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The X-Files (Topps) #10-12 – Feelings of Unreality (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.

Feelings of Unreality marks the end of Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s first year on Topps’ licensed X-Files comic book.

It also marks the end of their extended arc. It became clear around six issue into their run that Petrucha and Adlard were really just telling one large and expansive story that could be broken down into small bite-sized chunks. From Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas through A Dismembrance of Things Past through Firebird and Silent Cities of the Mind, these were all separate pieces of a larger puzzle waiting to be fitted together. Feelings of Unreality marks a conclusion to this ambitious and expansive arc.

Slightly unreal...

Slightly unreal…

What has been fascinating about Petrucha and Adlard’s run on The X-Files comic book as been the way that the team has adapted the show’s format to fit within this distinct medium. Writing a tie-in like this, it would would be very tempting to do “a television episode, in comic book form!” There’s a very serious argument to be made that the comics would be pushed in that direction after Petrucha departed. However, there’s something much more compelling about a story that takes advantage of its own medium, rather than offering a flat imitation of another.

For all its flaws, Feelings of Unreality – like Petrucha and Adlard’s epic Firebird before it – feels like a comic book story. It’s pulpy, exciting, ambitious, expansive, silly. And just a little brilliant.

Lift me up...

Lift me up…

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The X-Files (Topps) #8-9 – Silent Cities of the Mind (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.

Silent Cities of the Mind is a very “comic book” story – it’s a story that might easily seem outlandish or ridiculous if committed to film, but which works very well within its medium. After all, the plot centres around a bunch of ancient Aztec priests who built an elaborate underground city that could project itself above ground as a mirage. Indeed, the story seems to accept this as a given, with Scully instead spending most of the adventure questioning whether memories can be transmitted via cannibalism.

It’s a concept that could easily seem ridiculous, and it’s a testament to writer Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard that it works as well as it does. Silent Cities of the Mind is a decidedly pulpy adventure, but that lends the story an undeniable charm. It’s a story packed to the brim with clever and fascinating ideas – from ancient aliens to ritual cannibalism to hidden cities to crystal skulls. All this is crammed tightly into two issues, meaning that everything moves so fast there’s no real time to stop and nitpick it all.

It's all in the mind...

It’s all in the mind…

Mulder is negotiating with survivalists! There are memories transferred through the act of ritual cannibalism! Mulder and Scully are shot down over Alaska! Mulder is trapped with a cannibal! There’s a hidden Aztec city buried underground! Mulder has discovered ancient Aztec mythology! There’s an army rescue team that isn’t a rescue team! There’s a macguffin that allows its wearer to commune with the gods! There’s a stand-off!

It’s all rather exhausting, but in a fun and exciting sort of way. Silent Cities of the Mind is perhaps the best example of how Petrucha and Adlard were writing The X-Files as a comic book, positioning the show’s tropes and iconography within the framework of comic book conventions.

Bonfire of the vanities...

Bonfire of the vanities…

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The X-Files (Topps) – Circle Game (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.

There are any number of events that suggest The X-Files was on the cusp of exploding into a phenomenon. The show was spawning conventions and merchandise. It was becoming a hot property in international markets, moving from BBC 2 up to BBC 1 and then across to Sky. It was quickly becoming compelling water-cooler television. The first season had been lucky to avoid cancellation. The second season had rocketed up the ratings. The third was going to be a pretty big deal.

In light of all of this going on around it, a five-page comic doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Written by Stefan Petrucha and illustrated by Charles Adlard, Circle Game would almost seem as business-as-usual for Topps’ popular X-Files tie-in comic. The only significant difference was that Circle Game had been written and illustrated specifically for the July 15th issue of TV Guide. As part of their “stellar summer sci-fi issue!”, the magazine had given over five pages to Petrucha and Adlard to tell an entire X-Files story.

X marks the spot...

X marks the spot…

Even ignoring the narrative challenges posed by such an assignment, that’s a pretty big deal. Even in the age of the internet, time-shifted viewing and multi-channel television, TV Guide still has a circulation of over two million readers. To give a sense of scale, the biggest-selling contemporary comic books would have a readership of less than a tenth of that. To give it a more relevant sense of scale, the July 1995 issue of The X-Files comic book – the version on the stands at this point – sold approximately 72,000 copies.

All of this is just to stress that giving The X-Files comic book five pages of TV Guide was a pretty big deal.

Lights in the sky...

Lights in the sky…

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The X-Files (Topps) Annual #1 – Hallow Eve (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

No matter how you cut it, the creative team of Stefan Petruscha and Charles Adlard were prolific. The duo only worked on The X-Files comics book for seventeen months between January 1995 and May 1996, but they put out a phenomenal amount of work. On top of sixteen issues of the monthly series, there were also two digests, a number of short stories and an annual. In most cases, some of this work would be outsourced to another creative team, but Petrucha and Adlard remain the creative team for Topps’ X-Files comic.

