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The X-Files: Season 10 (IDW) #16-17 – Immaculate (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.

Immaculate is perhaps most notable for reintroducing the character of Frank Black.

One of the more interesting ironies of Millennium is the fact that show had a smaller fanbase than The X-Files, but also a much more vocal campaign to resurrect the series. Outside of a few die-hards eagerly hoping for a third film, X-Files fans had only really begun to clamour for the series to return following the hype around the show’s twentieth anniversary. In contrast, fans of Millennium had been angling for a continuation of their beloved series for years in a number of high-profile ventures.

Familiar demons...

Familiar demons…

Perhaps the most obvious of these campaigns was the Back to Frank Black campaign, which was even endorsed by series star Lance Henriksen providing an introductory voiceover to the Millennium Group Session podcasts urging listeners that “the time is now” and which put out a wonderful series of critical essays and interviews concerning the series in October 2012. As recently as August 2015, they were organising a campaign to bring a revival to Netflix. When the return of The X-Files was announced, one of the big recurring questions was “what about Frank Black?”

As such, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before Frank Black turned up in IDW’s monthly X-Files comic book series.

Baby on board.

Baby on board.

Millennium and The X-Files had existed largely independent of one another while the former was on the air. There were a few slight winks and nods scattered across the show’s three-season run, not all of which made perfect sense. Lamentation featured a quick shot of a talk dark-haired male agent and a short red-haired female agent when Frank Black visited the FBI headquarters. The Time is Now had Peter Watts discover a pack of Morleys in a secret Millennium Group bunker. However, Human Essence also featured a character watching Kill Switch.

However, after Millennium was cancelled, the production team on The X-Files made a conscious effort to fold the series into the larger Ten Thirteen continuity. The result was Millennium, an episode written by three veteran X-Files writers of whom only one had actually written for Millennium, and which centred on the idea of a hazily-defined zombie apocalypse that was somehow meant to be the culmination of the three seasons of Millennium while also ignoring the closing scenes of Goodbye to All That so it could retread them. It was not well received.

Speaking Frankly...

Speaking Frankly…

When IDW announced plans for The X-Files: Season 10, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before the series folded in the various strands of existing Ten Thirteen continuity. After all, writer Joe Harris had effectively retconned Jump the Shark as early as the comic’s second issue, bringing the Lone Gunmen back from the dead so that Mulder could hang out with the popular computer nerds once again. In fact, IDW had even put the Lone Gunmen at the centre of the dire crossover Conspiracy, making it a spiritual successor to The Lone Gunmen.

Frank Black and Millennium never quite broke into mainstream consciousness in the same way that The X-Files had. In fact, it seems highly unlikely that IDW would have purchased the license for Millennium on its own, rather than as part of a larger bundle with The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen. However, given IDW’s business model of building franchise families around its licensed properties, as it recently announced with Hasbro, Frank Black provides a logical and organic way to grow the X-Files brand.

Increasing his profile.

Increasing his profile.

According to writer Joe Harris, Millennium had been a subject of early discussions between the writer and the publisher, particularly when the X-Files line had proven to be so successful for the publisher:

Well, everybody knows I guess at this point that The X-Files: Season 10 has been a success; for me, for IDW, for FOX, for X-Files fans. We built up some credibility over this past year and a half, I guess, if not more at this point. And a little less than a year ago, I was hanging out with IDW editor-in-chief Chris Ryall at a pre-Superbowl event here in New York City last year and he asked me what I thought about Millennium because it had come up as a potential property that IDW could pick up, and they asked what I thought about that.

I was very excited because it’s a wonderful show. It’s a little bit obscure compared to The X-Files, but I felt like we could really build off of something we were doing with The X-Files: Season 10. I thought there were a lot of possibilities there and a lot of potential. IDW told me that if we do it, we only want to do it if you’re writing it, and that was really cool. I had heard that Chris Carter was happy with me coming on board and FOX is happy that I’m on board. Hopefully the fans will feel the same.

At the same time, Millennium is really the only choice for building out a shared Ten Thirteen universe. It seems highly unlikely that IDW would pick up The After and Harris seems to have ruled out any continuation of Harsh Realm beyond a “tease.”

Eye-opening experience.

Eye-opening experience.

When it came to developing Millennium as a possible X-Files property, IDW took a great deal of care. The publisher had been very eager to capitalise on fandom’s appetite for new branded X-Files story, to the point that it had launched a number of supplemental material to support the main title – Conspiracy, Annual 2014, Year Zero. However, those stories had largely existed independent of the main title. Even when Year Zero characters appeared in The X-Files Christmas Special 2014, they were insulated from Joe Harris’ headline story.

