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The X-Files: Conspiracy (IDW) (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.

IDW is quite different from Topps and Wildstorm, the two prior comic book companies to hold the license for The X-Files.

Part of that simply reflects changes in the comic book industry over time, with a greater fixation on concepts like shared universes and continuity, along with an increased emphasis on the importance of “the canon.” Part of that is simply down to the way that IDW operates as a publisher. The company is the fourth-largest comic book publisher in America, behind Marvel, DC and Image. While the company publishes a number of creator-owned properties, its success has largely been based around licensing properties.

A mutant phenomenon...

A mutant phenomenon…

In doing so, the company has adopted a model quite close to that of Marvel or DC. It tends to organise its books around these properties in the same way that Marvel or DC might organise themselves around the so-called “families.” Much like books like Detective Comics, Nightwing or Batgirl are considered part of the “Batman” family or books like Wolverine, Namor and X-Force fall under the X-Men banner, IDW tends to group its books into familiar families based around licensed properties. Transformers, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It is not uncommon for each of those lines to support multiple books. For example, the company would publish a number of miniseries as companion pieces to their monthly Star Trek or Doctor Who comics. The same would be true of The X-Files: Season 1o, with the company publishing a number of tie-in books around that. Year Zero and Millennium are the most obvious example, providing the company with the opportunity to publish several branded X-Files books within the same month.

I bet super soldiers wish that they could do this.

I bet super soldiers wish that they could do this.

At the same time, the company engages with its properties in much the same way that Marvel or DC might. Marvel and DC tend to fall into a pattern of massive so-called “events” that serve to draw particular books away from their own internal narratives and towards a more “epic” story. Civil War focused on a fight between Captain America and Iron Man, but crossed over into over one hundred comic book issues published over seven months. There are countless other examples, from House of M to Crisis on Infinite Earths to Siege to Final Crisis.

IDW has organised several of its own blockbuster events to tie together its own licensed properties; Infestation and and Infes2ation come to mind. To celebrate the landing of the license, it was decided that the 2014 crossover would be themed around The X-Files. It is just a shame that the result was terrible.

We ain't afraid of no ghosts...

We ain’t afraid of no ghosts…

It is very easy to be cynical about the big event cycle in mainstream American comics. After all, these events typically arrive with a massive amount of bombast before disrupting unfolding narratives and collapsing under their own weight. Very few of these big events are fondly remembered by fans, with most long-term readers flinching whenever seemly innocuous words and combinations of words like Bloodlines, Onslaught, The Crossing, War Games and Emperor Joker enter the conversation.

To be fair, there are examples where crossovers are well-liked and well-received. In most cases, the best crossovers are relatively contained and spring from organic storytelling. Sinestro Corps War is rightly regarded as a highlight of Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern, even if the more expansive Blackest Night is more polarising. Marvel’s string of cosmic crossovers running from Annihilation to The Thanos Imperative were adored by fans, because they only disrupted a handful of books tied closely together and maintained creative consistency.

Team-up time!

Team-up time!

Sprawling crossovers like World War Hulk, Flashpoint, Secret Invasion, Convergence, Fear Itself, Infinity and Secret Wars tend to be quite divisive among fandom. They tend to draw extreme reactions from a highly vocal fanbase. Those browsing internet comment sections and message boards often detect a sense of fatigue creeping in, as these big events lurch from one global or universal or existential crisis to the next, demanding that readers buy additional books to keep up with the story.

As much as the internet might grown and complain about these crossovers, they inevitably sell. Perhaps the vast majority of fans actually like these stories, and the voices complaining on the internet are nothing but a vocal minority. Perhaps these fans are driven to purchase these comics by a sense of completism, a desperate impulse to own everything or a sense of obligation to these fictional universes. There are any number of possibilities, but it easy to see why comic book publishers like these stories, even if there is a palpable sense of fatigue around them.

All fired up...

