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The X-Files (IDW) Annual 2014 (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.

The X-Files: Season 10 was a massive success for IDW publishing.

Although the monthly series had been announced in January 2013, it hit the stands in June 2013. That meant that the opening arc, Believers, basically ran through the summer season and towards the big twentieth anniversary coverage in October 2013. The X-Files: Season 10 was one of the first indicators that there was a public appetite for The X-Files, with behind-the-scenes talks about a live action revival only really coming to a head after that first issue hit shelves.

... and so is the fact that they let Dave Sim write a Scully story.

… and so is the fact that they let Dave Sim write a Scully story.

It is perhaps too much to credit The X-Files: Season 10 for building or sustaining momentum towards the revival. However, the monthly comic series spoke very clearly to the series’ continued relevance and to the audience very eagerly invested in the idea of more stories built around these iconic characters. IDW moved to capitalise on the hunger quite quickly, and it is telling that the publisher moved to publish at least two X-Files books per month for most of the comic’s run. Fans wanted more X-Files, and IDW wanted to give it to them.

This explains The X-Files Annual 2014, a book published outside the monthly schedule of The X-Files: Season 10 and drawing two big-name creators to draft their own short stories focusing on Mulder and Scully. Neither of these stories is particularly brilliant or insightful, and neither feels like it really needed to be told, creating the impression that the comic exists mainly so that fans can have more Mulder and Scully in their lives.

"Have you seen The Exorcist?" "No, but I've seen The Calusari."

“Have you seen The Exorcist?”
“No, but I’ve seen The Calusari.”

The biggest draw to The X-Files Annual 2014 is the talent involved. The comic contains two separate stories, with each of those stories credited to a notable name. The headline story, The Priest, features a trio of credited writers including X-Files writer and producer Frank Spotnitz alongside Ten Thirteen veteran Gabe Rotter. The back-up story, Talk to the Hand, was written by legendary comic book creator Dave Sim who was providing what might have been his first “work for hire” output in quite some time.

These are big names, and they serve as the primary draw to the comic. Frank Spotnitz is one of the truly great X-Files writers, serving on the show from the end of its second season through to the release of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Other than Chris Carter, Spotnitz is the longest-serving staff writer on The X-Files. Spotnitz is a fundamental part of the franchise, sharing a scripting credit on The X-Files: Fight the Future and helping Chris Carter to shape the mythology over the run of the show.

Smokey IS the bandit.

Smokey IS the bandit.

While Carter had gone into semi-retirement following the broadcast of The Truth, Spotnitz remained quite actively involved in contemporary television. He worked briefly on Robbery Homicide Division before launching Night Stalker, a series that would become home to a number of X-Files veterans and position itself as a spiritual successor to Chris Carter’s iconic show. When Carter returned to The X-Files for I Want to Believe, it was Spotnitz who came with him. Spotnitz even penned a comic book launch at Wildstorm overlapping with the release of the film.

More than that, Spotnitz was one of the most active and engaged members of the X-Files creative team. Even after his career moved past the show, he was happy to engage with fans and answer questions on his blog. While Vince Gilligan (and maybe Howard Gordon) might have the highest public profiles of veteran X-Files staffers, Spotnitz was a writer who really kept the spirit of the show alive. Indeed, it was a surprise that Spotnitz wasn’t one of the writers tapped for the revival, even allowing for his commitment to The Man in the High Castle at Amazon.

Sketchy details...

Sketchy details…

Landing Spotnitz was a big deal for IDW, tying into the issues of legitimacy and validity that define a lot of the publisher’s licensed output. When it comes to publishing branded comic books, IDW take a create deal of pride in involving veterans familiar with the property from outside the medium of comic books. This was obvious even in relation to The X-Files: Season 10, with Chris Carter credited on the five issues of Believers and repeated references to the showrunner’s role as “executive producer” of the company’s X-Files output.

So landing Frank Spotnitz as a credited writer on The Priest is a pretty big coup for IDW. It increases the perceived legitimacy of their X-Files line, adding the endorsement of another high-profile creative figure. For a publisher that placed such emphasis on the idea that their comic book as “canon”, this is another way for IDW to assure fans that this is really a spiritual continuation of The X-Files. In fact, given that the comics would soon be rendered discontinuity, having a creative figure associated with the comic was a pretty big deal.