Joe Harris had not seeded those stories in his main run on the title, and they were not an essential part of his continuity. They existed independently, and readers could read the monthly comic completely oblivious to the various tie-ins or crossovers. However, there seems to have been a much more conscious effort to integrate Millennium into the monthly schedule of The X-Files: Season 1o. It would have been very difficult for anybody reading the comic book to remain oblivious to the existence of the new IDW property.

You'd have to be blind not to know there was a Millennium miniseries coming. Er, sorry.

You’d have to be blind not to know there was a Millennium miniseries coming.
Er, sorry.

This is true in a number of ways. The seeding of Frank Black in Immaculate is the most obvious point of crossover, with the two-part story essentially serving as a prelude to the five-issue miniseries. In fact, IDW timed the announcement of their Millennium miniseries to coincide with the release of the first issue of the story. Even after Immaculate, the monthly series remains cognisant of the miniseries. A continuity footnote in Monica & John advises readers to check out the Millennium miniseries to see what Mulder is doing during that single-issue story.

Perhaps the most obvious indicator of how serious IDW were about launching Millennium was the creative talent they put on the book. The creative team remains consistent from Immaculate to the Millennium miniseries, with artist Colin Lorimer and colourist Joanne Lafuente carrying over from the short arc to the spin-off series. However, most notable is that fact that Harris is not only tasked with setting up Frank Black’s return in Immaculate, but also in delivering on that set-up in Millennium.

Fire, walk with me.

Fire, walk with me.

Given that Harris’ style was a large part of what had made The X-Files: Season 10 such a success, putting him on the Millennium miniseries was an indicator that IDW had big plans for the property. Indeed, the return of Frank Black is treated as a big moment in the context of Immaculate. It serves as the first “act break” of the second part, taking up a full two-thirds of the page above the wide logo panel that takes the place of the opening credits sequence in the structuring of Harris’ issues.

The X-Files: Season 10 has benefited from very strong artistic teams, dating back to the work of Michael Walsh and Jordie Bellaire on Believers. Regular artist Matthew Dow Smith and regular colourist Jordie Bellaire take a break from the book for Immaculate, handing over art chores to penciler Colin Lorimer and colourist Joanne Lafuente. Lorimer and Lafuente do great work emphasising the tone and mood of the piece, perfectly capturing the Vancouver atmosphere of the best X-Files and Millennium horror stories.

Frank is a man of visions.

Frank is a man of visions.

Of particular note, Lorimer and Lafuente do an excellent job capturing Frank’s quick flashes on the page. Frank’s visions were perhaps Millennium‘s most distinctive visual, a clear evolutionary predecessor of the reconstruction flashes on CSI. However, translating those haunting sequences from screen to page poses a number of obvious challenges, reflecting the differences between television and comic books. Lorimer and Lafuente do an excellent job of capturing the tone of these visions as single-panel flashes, which makes them a great fit for Millennium.

However, Frank Black’s role in Immaculate is largely just a teaser. Even the final panel of the story makes it clear that the demon at the centre of the story has not been vanquished. The story is largely a teaser for the five-issue story that follows, setting up themes and character while also serving to refresh the audience’s memory of Frank Black. It works very well in that regard. Like Chitter before it, Immaculate works better as a meditation upon theme than as a logical and organic story in its own right.

I am the lord of hell fire...

I am the lord of hell fire…

In some ways, it could be argued that Immaculate is a better story than Millennium. It certainly flows a lot easier and has a stronger sense of identity, despite the fact that Frank is very clearly a guest star rather than the lead. Part of this is down to the fact that The X-Files has a much more consistent aesthetic than Millennium ever did. One of the challenges facing Joe Harris in pitching his Millennium miniseries is choosing to which version of the show he wants to write. With Immaculate, he has the luxury of working with a more consistent set of expectations.

At its core, Immaculate works as an archetypal X-Files story, which is probably the best way to approach a crossover between The X-Files and Millennium. For better or for worse, The X-Files is the older show. Millennium largely developed within the framework of The X-Files, with many of the archetypal Millennium plot beats and themes gestating inside the second and third seasons of The X-Files. Episodes like Aubrey, Irresistible, The Calusari, Revelations and Grotesque all feel like a prelude to Millennium, hitting many of the big ideas that the show would later develop.

Familiar circles.

Familiar circles.

It could be argued that The X-Files was capable of telling just about any story that Millennium could tell. Vince Gilligan wrote Unruhe and Paper Hearts for the fourth season of The X-Files, but they could just as easily have worked on the first season of Millennium that was in production at the same time. Similarly, the Doggett-centric episodes of the eighth and ninth seasons of The X-Files (Invocation, Empedocles, Underneath, Release) could be said to have a very “millenniumistic” tone to them.

