalyptic anxieties that underpinned so much of Wong and Morgan’s tenure. The idea that the community (or the family) is the only institution standing against a harsh and chaotic world reverberates throughout the Ten Thirteen canon.

Monster mash-up...

Monster mash-up…

Niles acknowledged that the two worlds fit together surprisingly comfortably:

“X-Files has a very real-world approach to the way they look at monsters. When they find monsters, there is what Mulder believes – he’s a little more inclined to believe in the impossible – but then there’s Scully, who has to get her head around it in a, for lack of a better term, science perspective,” Niles explained. “The 30 Days of Night vampires, there’s none of the crosses, there’s none of the garlic or any of the trappings of the supernatural vampire. Even in the comic series, we later got into explaining that it’s more of a disease. It’s something in their blood and is more of an actual physiological change. Their body changes into something that needs blood. So, in that respect, [30 Days and X-Files] worked really well together because it wasn’t going to be one of those things where it’s like, ‘We have to put a stake in his heart to kill him.’ All you’re going to do if you put a stake in the heart of a vampire from 30 Days of Night is have a really mad vampire. So, the logic of the worlds worked out really well.”

In fact, one of the miniseries’ nicer small scenes has Scully conducting an autopsy on a deceased vampire.

It's a lot to digest...

It’s a lot to digest…

Tom Mandrake does fantastic work on the miniseries. Mandrake is a veteran comic book illustrator, having worked in the medium since the mid-eighties. Although Mandrake is a versatile artist, his strengths tend towards atmospheric horror. His work with writer John Ostrander on The Spectre (and The Martian Manhunter) ranks among the most underrated runs in mainstream American comic books. Mandrake has an uncanny understanding of how to structure a horror comic; how to set the tone and compose a page for maximum impact.

Mandrake beautifully captures the horror of The X-Files/30 Days of Night, understanding horror comics as well as veteran directors like David Nutter or Kim manners understood horror cinema. The comic is filled with striking images. In fact, a couple of the issues end on fairly standard cliffhangers that are elevated through Mandrake’s ability to convey atmosphere. “Mulder and Scully see a big ship” is hardly the most compelling plot beat, but Mandrake’s artwork gives the moment the necessary “oomph.”

All at sea...

All at sea…

Mandrake also has a knack for capturing the body language and facial expressions of his subjects. While Mandrake might not be a likeness artist in the same way that veteran X-Files artists like Brian Denham, Alex Saviuk and Gordon Purcell are likeness artists, Mandrake has clearly studied Duchovny and Anderson’s performances quite closely. There are some delightfully in-character expressions and poses from Mulder and Scully, whether it is Mulder’s glee at disproving Scully’s theory or Scully’s facepalm as Mulder hints at his vampire theory.

It helps that Steve Niles and co-writer Adam Jones pepper the script with lots of nice little nods to the show’s own history. Although The X-Files/30 Days of Night is very firmly a part of the continuity of 30 Days of Night, it feels thematically like an X-Files story. Niles and Jones adopt an approach that remains quite consistent with that adopted by Wildstorm, and by I Want to Believe. There is a sense of The X-Files as a series of cultural markers and signifiers; a mythology unto itself that can be adapted and twisted.

Blood moon...

Blood moon…

This applies in both a general and a specific sense. All of the familiar X-Files beats are here. Mulder is unsurprisingly familiar with the mythology and history of 30 Days on Night, reflecting his encyclopedic knowledge of just about every piece of obscure folklore on the planet. Scully gets the opportunity to perform an autopsy on the corpse of a vampire, discovering something vaguely scientific and utterly horrifying in the process. Skinner makes two brief appearances, as if only to assert that this is in fact an X-Files story.

Niles and Jones write fairly convincing versions of Mulder and Scully. In particular, the duo seem to channel Mulder’s jerkier tendencies quite well. He spends a significant stretch of the miniseries mocking Scully’s attempts at a half-rational explanation for what is happening. “Maybe we’re looking for a jaws-of-life-wielding polar bear,” Mulder quips at one point. Later, he discovers that the scratch marks on the damaged trucks are closer to the size of an adult man’s hand, boasting, “Hey, Scully, I have polar bear-sized hands!”

