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John Rozum and Alex Saviuk/Charles Adlard/Gordon Purcell’s Run on The X-Files (Topps) (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

It is amazing to think that Topps’ licensed comic book tie-in to The X-Files lasted three-and-a-half years, let alone that it was such a success that it spawned a second on-going series, a miniseries and a considerable volume of one-shots and digests and annuals. If anything, Topps enjoyed greater success exploiting the license than even IDW has – despite the fact that Topps was a relatively young company with minimal experience in comic book publishing while IDW has a reputation for (and a lot of experience at) skilfully leveraging these sorts of tie-in properties.

This success would be remarkable in any context, but the comic book succeeded at a time of turmoil for the entire comic book industry. The late nineties were not a good time for comics, with the speculation bubble imploding and Marvel filing for bankruptcy. The success of Topps’ X-Files comic book is in many way a triumph of the brand, yet another reminder of how the series was on top of the world. There were lots of others – the ratings, the film, the tie-in video game – but the success of the comic was part of the narrative of The X-Files at this stage of its life.

xfiles-remotecontrol10

The comics themselves are actually surprisingly good. There is a reason that one of the first things that IDW did upon receiving the license was to publish “classic” collections of these comics. One of the more interesting aspects of the monthly series was the way that it managed to feel like The X-Files while still seeming suited to the medium in question. Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard pitched their run as something akin to a Vertigo comic, feeling like a crossover between The X-Files and the work of Grant Morrison or Neil Gaiman.

The influences on John Rozum’s run are a lot less ambitious. Time and time again, Rozum seems to position his run on The X-Files as a rather strange hybrid between the first season of the television series and pulpy fifties horror comics. There are quite a few stories in Rozum’s run that might easily be read alongside Fantagraphics’ E.C. Comics archives, albeit guest starring Mulder and Scully. (And modern fashions. And phones. And so on.) It is a perfectly reasonable and legitimate way to approach the idea of “X-Files comic books.”

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Indeed, it seems especially reasonable given the existing tensions between Ten Thirteen and Topps over the comics. The relationship had been fraught since the early days of the comic, with Ten Thirteen objecting to both Petrucha’s dense and ambitious plotting and Adlard’s moody and atmospheric art. Petrucha was fired from the title after sixteen issues, while Adlard was phased out in favour of better likeness artists like Gordon Purcell or Alex Saviuk. Ten Thirteen wanted a safer and more conventional comic book under Rozum’s pen, and they got it.

While it is easy to understand why these creative decisions were made, it does not make them any more palatable. Rozum’s work on The X-Files is generally quite consistent and occasionally even impressive. But it seldom seems ambitious or exciting. Under Petrucha, the tie-in comic carved out its own space that intersected with the parent show. Under Rozum, the comic book seems to do nothing but skirt the margins.

xfiles-cropduster2

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The X-Files (Topps) #27-29 – Remote Control (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

In many respects, Remote Control is a very “big” story.

It is the biggest story that writer John Rozum has told to date on the comic book, one that spans three issues and seems to brush against the edge of the mythology most associated with The X-Files. Not only does Remote Control feature secret CIA experiments into psychic phenomenon, it also involves a UFO that is being transported through the United States and is hijacked by a foreign power. To top it all off, there is a super-soldier who can render himself invisible and make himself immune to bullets.

Everything is under control...

Everything is under control…

There is a very clear sense of scale to Remote Control, one that suggests this is a blockbuster adventure. This is the comic book equivalent of those mythology episodes that air during sweeps. At the same time, however, Remote Control brushes up against the limitations imposed upon the comic book by Topps and Ten Thirteen. While Remote Control offers the highest stakes that the comic book has seen since Feelings of Unreality, the script is quite clear that this is a story separate and divorced from anything happening in the show.

There are points where it feels like Remote Control goes out of its way to remind readers that this is just a tie-in comic book, and is thus secondary to the television show.

Mulder is a little tied up right now...

Mulder is a little tied up right now…

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The X-Files (Topps) #23 – Donor (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Donor is the strongest of John Rozum’s work on The X-Files to this point. It might be his best work overall.

It is a story that very clearly and very strongly plays off the classic horror vibe that has been running through this stretch of episodes, taking the idea of supernatural revenge and poetic justice to almost blackly comic extremes. In many respects, John Rozum has pushed the comics towards a very traditional sort of moralistic storytelling – with characters frequently facing ironic consequences of their actions.

Organ grinder...

