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The X-Files: Season 10 (IDW) #8 – Being for the Benefit of Mr. X (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

Being for the Benefit of Mr. X is effectively another origin story, following on from Hosts.

While Hosts explained exactly how the Fluke Man came to be, and even gave the character tangible motivation, Being for the Benefit of Mr. X is largely driven by flashbacks that proceed to explain and elaborate upon Mulder’s second informant. Mister X has long been one of the franchise’s most interesting and underdeveloped character, in part owing to the fact that the show fleshed out very little about him and in part due to Steven Williams’ performance. While the show revealed a lot about Deep Throat or the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Mister X remains a mystery.

Marking the spot.

Marking the spot.

The question, of course, is what this actually adds to the story being told. It is fun to revisit the origin of Mister X, but he is very much an outdated concern at this point in the show’s life. In fact, the character’s last appearance was in flashback in Unusual Suspects at the start of the fifth season, following his death in Herrenvolk at the start of the fourth season. Unlike the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Mister X was never literally resurrected. Unlike Deep Throat, he never turned up to haunt Mulder in episodes like The Blessing Way or The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.

It is not as if writer Joe Harris has constructed a particularly compelling origin story for Mister X. The story told in Being for the Benefit of Mr. X is solid and sturdy, integrating quite smoothly with the continuity of the show and the character as we understand it. However, there are no real surprises or tangents, no twists or surprises. Being for the Benefit of Mr. X is a solid “done in one” story. It just feels a tad unnecessary.

In too Deep (Throat)...

In too Deep (Throat)…

Contemporary culture is obsessed with origin stories, particularly as they relate to preexisting characters. Of course, most stories are, by their nature, origin stories. Wuthering Heights explains the sad story of Heathcliff, beginning with his introduction to the Earnshaw family and charting the bullying and trauma that made him what he is today. Pride & Prejudice documents the first meeting of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy. However, very few people would refer to them as “origin” stories, simply as fully-formed (and complete) stories in their own right.

The term “origin” story seems to be applied to stories that explain a status quo for a familiar or recognised character, explaining how they came to assume their default mode. The term “origin story” originated in this context in relation to comic books, where characters would frequently be introduced only for later stories to go back and trace their origins. After all, the status quo for being a comic book superhero is being a comic book superhero, so it makes sense that the story of how they became a comic book superhero would exist in a separate class.

Dial it back there, Mulder...

Dial it back there, Mulder…

Wolverine is perhaps the most obvious example, originally introduced as an antagonist of the Hulk who became a breakout character in Uncanny X-Men, with writer Chris Claremont constantly teasing readers with hints of an elaborate back story. When Marvel did choose to reveal hints of his back story, these stories were treated as “events”; Barry Windsor-Smith on Weapon X or Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada, Paul Jenkins and Andy Kubert on Wolverine: Origins, which became a series that would run for fifty issues.

Although most earlier superhero films had featured origin stories, the term really entered the mainstream at the turn of the millennium. Around that time, George Lucas positioned the prequel trilogy as an extended “origin story” for both Darth Vader and the larger Star Wars universe. With Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan would craft a two-hour movie from the back story and origin that Tim Burton crammed into roughly five minutes of Batman and which Batman! completely ignored.

Pencil in some excitement.

Pencil in some excitement.

Even on a personal basis, there is something very appealing about origin stories. As psychologist Robin Rosenberg explains:

With people, we’re interested in origin stories for several reasons. One is that we like people to be predictable. Not in a bad way, but we just like to pigeonhole people. We like to understand them, where they’re coming from, and why they do what they do —  which then makes them predictable. It also gives us context. So if we know someone is really sensitive about a particular topic, we’re more willing to work with that. If we understand why they get twitchy or why they get angry or why they break down crying. Whatever their response is, if we kind of understand it, we don’t think they’re weird. Origin stories help us make sense of another person.

From a storytelling perspective, origin stories also appeal because they come packaged with a neat structure and a clear arc.

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

There is also a more cynical argument to be made that origin stories tend to emerge when franchises have written themselves into corners or to obvious conclusions, that they serve to “extend franchises that would otherwise have nowhere else to go.” This certainly applies to films like X-Men: Origins – Wolverine and X-Men: First Class, that seemed to exist largely to avoid dealing with the mess that was X-Men III, or to the novel Hannibal Rising trying to distance itself from the controversy of Hannibal.

The fixation upon origin stories may also reflect a broader trend in popular culture, a growing unease with what are perceived as absences in the story. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the contemporary fascination with what are labelled “plot holes”, where the decision not to show Bruce Wayne getting back to Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises is perceived as a major failing on the part of the film. Contemporary audiences are wary of what they perceive to be gaps in the information they are given, and origin stories provide a way to close some of those gaps.

