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The X-Files Deviations (IDW) #1 – Being and Time (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.

Being and Time is not a good comic book.

There are a number of reasons why the comic doesn’t work, but the simple fact of the matter is that it has an interesting premise but does little of interest with that premise. Nevertheless, there is something quite intriguing the set-up, an “out-of-continuity” tale that offers a glimpse of a parallel universe where Fox Mulder was abducted in the place of his sister Samantha. More to the point, it seems entirely telling that the only supplemental X-Files comic to be published by IDW during the entirety of The X-Files: Season 11 was one entirely outside continuity.

What might have been.

What might have been.

Deviations was a line-wide event organised by IDW in March 2016. It was very much in the comic book traditions of “themed” months favoured by comic book publishers, a way of assuring readers that the entire line exists within the same conceptual framework. In some cases, the theme is as simple as a series of variant covers built around the same theme. Sometimes the theme is a massive crossover that ties most of a line together. Occasionally the theme is more “insider”, something like “assistant editors’ month.”

Whatever the specifics of the event, the clear objective is to build something approaching consistency across the line. It is not radically dissimilar from the work that IDW did with the Conspiracy miniseries in early 2014. Although The X-Files is not itself the specific singular focus of this particular event and there is no literal crossover, the Deviations series serves to create a thematic continuity across the line. Books like Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe are all connected to The X-Files by virtue of asking the simple question “… what if…?”

Sadly, we never find out if Samantha shouts "Scull-ay!"

Sadly, we never find out if Samantha shouts “Scull-ay!”

There are a variety of interesting “what if…?” stories that can be told using these characters. For The X-Files, writer Amy Chu and artist Elena Casagrande go back to one of the show’s formative traumas, the abduction of Samantha Mulder from Martha’s Vineyard in 1973. Even years after the show resolved the mystery of Samantha Mulder in Sein und Zeit and Closure, Samantha remains a powerful part of the show’s central mythology. She was the subject of Most Likely to…, IDW’s second annual. She also haunted Founder’s Mutation.

Samantha was a formative part of the early years of the show. After all, Samantha was established as a core part of the back story in The Pilot. The audience actually got to hear Mulder describe the abduction in Conduit, the show’s fourth episode. The abduction was actually depicted in Little Green Men, the second season premiere. The show introduced the first of many Samantha clones in Colony and End Game, a two-parter late in the second season. This is all the cornerstone of the mythology, coming before the show really solidified its internal narrative with Anasazi.

Furnishing details.

Furnishing details.

As is the way with such stories, Being and Time offers a fairly major change to the fundamental premise of the property in question, but in a way that unfolds parallel to the existing narrative. In theory, the abduction of Fox instead of Samantha might have generated any number of trickle-down changes in the time line that would radically alter the status quo. Instead, Being and Time ensures that things unfold in a manner that is readily recognisable.  A Mulder sibling still joins the FBI. The X-files are still reopened. Dana Scully is still assigned to the X-files.

The changes to continuity seem to be minimal at best, to the point that they might be simple continuity issues on the part of the writer and editor. Scully is handed her assignment by “Director Blevins” instead of “Section Chief Blevins”, which seems like a fairly significant change given how little else has changed. However, it also seems like a simple scripting issue. After all, why would the Director be handing out an assignment like this to a new agent? The whole point of Scully’s assignment to the X-files is that it is supposed to appear humiliating and low key.

Back to the beginning.

Back to the beginning. (No, not The Beginning.)

Oddly enough for a story that is predicated on continuity, Deviations does not seem particularly interested in the particulars of its own internal continuity. Fox Mulder became an FBI agent before he remembered that Samantha had been abducted. Perhaps he became a forensic profiler because he thought she had been abducted and murdered. It is unclear whether Samantha had her memories similarly repressed. The dialogue seems to suggest she retained her memories. (“They say Fox ran away,” she explains. “But I know what I saw.”)

There are other strange internal leaps in logic that do not gel with the larger continuity of The X-Files. The decision to have Fox trade places with Samantha through an act of self-sacrifice feels like a cop-out, given that Paper Clip offered a narrative that was engaging in its own right. In that third season episode, it is revealed that Bill Mulder originally sacrificed Fox Mulder to the colonists, but that the name was changed at the last minute. There is even some ambiguity as to who changed it; whether Bill reversed his decision or the Cigarette-Smoking Man stepped in.

Smokey and the bandit.

Smokey and the bandit.