Organ grinder…

In The Silent Blade, a mass murderer kills himself with the blade that compelled him to kill. In The Kanashibari, a bunch of college kids who terrified an asthmatic classmate to death by locking him in a closet are themselves scared to death by a suffocating spectre. In Silver Lining, a killer murders innocent people to reclaim his good looks, only to lose them almost immediately in a fire while fleeing the FBI.

So Donor pushes this sort of storytelling to its logical extreme, as the resurrected body of Bruce Miller tries to reclaim the organs that his widow donated without his consent. Bruce Miller plans to take back what is rightfully his, harvesting various vital organs from recipients. Donor is a very dark little done-in-one story with a delightfully wry and cynical attitude that elevates it above many of its contemporaries.

"You have something that I need..."

“You have something that I need…”

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The X-Files (Topps) #22 – The Kanashibari (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

The Kanashibari confirms what readers should expect from Topps’ licensed comics based on The X-Files. It is another atmospheric and episodic horror story, tightly plotted and written, with a grim sense of moral certainty underpinning it. The Kanashibari feels like something of a throwback, a modern-day take on those classic E.C. Comics horror stories – morality tales where the vengeance is exacted against those who have committed an injustice.

It is a throwback in other ways as well. The Kanashibari and Donor are both old-fashioned “supernatural revenge stories”, the kind of stories that would sit comfortably in the first season of The X-Files. Episodes like Shadows, Lazarus, Young at Heart, Born Again and Roland were all stories about characters seemingly returning from beyond the grave to wreak a terrible revenge against those had wronged them.

Who ya gonna call?

Who ya gonna call?

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The X-Files (Topps) #18-19 – Night Lights (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

With Night Lights, incoming X-Files writer John Rozum teams up with veteran X-Files artist Charles Adlard. While Stefan Petrucha’s involvement in the line was pretty much finished, pending the release of Afterflight, Adlard would work as part of the book’s rotating art team for a while longer.

Thin Air made it quite clear that Rozum was going to be writing a more traditional X-Files comic book than his predecessor. Stefan Petrucha seemed happy to stretch the series as far as possible, to tease out big ideas about The X-Files and to play with the show’s sacred cows. The result was always intriguing, even if it sometimes went a little beyond what readers would have expected from a comic book based on The X-Files.

We will be gods, on night lights...

We will be gods, on night lights…

Rozum’s stories tend to be a bit more straightforward. They are very much conventional X-Files stories. They hue closer to the standard formula, and feature a whole host of expected ingredients. Thin Air was a very conventional and fairly rote X-Files story, particularly following on from stories like Falling or Home of the Brave. Rozum appeared to have some teething troubles, particularly when it came to pacing and characterisation.

While Night Lights feels a little too jumbled and confused to really work, it does seem a lot more confident and assured. The comic has a host of good ideas, and moves considerably smoother than Thin Air did. In fact, there is a rather brilliant idea nestled at the heart of the story. Rozum just buries it a little too well.

Keep watching the skies...

Keep watching the skies…

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Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s Run on The X-Files (Topps) (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Topps’ X-Files comic was a massive success in the nineties.

The monthly series ran for forty-one issues between January 1995 and September 1998. In that time, Topps also produced an X-Files graphic novel, three digests, two annuals, a spin-off line of Season One comics and a miniseries adaptation of a Kevin Anderson novel. They also reprinted the series in quite a few formats, indicating that the comic sold well even outside the monthly schedule. The only reason that the series came to an end was because Topps eventually decided to retire from comic book publishing.

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After Topps withdrew from the comic book market following the Great Comic Crash of the mid-to-late nineties, the X-Files license lay fallow. Barring two Lone Gunman comics published by Dark Horse in 2001, there would be no new officially licensed X-Files comics written between September 1998 and September 2008, when Frank Spotnitz scripted a miniseries for Wildstorm. It is incredible to look back on the success of the Topps line for those three-and-a-half years when it held the license.

A lot of the credit for that success is owed to writer Stefan Petrucha, cover artist Miran Kim and interior artist Charles Adlard.

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The X-Files (Topps) #15-16 – Home of the Brave (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

And so, we approach the end of an era.

The end of the third season of The X-Files brought down the curtain in a number of different ways. It was the last season of The X-Files to air beginning-to-end on Friday nights, turning it into a truly global phenomenon. It was the last season to air before Chris Carter launched Millennium and the last season broadcast before the show began to focus on The X-Files: Fight the Future; perhaps making it the last season of the show to have Chris Carter’s completely undivided attention for quite some time.

This is the end...

This is the end…

Amid all these changes, the shifting of the creative team on the tie-in comic book is not the biggest change taking place, but it contributes to a larger sense that The X-Files is changing. Writer Stefan Patrucha and artist Charles Adlard had worked on The X-Files since Topps launched the comic. On top of their sixteen issues of the regular series, the duo had worked on an annual, two digests and a variety of short (and special) stories during their tenure.