Keeping himself informed...

Keeping himself informed…

There is a problem with this fascination on origin stories for preexisting characters. By definition, stories tend to join characters at the most exciting point in their arcs. Going back to before that most exciting point is rarely a compelling story hook of itself. As Darren Franich argues:

Part of the problem with contemporary blockbuster’s fascination with origin stories is that they remove any mystery from the equation. Just look at X-Men Origins – Wolverine, a film which kicked off by presenting one of the most badass comic book characters in history as a kid with his hands in the air screaming “Noooooo!” after killing his secret father. Wolverine literalizes the biggest problem with the Origin Story: By focusing on the titular hero before he got amnesia, it’s not so much a movie about Wolverine as it is a movie about the boring guy Wolverine was before he lost his memory.

The modern fetishisation of “the canon” means that origin stories tend to hew pretty closely to details already provided, which were generally intended as bullet-point exposition of how a character got where they are. As a result, origin stories are frequently broadly drawn and highly predictable.

Window of opportunity...

Window of opportunity…

This was part of the issue with Hosts and is part of the issue with Being for the Benefit of Mr. X. As with the rest of his work on the comic, it is quite clear that Joe Harris knows his X-Files mythology. With Being for the Benefit of Mr. X, he crafts a story that is very much in keeping with the preexisting themes and continuity already established by The X-Files. Even the issue’s opening sequence is lifted from a throwaway line from Deep Throat about “a group of children from a southern state” in The Erlenmeyer Flask.

It is revealed that Mister X feels guilty about his involvement in a conspiracy against the American people, particularly one that involves experiments upon unsuspecting school children. He considers leaking information to The Washington Post, only for Deep Throat to talk him out of it and instead draw attention to “a young man I’ve been hearing a lot about over at Quantico.” It feels like the most typical arc for an informant on The X-Files, one that ties confession to guilt and shame. (Consider Deep Throat’s confession in E.B.E. or the informant from My Struggle I.)

Don't cross X.

Don’t cross X.

It fits with the broad strokes of what the show has established about Mister X. The show repeatedly inferred a connection between Mister X and Deep Throat, with the character acknowledging his “predecessor” and remaining keenly aware of what happened to the last conspirator to provide Mulder with information. In Soft Light, he fleetingly mentions “[his] loyalty to [his] predecessor.” So it makes sense that Mister X would have a connection with Deep Throat, and that Deep Throat would push him to inform on the conspiracy.

It is also perhaps the most banal origin possible, on that fits quite neatly with the themes of guilt and legacy that run through The X-Files, but which also covers a lot well-trodden ground. Mulder already has one informant who was conspired to turn against the conspiracy by guilt over his complicity in past crimes. Some of the more interesting character beats involving Mister X suggest that he is using Mulder just as much as Mulder is using him. Mister X always seemed more ambivalent than Deep Throat.

It ain't easy being green.

It ain’t easy being green.

Mister X was happy to let Mulder wander alone through the Arctic wastes in End Game. He double-crossed Mulder for his own ends in Soft Light. He seems excited at the prospect of leverage over the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Talitha Cumi. Mister X might have been willing to step up to bat for Mulder in episodes like 731, but he was never as transparent as Deep Throat. He was never as much of an open book, emotionally speaking. It seems like Being for the Benefit of Mr. X diminishes that aspect of the character.

At the same time, the origin story as posited by Being for the Benefit of Mr. X raises some questions of chronology. Conduit revealed that Mulder only began to believe in aliens in June 1989, so it seems strange that Deep Throat would have him pegged as a great white hope two years earlier. Of course, Deep Throat is aware of Mulder’s familial connections to the conspiracy, but he doesn’t seem to put the same faith in Jeffrey Spender, to pick one example. More than that, the issue suggests that Deep Throat waited six years before reaching out to Mulder in Deep Throat.

"And I can work in Mulder's love of porn, to boot."

“And I can work in Mulder’s love of porn, to boot.”

There is a sense that all of this is largely redundant. Being for the Benefit of Mr. X even posits an origin story for the alias man known as Deep Throat – who may or may not be named “Ronald” according to Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. After one particularly brutal assignment, Mister X considers just leaking all of his information to The Washington Post. This causes Deep Throat to ruminate on the power of information to humble even the most untouchable of men.

“Here we stand in front of the same news organ an anonymous informant named Deep Throat used to help bring down a president,” he reflects. After he has talked Mister X down, Deep Throat takes a moment to consider that further. “Deep Throat… now that’s a hell of a name,” he muses. It is a fine example of a largely redundant origin story. After all, the default assumption is that the character was named for the informant later identified as Mark Felt. It would be a much more interesting story if he took the name for Linda Lovelace.