All fired up…

In theory, events are designed to serve the shared universe. By tying a collection of disparate books together into a cohesive narrative, the hope is that fans might be tempted (or feel obligated) to buy books that they would not normally read. It is debatable whether this approach actually works in practice, but it is an understandable financial objective for a comic book publisher. Comic book readers are often conservative in nature, wary of things they do not already know or love. Trying to get comic books fans to try new things takes a lot of work.

This is arguably more important for IDW than it is for Marvel or DC. Most books at Marvel and DC fall comfortably within the “superhero” genre. Of course, the genre itself is diverse and elastic, but the general principle stands. Readers who buy Batman might just be tempted by a book like Midnighter or Talon; there is a logical flow there. However, IDW publishes a wide variety of comics across a wide variety of properties across a wide variety of genres. Many readers of IDW are not drawn to the medium or the publisher so much as to the property itself.

Going viral.

Going viral.

The target market for The X-Files: Season 10 is a fan of The X-Files in particular, not a fan of licensed properties in particular. As a result, it is much tougher to get somebody reading The X-Files: Season 10 to give Ghostbusters or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a chance. These are all established properties with strong fanbases, but not necessarily fanbases that overlap. As such, it makes perfect sense for the publisher to try to figure out a way to convince X-Files fans to try comic books like Transformers or The Crow.

That seems to be the only reason that the six-issue comic book event series Conspiracy exists. The series is very much a transparent effort by IDW to build off the critical and commercial success of The X-Files. There is, to be clear, nothing wrong with this. After all, IDW is a business. Business is very much in the business of staying in business. Attracting new readers is a necessary survival skill, particularly in a business as fraught as mainstream American comic books.

Not all blue skies...

Not all blue skies…

The X-Files was a logical choice for the crossover in early 2014. The television series was returning to the popular consciousness, as demonstrated by the hubbub around the twentieth anniversary. Advanced negotiations for a television revival were already in progress. The comic was selling well. As Denton J. Tipton confessed:

“Everything fit together with the tone and story logic, so it fell into place nicely,” he said.

“For each of the past five years, IDW has published a comic event that crosses over various franchises,” Tipton said. “Given the great success of The X-Files: Season 10 and how that world could easily segue into others, it was a no-brainer.”

After all, The X-Files had performed well enough at IDW that the publisher had already committed to an annual featuring contributions from high-profile figures like Frank Spotnitz and Dave Sims. Publishing a second book under the X-Files brand was a no-brainer, and making it a crossover felt right.

Ghost box.

Ghost box.

This is not an unworkable idea. To be fair, it is difficult to imagine integrating Mulder and Scully into the worlds of Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but there is also something endearingly goofy about it. These are comic books, after all. There is something fun in mashing together elements that really should not work together. That is the central appeal of such crossovers. The sci-fi alien superhero Superman fits awkwardly with aristocratic urban vigilante Batman. It is hard to reconcile the Punisher with Archie.

More than that, there are some pre-existing IDW properties that might work well enough with The X-Files. Given Mulder’s fascination with routing out secret conspiracies and cabals within the United States government, it would be fun to juxtapose the cynicism of The X-Files with implicit patriotism of G.I. Joe. Even within the confines of The X-Files: Conspiracy, it seems like Mulder and Scully might integrate quite smoothly with the cast of Ghostbusters and that The Crow could work well as a classic “revenge from beyond the grave” story like Shadows or Born Again.

A little birdie told me...

A little birdie told me…

The key is to integrate those elements carefully and thoughtfully. There is a very solid case to be made that The X-Files/30 Days of Night is one of the best uses of the X-Files license, in no small part because the creative team understood both halves of that crossover equation perfectly. As strange as a crossover like this might be, there is something to be said for the pulpy fun of a genre or conceptual mash-up. After all, the success of The Avengers and the contemporary fascination with the “shared universe” suggests that this is the age of the mash-up.

