The X-Files Cold Cases, #5: ‘Thin Air’
From 1995 to 1998, Topps Comics published a comics tie-in to The X-Files that featured original stories and, among other artists, some of Charlie Adlard's earliest US art. With Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully about to return to television, we at ComicsAlliance are revisiting this classic series, and highlighting some of the best stories it had to tell.
This week, Mulder and Scully's investigation into a classic Bermuda Triangle mystery provides an opportunity for a discourse on the virtues of skepticism, in a story that has only grown in relevance over the past twenty years.
The X-Files #17: ‘Thin Air’
Writer: John Rozum
Artist: Gordon Purcell & Josef Rubenstein
Cover Art: Miran Kim
Original Publisher: Topps Comics
Current Publisher: IDW Publishing
The X-Files Created by Chris Carter
By now, I think we all know the problem with the phrase ‘I Want to Believe.’
It’s not that it doesn’t make perfect sense, from a character perspective, for Mulder to have something to pin the blame on for his missing sister. But ‘I Want to Believe’ is music to the ears of scam artists and Ponzi schemes and anyone selling a dream for a low price. In an era where a lie can travel around the world at the speed of light, skepticism is more important than ever, which is why Scully’s star has taken off in recent years, in contrast with the show having Mulder mostly in the lead.
So it’s nice that the X-Files series, with Thin Air, did a story fully embracing skepticism, while never forgetting that this is a universe where something inexplicable happens to the leads about 22 times a year, with the summers off.
Thin Air opens with an airman from the end of the second World War named John Lawrence, lost in the Bermuda Triangle with his crew for decades, reappearing in Greece as if not a day has passed. Both Mulder and Scully are immediately suspicious, as Mulder’s grasp of paranormal statistics tells him that the Bermuda Triangle is no big whoop. Despite his story immediately raising suspicion, there definitely is something going on with this pilot, and unraveling what that is, is the plot of this more subdued one-shot.
Stefan Petrucha and Charlie Adlard step aside, leaving John Rozum to write and Gordon Purcell and Josef Rubenstein to craft the art. The art is the most immediately noticeable shift, bringing us out of the shadows and creating a world with brighter colors and more classically heroic stylings. Mulder and Scully wouldn’t look out of place in a superhero comic, the way they’re rendered here – but the shift in styles works, serving to illustrate that this is a different sort of X-Files story.
Rozum crafts the plot as the closest thing to an X-Files procedural – the story revolves around checking and double-checking sources, following dead end leads, and looking for that one bit of evidence that helps crack the case open. Eventually a truth is revealed – but not the truth, and it still takes experienced investigators like Mulder and Scully to come up with a working theory as to who wants the world to think that John Lawrence has returned, and why they want the world to think that.
Everyone wants to believe – in this case, that there’s a key to eternal youth, or a way for missing loved ones to return. The returned John Lawrence takes advantage of that urge, becoming an overnight celebrity complete with a book deal and a spate of appearances on talk shows and news programs. This story takes aim less at lizard people and grey aliens and psychics, and more at modern celebrity culture and the accompanying language of marketing – how to get a concept planted in people’s heads with such subtlety that they think they came up with it themselves.
Media saturation in the two decades since this story came out has only gotten more overbearing and marketing techniques more sophisticated. It may literally be impossible to live in modern society in December of 2015 and not know that there’s a new Star Wars movie out, so overpowering its media presence has been. That’s just for one movie, in one year. Untangling what marketing firms and spin doctors have wanted me to think about more important issues such as war, taxes, health care and patent law over the course of my life is an ongoing, never-ending process.
What the alleged return of John Lawrence is meant to make us think is a surprise I’ll leave to the new reader, but it’s a very smart turn, realizing that skepticism isn’t a process that ever ends. Even if this time there are no aliens, there are still powerful people with an agenda, an embarrassment of riches, and enough influence to realize that agenda. There are a lot of things in The X-Files that feel less relevant in 2015, but this feels more relevant than ever. We still want to believe, and we still have to be vigilant that we’re not believing what we’re told to believe.