An empty suit.

An empty suit.

To be fair, some of that clunkiness can undoubtedly be attributed to the fact that Being for the Benefit of Mr. X is a “done-in-one” standalone single issue story. These kinds of stories are relatively rare in the context of The X-Files: Season 10 and The X-Files: Season 11. In fact, they are quite rare in the context of the contemporary comic book industry, as shifts in narrative style have pushed towards larger panels and less exposition that diminishes the medium’s capacity to tell a simple self-contained narrative in only twenty-odd pages.

In fact, when Harris would relaunch the comic as just The X-Files following the conclusion of The X-Files: Season 11, the writer would lean towards simple “monster of the week” stories. However, he would opt to structure those stories over two issues rather than one. “I have had a seriously hard time with single issue attempts to tell a satisfying X-Files story,” he has confessed of the format, “the ordinarily available twenty pages is just not a lot of space to really get the full effect you hope for.”

Staying on point.

Staying on point.

Perhaps that accounts for some of the issues with Being for the Benefit of Mr. X. unfolding in both flashback and the present day, the story has to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short space. With that in mind, it makes sense that the comic follows the path of least resistance and that there is not really a lot of space to improvise or innovate. As a single-issue comic book in which the origin of Mister X is only one of two major plot threads, Being for the Benefit of Mr. X does a decent (if unspectacular) job.

However, in spite of these issues, there is a lot of interest in Being for the Benefit of Mr. X. Most obviously is the harrowing and effective opening scene, the trauma that serves as the eponymous informant’s motivation for turning on his employers. In a nice piece of synchronicity, the event unfolds in 1987, reinforcing the thematic connections between the conspiracy at the heart of the mythology and the Chernobyl cover-up that Harris incorporated into the plot of Hosts. In many ways, The X-Files is a story about abuses of the powerful upon the weak, that shines through.

Triggering trauma.

Triggering trauma.

Public shootings will always make for harrowing subject matter. That is particularly true if they are school shootings. In many ways, these seemingly random shootings were an expression of deep-rooted anxiety in the nineties; the fear of arbitrary and senseless violence in spaces that should be safe. It makes sense that the fear carries over to the era of the War on Terror, even before the San Bernardino shootings served to officially conflate terror attacks and mass shootings as an expression of the same anxiety.

The X-Files had touched on the horror of these mass shootings repeatedly. The first half of Folie à Deux focused on a hostage situation at a call centre. The teaser to Empedocles found a disgruntled ex-employee going on a shooting spree after being let go. On Millennium, Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz would write the episode TEOTWAWKI that opens with a school shooting and then segues awkwardly into doomsday prepping. Even Harris would return to the horror of these attacks in Active Shooter, the first story of the relaunched X-Files title.

Screening better.

Screening better.

The opening pages of Being for the Benefit of Mr. X are astonishingly effective, moving depictions of the shooting and its aftermath. Harris keeps dialogue and exposition to a minimum during these sequences, affording the sequence all the space that it needs and trusting on his art team to deliver. Indeed, the relative simplicity of Mister X’s character arc is probably down to the decision to give so much space to the shooting. Given how emotionally powerful those opening pages are, it is hard to complain too much.

The shooting is explicitly blamed on an experiment with “Purity”, the black oil at the heart of the conspiracy. The shooter describes her perception of events in terms that consciously evoke the working of the black oil in episodes like Piper Maru and Apocrypha. She confesses, “I couldn’t help it… it was like something crawled under my skin… and I just… couldn’t…” Reflecting on the damage, Mister X reports, “Considering the totality of the destruction, it is my opinion that [redacted] is beyond control altogether.” (So much for “Purity Control.”)

The red and the grey.

The red and the grey.

These quotes obviously reference the mythology of The X-Files, but they also speak to the brutality and randomness that underpins these random acts of violence. As much as Being for the Benefit of Mr. X blames the conspirators for what happened, the shooting is portrayed as an otherwise typical school shooting. Indeed, the shooter is even bullied shortly before opening fire, labelled a “freak” by her fellow students. Readers can empathise with Mister X’s horror and disgust, even without blaming an alien conspiracy.

Indeed, Harris’ dialogue and captions are carefully constructed so that they tap into the real-world horror of such traumatic events. The arbitrary nature of the violence, the question of what drives the shooters, the sense that there is nothing and nowhere that is truly safe. More than that, the decision to tie such a shooting into the larger framework of the conspiracy raises questions about society’s broader complicity in these atrocities. Being for the Benefit of Mr. X never tackles that issue directly, but it implies it quite heavily.

Body work.

Body work.