The X-Files: Conspiracy even makes one absolutely ingenious choice in how it chooses to frame the crossover. The characters journeying through the shared IDW universe are not Mulder and Scully, because it is very hard to imagine Scully’s rationalism could withstand a late-night meeting with Optimus Prime. Instead, The X-Files: Conspiracy focuses on the Lone Gunmen, on a trio of characters whose conceptual hook is that they are even more outlandish and silly than Fox Mulder.

What becomes of the broken hearted?

What becomes of the broken hearted?

That zaniness was a large part of the appeal of the short-lived spin-off The Lone Gunmen, with many of that show’s finest episodes pitched at a level far stranger than the average X-Files. Madam, I’m Adam featured a man convinced that somebody had literally stolen his wife, evolving into a strange memory-stealing love triangle. Planet of the Frohikes (Or a Short History of my Demeaning Captivity) featured a super-intelligent love-lorn chimp voiced by Edward Woodward. Tango de los Pistoleros poignantly focused on an arms deal at a tango competition.

In other words, the Lone Gunmen are just about weird enough to stumble across pizza-loving mutant turtles or sentient transforming robots engaged in an epic struggle against mankind. Indeed, there is something quite appealing in the idea, a sort of existential absurdity in the idea that the Lone Gunmen might wander listlessly through a variety of increasingly ridiculous larger-than-life conflicts knowing that nobody (not even Mulder) would entirely believe everything that they have seen.

Talk about a plot hole, eh?

Talk about a plot hole, eh?

There are points at which the miniseries seems to pause to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the concept. As Frohike types away on his laptop, Byers notes, “Frohike, I think this might be too far-fetched for the magazine.” Frohike protests, “But it’s the truth!” Byers outlines it all, “We know that. But think about it. Mutated man-turtles? Ghost hunters? Time travel? I think even Mulder would have a hard time believing. And that’s saying something.” It is a nice moment of self-awareness, explaining why it makes sense for these characters to do the crossing over.

However, The X-Files: Conspiracy quite simply does not work. The comic book is a disaster by absolutely any measure. There are any number of reasons why the six-part miniseries does not work, but the biggest issue is very simple. This is not fun. This is not adventurous. A six-part comic series that finds the Lone Gunmen stumbling across all the weird and wacky licensed properties managed by IDW should be audacious and exciting. It would embrace the nonsense of it all. It should bask in the goofiness. Instead, it is all quite lifeless.

Unfortunately, Langly's laptop hard drive contained the version of this story that made sense.

Unfortunately, Langly’s laptop hard drive contained the version of this story that made sense.

The X-Files: Conspiracy feels like nothing more than a corporate mandate. This makes sense; the comic is nothing more than a corporate mandate. Writer Paul Crilley acknowledged that the writers got no say in the basic ingredients of this sprawling story:

I was given the list of properties to use, then I had to come up with a story featuring them all that made sense. Each of the characters had to earn their place, so there had to be logical reason for each of the properties to be in the crossover.

This accounts for the awkwardness of choosing Transformers over something more fitting like G.I. Joe or more playful like Doctor Who. It also explains why the entire miniseries feels like an exercise in joining the dots, without any underlying excitement.

Piecing it together...

Piecing it together…

There are a lot of elements that feel like they were shoehorned in without any regard for whether they actual work or entertain. The crossover is bookended by two issues focusing on Mulder and Scully along with the Lone Gunmen, trying to fight a dangerous viral contagion to turns out to have been synthesised using the DNA of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and samples from Ratchet. This serves to give the crossover an epic scale, with the Lone Gunmen racing against time to figure out who unleashed the plague and how to stop it.

It all feels overly elaborate, right down to the use of the Large Hadron Collider to bookend the miniseries. The Lone Gunmen are prompted to investigate the case when they receive a bunch of data from the future that warns of a coming plague and steers them towards the other licensed properties. It is later revealed that the package was sent back in time from an alternate universe by the Crow, explaining his involvement in the crossover. It serves to give the story stakes, but feels incredibly cynical and pointless.

Shelling out for the crossover?

Shelling out for the crossover?

