It was back in 1998 that I decided to do a big all-X-Files issue of Meanwhile… to coincide with, and celebrate, the release of the first X-Files feature film, Fight the Future. I struggle to remember what other X-File-related material I compiled and published at the time but this interview with comic book writer and novelist, Stefan Petrucha, as well as a conversation with the show’s location scouts, was certainly the main draw.
My first introduction to Petrucha’s writing was within the pages of the Topps Comics adaptation of the show that I loved so dearly. He seemed able to effortlessly capture the voices of the characters and he really just nailed the structure of the show, only in comic book form. Although it is much more common today for a licensed product to mirror the show or film it is based on, sometimes even being written or ‘executive produced’ by the show’s creator and writers, back in 1998 that was not a thing.
And sales for the book reflected that. I am sure that those early issues benefited a bit from the speculator boom of the ’90s but I think the fact that it stayed a best-seller for as long as it did had more to do with the quality of the work being produced than sheer momentum derived from the worldwide popularity of the series.
I also talked to Stefan about his, at the time, brand-new self-published novel, Making God. It is a book I still love and I continue to enjoy his prose work to this day. Whether it was his Time Tripper books adapting the Squalor comic-book series he wrote for Caliber Press, or his more contemporary works like Dead Mann Walking and Ripper, Petrucha knows how to spin a yarn. I would highly recommend checking them out if you have the time and inclination.
Stefan Petrucha has been working in the industry for some time but it was probably his work on The X-Files licensed book for Topps Comics that left the most lasting impression on the fans and his fellow peers in the industry. Whether he’s out exploring the vast unknown with FBI agents Mulder and Scully, or in books like his metaphysical take on super-heroes, Meta-4, and his prose work, Petrucha knows that it takes a lot more than a few Fortean events to make a successful, memorable tale. Good, solid storytelling and compelling characters are what you need and that is exactly what you’ll find in his work. That’s the real magic that keeps the fans coming back for more.
Stefan talked to us about his popular two-year run on the Topps series, detailing some of the trials and tribulations of working on a very popular licensed property, as well as the reasons for the long delayed The X-Files: Afterflight graphic novel he did with artist Jill Thompson. And, for those of you who are sick to death of hearing about the cellular phone-wielding special agents, we also have the inside track on his self-published novel, Making God.
MEANWHILE…: How exactly did you come to be the writer on The X-Files for Topps?
STEFAN PETRUCHA: I fell in love with the show after the first episode. After the second, I thought it would make a great comic, and, given my predilection for the paranormal, I thought in particular it would be a great comic for me to write. So, I called the editor of Topps, Jim Salicrup and suggested he try to get the rights. He saw the show and agreed. Apparently during the negotiations, Ten Thirteen and Fox were impressed with how knowledgeable we were about the show. There was some talk early on about getting a name writer to do the book, but I yowled and howled and stamped my feet and got the assignment.
MW…: The comics series was just barely into it’s first year when the second season boom in popularity happened on the show. Did you find all of that attention distracting or
SP: The comic boom happened with the first issue which sold out the first day it hit stores so we were getting a lot of attention from day one. I was never intimidated. I was thrilled! This is exactly the sort of thing writers pray for.
MW…: I’ve heard a lot of stories from the Star Trek camp of writers as to the limitations imposed on them by Paramount when they are writing their stories. Did you find FOX to be fairly cooperative with The X-Files, or did you butt heads a few times?
SP: More than a few times. There were a variety of major discussions over various issues in the comic. As the success of the series grew, I felt more and more boxed in. It was an odd situation in that my editor, Dwight Zimmerman would talk to Fox and Ten Thirteen, and then I would hear from Dwight. I stayed out [of the meetings] on the advice from Topps.
I realize now this was a mistake and I should have been in on the conversations from the beginning. It may have avoided some problems later on. Then again, it may have caused them sooner. All in all, though, I’m still very pleased and proud of the results. The characters have since changed a lot in the series, but the comic stands as my particular take on the characters.
MW…: It’s interesting you say that because a writer or artist will often want to put their personal stamp on a licensed property they are working on and, in doing so, often lose the essence of what made the property so appealing to begin with. This, however, did not seem to be a problem with your handling of the characters.
SP: We received over 300 letters a month, and most of them started by saying, “It’s great how well you have the characters down! I can hear their voices as I’m reading!” I felt I remained true to the show and the characters, and apparently a lot of readers did, too. In the end, the only ones I know of who didn’t, unfortunately, were the owners of the property. Both Ten Thirteen and FOX felt I didn’t have either down, a difficulty that let to my dismissal.
MW…: Were there ever any stories you wanted to tell, or ideas you wanted to take further, but couldn’t within the context of The X-Files?
