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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.”

xfiles-beprepared3

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) #41 – Severed (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.

This is the end.

Severed is the last X-Files comic book to be published by Topps. It was released in September 1998, after the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future and before the broadcast of The Beginning. The company had actually solicited a number of X-Files comics that were never actually published – including Season One adaptations of The Jersey Devil and Ghost in the Machine. It seems quite likely that Severed was the last comic book to be published by the comic book division of Topps, who had decided to retreat from the industry following market trends.

Filed away...

Filed away…

Topps wrapped up the bulk of its publishing operations over the summer of 1998, releasing the last few tie-in comics for Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Severed was actually delayed significantly. Devil’s Advocate had been published in June, leaving a three-month gap between the two issues. It is interesting to wonder what the delays behind publication might have been; certainly writer John Rozum and Alex Saviuk had proven themselves quite capable of managing a monthly schedule.

Whatever was happening behind the scenes, Severed is very much damp squib of an ending. It’s a bland and forgettable story, but one that is sadly par for the course in the stage of the book’s life cycle.

The transformed man...

The transformed man…

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The X-Files (Topps) #39 – Scum of the Earth (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.

Scum of the Earth taps right into the sweet spot for John Rozum’s sensibilities.

Rozum’s work on Topps’ monthly X-Files comic book might not have been quite as ambitious as that of his predecessor, but he had his own areas of interest and recurring themes. Scum of the Earth provides the perfect intersection between the classic horror comic aesthetic of stories like The Kanashibari and Donor and the more environmentally-conscious storytelling of scripts like Skybuster or Cam Rahn Bay. It is essentially a retelling of The Blob starring Mulder and Scully, in which the blob is created by toxic waste and bio-terrorism.

The green death...

The green death…

Scum of the Earth is not particularly elegant in its storytelling. Rozum’s script covers a lot of ground in the space of a single issue, presenting Mulder and Scully with a crisis that could easily threaten the entirety of the United States. it genuinely feels like Mulder and Scully have wandered into some lost fifties b-movie, capturing a lot of the atmosphere to which Ivan Reitman seemed to aspire by casting David Duchovny in Evolution a few years later. Scum of the Earth is an exceedingly silly comic book, and unashamedly so.

It is also great fun, which is something that really can’t be undersold when you are talking about an X-Files tie-in comic book.

Swamp Thing!

Swamp Thing!

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The X-Files (Topps) #38 – Cam Rahn Bay (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.

Cam Rahn Bay returns to one of the recurring themes of John Rozum’s run on Topps’ X-Files tie-in comic book.

It is essentially a cautionary tale amount mankind tampering with nature and the unforeseeable repercussions of such meddling. As such, it feels very much in keeping with scripts like Skybuster or Scum of the Earth. This idea of human hubris is a theme that is very much in keeping with The X-Files as a franchise, perhaps most keenly reflected in Chris Carter’s deep affection for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and for environmental causes. Cam Rahn Bay is very much in keeping with that aesthetic.

All at sea...

All at sea…

However, there are problems with the story. Most obviously, Rozum’s prose seems a little clunky and awkward. Cam Rahn Bay is a heavy-handed and clumsy meditation on mankind’s fixation with imposing its will over the natural world. However, there is also something slightly hypocritical about the story. As much as Cam Rahn Bay criticises the use of animals in a military capacity, it never seems to question the use of animals in captivity. While the training of dolphins to do military work is treated as deplorable, training them to do tricks for entertainment is lauded.

Cam Rahn Bay feels a little tonally ill-judged, with this fairly significant blindspot undermining a lot of Mulder’s impassioned rhetoric about how mankind treats the natural world.

"Sorry, I was just thinking abotu Deep Throat..."

“Sorry, I was just thinking abotu Deep Throat…”

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The X-Files (Topps) #37 – The Face of Extinction (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.

Suspension of disbelief is a curiously fickle thing.

It is a concept that generates considerable debate in its function and application. After all, the normal mode of fiction generally accepts that fiction is… well, fictional. There is no real belief to shatter, because there is an innate understanding between artist and audience that a work of art should be interpreted as a representation of reality rather than a piece of reality. Even in the case of “true stories”, audiences will willingly and readily accept alterations and adjustments designed to streamline the story in question.

Ramming speed...