While this undoubtedly required a great deal of creative energy from Petrucha, churning out scripts on a regular basis, it is worth pausing to praise artist Charles Adlard. These days, for a variety of reasons, it seems that major comic book artists have difficulty producing twelve twenty-odd-page issues in a year. Not only was Adlard able to meet that objective, he was able to do that while drawing a large volume of supplementary material, including this feature-length annual.

All about Eve...

All about Eve…

It’s remarkable how consistent it all is. One of the advantages of a tie-in comic book with a steady creative theme is that there’s a much clearer authorial voice. Although Chris Carter oversaw the production of The X-Files, the demand of weekly network television mean that some episodes got more attention than others, and that particular voices tend to shine through. Darin Morgan writes his own version of The X-Files, as do Glen Morgan and James Wong or Howard Gordon or Vince Gilligan. (This isn’t a bad thing, by the way.)

On a comic, with all the issues written by the same author and illustrated by the same artist, there is a bit more consistency. Even though Hallow Eve is a stand-alone one-shot story that exists quite separate to Petrucha and Adlard’s twelve-issue meta-arc, it fits quite comfortably with their themes and subtexts. It’s an episode about history and memory, and perception and reality.

Shocking...

Shocking…

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The X-Files (Topps) #7 – Trepanning Opera (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Trepanning Opera is something of a one-shot story, albeit the story where Stefan Petrucha begins to concede that his first year writing The X-Files tie-in comic is really one single long-form story. Initially, Trepanning Opera looks like a standard monster-of-the-week (or perhaps that should be “monster-of-the-month”) story, only to eventually reveal that the connections to the rest of Petrucha’s run are more than simply thematic in nature. “Everything is connected, Mulder,” his contact assures him. “Everything.”

Head's up...

Head’s up…

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The X-Files (Topps) #4-6 – Firebird (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

Firebird is the first multi-part story told in the pages of The X-Files. Writer Stefan Petrucha and artist Charles Adlard don’t transition from done-in-one stories to two-part adventures, instead skipping the middle step and producing a three-issue epic. While A Little Dream of Me exposed the limitations facing a creative team working on a tie-in, Firebird demonstrates the strengths of the format. Spanning from Siberia to New Mexico, Firebird has an epic scale that would not be possible on the second season of The X-Files.

(Rather interestingly – and perhaps tellingly – Petrucha takes the comics to places that the show wants to go. The American South-West would be very difficult to replicate in Vancouver, prompting the creative team to make an ambitious effort to bring Mulder and Scully to New Mexico in Anasazi, infamously painting a quarry red to achieve the desired result. The show would wait until the fourth season before it was confident enough to take Mulder to Siberia in Tunguska and Terma.)

Something out of this world?

Something out of this world?

As with Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas, Firebird is very much a comic book story. While the show was reluctant have Mulder and Scully directly encounter aliens, the story features a monster that looks like something from the Lovecraft mythos. While the stakes on the show were generally rather personal to this point, Firebird puts the entire population of New Mexico (if not the world) at stake. While the series took its time revealing its evil conspiracy, Firebird gives us a cabal headed by a monologuing skull-holding would-be supervillain.

Perhaps surprisingly, this works. It’s clear that Petrucha and Adlard are aware that they are working in a different medium with different expectations and conventions. Firebird is very much an X-Files comic book epic, a story that couldn’t be realised on film. And there’s something very endearing about that.

Alien affairs...

Alien affairs…

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The X-Files (Topps) – Trick of the Light (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

The X-Files tie-in comic book was a massive success for Topps. It’s interesting to note the amount of cross-promotion that went into the comic. Factoring in short stories and tie-ins and annuals and other obligations, the output from writer Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard was nothing short of astounding. Topps worked very hard to promote the book, an approach that paid off – the comic would frequently appear in Diamond’s top 100 and was the publisher’s most successful monthly book.

Trick of the Light was a short twelve-page comic that was published as part of the The X-Files/Hero Illustrated Special, featuring an interview with Petrucha and packaged with Hero Illustrated #22 in March 1995. It was something of a glorified advertising gimmick, but one that demonstrates the popularity of the comic in question.

Don't go into the light!

Don’t go into the light!

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The X-Files (Topps) #3 – A Little Dream of Me/The Return (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

There are inevitable challenges in working on a licensed property. You are effectively playing with somebody else’s toys. Since these tie-ins cannot drive a narrative currently unfolding in another medium, it’s often a challenge to maintain the illusion of forward momentum while existing at the behest of a story that can change from week-to-week. While The X-Files was a massive coup for Topps comics, and while Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard did a wonderful job, the comic had to face these constraints.

