Review: X-Files: Conspiracy hardcover (IDW Publishing)

Monday, July 21, 2014

There's a lot that could have gone wrong with IDW's X-Files: Conspiracy, an unlikely story that teams the Lone Gunmen (but also Mulder and Scully, where it counts) with the Ghostbusers, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Transformers, and the Crow. Not in the least one of the worst outcomes -- when you imagine Mulder and Scully leaping rooftops with the cartoon-era Turtles, shouting "Cowabunga!" -- is that all involved would come off looking pretty silly.

But, happily, both good writing and good art save the day here. For me, the book worked; even when the story strays far enough into the guest-characters' territory to perhaps stretch the X-Files's more realistic ethos, some element of voice or depiction still smoothed it out. For a wacky premise, X-Files: Conspiracy was as much fun as I could have hoped.

[Review contains spoilers]

Had I been writing X-Files: Conspiracy, I probably would have played it all a little straighter than main writer Paul Crilley and crew. X-Files was often as much about what you didn't see as what you did; as such, in an X-Files team up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I would have kept them mostly in the shadows; the Transformers would have been mysterious vehicles in the dark night a la X-Files's ever-present black helicopters, and so on.

Crilley and the others run the story a bit more on-the-nose, with actual scenes of the Lone Gunmen face-to-face with the Turtles and with Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Rachet. What might be absurd is redeemed because the writers have the Lone Gunmen's voices down pat, and indeed putting the Lone Gunmen in the book's "cartoonier" situations and keeping Mulder and Scully on reserve for the serious stuff helps downplay that absurdity a lot. Also the result is some fairly hilarious visuals in the spirit of this bizarre adventure, like Langley and Leonardo having a meeting of minds in the back of the Lone Gunmen's van or, equally, Langley taking a joyride in Bumblebee.

Which leads into the second thing that makes Conspiracy work: the art choices. Some were not as sanguine as I am about the art, but for me -- someone who does not regularly read any of the series into which X-Files crosses over here -- all of the art choices surprised me positively. The Ghostbusters issue by Salvador Navarro is very restrained, presenting the Ghostbusters as people rather than as the more animated figures in their own book, which worked well with the inclusion of the Lone Gunmen. The Turtles chapter, perhaps the trickiest, is drawn by X-Files Season 10 artist Michael Walsh. Walsh has a style that's "animated with an edge," kind of like Cameron Stewart or Michael Lark's crime noir work, fitting both the Gunmen and the Turtles; Vic Malhotra achieves a similar effect in the Crow chapter. The Transformers issue is by sometimes-Transformers artist Dheeraj Verma, but here again I found the art more realistic than what I might have expected from a Transformers comic.

I also appreciated that Conspiracy contained a number of major and minor continuity notes that rooted the story both in X-Files Season 10 continuity and some of the continuity of the crossover books, which gave the stories additional weight. The Turtles book, especially, seems to fall specifically between Turtles issues, and then at a particularly outlandish moment, it also turns out to be a sequel to an X-Files episode. The Transformers story, too, seems to be in medias res of other problems the Autobots were having.

Even without being familiar with the individual series, this added to the experience for me; on the flip side, regular Ghostbusters writer Erik Burnham's Ghostbusters issue referenced mainly bits from the first movie, such that I as a casual Ghostbusters fan could still enjoy it. And at the same time, Crilley leaves an out for readers in the end who might want to dismiss X-Files: Conspiracy as a dream, so in essence everybody wins.

Among the crossover issues, Denton Tipton's Crow issue is probably best, if only because it takes a seeming throw-away scene from earlier in the book and builds an unexpectedly moving and engaging Crow story out of it (though indeed I was expecting a Crow that looked more Brandon Lee-esque). The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters stories were right up there, though; the Transformers story only loses some points from me because the art gets funny late in the issue with characters talking off-panel or where their speech doesn't match their actions. Crilley's conclusion, which features Mulder in an action-sequence, felt believably X-Files to me.

The key question of X-Files was whether there were or were not aliens out there; the audience knew there were, but the evidence for the characters was so far apart and fleeting as to be almost impossible to prove. When the Lone Gunmen stand right next to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and then especially next to the Transformers and accept them as aliens without much question (or "manphibians," in the Turtles' case), I felt X-Files: Conspiracy lost a bit of its X-Files cred in the pursuit of expediency. Still in all the book could have been a mess and instead it's a delight; if the outlandishness of the concept interests you, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend picking the book up.
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