Instead of exploring what Fox Mulder’s abduction would actually mean in the larger context of The X-Files, it never seems like Being and Time gets past the splash page of Samantha in the iconic office in the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. To be fair, there are some interesting dynamics at play. As Chu noted of the premise:

“I did some research into real life female FBI agents which was very enlightening,” Chu told CNET. “Samantha might be similar to Fox but being a woman in a historically male field or institution is very different. Samantha has more of a chip on her shoulder than Fox, for example. And when you have two women partnered up in a male dominated environment, the dynamics are going to change for sure.”

This is not a bad premise for Being and Time. In its own way, it fits quite comfortably within the framework of The X-Files. After all, there are several aspects of the mythology that are explicitly feminist in their handling of Mulder and Scully. There are other aspects that are less feminist. In both cases, they would be fun to explore with Samantha.

Not out of the woods yet.

Not out of the woods yet.

The problem is that Being and Time quite simply never explores these themes or ideas. Samantha Mulder has been reduced to a figure of fun, mocked by her male colleagues and dismissed as “Spooky Mulder.” However, Fox Mulder faced pretty much the same discrimination during his time in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although the realities of institutional sexism mean that Samantha Mulder would likely face even greater prejudice from her fellow agents, none of that shines through into Being and Time. It doesn’t even simmer beneath the surface.

To be fair, this is the biggest issue with Being and Time. It does absolutely nothing with the premise. It is in many ways a very generic adaptation of The Pilot that has been truncated so that it can fit within the twenty-odd pages of a modern comic book. At least when Roy Thomas was tasked with adapting that first episode, he had the luxury of a forty-odd pages in which to craft his take on the story. He also benefited from more stylised artwork than that provided by Elena Casagrande, which helped familiar scenes to feel new again.

Pilot scheme.

Pilot scheme.

There are very serious scripting and pacing issues with Being and Time, ensuring that the comic cannot even take full advantage of its twenty-odd pages. Being and Time is extraordinarily decompressed, which is unforgivable in the context of a single-issue story driven by such a high concept. Nobody likes heavy exposition, but a story like Being and Time needs to get its central premise out of the way as quickly as possible so that it can actually get down to the business of telling its own story.

The first three pages of the twenty-three-page comic are given over to a pair of stoners who witness a flying saucer visiting “the Mulder household.” It is very much an extravagant introduction, given how much ground the comic has to cover. Then there are two pages devoted to replaying Scully’s story beats from the first three minutes of The Pilot. These are iconic scenes, but they could easily have been condensed down. Even the most casual fan knows how there scenes go.

The same, but different.

The same, but different.

It all builds to a splash page of Samantha Mulder delivering the iconic “no one here… but the FBI’s most unwanted” line. It is not a particularly dynamic splash page. It is a splash page that seems to treat the presence of Samantha Mulder in the comic as a surprise. Indeed, the previous pages strained to avoid having characters refer to “Mulder” using gendered pronouns. “Word is you got assigned to ‘Spooky’ Mulder,” one agent remarks to Scully. “Mulder was a top agent,” another explains. It is unnatural dialogue that seems to exist solely to preserve “the twist.”

This seems like a serious miscalculation. Even leaving aside the fact that the solicits spoiled the basic premise of the Deviations one-shot, the cover to the issue literally depicts Mulder being abducted as Scully stands alongside a female agent; given that the title Being and Time is a direct translation of Sein und Zeit, it seems a bit much to believe that the splash page of Samantha Mulder in the iconic office was a surprise that justified eating up more than a quarter of the comic book.

Picture imperfect.

Picture imperfect.

Even once the comic gets past that point, the pacing doesn’t get any better. The actual investigations conducted by Mulder and Scully eats up a grand total of a single splash page (with narration) of the duo travelling across the country before Mulder takes Scully to the old family house in Martha’s Vineyard to relive and explain her childhood trauma. It is rather bizarre, and not just because the surroundings look rather unlike Martha’s Vineyard as it exists in the show and as it was depicted on the show. (Granted, the house in Paper Hearts is a different house, but still.)

The second half of Being and Time presupposes an emotional connection between Mulder and Scully that never feels earned. When Samantha wonders what Fox might have been like had he grown up with her, Scully offers some comforting words that seem rather playful for an attempt to console a stranger who is mourning her brother. “Probably just like you,” Scully reflects, “An obsessive pain in the ass.” The conversation even takes place on a log, as if a nod to the conversation on a rock in Quagmire or perhaps even on the log in Home Again.