Mister X is horrified by the fact that he was indirectly responsible for this violence, even passively complicit. However, to what extent is larger culture responsible for the culture of gun violence? After all, the United States experiences a phenomenally high number of mass shootings, suggesting that there is some sort of cultural factor at play. However, these instances are tackled in a perfunctory way. Society seems unwilling or unable to have any meaningful conversation about this violence, surrounding it in a conspiracy of silence.

Harris does great work with that introductory sequence, but it works largely because he entrusts his creative collaborators to convey the horror of the sequence. Harris is lucky enough to work with a number of great artists on the various X-Files book. Artist Michael Walsh helped to launch the book, and provides the art on Being for the Benefit of Mr. X. His artwork sets the tone for the book, managing a nice balance between solid character likeness and rich atmosphere. All of the characters are recognisable, and it feels like The X-Files.

Running red.

Running red.

Walsh would be succeeded by artist Matthew Dow Smith, who would adopt a style even heavier on atmosphere and style than likeness. It is a nice approach to a comic based on The X-Files, recalling the work of Charles Adlard on those early Topps tie-ins. This is not the crisp and clear linework of Gordon Purcell or Alex Saviuk. Under Walsh and Smith, The X-Files: Season 10 favours the tone and mood of the Vancouver era over photorealism. It is an approach that heightens sequences like the school shooting at the start of Being for the Benefit of Mr. X.

While the book does transition through several pencillers, The X-Files: Season 10 does benefit from a consistent colourist. Jordie Bellaire is one of the best colourists working in the business today, and in fact won an Eisner in part for her work on the series. The role of the colourist in the production of comic book art is frequently overlooked or ignored. To pick one example, Chasing Amy might have cracked wise about the relationship between inking and tracing, but colourists were completely absent from the film’s conversation about the art form.

Superpredator.

Superpredator.

Bellaire has acknowledged that colourists occasionally fight an uphill battle for recognition within the industry and among the fan base:

Colorists are extremely essential to the medium of colored comics. I don’t think I need to explain to most any fan, the value of a colorist like Laura Martin or Dave Stewart. Colorists create form for figures and their environments, mood, tone and “effects” like, blurring, flares, glows, color holds, etc. If any of this is done badly or doesn’t give clarity to an artist’s work, the artwork fails.

There does need to be more emphasis on comic books as a collaborative medium, including more recognition of the role colourists play.

Man in black and red.

Man in black and red.

The art of colouring has become more accepted and acknowledged in recent years, in large part due to the work of individuals like Bellaire or Martin or Stewart. In a climate where there is no longer the expectation that a penciller should stick to a monthly scheduler, a colourist can often play a vital role in maintaining the tonal consistency of a popular book. Matthew Wilson is considered an essential part of the creative team on Mark Waid’s celebrated Daredevil run, transitioning over to Black Widow with artist Chris Samnee and letterer Joe Caramagna.

Bellaire herself has done phenomenal work in the industry. In particular, her collaborations with writer Warren Ellis and artist Declan Shalvey on books like Injection and Moon Knight are some of the finest work in comics today. Her CV includes The Manhattan Projects, Pretty Deadly, Magneto, Flash Gordon and Journey Into Mystery. Her colouring on The X-Files: Season 10 is well suited to the tone of the book, reflecting the muted tones of the show’s first five seasons. However, it is most striking during the early pages of Being for the Benefit of Mr. X.

School's out.

School’s out.

Bellaire uses strong vibrant reds to distinguish those students “contaminated” by exposure to the “Purity.” It is is an effective way of underscoring just how these victims are treated by the conspirators, as pawns distinguishable only by whether they were part of the group being experimented upon or the control group. More than that, the striking red colour also evokes blood and carnage without reducing the school shooting to something crass or exploitative. After all, it could not be rendered in a manner evoking the closing page of Hosts without seeming tasteless.

It is also a very nice visual allusion to two recurring concepts within the mythos. It is a most obvious nod towards the recurring motif of the red and the black that runs through the show, most obviously in the title of The Red and the Black and in the design of the checkerboard in Improbable. It also sets up the chess motif that Harris will incorporate into Gibson Praise’s character, most notably in Endgames. With the red and the grey, the sequences recall some grotesque board game between high powers.

Shots in the dark...

Shots in the dark…

The opening sequence is easily the strongest aspect of Being for the Benefit of Mr. X, with the rest of the comic feeling rather paint-by-numbers in comparison. There is a sense that comic is still too keenly focused on the past and that it needs to focus more keenly on the future. Mulder and Scully cannot fight the future if the comic is reluctant to engage with it.

You might be interested in our reviews of IDW’s “season 10” of The X-Files:

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2 Responses

  1. X did show up in The Truth to haunt Mulder but yeah he was still a relic from the past at that point.

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