The X-Files Cold Cases #8: ‘Feelings of Unreality’
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, the first year of the X-Files comic closes out on a high note, as the comic exceeds the TV series and delivers on a “season finale” that attempts to tie together all that came before it, and actually succeeds.
The X-Files #10-12: “Feelings of Unreality”
Writer: Stefan Petrucha
Artist: Charles Adlard
Cover Art: Miran Kim
Original Publisher: Topps Comics
Current Publisher: IDW Publishing
The X-Files Created by Chris Carter
Even the most generous X-Files fan would have to admit that the series-wide plot got flubbed.
It’s not that there isn’t an explanation for it all – there was, and it tied together a disparate number of conspiracy plotlines, including the end of the world in 2012 (which will have to be dealt with in some way in the upcoming revival, unless this is going to be Mulder and Scully driving a war rig in post-apocalyptic America.) (Wait, that sounds awesome.) It’s that the series ran for nearly a decade and there are very few overarching plots in history that can sustain any single show for that long.
It’s an artifact of a different time in TV history, predating the notion of the auteur series with a defined ending that came back in vogue with ABC’s Lost, which owed no small debt to The X-Files. The series was meant to go on until it ran out of popularity, with artistic considerations secondary. I think this is why the monster-of-the-week episodes resonated with me more – we all knew that the realities of the TV machine would restrict a satisfactory ending, but a done-in-one monster story is a different matter.
That was the TV series, though. This is the comic, and Stefan Petrucha and Charlie Adlard did have a grand plan going into the “season finale” of X-Files, Year One.
I have only covered a couple of these stories thus far, but every major element in the previous nine stories starts to be threaded together in this story, including the serial killer of "Trepanning Opera" and the cabal at the heart of "Firebird." It all starts with Mulder taking the dying words of a cannibal suffering from a disease contracted from eating human brains (seen in X-Files #8-9,) meeting the contact who informed him of the properties of the alien in New Mexico (X-Files #4-6,) and meanwhile Scully’s research has uncovered links to a retired army general (from X-Files #2, which we’ll cover next week). What the mysterious contact told Mulder in X-Files #7 is true – it’s all connected.
To cover all this ground requires a three-part story as massive as "Firebird" was, and as far-ranging, taking our agents all over the country, pitting them against psychics and super-strong assailants and their own innermost demons. The unifying thread running through all of the first year of the series is memory – how in many ways it’s all we have, and how despite its importance it’s unreliable, as a mountain of research indicates. Mulder and Scully, through two separate incidents involving research into the brain, are put through experiences so real they’re indistinguishable from fantasy (touching on the blurring of that line from #7).
After a well-executed sequence of events in which Mulder and Scully realize that the single biggest event of their professional careers never happened, Mulder is pushed into existential despair. His memories of his sister Samantha (covered in X-Files #3) are what drives him, but with them called into question he finds himself lost. It’s Scully that seizes the break in the case they need, remembering that when we want to preserve a memory, we write it down.
The climax, and the resolution, comes down to a character who, like Mulder, wants to believe – but while Mulder wants to believe to confirm his memories, the character in question wants to disprove her memories, because she’s lost the ability to forget and life has become too painful to bear. The storyline has a tragic and low-key outcome, returning to a church that featured in X-Files issue #1 and closing out the story with a nice circularity.
Writing stories that all tie together is difficult under the best of circumstances, and a monthly comic in the mid-1990s that has to be approved by the licensing department of a megacorporation are far from ideal. It’s no wonder that Petrucha and Adlard stuck to shorter stories for the remainder of their collaboration. But in “Feelings of Unreality,” they pull it off. They weave together a year’s worth of stories into one thesis statement on what memory means, and they make it work. This is probably the most ambitious X-Files story published in comics format.
But it’s not my favorite. That comes next week, in the final installment of Cold Cases.