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The X-Files: Season 10 (IDW) #9 – Chitter (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.

Chitter is an interesting single-issue story.

In many ways, Chitter feels very much like a throwback. It is a “monster of the week” story, the first such story to be written by Joe Harris focusing on an original creation. In fact, Harris acknowledged as much on his blog, remarking, “It’s my first, original ‘Monster of the Month’ (a term I’m taking sole credit for) story and it’s utterly disgusting, I’m sorry.” Although the plot includes a few nods towards the overarching themes of The X-Files: Season 10, the story stands almost completely alone. It would be possible to skip the issue entirely without missing much of importance.

Bugging out...

Bugging out…

This is very much an oddity in terms of The X-Files: Season 10, a monthly comic book series that has been very focused on the mythology and continuity of The X-Files. The first eight issues of the series were given over to threads dangling from the original show, whether the continuation of the mythology in Believers or the fate of the Fluke Man in Hosts or the origin of Mister X in Being for the Benefit of Mister X. This is the first time that the comic book has told a story that feels self-contained and truly standalone.

There is something very refreshing in that, with Harris constructing a story that feels very much in keeping with the tone and mood of The X-Files without relying on specific details. In many ways, it feels more like a classic episode than any of the previous issues. More than that, it actually feels very much like one of the early X-Files comics written for Topps by writers like Stefan Petrucha or John Rozum. It is a very strong piece of work.

Crawl good...

Crawl good…

Joe Harris is a horror writer by trade. His bibliography is absolutely packed with horror stories and scripts. His breakthrough came in writing and directing the short film The Tooth Fairy, a horror that reimagined the tooth-stealing spirit as something altogether more monstrous. That short film caught the attention of a lot of people. Most notably, Harris would be tasked with adapting his short film to a feature. Harris wrote the first draft of Darkness Falls, a notoriously troubled horror that he still remembers somewhat fondly.

Harris was also experienced in the world of comic books. Having studied film in college, he wrote and directed a thesis film that came to the attention of editors at Marvel through the artist Adam Polina. The editors like his film enough to offer a job writing comics, leading to work on books like X-Men: Liberators and Bishop: The Last X-Man. Harris would later move away from these superhero jobs to focus on writing horror. For example, he adapted two of Thomas Ligotti’s short stories for The Nightmare Factory, anthology series from Fox Atomic Comics.

A crushing blow...

A crushing blow…

This all serves to make Harris a great fit for an on-going X-Files book, in the same way that Stefan Petrucha had been a great fit early in the Topps run. However, given Harris’ experience writing horror, it seems a shame that it has taken eight months for Harris to write a conventional horror story for The X-Files: Season 1o. In early interviews about his plans for the series, Harris had talked eagerly about wanting to tell these sorts of stories:

As of now, we’ve got an opening five-issue arc that re-establishes everything. The characters, the mythology, the conspiracy, everything. Then we’ve got a bunch of shorter stories, two-parters, and single issue standalones that will harken back to the “Monster of the Week” formula and, in some cases, be direct sequels to some of my favourite old episodes. New monsters and paranormal stuff as well as some returning characters and creatures.

In hindsight, it seems like Harris never really got that balance right. It could legitimately be argued that Chitter is the only truly standalone horror story in the entirety of The X-Files: Season 1o and The X-Files: Season 11. The bulk of the comic’s run is given over to the mythology and to larger threads of continuity. However, Harris would return to the idea of doing smaller standalone horror stories when the series relaunched after the revival miniseries.

Good grub.

Good grub.

To be fair, there are lots of reasons why it took so long to get around to doing a simple “monster of the month” story. Comic book publishing is a different a medium than television, moving considerably slower. Not only are instalments released less frequently, but stories tend to unfold across multiple instalments. This is only the ninth issue of the series and only the fourth individual story in those nine issues. Still, it is quite striking that it has taken the series so long to get to this point. A full twenty-odd-episode season of The X-Files would have been broadcast by this point.