Logging time.

Logging time.

To be fair, Being and Time might suggest that the universe was always going to pair Scully with a Mulder and that her familiarity and affection for Mulder applies equally to Samantha. However, it also feels like something of a cop out. Given that all of the versions of Samantha Mulder that appeared in episodes like Colony, End Game, Herrenvolk and Redux II were clones, Being and Time represents the first time that the readers have gotten a chance to interact with the “real” Samantha Mulder as an adult. She needs to be more than just a gender-flipped Fox Mulder.

Being and Time never manages to make Samantha Mulder seem like a character in her own right. There is nothing here that really distinguished her from Fox Mulder beyond her gender. There is never a chance to delve into the particulars of her interactions with Scully, either, so there’s not even an exploration of how much gender influenced the relationship between Mulder and Scully. That storytelling avenue might lead to some interesting questions about the nature of the relationship between Mulder and Scully, from a shipping perspective.

A wild goose (or Fox) chase.

A wild goose (or Fox) chase.

Instead, the second half of the comic is given over to an obscenely obvious and heavily signposted twist. While visiting Martha’s Vineyard, Mulder and Scully notice a mysterious figure skulking around the abandoned property. They give chase. The law of conservation of narrative makes the identity of this hooded figure quite clear. It becomes even more explicit when Scully identifies the figure as “about six feet tall.” This figure is, of course, Fox Mulder. He is returning to the family home with the Cigarette-Smoking Man indulging his nostalgia.

The comic wraps up on a splash page of Mulder confronting the Cigarette-Smoking Man, advising C.G.B. Spender, “You’re not my dad.” It is a heavy-handed moment that offers nothing resembling closure to the story. In fact, it resembles the sort of cliffhangers that tend to appear at the end of first issues of comic book relaunches. It radically up-ends the status quo by riffing on an iconic part of the lore and opening up all manner of future storytelling opportunities. However, Being and Time is not the first issue of a miniseries. It is a one-and-done story.

Irony.

Irony.

To be fair, IDW had launched this Deviations event with the promise that any particularly successful issue might have been spun-off into its own miniseries. As editor Chris Ryall outlined:

In most of those old comics, the “what-if” story always ended far worse for the characters than in the regular series. Whether that was just to do big, explosive things in those comics or to assure readers things like “See? It’s much better that Phoenix DID die,” they usually all ended very badly. Miller’s Elektra tale, not so much—he took things in another direction entirely, and handled it all in unique fashion. Which is the goal here—anyone can play “what if?” games with stories but we’re really striving for these comics to do surprising, unexpected things. And who knows, if they go over well enough, maybe they could lead to entirely new series of this divergent timeline.

None of these series were successful enough to spawn a spin-off series, which means that stories like Being and Time suffer from being written as the first issue of a miniseries that never happened rather than a standalone story.

Opening the doors to future storytelling opportunities.

Opening the doors to future storytelling opportunities.

It should be noted that Being and Time was the only supplemental X-Files comic book published by IDW during the publishing of The X-Files: Season 11. While The X-Files: Season 10 had featured a number of companion miniseries and one-shots independent of the monthly series, IDW scaled back their work on the X-Files line following the announcement of the revival miniseries. In business terms, this seemed counter-intuitive. If anything, appetite for more X-Files stories was certain to increase. However, there were other motivations at play.

IDW always placed a great emphasis on their relationship to continuity and canon. When Believers hit stands, the company sold the comic as the official continuation of The X-Files. The revival threw all of that into doubt. There was a sense that the publisher had to take stock before it could essentially regroup and rebrand. In fact, Season 11 only ran for eight issues and a Christmas special. The comic wrapped up almost immediately after My Struggle II so that the publisher could relaunch a more generic monthly series in keeping with the continuity of the revival.

The only missing time is the time spent reading this comic.

The only missing time is the time spent reading this comic.

With that in mind, it is telling that the only supplemental X-Files comic published during Season 11 was a tale that was explicitly out of continuity. In fact, Being and Time hit stands right in the middle of Endgames, the story in which Joe Harris rather gracefully wrote his own epic X-Files story out of continuity as a way to clear the board. There is a clear sense that the publisher is interested in wrapping up this phase of their X-Files publishing with an out of canon story.

Being and Time is ultimately an imaginary story. Then again, aren’t they all?

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