You cannot take Mulder anywhere...

You cannot take Mulder anywhere…

The six-issue comic series does a great job of capturing Mulder’s tendency to behave like a jackass. Meeting with two fellow agents who believe the killings to be the work of a mortal serial killer, Mulder is brilliantly dismissive of their theories. “Can your guy pile whip sixteen corpses up a forty-foot pole in subzero temperatures?” Mulder muses, sarcastically. This prompts one of the agents to actually lash out at Mulder, forcing his partner to hold him back. (“Son-of-a-“) There is a sense it would be fun to watch Duchovny and Anderson play the scenes together.

That said, Mulder’s forced antagonism with one of his fellow agents – nicknamed “Frenchy” – does seem rather heavy-handed. Even though Frenchy is turned into a vampire, it seems like their conflict doesn’t really escalate. “That’s Federal Agent Daniel Robert French to you, Mulder!” Frenchy rants in his introductory scene. “I’ve worked twenty hard years for the Bureau! I’ve lost sleep trying to capture real criminals while con men like you sit at a desk in a basement studying U.F.O.s and pointless folklore!”

Body of work...

Body of work…

The show has done this sort of plotline before, particularly during its earlier years. However, the antagonism between Mulder and Frenchy feels very forced. Frenchy is never developed into a three-dimensional character, instead reduced to his singular dislike of Mulder. The script even tries to give that more weight by tying the conflict back to Mulder’s time at the Academy, but it seems shallow and superfluous with everything else going on. (“Sorry,” Mulder apologises to Scully, “but he’s been riding me since Quantico.”)

To be fair, this is never too large an issue. One of the advantages of publishing The X-Files/30 Days of Night as a six-issue miniseries is that it gives the creative team a lot of breathing room. There is time for Niles and Jones to work in a lot of extra thematic detail, while Mandrake’s pacing is never rushed. There is space to satisfy all of the demands upon the script. The X-Files/30 Days of Night can work both as prequel to 30 Days of Night and as an effective standalone X-Files story checking all the requisite boxes.

"Yeah, that's probably it, satanic cultists. Come on, Scully."

“Yeah, that’s probably it, satanic cultists. Come on, Scully.”

In fact, part of the fun of The X-Files/30 Days of Night is watching Mulder and Scully brush up against a mythology that is not exclusively their own. So much of The X-Files is tied into its own mythology of alien invasions and government conspiracies that it makes for a nice change to see Mulder and Scully did their toes in another complex continuity. The X-Files/30 Days of Night has a much greater impact on 30 Days of Night than it does on The X-Files, to the point that Mulder and Scully will never fully understand what exactly happened.

This ties very neatly into the themes of The X-Files, the recurring sense that even Mulder and Scully are only skimming the surface of a world filled with oddities and monstrosities. The vampires setting sale of Barrow are really just a spiritual successor to that final shot of Flukeman in The Host or the parting shot of Big Blue in Quagmire or Doctor Franklin escaping at the end of Sanguinarium. It just so happens that the vampires go on to have their own series of adventures, having brushed against Mulder and Scully.

The remains of the day...

The remains of the day…

The comic is true to The X-Files in more than just theme. Niles and Jones draw from some very specific imagery that ties back to the show itself. Much like the Wildstorm comics and I Want to Believe, it seems that The X-File/30 Days of Night approaches the fifth season as the platonic ideal of what The X-Files should be. While Frank Spotnitz rooted his two-part mythology story in Redux II, Niles and Jones draw from a number of fifth season episodes to help cultivate a sense that this is very much a “classic” or “vintage” example of an X-Files story.