Chitter features an original monster created by Joe Harris for the comic, the mysterious “chittering god” that preys upon its victims through a malicious serial killer. However, while the monster is original, Harris constructs the story in a way that makes it feel like a classic X-Files episode. Focusing on an investigation into a serial killer that may or may not have a supernatural elements, Chitter recalls many of the classic forensic X-Files episodes. It evokes everything from Beyond the Sea to Irresistible to Oubliette to Grotesque to Paper Hearts to Empedocles to Release.

Look! It even has shipping!

Look! It even has shipping!

This subgenre is as much a part of The X-Files as the mythology itself. This is the thread that evolved from the work of Thomas Harris, seeded as early as The Pilot. Both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are a clear influence on the work of Chris Carter and the evolution of the characters of Mulder and Scully. While Joe Harris made a point to open the monthly series with an extended five-part story focusing on the mythology, it is nice to see Chitter acknowledge that long-running and firmly established aspect of the series.

In hindsight, it seems like Harris is using Chitter as a springboard. After all, this kind of X-Files story inspired Chris Carter to create both the character of Frank Black and the television series Millennium. Later in the run, in Immaculate, Harris reintroduces the character of Frank Black and spins him out into a five-part Millennium miniseries. With all of that in mind, Chitter seems like a small piece of experimentation, a dry run at this kind of story before following that evolutionary thread towards the first X-Files spin-off series.

No bones about it.

No bones about it.

However, Chitter also evokes other quintessential X-Files tropes and conventions. The small-town setting is very much an X-Files favourite, with Mulder and Scully discovering a serial killer at work inside a tightly-knit community. There is a sense of nostalgia that creeps into Scully’s conversations with the locals. “When we first moved to this sleepy town, so long ago, we used to keep the doors unlocked at night,” reflects one elderly resident. “Nobody bothered us out here. But those days seem so long ago now.”

The X-Files was always fascinated by the idea of these eccentric spaces that existed in the American heartland, these weird little enclaves that were at the risk of fading from the collective consciousness and vanishing into history. When the show was broadcast in the nineties, it seemed like the world was becoming a much smaller place. Globalisation had shone light into the shadows scattered across the American countryside. The strange and the uncanny had fewer places to hide, as episodes like Humbug and Detour suggested.

Venting his fear...

Venting his fear…

The show was particularly engaged with the idea of small towns, those weird little institutions with their own strange histories and traditions. Sometimes those communities were dying, suffocated as the interstates and the big cities cut them off, as in episodes like Roadrunners. Sometimes those communities were forced to confront the horrors they had long denied, as in episodes like Home. Sometimes those communities found themselves facing the forces of modernity and globalisation as outside forces crept in, as in episodes like Red Museum.

There are moments at which Chitter feels like these episodes, evoking stories like Our Town and Roadrunners. There is a very strong sense that this little community has its own buried secrets. “This is a quiet town, Agent Scully,” the serial killer explains. “The sort where neighbours look out for one another. And pull together toward a common cause.” It is an interesting line, because it suggests some measure of complicity and community in the brutal killings. More than that, it is framed in terms almost horrific, coming right before Scully herself is attacked.

It's going interro-great!

It’s going interro-great!

As Mulder and Scully delve into the series of murders in this small community, they discover a whole host of archaic imagery that seems almost religious in nature. The use of the scarab emblem and the references to “the chittering god” suggest a weird cult buried in these seemingly normal surroundings, something older and more primal than most small-town religions. This is very much in keeping with the X-Files‘ recurring fascination with weird religions in small town life, from Gender Bender to Die Hand die Verletzt to Our Town to Roadrunners.

It is interesting to note how this sort of story has aged surprisingly well. The X-Files is a show that is firmly rooted in the nineties, from its fascination with new age spirituality to the existential ennui of standing at what it thinks to be the end of history. Those anxieties about small-town life and eccentric spaces were also anchored in the increased globalisation of the last decade of the twentieth century. However, Chitter reads very well from the context of 2014, feeling like more than just a nostalgic throwback to the show’s golden age.