A Dismembrance of Things Past had brushed up against those limitations in trying to tell a U.F.O. story without meddling in the television show’s continuity. Petrucha used some fiendishly clever sleight of hand there, suggesting that the story would be about an alien visitation and possible cover-up, only to reveal that the story was actually an intimate meditation on the ideas of truth and memory. It was a rather ingenious bait-and-switch, resulting in a wonderful little story.

Pictures in his head...

Pictures in his head…

A Little Dream of Me is not quite as efficient in dealing with the external limitations imposed on a tie-in comic book. The unfortunate realities of comic book scheduling meant that A Little Dream of Me had the misfortune to hit the stands very shortly after the broadcast of Colony and End Game. Of course, the script for A Little Dream of Me would have been written long before the episodes aired (about six months), but the scheduling causes the comic to suffer.

After all, Colony and End Game had made it abundantly clear that Samantha Mulder was unlikely to be returning to her family any time soon. And that was in the television show. The third issue of the comic book teasing the return of Samantha Mulder seems like a rather cynical cheat.

The "X" file...

The “X” file…

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The X-Files (Topps) #2 – A Dismembrance of Things Past (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

A Dismembrance of Things Past is an absolute delight, and a nice demonstration of how well writer Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard could tell stories set within The X-Files universe.

There are many interesting things about A Dismembrance of Things Past. It’s a fine piece of work, deftly balancing the demands on a new comic book set within the world of The X-Files with an urge to tell a story that fits very clearly and very comfortably within the show’s basic structure. It is easy to imagine A Dismembrance of Things Past receiving a live-action adaptation. Indeed, Petrucha’s script feels like something of a tribute to writer Darin Morgan before Darin Morgan had even written for the show, half-way between Blood and José Chung’s “From Outer Space.”

Something to remember them by...

Something to remember them by…

A Dismembrance of Things Past confronts the difficulties of writing a tie-in comic book to The X-Files, while using those constraints to tell an interesting story in its own right. After all, the comic book would have to tell an alien or U.F.O. story eventually. The words “The X-Files” are written on the cover, and that comes with the territory. At the same time, Petrucha and Adlard have to acknowledge the fact that the tie-in comic book cannot advance the on-screen mythology arc. Indeed, it seems unlikely Carter had shared too much of that arc with Petrucha or Adlard.

It takes a lot of skill to balance these competing demands of a tie-in comic book – to remain connected to the source material, but never pulling too far away or ahead, while remaining interesting. A Dismembrance of Things Past manages to satisfy all of its obligations and then some.

Through alien eyes...

Through alien eyes…

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The X-Files (Topps) #1 – Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

If you needed proof that The X-Files had made it, then the forty-issue Topps comic book series from the mid-nineties seems a place to start. Of course, this has less to do with the stories published in the comics themselves – though some are very interesting – and more to do with the comic book market in the nineties and the business model employed by Topps. The comic book industry was perhaps at its peak in the nineties – at least when it came to exposure and public profile.

Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 became the biggest-selling comic book of all time in 1991, selling over eight million copies. A year later, DC Comics published The Death of Superman, a sprawling highly-publicised comic book event that killed off (and then revived) the Man of Steel. The year after that, Batman got in on the action with the Knightfall trilogy, a suitably spectacular event that featured the crippling of Bruce Wayne, his replacement as Batman, and the eventual return of the Caped Crusader.

The truth is in here?

The truth is in here?

It is important to put those figures in perspective. While this was a financial peak for the comic book industry, it was still something of a fringe economy. In the mid-nineties, a television show attracting only eight million viewers would find itself on the bubble line when it came to renewal. However, that figure was the largest readership of any comic book ever. (Audience diversification means that both television audiences and comic book readers have dwindled in the years since, but the latter much more than the former.)

However, the business model for comic books in the nineties made them highly profitable, despite their smaller audience. Price gouging was not uncommon, with some retailers charging as much as $30 for Superman #75 in 1992. Poly bags, gimmick covers, variant artwork, celebrity authors – comics were largely driven by gimmicks in the nineties. More than that, the emphasis on comic books as an investment in the mainstream media helped to suggest the industry was more for collectors than for readers.

Holy conspiracy, Mulder!

Holy conspiracy, Mulder!

It is telling that the company to land the license for The X-Files was Topps, a company famous for producing sports memorabilia. The company had branched into comics in 1993, as the industry was growing and growing, hoping to license various characters and properties. The implication was that The X-Files comic had been designed more as an accessory than as a story. The cover to Not To Be Opened Until X-Mas ever features a handy “first collectors item issue” tag below the “1” at the top left-hand corner.

Licensed comic books have something of a chequered history. In the context of the mid-nineties, it would be easy to write off the forty-one issues (and change) of The X-Files as a cynical cash-in. However, the series has moments of brilliance and insight that mark it as a worth extension of the brand name.

Up in the sky!

Up in the sky!

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