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The X-Files: Season 11 (IDW) #5 – My Name is Gibson (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.

It feels like Season 11 was barely getting started before it started winding down.

There is a leanness to Season 11, as if the eight-issue series exists primarily to wrap up all the loose ends spinning out of Elders so the series can be rebooted and relaunched in keeping with the new continuity established by My Struggle I. The new status quo set up in Cantus was striking. While the premise owed a lot to the set-up of Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II, putting Mulder on the run as a roving one-man freelance X-files division evoked The X-Files by way of Kung-Fu or The Incredible Hulk.

Bewitching.

Bewitching.

In some ways, the set-up felt like a striking homage to seventies pop culture. The wandering hero is a staple of pop culture in general, but American pop culture in particular. In the sixties, it was The Fugitive. In the eighties, it was The A-Team. Nevertheless, the set-up evokes the mood and feeling of the seventies, of a nation lost and discovering itself in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam. Setting Mulder on that particular course was a very clever story hook. The X-Files owes a lot to seventies film and television, so this set-up felt strangely appropriate.

With that in mind, it feels somewhat disappointing that the new status quo comes to a close so quickly. At the end of Home Again, Mulder is taken into custody as a fugitive. With My Name is Gibson, Joe Harris begins aligning the pieces for the climax of his three-year run on Season 10 and Season 11. It seems like Season 11 is over before it has started, which seems quite disappointing given all of the promise on display.

Chess master.

Chess master.

It is no secret that Season 11 was somewhat rushed to its conclusion. It seems likely that the series was originally envisaged as a twenty-five issue comic book, much like Season 10 before it. Joe Harris acknowledges as much in a letter to readers included in the closing pages of Endgames:

I am immensely proud of the long-form story we’ve told, returning Mulder and Scully to service in a 21st century filled with enough new threat, challenges, and weirdness to make an old-school conspiracy theorist blush. And it wasn’t without sadness when we realised a story I had originally projected to run for another 15-plus issues would need to be reimagined after early news of the show’s return began to trickle out last year, and the desire to launch a new comics series that would reflect the show’s lead seemed the obvious move.

The first four issues of Season 11 suffered most, with Harris condensing and contracting various story threads in order to reach the end of the story within the allocated space. “Outside factors have sped up my plans,” Gibson reflects at one point in My Name is Gibson. That seems fair.

Cleaning up around here.

Cleaning up around here.

There is a lot of unfulfilled potential to Season 11, to the point that Joe Harris and his artistic collaborators could easily justify revisiting the basic “Mulder on the run” premise at some point in the future. After all, there is something quite romantic (and quintessentially X-Files) in the image of Mulder exploring the lost highways and byways of America, drifting through the eccentric spaces that exist in the heartland and traveling from unique place to unique place. The X-Files has always treated America as a mythic space; Mulder could wander though it.

Indeed, there are plenty of other ideas that suggest themselves from the basic premise of Season 11. It is suggested in Elders that the X-files themselves have been outsourced. Are private contractors investigating strange cases? What does that look like? One of the great missed opportunities of the “X-Files Lite” era of early season six was the lack of interest in what the X-files might look like in the care of two more grounded and less invested agents. Imagine Jeffrey Spender and Diana Fowley forced to face the Peacocks or the Fluke Man.

Praise him.

Praise him.

Indeed, it seems reasonable to observe that Home Again is essentially Season 11‘s only indulgence. That three-issue story is really the only element of the series that could have been truncated or cut. While Home Again does serve a number of functions within the context of the larger arc, from drawing attention to the communications towers to having Mulder arrested, those concerns are very much in the background of the story. Home Again feels very much like the comic’s only “monster of the month” story before the process of tidying everything away begins in earnest.

My Name is Gibson is very much part of this process. It is part of the streamlined end run between Elders and Endgames, serving a very clear purpose in terms of both plot and theme. Mulder ends Home Again in custody, while My Name is Gibson promptly allows him to escape. The speed of Mulder’s fugitive run, his capture and his subsequent escape speaks to the accelerated pace of the season. My Name is Gibson also reintroduces the faceless rebels into the comic book mythology so that they can provide suitable complications in Endgames.

Everybody gets a bit green when they travel. No shame in that.

Everybody gets a bit green when they travel. No shame in that.

However, My Name is Gibson is also notable for focusing upon Gibson Praise. The story is structured around a series of extended flashbacks that serve to develop Gibson, and offer some hint at his motivations. These include his time in the Philippines and the death of his mother, not to mention his first encounter with the sinister forces at work in the larger framework of The X-Files. Gibson has been a shadowy presence since the closing panels of Believers, but My Name is Gibson shines some light on the character so that he might be developed.

This is not the first time that Joe Harris has devoted an issue to fleshing out the back story of a pre-existing character. Being for the Benefit of Mister X offered an origin story for the eponymous informant, who had been killed off at the end of Herrenvolk. In More Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, Joe Harris fleshed out some more details in the strange and twisted life of C.G.B. Spender. Both of these stories had their strengths, but they also felt like indulgences; issues focusing on fan favourite characters that didn’t necessarily have anything new to say.

