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The X-Files: Year Zero (IDW) #1-5 (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.

Year Zero is the best thing that IDW has done with the X-Files license.

There are multiple reasons for that. Most obviously, the five-part miniseries is incredibly charming when taken on its own terms. Writer Karl Kesel offers in incredibly playful script, one full of teases and wordplay that holds together remarkably well without ever seeming heavy-handed or awkward. Artists Greg Scott and Vic Malhotra do an excellent job keeping the comic consistent while clearly distinguishing between its two time periods. The modern day sequences as scratchy and detailed, while the flashbacks are illustrated more like cartoons.

X-over appeal.

X-over appeal.

There is also a clever metafictional commentary underpinning the story that feels like something of a companion to the larger mythology of The X-Files. If the mythology of The X-Files can be read as a secret history of the United States filtered through folklore about aliens and UFOs, then Year Zero positions itself as an origin story for that folklore. It places the origin of The X-Files at the moment those narratives began to change, tying the series into the aftermath of the Second World War in a manner distinct from (but still compatible with) that featured on the show.

More than that, Year Zero is a story that unfolds without a heavy reliance on the mythology or continuity. Given the way that Joe Harris has approached The X-Files: Season 10 and The X-Files: Season 11, it is a welcome surprise that the comic does not feature a guest appearance from William Mulder or C.G.B. Spender. There are lots of little winks and nods to the finer details of the show, but Year Zero is more than just a story carved out from a throwaway line of dialogue in Shapes or as an extension of Travelers.

Holding out for a Zero.

Holding out for a Zero.

In fact, Year Zero practically revels in the discontinuity of it all. References to existing stories seem to exist primarily to emphasise the disconnect that exists between them. Given the care the IDW have taken in trying to craft and shape a consistent X-Files continuity, there is something quite refreshing in the cheeky approach taken by Karl Kesel to Year Zero. This is a book that could easily be handed to a casual fan who stopped watching the show around the fifth season, or even to somebody who had only seen a handful of episodes.

However, Year Zero does something far more important. The IDW comics have placed a heavy emphasis on the idea of legitimacy and canon. The comics have worked hard to present themselves as a viable continuation of the franchise. However, a lot of that has involved looking backwards and evoking nostalgia. The Cigarette-Smoking Man returns, Mister X reappears, Alex Krycek is revived. Even the other tie-in miniseries exist to market existing aspects of the brand. Conspiracy is a companion to The Lone Gunmen. Millennium brings back Frank Black.

A beast of a man...

A beast of a man…

Year Zero gives the IDW comics something unique and novel. It creates something fresh and exciting rather than simply repackaging recognisable moments or iconic characters. It gives the IDW line something that never existed in any prior incarnation of The X-Files. The characters of Humility Ohio and Bing Ellinson might be familiar archetypes, but they represent something intriguing. Instead of simply repackaging material and elements that fans loved, Year Zero slots in something exciting and intriguing.

The fact that all of this is done as through what is effectively positioned as a clichéd “origin story” makes it all the more exciting.

Madame X.

Madame X.

“Origin stories” are very much a familiar comic book trope. After all, it is easy to understand the appeal of telling an origin story in a long-form serialised narrative. Given that most long-running comics exist within a fairly static status quo, telling a story where the characters actually change and evolve has a very strong appeal. More than that, there is something interesting in taking a popular character like Batman and getting to see “who he is and how he came to be.”

At the same time, there is something inherently cynical about origin stories. They can feel like tinkering for the sake of tinkering. They can feel unnecessary. They can feel overly familiar. Comic fans will note that DC comics have fixated upon providing Superman with new and varied origins, particularly in the last few years. Secret Identity. Birthright. Secret Origin. Earth One. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics. American Alien. Given that the character’s origins are so iconic that they can be distilled to eight simple words, this seems like an obsession.

A shocking twist...

A shocking twist…

The obsession with origin stories may also be tied to the contemporary fixation with the notion of the “canon.” What better way to assert the legitimacy of a given continuation of a work than to reveal some secret hidden detail that potentially changes everything that everybody thought that they knew about the work in question? It also helps to entrench the continuation of the work in the existing continuity rather than simply presenting it as an extrapolation. It allows the continuation of the work to tie itself into the roots of the original story.

Joe Harris has dedicated a considerable volume of The X-Files: Season 10 to mapping out origin stories. Being for the Benefit of Mister X overs a somewhat reductive look at the origin of the eponymous informant. More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is a clever story on its own merits, but it hops around the established history of The X-Files like a tourist. Even G-23 provides the origin story for Mulder’s beloved “I Want to Believe” poster. There is a point at which all of this just becomes exhausting.

