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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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