Quoth the raven...

Quoth the raven…

The only problem is that The Priest is not very good. It is not bad, by any measure. Spotnitz and Rotter understand Mulder and Scully, and the comic features some nice banter about spirituality, but the story feels rather generic. Spotnitz credits Rotter with the idea for the story, suggesting that it dated back to the Wildstorm comics published around the release of I Want to Believe:

“Gabe has been with Ten Thirteen Productions since forever and he’s a really good writer and a really good novelist in his own right,” said Spotnitz about his fellow writer, and the prospect of writing a comic with Frank Spotnitz was a delight to Rotter as well, who has been a huge comic book fan his whole life.

“When Wildstorm was doing the comics, Gabe had this idea that I thought was a great one,” and while they both developed the idea, Rotter was the most involved in the actual scriptwriting task of the comic. “Really it was his work that I helped him with,” claims Spotnitz, candidly. “But then the Wildstorm comics ended before we even got a chance to publish it.”

This certainly makes sense. The Priest feels very much in line with the core aspects of the X-Files mythos that came to the fore in I Want to Believe, particularly regarding faith and spirituality. Indeed, the title character in The Priest is a defrocked Catholic priest with supernatural associations, a plot detail that recalls the use of Father Joe in I Want to Believe.

Hold the line!

Hold the line!

The biggest problem with The Priest is that it all feels rather bland. Indeed, the plot feels like it was lifted from one of those interchangeable “beyond the grave” stories that populated the first season: Shadows, Lazarus, Young at Heart, Born Again, Roland. A man is murdered while on the telephone, with the open phone line somehow preserving his consciousness. However, his murderers are also targeting his family and there is a super creepy priest trying to police the borders between life and death.

These elements all feel familiar and generic, reheats of core concepts that were already tired by the time that the first season came to a close twenty years earlier. (That said, it is interesting to see Spotnitz tackle a particular type of story that was in vogue during the single season he wasn’t on staff.) There is very little exciting or compelling to found in the hook or the execution. It is all very much paint-by-numbers, a stock X-Files story that lacks the sort of specificity that distinguishes Spotnitz’s best work with these two characters.

Holy plot!

Holy plot!

The Priest is drawn in broad enough strokes that it could have been repurposed as an episode of Spotnitz’s Night Stalker, a series more explicitly about the sense of disconnect in modern urban environments. (The series was very consciously rooted in Los Angeles.) The idea of a deceased voice trapped within the phone network resonates with the late-night office killings of Into Night, the death-by-totem of Burning Man, the strange voice calling from a non-existent building in The Source or even the pattern-seeking anomie of What’s the Frequency, Kolchak?

The Priest is not a bad story, but it is a very bland one. It is not a story that justifies the publication of an annual, and is certainly not strong enough to headline such a book.There is a sense that the story was only published because of the name attached to it, and that publishing a new X-Files story credited to Frank Spotnitz is more important than publishing a good X-Files story. It is perhaps an example of how IDW’s engagement with the idea of legitimacy and canon is ultimately detrimental.

Last but not priest...

Last but not priest…

While The Priest is very much the headline story, the annual does contain a shorter back-up story. Talk to the Hand is a vignette focusing on Dana Scully, who is visited late one night (and every night, the script implies) by the spirit of her high school sweetheart. Talk to the Hand is credited to writer Dave Sim, who is another coup for IDW’s X-Files line. While Spotnitz is a big name owing to his strong connection to The X-Files as an institution, Dave Sim is a big name within the world of comics.

Sim is primarily known for his work on Cerebus, an independent comic that ran for three hundred issues over twenty-seven years. Cerebus began as a loose parody of Conan the Barbarian starring the eponymous aardvark, before morphing into something all the more surreal and existential. Cerebus is regarded as one of the defining and influential independent comics. Sim himself was highly regarded by some within the industry for his support of budding creators and for his championing of creators’ rights.

Not creepy at all.

Not creepy at all.