A spotlight on the past...

A spotlight on the past…

On paper, Year Zero sounds like it should fit that pattern. It reads like another unnecessary origin story. How did the X-files really begin? What was the first X-file really like? This could easily become an indulgent exploration of existing continuity. Certainly, the series has provided enough details that readers can imagine a half-hearted comic book story assembling the origin like IKEA furniture. Add the Manitou from Shapes, slot in a cameo from C.G.B. Spender from Apocrypha, maybe delve into the origins of the conspiracy suggested in Paper Clip.

Refreshingly, writer Karl Kesel decides to do more than just assemble the furniture using the pieces that he has been offered. Instead, Kesel opts to fashion his own story about the early days of the FBI’s paranormal investigative unit without wading knee-deep into continuity. The Manitou appears, because it has to. However, there is only a single veiled reference to some shady international conspiracy, no sinister figure smokes a cigarette, and J. Edgar Hoover never makes an awkward reference to the fact that he founded the Millennium Group back in Matryoshka.

"I hoover up your X-files. I Hoover them up!"

“I hoover up your X-files. I Hoover them up!”

In interviews around the launch of the miniseries, Kesel was respectful of the show’s continuity without seeming overly reverent:

We followed what was canon. I’ll admit I’m not the world’s biggest X-Files expert, but I did love the show and remembered watching an episode in the first season called Shapes. In that episode it’s established that the very first X-File was in 1946 and investigated a werewolf creature — which they called a Manitou — in Montana. I was talking to Chris Ryall at IDW and said that a werewolf case seemed a bit pedestrian for the X-Files’ first file, but what if that was just part of the story? And that’s what we’re doing. The FBI, specifically Millie, gets a tip about what’s happening in Montana with the werewolf. That’s their first adventure. But then the same source gives them more tips, and that’s what they’re really investigating.

It is certainly possible to make the series fit within the established continuity, but integrating the story into the larger canon requires a certain amount of work.

Psyche!

Psyche!

Kesel acknowledged that the unit already had an origin story, with the X-files entering existence once the “unsolved” and “unexplained” cases began to fill over from the “U” drawer to the “X” drawer that still had a bit more space. Kessel assured fans, “All that will be addressed. But the whole ‘filed under X because there was more room there’ sounds like one of the lamest cover stories I’ve ever heard. If you ask me.” In short, it seemed like Kesel was a writer who was not going to let the finer points of continuity get in the way of an interesting story. Quite right, too.

After all, Year Zero exists in a larger context of discontinuous X-Files origin stories. Did the X-files begin with the investigation of a Native American werewolf, as Shapes suggested? Did the X-files open with an investigation tied to the House Unamerican Activities Committee, as Travelers implies? Did Mulder discover the X-files with Diana Fowley as she suggests in The End? Did he come to it through a chance meeting with Arthur Dales as portrayed in Travelers? Is Mulder’s fascination with the X-files a result of a psychotic break as implied by Unusual Suspects?

"But the real X-files is the files we made along the way."

“But the real X-files is the files we made along the way.”

Again, none of these stories are mutual incompatible. It is possible to structure the facts into a cohesive narrative with only a little tweaking here and there. However, there are clear incongruities that exist as a result of the show never settling on a singular unified origin story for the X-files department. Year Zero exists as part of that rich tradition, with Kesel inventing his own alternative origin story rather than simply stitching one together from other sources. It is a creative decision that feels very much in keeping with the spirit of The X-Files.

Far from trying to paper over the inconsistencies or logic gaps, Kesel draws attention to them. “I’ve met Arthur Dales,” Mulder states at one point, “he thought he investigated the first X-files, but he clearly didn’t know about the 1940s cases.” The forties cases exist as a discontinuity. When Mister Zero makes a reference to another adventure, Mulder challenges him by insisting it is not part of the historical record. It is not part of the canon. Zero responds, “Do you write down all that happens to you, Agent Mulder? Do you, Agent Scully?”

Eye see.

Eye see.

This is important, because it signals that Year Zero is not so much about tying together disparate threads of continuity as it is about expanding the concept and the premise. Indeed, Kesel seems to reference external continuity at least as frequently as he acknowledges earlier X-Files episodes. Early on, Mulder nods towards The Sopranos by stating that the duo are investigating a case near “the Pine Barrens, a nexus for the odd and unexplained. Such as the urban legend of a half-crazed Russian gangster who stills talks the woods ever since a botched Jersey mob hit.”