Smoke and mirrors.

Smoke and mirrors.

My Name is Gibson has the benefit of serving the long-form arc in a more direct manner. Unlike Mister X or even the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Gibson Praise is a much more active participant in the plot of the season. Indeed, Gibson has largely been treated as a generic monomaniacal “big bad” to this point in the run, so fleshing out his back story serves a much greater purpose than demonstrating that Mister X was motivated by guilt or by elaborating on some lines of dialogue from earlier episodes to offer a collection of scenes from the life of the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

To this point in Season 10 and Season 11, Gibson Praise has largely been cast as something of a comic book super villain. His power and reach surpasses even that of the Cigarette-Smoking Man at the height of his influence, but without any of the humanisation afforded the character in episodes like One Breath or Anasazi. Gibson is psychic and telepathic, able to reach anybody seemingly anywhere. He has an army of clones. He even has a fixation on chess that suggests something akin to a James Bond villain.

I met a man who wasn't there.

I met a man who wasn’t there.

Of course, some of these details are deeply rooted in the show’s established canon. The production design for Mount Weather in The Truth suggested some sort of super villain layer; Gibson was introduced in The End as a chess prodigy. Nevertheless, both Season 10 and Season 11 are structured to emphasise these aspects of the young man’s character so as to make Gibson seem like a stock super villain. Even the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s obsession with chess metaphors did not stretch that far beyond The End.

Season 11 seems to recognise the role in which it has cast Gibson. In The X-Files Christmas Special 2015, one guest character remarks that Gibson looks like he should be called “professor”; this is perhaps a nod to “Professor X”, a popular Marvel character who shares a similar power set. (Zack Handlen even afforded Gibson the nickname “Baby Xavier.”) In the opening scenes of Endgames, Gibson laments the simplistic role into which Mulder has forced him. “This maniacal super-villain routine you force me to play for your comprehension stopped being cute years ago.”

"I want to take his face... off."

“I want to take his face… off.”

As such, a story focusing on Gibson Praise is a necessity at this point in the unfolding plot, particularly a story that fleshes out the character and turns him into more than just a two-dimensional foil. In fact, this is a recurring theme of the one-shot, with Gibson narrating, “You need to understand that it isn’t any one tragedy – or some single set of events – that makes someone who they are. It’s how we process them, rolling all of our experiences together.” He summarises, “It’s never one tragedy that defines us.” He repeats as much at the climax of the story.

In some ways, Gibson is offering a very succinct summary of The X-Files itself. After all, the cynicism and paranoia underpinning The X-Files is not the result of some single unifying social or political factor; it is a reflection of number of such horrors and betrayals. Mulder’s mistrust of authority stems from Watergate and Vietnam, but his own insecurities speak to growing up at a point when American family life was in a process of change. Mulder is a child of divorce, growing up at a time when family dissolution became a fact of life.

Face to face.

Face to face.

In fact, it could be argued that The X-Files is itself the product of a sequence of absences, rather than events. It is a desperate search for meaning in a world that has seemed to be meaningless. It is a response to the eighteen-minute gaps in the Nixon tapes, to the lack of a clear and satisfying narrative for the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It is a commentary on an era where the United States existed without a clear enemy against which it might define itself, an absence which allowed the nation to look inwards.

There is no single origin story for The X-Files, no all-encompassing answer. Indeed, the mythology is full of dead ends and contradictions, loops and inconsistencies that make it difficult to structure a single linear narrative out of it all. (In fact, much of the ninety-minute run-time of The Truth was dedicated to such an attempt.) This becomes particularly true in the context of My Struggle I, which suggests simultaneously that every conspiracy narrative is both true and false. There is no single truth to be pieced together to explain the state of the modern world.

Clouding his judgment...

Clouding his judgment…

Indeed, Harris does an excellent job integrating My Name is Gibson with the larger mythology in a broader thematic way. The flashbacks unfold in the Philippines, during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. This reflects the mythology’s tendency to intertwine with real history, to provide a postmodern intersection of fact and fiction. The X-Files is very much a secret shadow history of the twentieth century, and Chris Carter would often use real events to anchor these stories. (The use of Chernobyl in both The Host and Maranatha stands out, for example.)

The Philippines setting allows for thematic overlap with the larger mythology. Using his gifts, Gibson can eavesdrop on the panicked crowds around him. The discussion is largely framed in terms of colonialism. The Americans speak in English, while the locals speak using brackets to denote the use of Filipino. “How long are we going to wait here?” asks one native. “Until the Americans decide it’s okay to–“ An American refers to the locals as “disgusting people” populating a “third-world hellhole.” Another Filipino identifies the Americans as “the colonials.”

All fired up.

All fired up.