So Dave Sim is a big “get” for the comic, and it is entirely understandable that IDW would be happy to have his name attached to their X-Files line. There is just one slight problem. Dave Sim is a truly terrible choice to write a Scully-centric story. As much as Sim might be associated with Cerebus the Aarvark, he is perhaps better known for a series of high-profile controversies inexorably linked with his work. As Tim Kreider outlines in Irredeemable:

But the main impediment to Dave Sim’s literary reputation is Dave Sim himself. His regressive social and political views and obnoxious rhetoric have created a public persona that’s eclipsed his artistic achievement in the comics world much more completely than it would have in the larger, less insular artistic world — where, for example, plenty of people call John Updike a chauvinist but not even his bitterest detractors question his mastery as a prose stylist, where Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ill-advised statement about 9/11 being a work of art didn’t get him ejected from the first rank of postwar composers, and artists like Wagner and Pound are still secure in their respective pantheons despite having endorsed ideas that are, to put it charitably, pretty well discredited.

But Sim’s controversial ideas are not peripheral to his work; he ultimately makes them its central message and purpose. Wagner never actually wrote any operas about the villainy of the Jews, nor Pound cantos praising the wise and just rule of Franco, but Sim incorporated his screeds about women and the tenets of his one-man religion into the text of his novel, so that even a reader determined to ignore all the apocryphal gossipy bullshit accumulated around the artist and concentrate on the work itself is finally forced to confront the fact that the man has some bizarre ideas and an abrasive way of expressing them.

Dave Sim has some very particular ideas about women, views that the author has rendered inseparable from his work. Even the concept of “death of the author” cannot insulate Sim from criticism, and the artist goes out of his way to circle interviews back to his “anti-feminist” political views. This is not to diminish his singular accomplishment with Cerebus the Aarvark, but to explain that Dave Sim comes with a lot of baggage.

"Because we just reached the end of Dave's script."

“Because we just reached the end of Dave’s script.”

Is it is a good idea to let Dave Sim write a story focusing on Dana Scully and publishing that story in a high-profile licensed publication? Sim is a comic book legend, and having him involved in the X-Files line is a major coup for the publisher. At the same time, Dana Scully is a character who has been described as a “feminist icon” and who means a great deal to a lot of people. Allowing a writer who describes his own work as “hate literature against women” to write for Scully is deeply problematic. Particularly give Sim had never actually seen The X-Files.

To be fair to IDW, Talk to the Hand is not “peak” Sim. He does not interrupt the comic to offer a profound meditation on the state of current gender relations or to discuss how Adam’s “light” was consumed by Scully’s “void.” However, there are certain aspects of the story that cannot help but read awkwardly in light of Sim’s outspoken politics and his public persona. Most notably, Talk to the Hand builds to a point where Scully has to make a subconscious choice between happiness and her job. This is presented as a zero sum game; she cannot have both.

Keepin' it handy.

Keepin’ it handy.

Talk to the Hand focuses on the idea that Scully essentially gave up on any prospect of a meaningful romantic relationship when she chose to work at the FBI. This is very much a cliché about professional women, suggesting that they have to make a choice between family and career that does not exist for their male counterparts. Indeed, it could legitimately be argued that Scully’s arc on The X-Files refutes this cliché. While the show was not always graceful in its gender politics as they relate to Scully, she does manage to form a family while pursuing her career.

Talk to the Hand also hinges on the idea that Scully is haunted by memories of her never-before-mentioned high school sweetheart. The eponymous hand suggests that Scully has been having this conversation with herself every night for years, which seems a bit excessive. Given everything that her work on the X-files has cost her, it makes sense that Scully would occasionally wonder about alternate possibilities, but it seems more likely she would wonder how her life might have played out if she had chosen medicine over law enforcement.

Agent of change.

Agent of change.

There is something subtly disconcerting about the basic premise of Talk to the Hand, something amplified by Dave Sim’s own outspoken political views. Without his name attached, the standalone story would seem awkward and ill-judged. However, those issues are only amplified when the story is read in the larger context of Sim’s other work. Talk to the Hand seems like a spectacularly ill-judged story on multiple levels. As much as Dave Sim might be a big “get” for the comic, he is far from a comfortable fit.

In a way, that is the biggest issue with The X-Files Annual 2014. It seems very much like the stories contained within the annual exist because of the cache afforded to their creators rather than any intrinsic value of their own. There is a sense that the publisher might be putting the wrong emphasis on telling good X-Files stories.

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

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