Why does The X-Files: Conspiracy need a global threat to justify the crossover? Aren’t the Lone Gunmen journalists, as writer Erik Burnham points out in X-Files/Ghostbusters? Why can’t the comic simply send the trio on a road trip around America seeking to relaunch their magazine? Believers established that the trio were working for the United States government, but it would be fun to see the characters chasing down leads on man-turtles or self-aware trucks. The Lone Gunmen have never been characters suited to high stakes; that was part of the issue with Jump the Shark.

There is a sense that Conspiracy suffers from the expectation that the crossover should “matter.” This is very much a recurring issue in contemporary pop culture fandom, a focus on epic scale and massive consequences. Smaller stories are less acceptable than they once were, particularly to comic book fans. This is something quite obvious even in the context of The X-Files: Season 10, a comic that occasionally seems overly preoccupied by its own legitimacy and relevance as that relates to the larger X-Files canon.

"Boy, I hope we don't get busted."

“Boy, I hope we don’t get busted.”

Even the title of Conspiracy seems predicated on the insistence that the crossover is “important” or “relevant.” After all, the title has very little to do with the actual plot of the comic. There is a conspiracy at work here, but certainly not the conspiracy that everybody thinks about in relation to The X-Files. The Cigarette-Smoking Man and Gibson Praise do not make an appearance, with Paul Crilley acknowledging that the series is “totally separate” from The X-Files: Season 10. Evoking the show’s mythology in that title feels like a desperate bid for legitimacy and relevance.

The plot ties back to the Colonists and their plot to eradicate mankind, but in a way that make absolutely no sense. Given the convoluted logic at work in mythology episodes like DeadAlive, it is really saying something to suggest that Conspiracy is complete and utter nonsense. When Mulder wonders why the aliens would try to wipe out mankind now, one responds, “Some of us felt a… different approach was called for… that some of the others had become too… stuck in their ways. But there’s really no need for you to worry about it.” It is lazy writing.

"As for why we didn't just just weaponise our own infectious viral form...? Uh... let's just say we didn't feel like it and leave it at that."

“As for why we didn’t just just weaponise our own infectious viral form…? Uh… let’s just say we didn’t feel like it and leave it at that.”

Even leaving aside the issues with the framing stories, the individual crossovers are mostly rather lifeless. Most of the crossovers feel like distractions or diversions rather than stories of themselves. This is even true of Erik Burnham’s script for X-Files/Ghostbusters, despite the fantastic work that he was doing on the contemporaneous monthly Ghostbusters book. The plot essentially has the Lone Gunmen arrive at the Ghostbusters’ headquarters, accidentally release a ghost, meet the Ghostbusters, get some mostly useless exposition, and leave.

There is a recurring sense that none of the writers working on the crossover have a firm grasp on the characters. There a few cute moments here and there, but they are drowned out. “You’re from The Lone Gunmen!” Ray Stantz realises at one point. “I loved that paper! I used to subscribe! I thought I’d heard you guys were dead, and I’ve been trying to meet you ever since!” It is a nice character beat, but it is also just about the only character beat in that particular issue, unless you count Frohike being sleazy towards Janine Melnitz.

"On the internet, nobody knows you're a transforming robot."

“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a transforming robot.”

There are similar issues with X-Files/Transformers. The image of Optimus Prime demanding to speak to “Lord Manhammer” carries the issue pretty far, but it feels like the story itself is painfully generic. The biggest character beat in the comic is the bromance between Langly and Bumblebee, who become “ninja buddies.” However, this leads to a sequence of Langly charging at enemy agents firing a massive assault rifle. It feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of who these characters actually are.

The best of the crossovers is undoubtedly X-Files/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It is the comic that feels most closely attuned to both halves of the crossover in question. Most obviously, it is set in the aftermath of the City Fall arc that ran through the monthly Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book, with Leonard’s guilt and insecurity about the events of that story serving as a strong throughline. More than that, the comic is structured as a sequel to the X-Files episode Bad Blood. Not only is that a fan favourite episode, but it is also an episode focusing on pizza.