In contrast, Millennium never quite had the same flexibility. The show often felt like it developed around a subset of X-Files stories around human evil and religious prophecy that made other stories more of an awkward fit for it. There were several points in the run of Millennium where it seemed like the show was telling stories far more suited to its elder sibling. The paranoia and conspiracy theory of Sense and Antisense comes to mind, as do third-season pseudo-science episodes like Exegesis and Matryoshka.

There's going to be holy war over this...

There’s going to be holy war over this…

Immaculate feels like an appropriate point of crossover between Millennium and The X-Files, hitting on themes familiar to The X-Files but essential to Millennium. This is a story about evil in contemporary America, about demonic influence and the erosion of nostalgic conservative values. “There is evil in this world,” Pastor Johns assures Scully at one point in the story. All the chaos and bloodshed that results can be traced back to a moral transgression on the part of Pastor John, his abuse of Joanie Cartwright.

These abuses of trust are a recurring motif in the work of Chris Carter, most obviously reflected in the conspiracy at the heart of The X-Files and moral failings of Mulder’s various father figures. However, Millennium also touched repeatedly on those themes. Frank spent the show’s three seasons trying to protect Jordan from the evils in the world, from the predators lurking outside the idyllic yellow house. Millennium was populated by guardians who failed those in their care, most notably in episodes like Weeds or The Well-Worn Lock.

The death of small town America.

The death of small town America.

That said, Immaculate is the kind of small-town story that fits more comfortably in within the framework of The X-Files. While Millennium did feature a number of quirky small town tales in episodes like Covenant, Broken World, Beware of the Dog and Nostalgia, the small town horror story was more of an X-Files fixture in episodes like Gender Bender, Red Museum, Our Town, War of the Coprophages, Syzygy, Quagmire, Detour, Roadrunners and so forth. Immaculate fits more comfortably within that milieu.

Nevertheless, the story’s religious themes provide a clear point of intersection between The X-Files and Millennium. Carter is a producer who has long been fascinated by the role of religion and spirituality in American life, with these ideas bubbling through the vast majority of his output; even his short-lived work like Harsh Realm and The After are framed in heavily religious terms. As such, it makes sense for Joe Harris to use a story about small-town religion to bring two Chris Carter properties together.

Blind to their plight.

Blind faith.

Of course, the issue of religion poses a challenge in updating The X-Files for the twenty-first century. A product of the nineties, the show’s romantic fascination with unquestioning and unwavering faith has not aged particularly well. “I want to believe” was always one of the show’s mottos, reflecting an spiritual crisis in nineties America. In the context of the nineties, belief was something empowering and rare. Given all the existential uncertainty following the end of the Cold War, being able to be certain of something (even without proof) seemed laudable.

However, times change. So many of the conflicts of the twenty-first century are framed in religious terms. This applies to the War on Terror, but also to dialogue within the country itself. In that context, episodes like Signs and Wonders can seem much more problematic than they were on original broadcast. Given the threat posed by religious fanaticism in the modern world, audiences are more wary of those who would commit so completely to religious belief. This is a challenge that faces Chris Carter when it comes to tackling faith in Babylon.

Alright, alright, alright.

Alright, alright, alright.

In the context of Immaculate, Joe Harris is willing to explicitly identify that sort of religious belief as polarising and dangerous. There are repeated references to the religious beliefs of the community. “This community is filled with plenty of God-fearing people, it’s true,” a disfigured receptionist tells Mulder and Scully. “But nothing like this ever happened…” Pastor Johns remarks to Scully, “Ours is what you’d likely describe as a town of hardworking God-fearing people.” Mulder finds crucifixes hanging from trees like a scene from True Detective.

As with Chitter, there is a suggestion that rural America has become more hostile and alien in the years since the show went off the air. As globalisation took hold, The X-Files worried that the eccentric spaces in America would fade into history. In scripts like Chitter and Immaculate, Joe Harris suggests that perhaps the opposite has happened. Perhaps something has taken root in these small towns and quiet communities, away from the view of the mainstream. Both the chittering god in Chitter and the demon in Immaculate have found fertile feeding grounds.

A world on fire.

A world on fire.

Although there had always been a cultural divide between various parts of the United States, that divide was largely codified by the presidential election of 2000 that painted the continent as two blue bars holding a big red centre in place. As David Brooks argued in December 2001, the general perception was that a divide had formed between these twin Americas, in terms of politics, culture, economics and values:

Different sorts of institutions dominate life in these two places. In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere. In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing. In Red America the Wal-Marts are massive, with parking lots the size of state parks. In Blue America the stores are small but the markups are big. You’ll rarely see a Christmas store in Blue America, but in Red America, even in July, you’ll come upon stores selling fake Christmas trees, wreath-decorated napkins, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer collectible thimbles and spoons, and little snow-covered villages.