It is very strange to see the pair departing, because their work on X-Files tie-in comic book ranks as one of the most consistently interesting tie-ins published in mainstream comics.

Don't go into the light...

Don’t go into the light…

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The X-Files (Topps) Digest #2 – Dead to the World (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard are winding at this point in their curatorship of Topps’ The X-Files comic book. The duo have contributed an absolutely staggering volume of work to the line. On top of monthly issues and short stories, there have been annuals and digests. The volume of the output has been staggering. All of it has been written by Petrucha and the vast majority was illustrated by Adlard. The quality has – generally speaking – been quite impressive.

Dead to the World is the headline story in the second “digest” published by Topps comics. As with Big Foot, Warm Heart before it, the format of the “digest” feels a little strange. There is a single (and rather long) comic written by Petrucha and illustrated by Adlard, following by a collection of shorts taken from Ray Bradbury Comics, a somewhat less popular feature of Topps’ comic book publishing line. There is a sense that the format might have worked better as a collection of short X-Files-themed stories for a variety of creators.

Face to face...

Face to face…

Nevertheless, the result is interesting. In many ways, Big Foot, Warm Heart seemed to point at where Petrucha and Adlard would go when they wrapped up their massive twelve-part “Aquarius” mega-arc. With its reflections on human failings and human abuses, it seemed like Big Foot, Warm Heart set the tone for the stories that would follow – like One Player Only or Falling. It offered a tease of things to come, suggesting the humanity could be more monstrous than any mythological creature.

In contrast, it is very tough to see where Dead to the World might have been pointing. Then again, Petrucha and Adlard would be gone from the comic a month after its publication. So perhaps the story’s funereal atmosphere feels appropriate.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

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The X-Files (Topps) #14 – Falling (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Falling is a delightfully nasty piece of work.

It is, to be fair, something that has been gestating for quite a while in Petrucha and Adlard’s extended run on The X-Files. If their first year on the title explored the loose boundary between reality and unreality, their final few issues shifted to more grounded and cynical themes. Most explicitly, the idea that humanity makes the best monsters. It is a gleefully subversive twist on one of the core elements of The X-Files: the idea that monsters are real.

Falling to pieces...

Falling to pieces…

Petrucha and Adlard had broached this before. This was the key point in Big Foot, Warm Heart, where the eponymous creature shows more humanity than the human antagonist of the story. One Player Only featured a delightful red herring when it suggested a murderous artificial intelligence had driven a developer to a killing spree at a software company, only to reveal that the developer’s actions were entirely his own. It will be taken to the logical extreme in Home of the Brave, essentially the duo’s grand finalé.

Blending together the Americana and nostalgia of Stand By Me with the brutal cynicism of Lord of the Flies, Falling is a compelling and unsettling read.

If a tree falls in the woods...

If a tree falls in the woods…

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The X-Files (Topps) #13 – One Player Only (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

After a twelve-issue opening mega-arc of interconnected stories about conspiracies-within-conspiracies and wheels-within-wheels, author Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard step back a little bit to close out their run with a series of standalone stories. The four issues (and three stories) that make up the rest of their run on Topps’ X-Files comic stand alone. They are connected by themes and subtext, but very clearly stand apart from what came before. Indeed, they play out almost like a postscript to the main body of work, a series of smaller bite-sized chunks.

In that light, it is interesting that One Player Only feels – superficially, at least – a lot more in step with the television show. The early issues of the comic had seen Petrucha and Adlard creating their own supporting cast and their own conspiracy, so as to avoid stepping on the toes of the production company. The Cigarette-Smoking Man was largely reduced to a number of cameos, with Skinner popping up once or twice along the way.

Ghosts in the machines?

Ghosts in the machines?

Not only does One Player Only feature a guest appearance from supporting characters like Mr. X or yhe Lone Gunmen, it also harks back to the structure and format of the first season of the show. On the most basic of levels, One Player Only feels like a more cyberpunk take on Ghost in the Machine, right down to the fact that Mulder is drawn into a murder at a tech company by an acquaintance from his days in the Violent Crimes Division. At one point, Mulder and Scully stumble on a ransacked house, for Mulder to deadpan, “Hm. Nothing new.”

However, if one peels back the layers, One Player Only is a fascinating piece that sets the tone for Petrucha and Adlard’s last three issues on the series, while infusing the comic with a host of fascinating cyberpunk stylings and body horror that seem to call forward to William Gibson’s future writing for the show.

Coding out...

Coding out…

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