Ramming speed…

After all, the concept of “suspension of disbelief” is quite firmly disengaged from the concept of reality. The old cliché about “truth being stranger than fiction” illustrates the distinction. The real world (and the stories of the people who inhabit it) are full of coincidences and contrivances that audiences would consider to be lazy writing or poor construction if they appeared in a work of fiction. Nevertheless, while “suspension of disbelief” might be more complex than its three-word nature would suggest, it is a useful philosophy.

What “breaks” a work of fiction? At what point does the artist – whether intentionally or otherwise – push the audience out of the story? What causes a double take to occur or a quizzical eyebrow to raise? What story developments prompt angry sighs or bitter grumbling? There is no hard and fast answer. The line will always be arbitrary, varying from audience member to audience member. Everybody has different expectations when it comes to art, and so that threshold is distinct for every person.

"Don't worry, Scully! Stay right there... I'm going to get my camera."

“Don’t worry, Scully! Stay right there… I’m going to get my camera.”

Sometimes people can agree on where the line falls on a certain work, but everybody has their limits. There are some people who embrace perceived absurdities or inconsistencies or incongruities in their stories; there are some people who simple do not consider those absurdities or inconsistencies or incongruities to exist at all. One of the great things about The X-Files as a television show is the sense of adventure and excitement that the premise generates. It is highly flexible, allowing for almost anything.

At the same time, it seems quite clear that writer John Rozum and artist Alex Saviuk find themselves charging head-first towards that highly arbitrary and high flexible boundary with The Face of Extinction, a story about a secret race of intelligent goat people who have lived alongside human civilisation for millennia and who also (conveniently) speak perfect English. It is a rather absurd concept, and one that seems at odds with the relatively grounded style of the first five seasons of The X-Files.

Beastly.

Beastly.

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The X-Files (Topps) #35-36 – N.D.E. (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.

N.D.E. is a nice clever character-driven story, one that perhaps suggests a direction that John Rozum might have taken the monthly tie-in comic.

Ten Thirteen had made it quite clear that they did not want long arcs or ambitious storytelling from their licensed comic books. They wanted reliable straight-down-the-middle storytelling, with none of the playful self-awareness and meta-narratives that drove Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s work on the title. As a result, the comic has been rather more conservative in approach since John Rozum took over. His time on the title has not produced anything as cynical or grim as One Player Only or Home of the Brave.

Healing palm...

Healing palm…

While Rozum is undoubtedly limited by constraints imposed by Ten Thirteen, there is something disappointing about his run on the comic. Rozum has tended to favour done-in-one stories, single issue adventures that wrap up everything quite neatly within twenty-four pages. Rozum has grown quite efficient at this, but there is little room for nuance in stories like The Kanishibari, Silver Lining, Crop Duster or Soma. Rozum’s stories tend to work better when stretched out a little, with Be Prepared and Remote Control allowing room for nice character moments.

N.D.E. is another two-part story that takes advantage of that additional space to tell a story about Scully. N.D.E. has a fascinating central idea, and a number of clever twists, but it also allows room to explore Scully’s character and philosophy in more depth than the comic has really afforded her. N.D.E. is perhaps a bit clunkier than Be Prepared or Remote Control, but it is the strongest story of Rozum’s final year on the title. Looking at how well this approach works in those stories, it is a shame that Rozum did not employ it more frequently.

You can play the theme to The X-Files in your head if it helps...

You can play the theme to The X-Files in your head if it helps…

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The X-Files (Topps) #34 – Skybuster (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.

There is an interesting divide in John Rozum’s work on The X-Files.

Half the time, it seems like Rozum is writing classic EC horror stories that just happen to feature Mulder and Scully. There are stretches of his work on the title where it seems like the stories might easily have been found in the desk drawer of some classic editor, tweaked and altered slightly so as to update them forty years, and published with the addition of Mulder and Scully. Stories like Silver Lining, Donor and Soma comfortably fit this classic pulpy horror mould. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, although it is quite striking.

Death from above!

Death from above!

When Rozum does write a story that feels particular to The X-Files, it often feels a little disconnected from the season unfolding around it. Scripts like Be Prepared, Remote Control and N.D.E. feel like they hark back to the first season of the show. The characterisation is familiar, if simplistic; shades of the mythology is present, but underdeveloped; there is a very traditional approach to big paranormal ideas like the Wendigo or “remote viewing.” It feels like these comics make a solid companion piece to the Season One comics written by Roy Thomas.

Skybuster is a pretty perfect example of this style of storytelling, offering an environmental parable about the arrogance of mankind’s tampering with nature.

Quoth the raven...

Quoth the raven…

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