Later, Mulder acknowledges Twin Peaks at a diner. He compliments a waitress by acknowledging Dale Cooper as a colleague, “Damn fine coffee, as a friend of mine in the Pacific Northwest would say.” It is a particularly nice nod given that Shapes had featured a guest appearance from Twin Peak regular Michael Horse. More than that, the references feel quite deliberate. Twin Peaks was very much a spiritual precursor to The X-Files, while The Sopranos represented the next evolutionary leap forward in television storytelling after The X-Files.

The Shapes of things to come.

The Shapes of things to come.

This willingness to look beyond The X-Files is important, because it sets Year Zero apart from a lot of IDW’s contemporary X-Files output. A lot of the publisher’s work on the X-Files license feels insular and nostalgic. On paper, even Year Zero fits that template. There is a reluctance to embrace new ideas or new concepts, with Joe Harris literally resurrecting the conspiracy as it appeared during the “peak” seasons of the show. Too often, The X-Files: Season 10 and The X-Files: Season 11 seem to be looking backwards and inwards.

Year Zero looks outwards, adding a whole collection of new ideas to the basic X-Files mythos. In a way, what Kesel is doing here recalls the work of Stefan Petrucha on the classic Topps comic book. Petrucha worked within the limitations set by Ten Thirteen, but also skirted around them. When he was denied access to the show’s mythology, he responded by creating his own alternative mythology from scratch. It was a brazen storytelling decision, and very few of the comics that followed have lived up to that cheeky promise.

Branching off continuity.

Branching off continuity.

Introducing the characters of Bing Ellinson and Humility Ohio, Karl Kesel effectively gives IDW a new addition to the mythos. These are characters unique to this interpretation of the franchise. They are unlikely to ever exist outside IDW’s stewardship of the license, in the same way that Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s Project Aquarius would never live beyond their work on the book. Ellinson and Ohio are very much stock forties archetypes, but they are fresh within the world of The X-Files.

This allows Kesel to put his own stamp on the mythology and mythos. Year Zero is explicitly identified as 1946, the year after Japan surrendered and the Second World War came to an end. That is entirely consistent with the show itself. While Chris Carter was fond of incorporating concepts like ancient astronauts into episodes like Anasazi or Biogenesis, the bulk of the X-Files is rooted in the aftermath of the Second World War. This is outlined in mythology episodes like Paper Clip, Nisei, 731, Piper Maru, Apocrypha and Gethsemane.

Punching above his weight.

Punching above his weight.

Without explicitly tying the origin of the X-files into the larger conspiracy, Kesel positions it as part of a broader cultural milieu. Bing Ellinson is introduced arresting a scientist fleeing a secret government project in New Mexico, creating a strong association between the X-files and the atomic age. Both Ellinson and Ohio are shaped by the conflict in their own way; Ellinson is ashamed that he never got to serve, while Ohio is struggling to earn the respect of the men around her despite serving in London during the Blitz.

Ellinson and Ohio seem to exist at the margins of history, beyond the familiar narratives of the conventional roles. Ellinson is the fighting man who could not serve, while Ohio is a female veteran. In their own way, they represent the secret history and legacy of the conflict. As such, they are perfectly positioned to headline the earliest incarnation of the X-files; The X-Files has always been about the secret history of the United States during the second half of the twentieth century, from the importing of Axis scientists to experimentation on an unwitting public.

Zero sum game.

Zero sum game.

The X-Files always argued that the United States fundamentally changed in the aftermath of the Second World War. That was the moment at which the United States emerged as the defining global superpower, while also representing a loss of innocence. After all the Second World War had seen destruction and brutality on an industrial scale. The imagery of the destroyed cities and the industrialised genocide would linger in the public consciousness, even as the United States immediately prepared for the Cold War.

Throughout the miniseries, it is suggested that Ellinson is dealing with his own post-traumatic stress disorder. The character appears to have lost his own innocence during the conflict, whether as a result of the actions he was forced to take on the home front or as a result of secretive work elsewhere. “How old did they say this Ish is?” Ohio wonders as the two track a suspect in a series of brutal homicides. “Sixteen? Hard to believe he’s somehow involved with all those killings.” Ellinson replies, “I’ve seen things a lot harder to believe.” The whole world had.

White out...

White out…

This ties directly into the core themes of The X-Files, the loss of innocence and the horrors of the late twentieth century. “Some of the things I’ve seen – I stopped looking or explanations long ago,” Ellinson confesses to Ohio. “The world isn’t the way most people see it.” That seems like a logical starting point for the X-files, given Chris Carter’s fascination with “the unseen world.” Mulder and Scully are very much historians exposing the dark secrets of the past to the light and learning to see the world in a new way.

