There are a lot of challenges faced by comic books that are based on licensed properties.
First of all, they tend not to be very good--TV series, movies and toys turned into comics seem to be perceived by publishers and audiences as low-hanging fruit, and so top-tier talent don't get assigned, editorial oversight is hugely increased because of the needs for licensor approval and overall the final product disappoints comic book fans and fans of the original property alike.
Those rules, of course, have started to become less and less hard-and-fast in recent years as we've seen fan-favorite series based on properties like Hellraiser, The Muppets, Transformers, G.I. Joe and Ghostbusters.
Joe Harris, former writer of The Fury of Firestorm the Nuclear Men for DC Comics, has been tapped by them to revitalize The X-Files, one of the most revered franchises in science fiction but one that's struggled in comics and film in the last ten years or so.
(And yeah, we liked the Wildstorm series, but it didn't resonate with audiences in general--same for the X-Files/30 Days of Night crossover.)
It's against this background that the new X-Files series launches tomorrow, with Harris and the art team of Michael Walsh and Jordi Bellaire taking on the characters not at their peak, but in the present day, picking up after the events of the TV series and X-Files: I Want to Believe, the underrated 2008 feature film that saw the pair living in quiet anonymity and plucked out of retirement for a project the FBI believed only they could tackle.
That is, if anything, the major weakness at the heart of this series' first chapter; after I Want to Believe, the characters didn't just return to their office lives at the FBI and set up an easy Season Ten. Back in effectively "witness protection," Scully and Mulder have to once again be located and persuaded to come out of hiding. It all feels a bit redundant, although it was obviously necessary.
Where Harris manages to make it really interesting is that he takes a similar concept and turns it 90 degrees; where I Want to Believe brought these characters out of hiding to deal with a super-sized version of a "Monster of the Week" episode, here we see former Assistant-/now Deputy-Director Skinner (see what happens when he doesn't have the X-Files blowing up in his face every six months?) coming to Mulder and Scully to alert them to a security breach at the FBI, seemingly targeted specifically at the X-Files. It's a bit of a routine visit--he comes out essentially to alert them to the fact that their personal medical history and other sensitive information may have been compromised in a hacking operation--but the end result is one that reinstates the massive, overarching mythology of the TV series in a way that the second movie specifically avoided doing.
Immediately after Skinner leaves the room, the stakes of the series are laid out: William, the child Scully gave up for adoption in the waning years of the TV series, is immediately suspected to be in danger, and latter suggested to possibly be the intended target of the hacking. It destabilizes the pair, with Scully wanting to act on her suspicions and Mulder, initially eager to keep hold on a normal life, ultimately becoming convinced that something is up.
In-series, it was never entirely clear how Scully, who was established as infertile early on, could have given birth to William; a number of fan theories have been batted around over the years, most notably that Mulder is the child's biological father. If he brings the child into the new "season," Harris will face a difficult decision that's haunted X-Files writers for years: do you string a mystery along with no hope of resolution, which frustrates some fans but keeps the story moving? Or do you resolve a lingering mystery, closing off story options and probably not satisfying everyone? The stakes of that question will be exaggerated with a mystery that's now been lingering, with fans convinced they know the answer, since 2001--longer than the series was on the air.
That is, of course, not a choice unfamiliar to comic book writers. The soap opera of work-for-hire superhero comics gives writers these kinds of decisions to make all the time (just think of all the X-Men writers who had to follow up on dangling threads left by Chris Claremont), so perhaps Harris is uniquely suited to deal with it in a way that the TV and film writers were not.
Additionally, that's not the only very "comic-booky" thing the issue does. Introducing a group of antagonists with hooded cloaks, glowing eyes and (implied) mental powers, the scene plays out very much like something you'd see in a Big Two superhero title. That said, The X-Files was never a series to shy away from imagery that others would think potentially silly or outrageous, and often made it work, so it's arguable that these villains are as in keeping with the tone of the show as they are with the conventions of comics.
Walsh has the unenviable task of adapting these characters to the printed page--something that's proven difficult over the years. Fans and even Charlie Adlard himself have talked about some of his X-Files work for Topps as being cringeworthy, and even while at Wildstorm the series never really found itself someone like Buffy's Georges Jeanty, able to capture the essence of the characters without making it look like he's aping still images. To his credit, Walsh doesn't make any effort to do so and instead renders the world of The X-Files in his own style.
It doesn't look quite right when you first jump in--perhaps because it's new and strange, or perhaps because the clinical "lighting" of early scenes, which take place in the doctor's office that Scully works in, is so radically different from what you would expect out of The X-Files. As the story carries on, though, it finds a rhythm quickly and does just what you'd hope it would--it stops being a distraction and simply serves the story.
That may sound harsh, but it isn't; these aren't superhero comics. There are no grand splash-pages and, at least in this issue, there aren't any truly unconventional panel layouts. Walsh's job here is primarily as storyteller. The likenesses range from good to really impressive (I love his Skinner), and the rendering is top-notch, so "exactly what it needs to be" is praise, not criticism. Harris and company aren't asking Walsh to redefine the world of The X-Files with a flourish; they're asking him to render it in a way that tells what is at this point still a fairly small, intimate story.
His sense of storytelling and motion, too, is good. Many artists have a hard time making non-superhero books that look like the characters are in motion, but here Mulder almost always is; there's a sense of manic energy to the character that serves his wisecracking dialogue and the persona fans have known for almost twenty years.0comments
Back to what Harris is trying to do--he sets up a lot in this issue and, ultimately, not a lot is resolved. That's normal, of course, for a first issue but the rat-a-tat dialogue that comes out of Mulder's mouth makes the issue blow by almost as soon as he's on the page, and it artificially shortens what is, frankly, a pretty dense book. That's probably a good thing; he nailed Mulder's voice which is, frankly, the hardest to get. There are also callbacks to material from the show, including but not limited to William and to Skinner's ever-fluctuating role, wherein he can go from antagonist to hero to damsel in distress and back again over the course of an episode or an issue.
I'm sold on the series, even if there were a few small hiccups in this first issue. Fans of the series should be happy with the way the characters are handled (though I wouldn't have had Scully cry in the first issue), and if solicitations are any indication, things are going to get more and more fan-friendly in the next two months. The non-comics-reading audience may be the hardest to convince, as they're always hoping for that magical series where Alex Ross or somebody draws the photorealistic X-Files or Star Wars book, but they should have an experience with Walsh not unlike the one I had with Steve Yeowell on The Invisibles all those years ago: it took me about two issues to really see what he was doing, but once I did the book never looked the same without him.