This language should be familiar to any long-term fan of The X-Files. In many ways, The X-Files is a narrative of colonisation, of the European settlers facing their own inevitable extinction at the hands of an invasive foreign force. Harris places an emphasis on this aspect of the mythology in the final stretches of Season 11, making sure to stress that the colonists are a force very consciously plotting to retake Earth. It is a narrative that instantly provides a sense of stakes, but which is very much a core part of The X-Files.

However, there are also more modern touches. One of the more interesting aspects of Harris’ approach to Gibson Praise is the recurring suggestion that Gibson is the embodiment of certain millennial anxieties. If Mulder and Scully represented “Generation X”, then Gibson is cast as the child who follows in their footsteps. If Mulder and Scully were disillusioned by their childhood memories of Watergate and Vietnam, Gibson enjoyed far greater stability. Gibson grew up with the assurance that he could accomplish anything. However, that promise faded to disillusionment.

No smoking in first class.

No smoking in first class.

In My Name is Gibson, Harris suggests that Gibson was promised a future full of meaning. Certainly, Mulder pointed to Gibson as the next logical step in human evolution in The End. Gibson was something of a proto-messiah, a surrogate son for Scully and a potential saviour for Mulder years before William was even conceived. Talk about potential. Gibson was promised that he would shape the world, that he would change the status quo. However, it was not meant to be. Gibson was all but forgotten about. He became a failed footnote.

In some ways, this speaks the Gibson’s motivation. My Name is Gibson suggests that the character is motivated by the sense that he was meant to be something more, that he is driven by a higher purpose. He explains, “I always knew – in the back of my mind where no one else can possibly reach me – that they would, eventually come for me.” In some ways, Gibson seeks to impose meaning upon his life. After all, The Truth promised an epic struggle for the future of mankind that never quite materialised. It makes sense that Gibson would wrestle with disillusionment.

From the ashes.

From the ashes.

Gibson is very much a millennial character, and not just in a literal sense as one of the younger members of the X-Files ensemble. In a more philosophical sense, Gibson speaks to millennial anxieties, with his relationship to the continuity of The X-Files arguably reflecting millennials’ relationship to the nineties:

Perhaps the members of this young generation, too, are in the midst of such a revolution. They are revolting, not just because they are disappointed and feel poor, but also because they feel gutted by great expectations. They remember the 1990s economy. They remember the “Hope and Change” stickers. They voted for Barack Obama. But they also recall stalled growth in the 2000s. They feel the embarrassment of bloated American exceptionalism after 9/11. They remember the Great Recession and, equally, the not-great recovery. They rue Obama’s failed promise to usher in a new age of consensus government, and bemoan the broken social contract around college, which no longer functions as an automatic elevator to middle-class comforts.

During the Occupy protests, researchers from the City University of New York visited Zuccotti Park in New York. They found that many activists had worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and their great hope had wrought great disappointment. “Disenchantment with Obama was a driver of the Occupy movement for many of the young people who participated,” they wrote.

Gibson was part of something much bigger than himself, told that he was going to be important, told that he was going to make a difference. He was raised at a time of relative peace and prosperity, but has watched the world become increasingly chaotic and uncertain.

Gibson lands some harsh truths.

Gibson lands some harsh truths.

With all of that in mind, is it any wonder that Gibson should surround himself with nostalgia, as so many millennials seem to have done? After all, Gibson has worked to resurrect the mythology of The X-Files. Through Season 11, it is clear that Gibson is not reacting to a looming threat of alien invasion. Gibson directly invokes the past. He clones the conspirators on his own initiative; he signals the colonists using the Medici technology. Gibson proactively pulls the past into the present.

It is certainly an interesting take on the character, and a fascinating theme for what amounts to one revival of a piece of classic nineties pop culture. Season 10 and Season 11 indulge nostalgia in places; characters seem to return for the sake of returning, there are unnecessary flashbacks, there is an unhealthy fixation on familiar characters and concepts. However, there is also a sense that Joe Harris is wary of nostalgia and acknowledges it as a double-edged sword. Nowhere is this more obvious than through the character of Gibson Praise, the boy building a nostalgic fantasy.

Crash course.

Crash course.

Endgames reveals that Gibson is not a super villain, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. Indeed, Gibson is plotting in his own way to save the world, something that Mulder acknowledges in the closing pages of the comic. However, Harris makes it quite clear that Gibson’s means are horrifying. Gibson is unwilling to trust others with his plans, he is willing to sacrifice innocents, he is taking massive risks. Gibson is monstrous, in some respects. He is ultimately still a lost and lonely little boy couching his plans in familiar imagery, but his actions are horrific.

In some ways, Gibson Praise is the most interesting aspect of Season 11, the point at which the comic feels the most reflexive and insightful. As reimagined and appropriated by Joe Harris, Gibson is the perfect antagonist for an X-Files revival. Indeed, it is almost a shame that Harris is not as radical in reworking and reinventing other aspects of the mythos.

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