Year Zero does not fixate on the particulars of these horrors. The Second World War is referenced repeatedly, but Kesel does not fixate upon the Holocaust or Operation Paper Clip. Instead, Year Zero is more interested in a broader cultural shift that had taken place. As Mulder explains to Scully, “The world was changing, Scully. Even the phenomena were changing. Suddenly there were rumours of aliens and atomic mutations in addition to ghosts and goblins.” In some ways, Year Zero is about the emergence of the cases Mulder and Scully would investigate.

A jumping off point.

A jumping off point.

This was of huge interest to Kesel as part of the series’ period trappings:

Noir classics like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past have definitely influenced this story in various ways. In a very different way, so has Them!–the 1950s movie about giant atomic-mutated ants (and James Arness’ character was an FBI agent in that, I’d point out). But just as important are the UFO reports and literature from the 1940s. This was the birth of the modern UFO, with the Roswell crash and Kenneth Arnold’s flying saucer sightings near Mt. Rainier, and there was a real feeling that something new was happening–something we’d never experienced before. That the world was changing. I try to capture that feeling in this story.

The forties marks the beginning of the folklore that would fuel The X-Files.

Space man.

Space man.

The series centres around the enigmatic character of Mister Zero (or Xero), who is presented as a more mischievous and magical figure than most X-Files monsters. A Native American boy named Ish compares Zero to the Native American archetype “raven.” Ish suggests that Zero is “a trickster who is helpful at times, hurtful at others.” This turns out to be true on a rather literal level; Zero and Xero represent the opposite sides of the same coin, the benign trickster and the malicious spirit.

However, Mulder suggests that Zero was going through something of a transformation in the forties. In an effort to keep step with the world around him, Zero was shifting from fairy to an alien. “Xero presented himself in terms that people from the 40s would understand – a being from another world,” Mulder explains, “but there are patterns and peculiarities to his appearances that have shown up throughout history. Two hundred years ago, he would have been considered a mischievous or maleficent faerie or elf like Rumplestiltskin.”

Kicking down barriers between genres.

Kicking down barriers between genres.

This reflects a shift that was taking place in American folklore at the same time. As Carole G. Silver contends in Strange and Secret Peoples, the traditional depictions of fairies and fair folk gave way to a fascination with aliens and UFOs:

Science fiction has transmuted fairies to the small green men from outer space. As Edmund Little suggests in The Fantasts, the world of faerie industrialised and rendered technological becomes the realm of science fiction: “The machine replaces magic, technical jargon the spell or incantation, and the wizard acquires a labcoat to be called a scientist.” Moreover, the adult fantasies so popular in the 1980s and ’90s (some scientifically based and future-oriented, others closer to “pure” fantasy) serve in ways similar to those of the fairy tales we read as children. They, too, provide symbols for the starved imagination and create a unifying mythos for out time; they, too, provide remedies for tired postmoderns, weary of realism, and can function as vehicles for social protest or quasi-religious reassurances of a peopled universe.

After all, aliens and UFOs have taken on an importance in American culture that suggest contemporary folklore. It is very much akin to the mythology cultivated around fairies in Great Britain and Ireland, right down to the abduction stories and the distortion of time and space.

Roswell that ends well.

Roswell that ends well.

This transition from more traditional folklore to science-fiction is reflected within the story itself. At one point, Dorothy returns home by what looks like “a transmatter ray.” A quick glimpse of Mister Zero’s home space in flashback suggests a completely alien environment akin to limbo or neverwhere. Nevertheless, in the present day sequences, Mister Zero identifies his point of origin as “the Zeta Reticuli Star System.” This is a nod to the reported abduction of Barney and Betty Hill that helped to shape contemporary expectations of alien abduction.

The final note that Mister Zero sends to Ohio and Ellinson is just one single word, “Roswell.” Referring to that cornerstone of UFO folklore that occurred in July 1947, Kesel effectively positions the Roswell Incident as “Year One” for the new American mythology typified by The X-Files. It would not be a bad sequel hook, but it also seems like an appropriate place to leave Year Zero. After all, the story is about the transition from one form of folklore to another. Roswell marks the point at which aliens and UFOs completely take over the cultural consciousness.

"You rang?"

“You rang?”

Indeed, there is something even more fascinating about how Kesel chooses to present Mister Zero. Kesel is a veteran writer and cartoonist, with a long and distinguished career at DC comics that has often explored the lighter side of the publisher’s catalogue with a fixation on form and history. Kessel helped to launch the first Harley Quinn on-going, wrote a ten-issue World’s Finest series that charted the evolution of the relationship between Batman and Superman, and even wrote the Wednesday Comics: Flash story. Kessel is a very playful creator.