Don't forget War of the Coprophages!

Don’t forget War of the Coprophages!

In the twenty-first century, the small town seems to have become an even more eccentric and disconnected space. After all, the internet allows and encourages people to speculate about the workings of communities like Oniontown. It exposes horrific stories like the opiod epidemic that has ravaged small towns. It documents the realities of poverty in regions like the Ozarks. It could in fact be argued that globalisation has not served to integrate and assimilate all those small towns and communities, but has instead rendered them alien to a significant portion of Americans.

Chitter presents an interesting glimpse of small-town America as a place where something primal and hungry has taken root. In some ways, it feels like political commentary. The idea of a monstrous and consuming would-be deity feasting on a small community recalls the predatory brain slug from Vince Gilligan’s Roadrunners, perhaps playing as a commentary on how extremist can take root in these communities when times get tough. Indeed, Chitter suggests that the innocence of small-town life is gone, eroded and decayed.

Crushing blow.

Crushing blow.

“The chittering god” is a predatory entity explicitly said to feed on negative feelings fear and guilt. It recalls Barrack Obama’s concerns about small-town America, as voiced during a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio—like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration. And each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate. And they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or, you know, anti-trade sentiment [as] a way to explain their frustrations.

It is worth noting that Obama would resurrect that analysis as an explanation for the meteoric rise of Donald Trump in 2016. This analysis suggests a deepseated anxiety about the kind of things to do take root in these communities.

Is it too political to suggest that the killer is a member of the Tea Party? Sod it, let's do it anyway.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just having a Tea Party.”

Harris does not delve into that idea too heavily. (Although the serial killer waxes nostalgic while pouring tea.) The writer has acknowledged that he never really mastered the art of the “done-in-one” standalone story, and there are several points at which Chitter jolts forward without delving too deeply into what it is actually saying and what is actually happening. Nevertheless, there are some absolutely fascinating ideas here, with Harris demonstrating that the classic “small-town with a dark secret” story works just as well in February 2014 as it did twenty years earlier.

Harris does tie Chitter into the larger emotional arcs of his run. Scully is targeted by “the chittering god” because of her lingering guilt over the loss of William. It is a very nice way of connecting an otherwise standalone story back to the series’ on-going concerns. It feels a lot like the way that The X-Files would use standalone stories to delve into themes that overlapped with the mythology, with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and John Doe focusing on the importance of memory or Oubliette exploring the victimisation of women.

Feeding frenzy...

Feeding frenzy…

However, Chitter feels very much like an old-school X-Files comic, the kind of weird and dark (and quite ambiguous) standalone story story that could have been crafted by Stefan Petrucha or John Rozum when they were writing X-Files stories for Topps. It is a story that evokes that weird Vertigo or EC aesthetic that defined so many of the strongest Topps stories, and which was somewhat lost with all that focus on mythology and continuity over the first eight issues of the series.

Chitter is a little rough in places, occasionally feeling a little rushed or under-developed. However, it also feels more like a classic X-Files story than anything IDW had published to this point in the run.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Along with the Flukeman two parter this is my other favorite story. That said as you commented upon it is too compressed at 1 issue and could have easily been better at 2 issues. I am actually glad to hear after season 11 Harris is gonna do more standalones that are also 2 parts at least. I think that will be even better then 10. Gotta do season 11 still but first I am doing the Topps run from the 90s, Year Zero and 30 Days of Night.

    • I love the first sixteen issues of the Topps run. They’re very much “The X-Files as a nineties Vertigo comic.” After that, it gets a bit more variable, more “The X-Files as an EC Horror Comic.” Although I really like both Year Zero and 30 Days of Night. The latter really surprised me. It might be the best X-Files story of the interregnum.

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