"Y'all must be the governm'nt people."

“Y’all must be the governm’nt people.”

To be fair, X-Files/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fits rather awkwardly with Bad Blood, despite the attention the writer Ed Brisson pays to continuity details like the vampires’ OCD. Most notably, Mulder seems to have completely forgotten how the vampires operate. “They move from small town to small town and exhaust the local blood supply,” he tells the Lone Gunmen, which seems like a strange interpretation of the events of Bad Blood. At the climax of that episode, it seems like they literally pulled up stakes because they were discovered.

However, this little detail doesn’t matter too much, because the comic is having a great deal of fun with its admittedly goofy concept. A single issue does not leave a lot of room for elaboration or character work, it does not allow for densely-plotted scripting. A lot of the blandness of the other issues can probably be traced back to the fact that the writers only had a small amount of space to wrestle with combining a variety of high concepts. However, Brisson excels because he is willing to draw in broad strokes to get to the fun stuff as quickly as possible.

Yes. Totally inconspicuous.

Yes. Totally inconspicuous.

X-Files/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is easily the best of the crossovers because it embraces the absurdity of the set-up while still remaining true to its characters. The best gag of the entire crossover involves Donatello advising his fellow man-turtles to “just keep a low profile”, while the final sequence of Leonardo promising to help the Lone Gunmen feels like an organic development in keeping with his own character arc. The atmospheric pencils from X-Files veteran Michael Walsh and the colouring from Jordie Bellaire also help to carry the issue.

However, that issue is very much the exception rather than the rule. The rest of Conspiracy is nowhere near as fun as the issue that finds the Lone Gunmen and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brawling with vampires inside a small-town pizzeria. Instead, it is all bland and generic, populated by characters who seem to have been written without any definition or elaboration. At certain points in the book, the Lone Gunmen acknowledge each other by their first names, a choice that fundamentally feels wrong.

This crossover is a story that should have been spiked...

This crossover is a story that should have been spiked…

Similarly, for a comic focusing on the Lone Gunmen, it seems quite oblivious to the workings of The Lone Gunmen. The final pages of the final issue find the characters ruminating on James Bond, wondering whether he’d still have the cultural cache if he shortened his name. “You have to admit, Jimmy Bond would have suited Connery better,” Byers observes. “You know – the whole Scottish thing?” Nobody pauses to acknowledge that the trio once had a friend named Jimmy who likely still thinks they are dead. There is a character beat, flaunted and ignored.

Conspiracy is quite blatantly a cynical cash-grab hoping to capitalise on the acquisition of the X-Files license. The Lone Gunmen might be back from the dead, but this is a surprisingly lifeless exercise.

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

6 Responses

  1. I was on the fence with this one and your review has convinced me to skip it and do other X-files comics instead like the Topps comics. So thank you for helping me save 20 dollars.

  2. Wow I’d never even heard of this before! outside of DC comics I usually only buy Buffy and Star Wars but I am tempted…

    Also I really miss the real (or is that ‘real’?) Weekly World News.

    • Don’t do it!

      Conspiracy is terrible! Terrible! Soul-destroyingly bad!

      If you’re interested in good X-Files comics, try Year Zero. Or maybe the first two archives of the Topps stuff. Or the 30 Days of Night crossover.

  3. I pretty much agree with your overview of this crossover. Personally, I didn’t find the X-Files wraparound story to be all that bad, but the others just didn’t work together.

    As a big IDW Ghostbusters fan, I was very disappointed by this. Their issue was the most pointless; barely fitting into the overall narrative. I know Erik Burnham was a last minute replacement for another writer, and his hands were probably tied. Not at all representative of the work he did (and continues to do) with Ghostbusters.

    The artwork was mostly traced by Salvador Navarro from promotional images of the characters as well as other comics. That just sealed the deal on the issue. Such a waste of these two properties.

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