A crucial plot point hinges on Scully recovering a young girl from the ice. While Mulder is investigating a grotesque crime-scene, Scully wanders off into the snow by herself. While exploring, she finds what appears to be a young girl buried beneath the ice. When Scully unearths the child, she rushes it to hospital. At the end of the comic, it is heavily implied that Scully’s efforts to save the child saved their lives; as the horde of vampires leave Mulder and Scully in the greenhouse, Scully catches a single glimpse of the little girl staring back.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

It is a nice nod to Scully’s own maternal arc that runs through the core seasons of the show, starting with Revelations and continuing in Memento Mori and beyond. More specifically, the imagery used seems to evoke that of the fifth season two-parter Christmas Carol and Emily. In particular, the sequence of Scully wandering through the snow in search of a lost child (who she never realised existed) literalises Scully’s journey through the metaphorical desert in the teaser to Emily.

Similarly, Scully’s arc with the child recalls her own relationship with Emily. Emily was a child whose very existence was portrayed as a crime against nature; the end of Emily has Mulder and Scully reflecting on the fact that Emily was simply “not meant to be.” Emily passes on, with some sense that this is simply the way that things are meant to be. The vampire child in 30 Days of Night parallels that journey, with Scully discovering a child who has been turned into an undead monster; the comic ends with the child passing on in a more metaphorical sense.

Don't cross him...

Don’t cross him…

(This is not the only nod that The X-Files/30 Days of Night makes to the show’s history and continuity. In one particularly inspired touch, Mulder attempts to improvise a crucifix during a vampire attack. The fact that this response is prompted by the movie he watched in the motel the previous evening recalls a similar gag in Home concerning Mulder’s meditations on the feral nature of the Peacock family. More that, it also evokes Mulder’s attempt to improvise a crucifix out of breadsticks in Bad Blood. It works about as well here as it did there.)

However, it is interesting how Niles and Jones choose to engage with this history of The X-Files. Following the example set by producer Frank Spotnitz, the Wildstorm comics unfolded in a weird parallel universe where Mulder and Scully found themselves frozen in a particular moment. Technology and calendars might have evolved in the years following the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future, but Mulder and Scully seemed frozen in 1998. This was a world where the show’s final four seasons never happened.

Mulder really doesn't have a flare for this thing...

Mulder really doesn’t have a flare for this thing…

In some respects, this weird discontinuity was a logical extension of the philosophy of I Want to Believe. The franchise’s second feature film spent a lot of energy trying to take the show (and its characters) back to the perceived “golden age” that fell between the third and fifth seasons. Even Thomas Schnauz’s script for Resist or Serve got in on the act, a video game set in the seventh season that ended with Mulder asserting that everything would be okay as long as both he and Scully were still working on The X-Files.

The X-Files/30 Days of Night plays along with this assumption. For the first few issues of the comic, it seems quite reasonable to assume that the comic is a continuation of the monthly Wildstorm comic book; it is a story set in the present day, but starring a version of Mulder and Scully trapped in amber. However, the comic very skilfully subverts these expectations with its final twist, revealing that the entire comic is a prequel to the first 30 Days of Night story. Given the publication date of the comic, that means all this unfolded before 2002.

Mapping it all out...

Mapping it all out…

This has the effect of anchoring The X-Files/30 Days of Night in a particular moment in time. The reason that Mulder and Scully are behaving like it is still 1998 is because the comic is much closer to 1998 than 2010. In many respects, the positioning of The X-Files/30 Days of Night as something that happened before the beginning of 30 Days of Night – and, implicitly, before the end of The X-Files – serves as an attempt to contain the nostalgia threaded through this phase of the franchise’s history.

The X-Files/30 Days of Night is written as a story with a great deal of respect (and appreciation) for the past, but also a story that understands the past might best be left to its own devices. Given how so much of the X-Files media has struggled with the show’s legacy and history in the years following its cancellation, it seems like the perfect note on which to wrap up this phase of the franchise’s history. The X-Files/30 Days of Night is willing to let the past be the past.

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4 Responses

  1. I’ve recently begun watching the show from the start for the first time and I love it.

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