Saturday, December 30, 2006

The X-Files #20

The X-Files #20, July 1996, Topps Comics
writer: Kevin J. Anderson
penciller: Gordon Purcell
inkers: Josef Rubinstein & Co.
letterer: John Workman
colorist: Digital Chameleon
editors: Jim Salicrup & Dwight Jon Zimmerman

I was an X-Files fanatic. I watched the first several seasons obsessively. Then, when the series jumped the shark and phased its two major players out, replacing Agents Mulder and Scully with the Liquid Terminator and what's-her-face, I let it go. Sometimes you have to do that, when an old friend changes so dramatically that you hardly even recognize them anymore. Fortunately, thanks to syndication, I've rediscovered The X-Files, and although I read a few of the Topps Comics back in the day, discovering this issue now is like taking a trip back in time and meeting that old friend again for the first time.

The X-Files #20 is the first in a two-part story called "Family Portrait," and although the death of a reclusive South Dakota photographer has perplexed Mulder and Scully, the author of this mystery has provided us the readers with enough information to figure it out on our own. Apparently, the photographer recovered an old haunted camera during World War II, which uses soul-hungry demons as makeshift film to suck the life from its unwitting subjects. The man the photographer swiped the camera from is still alive but ailing, and in this issue decides to find the device so he could reap its benefits once again. So, we can only assume that the second part of this story will be a collision of all of these elements, and that Mulder will be one step closer to convincing Scully that the truth is out there. And, in this case, you can carry a picture of it in your wallet.

Writer Kevin J. Anderson is hailed as a New York Times best-seller on this cover of this issue, which, like the Russ Manning Award, creates a premature expectation of excellence from its readers. Although Anderson nails the rapport between Mulder and Scully (sans sexual tension in this case, but they were friends first, I guess), his script makes more sense as a Law & Order narrative. In the face of death and potential serial murder, the quips just keep coming, something I'd expect from those cynical NYPD dicks over investigators of the paranormal. Even the final splash page, on which Mulder and Scully discover the bodies of more victims, boasts a punchline: "Funny, they looked a lot better in their photo." Funny, indeed. Maybe a little too funny . . .

I remember an interview I once read with David Duchovny. The interviewer had asked him how he approaches Mulder's character, with its facets of intensity and sarcasm and sorrow. (I may have just embellished the original question a bit, but you know what I mean.) Duchovny responded that he tries to interpret Mulder's behavior in any given episode based on the intensity of the case; naturally, the mysteries surrounding the ongoing alien conspiracy involved Mulder's complete concentration, for the sake of his lost sister. However, those episodes that were more peculiar offered the leniency for a joke or a quip, that "I believe in this stuff and I know what I'm doing" attitude that old Fox flaunted from time to time. I wonder if Anderson read this interview and took Duchovny's comments to heart. If so, he's exploited them here in spades.

Visually, The X-Files was always a standard comic book series, with the occasional eclectic short story from a noted artist offered in their digest series. Artists Purcell and Rubinstein do their best to capture the likenesses of Duchovny and Gillian Anderson while maintaining a natural fluidity to their designs; in other words, the characters aren't too stiff in spite of being caricatures of actors. In fact, some panels look quite good, and the artists implement a direction that is worthy of any X-Files episode. Reading a comic book inspired by a television show, it reminds me that pencillers are often like film directors, attempting to capture the most effective angle to convey a highlight in the story, or the mood of their "actors." What an underrated aspect of their skill. Sometimes the real mystery is how much work these guys put into each page.

So, will I seek out "Family Portrait" to see how it all ends? Unfortunately, no. Like I said, the author offered enough insight into the mystery to help me put the last pieces together myself, at least to my own satisfaction. Plus, I know nothing too dynamic could happen to Agents Mulder and Scully, since the TV show reserved the right to do that toward the end of its run. Yes, this was a nice glimpse into the past . . . but The X-Files itself has told us, you cannot fight the future.

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