We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the Red heartland. We’re more sophisticated and cosmopolitan—just ask us about our alumni trips to China or Provence, or our interest in Buddhism. But don’t ask us, please, what life in Red America is like. We don’t know. We don’t know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are, even though the novels they have co-written have sold about 40 million copies over the past few years. We don’t know what James Dobson says on his radio program, which is listened to by millions. We don’t know about Reba or Travis. We don’t know what happens in mega-churches on Wednesday evenings, and some of us couldn’t tell you the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical, let alone describe what it means to be a Pentecostal. Very few of us know what goes on in Branson, Missouri, even though it has seven million visitors a year, or could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country. We don’t know how to shoot or clean a rifle. We can’t tell a military officer’s rank by looking at his insignia. We don’t know what soy beans look like when they’re growing in a field.

All we know, or all we think we know, about Red America is that millions and millions of its people live quietly underneath flight patterns, many of them are racist and homophobic, and when you see them at highway rest stops, they’re often really fat and their clothes are too tight.

Of course, the reality is more complicated than those generalisations, but the point stands. Reflecting the anxieties of the nineties, The X-Files had worried that globalisation would homogenise America, transforming the country into a nation of clones where local culture was an endangered species crushed beneath the boot of modernity. The reality turned out to be quite different.

Casualty of the culture war.

Casualty of the culture war.

As the twenty-first century ground on, these gaps seemed to become more pronounced. There was a tension simmering beneath the surface of how people living in big cities talked about those living in small towns, and vice versa. Sarah Palin positioned herself as a candid for small town values. A major part of Ted Cruz’s campaign was courting small town and rural voters, demonstrating his willingness to stand up to those big city elites by organising a petty (and counter-productive) government shutdown in Washington.

These tensions play out in the background of Immaculate, which suggests that a primal force is stirring in these seemingly unremarkable communities and hamlets. Joanie Cartwright finds herself in the grip of a powerful demon, but the demon is simply inciting underlying tensions that run deeper than the particulars of this one case. “This isn’t about abortion, or religious politics, or any other tangible issue,” Frank advises Mulder. While he would seem to be alluding to the demonic forces at work, he hits on something deeper.

Talk about getting them fired up.

Talk about getting them fired up.

Joannie reaches out to her followers by appealing to something deep inside themselves. “They think this is about small things, like a clash of values,” she warns her followers. “Or political disagreements. But it’s more than all that. And I know you know what I mean.” There is a sense that the demon has been igniting tensions simmering beneath the surface. It is no coincidence that Immaculate centres on hot-button political issues like abortion and gun control. Mulder even makes a point to note that all the guns used in a massacre were registered.

There is rage simmering just beneath the surface of this rural community, and Immaculate suggests that its antagonist is only bringing to the surface. Joanie promises to channel disenfranchisement and disillusionment into apocalyptic rage. “Not all of those called will listen,” she warns her first three followers. “But everyone will listen soon enough. You want to burn it all to the ground, don’t you? Then follow us.” This speaks to the popular image of small town disillusionment, a sense that they are angry about being ignored and overlooked.

Not only angels have wings.

Not only angels have wings.

In some ways, Immaculate seems almost prescient. Joe Harris was writing the story at a point where Sarah Palin and the Tea Party had demonstrated that there was a lot of righteous indignation brewing in some quarters of the political establishment. However, there is a sense that the political divide alluded to within the comic has only increased in recent years. Immaculate was published after Ted Cruz had shut down the government, but before he used that as a plank for his own presidential bid.

Of course, Ted Cruz would ultimately lose the Republican nomination to a candidate who more effectively tapped into that same anger. There is a strong apocalyptic appeal to Donald Trump; a vocal section of his support base voting for him to send a message to Washington or urge him to “burn it down!” Trump has been described as a candidate whose base is driven by “white rage”, by the belief that nostalgic conservative values have been eroded by multiculturalism and progressivism.

They haven't a prayer...

They haven’t a prayer…

Much like Chitter, Immaculate works so well because it takes a classic X-Files template and effectively updates it for the twenty-first century. This is a great way to reintroduce Frank Black, slotting the character into what is effectively a skillful update of the kind of X-Files stories that inspired Millennium in the first place. It is a shame that The X-Files: Season 10 didn’t do that sort of thing more often.

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

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