In casting Mister Zero as a concept undergoing evolution from trickster god to playful alien, Kessel chooses to draw from comic books. As presented in Year Zero, Mister Zero looks and behaves a lot like the classic Superman villain Mister Mxyzptlk. An impish trickster from the Fifth Dimension, Mister Mxyzptlk perfectly captures the transition between fairy and alien. Even more cheekily, artists Greg Scott and Vic Malhotra draw Mister Zero so he bears more than a slight resemblance to self-aware postmodernist superhero writer Grant Morrison.

"I can see you."

“I can see you.”

All of this is very clever, but Year Zero is so much more than clever. The comic moves incredibly quickly for what is a five-issue arc. Kesel writes convincing dialogue for both Mulder and Scully, but he also understands that the story needs to be more than just a collection of references and commentary. Kesel is clearly a fan of The X-Files, and does an excellent job of approximating the show’s style. In particular, he understands that the characters around Mulder and Scully need to be engaging and exciting in their own right.

Many of the best X-Files episodes live and die by the strength of their supporting cast. Classic episodes like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Drive would not be as effective if the scripts were only focused on developing Mulder and Scully. While Kesel does not necessarily create any truly iconic characters for the ages, supporting cast members like Dorothy Sears and Dell Spoon feel fleshed out and developed in a way that very few original guest stars in The X-Files: Season 10 can claim to be.

The eyes have it...

The eyes have it…

There is also a very strong feminist subtext running through the comic. There is a strong feminist reading to be made of The X-Files, as it relates to women’s autonomy over their own bodies in a world that is driven and controlled by masculine power structures. Year Zero incorporates that feminist subtext into its story. Most obviously, Humility Ohio finds herself repeatedly facing implicit and explicit sexism as male colleagues refuse to take her seriously. In a way, it evokes Agent Carter, an contemporaneous forties story which touched on many of the same ideas.

However, Year Zero‘s feminism also bubbles through in other ways. While Ohio faces repeated systemic and institutional sexism, Year Zero is populated with female characters who are victimised in more direct ways. In the penultimate issue, Dorothy Sears helps Ellinson and Ohio to solve the mystery of Gracie Ashland. It turns out that Gracie was murdered by her husband because he suspected that she was cheating on him. There is a casualness to the murder that is quite jarring.

Dog gone monsters.

Dog gone monsters.

That case reflects Dorothy’s own anxieties and issues. Dorothy grapples with the expectations and demands of society around her. She is the subject of neighbourhood gossip due to her personal circumstances. “It seems some people think the only thing worse than me not living with my husband would be for me to divorce him,” she confesses. Later on, Ohio confronts a bunch of gossiping neighbours who are spreading malicious rumours about the nature of Dorothy’s relationship to Mister Zero.

More to the point, Year Zero is quite candid about the creepy subtext that underpins fairytale stories like those of Rumplestiltskin. The relationship between Dorothy and Mister Zero is quite heavily coded as abusive. “I’m afraid he might kill me,” Dorothy confesses, reflecting the type of anxiety that many victimised partners feel. “He’s becoming more and more intense… insistent… invasive…” She then relates how she awoke one night to find Mister Zero croached at the foot of her bed.

Somebody has boundary issues.

Somebody has boundary issues.

Mister Zero is presented as the embodiment of male entitlement. “He feels he’s owed something,” Ohio observes. Dorothy responds, “Well, he’s not going to get it.” Mister Zero is presented as a man desperately trying to assert his power over a woman and to bully her into going along with his own wishes. What makes Year Zero an explicitly feminist narrative is the way that Dorothy ultimately plays Mister Zero. She plays along with his game, but only as means to empower herself. Dorothy cannily plays against Mister Zero, using him to leverage her own freedom.

All of this sounds rather heavy, but Kesel prevents Year Zero from ever becoming too overwhelming or suffocating. There is an endearing self-awareness to Kesel’s script, and a willingness to deflate the more ridiculous aspects an outlandish story. Indeed, one of the best gags in the miniseries concerns Mulder’s outlandish speculation that the pair have stumbled across a sinister plot to open “a dimensional gateway” involving “elder gods” and “human sacrifice.” The idea is vintage Mulder, but is wonderfully subverted by the more mundane motives at play.

xfiles-yearzero45

There is also wordplay.

Year Zero is a joy and a triumph from start to finish. It is a shame that Kesel did not get to do much more the X-Files beyond a short story in The X-Files Christmas Special 2015. Still, Kesel manages to zero in on what makes The X-Files so special while putting his own slant on it. It is very much a highlight of the franchise’s second life.

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

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