SP: There are many. When I first got the assignment, I scribbled down about a hundred
vague plot ideas of varying quality, but a chunk of them are stories I’d still like to tell.
I’m currently working on a proposal for a series of paranormal novels where I hope to
use many of these ideas.
MW…: Afterflight was a very different kind of project compared to what had come before. A very welcome one, to be sure, but I’m curious where the decision came from to make an X-Files original graphic novel?
SP: It was at the height of the comic’s popularity. I was always looking for more space and Topps wanted to experiment with other artists outside of the monthly. An extended
graphic novel seemed ideal.
MW…: I loved the work of Jill Thompson on that book but she is not the sort of artist I would have expected on an X-Files project. How did she come to be involved with Afterflight?
SP: If memory serves, Topps editor Jim Salicrup noticed that Jill mentioned The X-Files as a dream project of hers and he enjoyed her work. I think she was a great choice, and I enjoyed working with her.
MW…: While I loved Jill’s art on that book, I thought she did a beautiful job on it, I did have a problem with the conflicting art styles on the faces and figures of Scully and Mulder, added later, I believe by artist Alex Saviuk. Was FOX pushing for more accurate likenesses of David and Gillian, or was this a Topps decision?
SP: It was FOX.
MW…: If I’m not mistaken, Afterflight was delayed for quite some time. Was that likeness issue a factor in the overall lateness of the book?
SP: Afterflight was delayed solely because FOX and Ten Thirteen would not approve of the artwork.
MW…: Afterflight was a wonderful story but not your most conventional X-File. Where did the idea for the story originally come from?
SP: My mother-in-law was just diagnosed with multi-infarct dementia, a condition which
mimics Alzheimer’s, so it was on my mind a lot. I’d been dealing with the concept of the
self becoming “alien” or “other” throughout the series so it seemed like a natural extension, and a good way to express the thoughts I was having on the subject. I’d also
wanted very much to do something with the 1896 UFO flap.
MW…: After a very popular two-year run on the series I was crestfallen to see you leave the book.
SP: Well, I decided to leave right after they fired me. To be honest, knowing the extent of their objections, it was getting harder and harder to drag myself over to the word processor and produce what I thought was a good script. My tenure and the relationship probably ended at just about the right time.
MW…: Out of all the stories that you’ve written for the series, in the monthly and the digests and the specials, which one would you say is probably your favourite?
SP: Oh, there are things I like about them all but maybe the three-part ‘Firebird’ (The X-Files issues 4-6, April-June 1995) and ‘Trepanning Opera’ (The X-Files issue 7, July 1995). I thought ‘Firebird’ made a better comic than it did a script, and ‘Trepanning Opera’ a better script than it did a comic. It reads a little better than it plays out, no fault of the artist. But those are my faves. And maybe the last two-parter, ‘Home of the Brave’ (The X-Files issues 15-16, May 1996).
MW…: Turning things to the television series, what would you say is your favourite X-Files episode and why?
SP: Oh, ‘Beyond the Sea‘, because it captures the essence of a type of faith that
doesn’t require big showy miracles and ‘Humbug‘ because it’s funny and intellectually
devilish. There are a lot of others I admire as well. All of Darin Morgan’s episodes are
MW…: You’ve also done other work outside of comics, like your self-published novel,
Making God. Could you tell us a little bit about the story?
SP: An eccentric genius write a book he hopes will start a new religion. His fundamentalist parents find it and throw it out. Learning his life’s work is gone, he goes insane. Meanwhile, a street schizophrenic finds it and starts reading it in public. When a power mad public relations man hears her, he helps transform the book into a major new religious movement. And of course, the eccentric genius is released from the asylum to find his work incredibly successful, only no one knows it’s his. It’s also a very philosophical novel and takes a stab at defining the nature of identity and God in Western Civilization.
MW…: I am curious why you made the decision to go the self-publishing route? It’s something that’s fairly common in the comics field but you don’t see too many authors doing it with novels.
SP: Actually, with the mid-list vanishing and most publishers spending all their money
only on major sellers, self-publishing is getting bigger and bigger. I decided on it for
several reasons. First, I had something I really wanted to see published. I tried a few
publishers, but most felt it was too short or too quirky or whatever. Since the novel also
involved the millennium, I had a kinda deadline going. Ultimately, it was put up or shut-up and I really couldn’t let it stay on my shelf. It’s been a great experience, but it requires a lot of work and the hard part starts after you get the books back from the printers.
MW…: While some people may think that Making God draws on subject matter that was introduced to you while working on The X-Files for Topps you have, in fact, been interested in the weird and bizarre long before your involvement with the series, correct?
SP: Yep. Meta-4, a series I did for First comics also dealt with the paranormal [and] the
second issue featured a history of the UFO phenomena. I’ve been interested in the
strange and unusual ever since I picked up a copy of Chariots of the Gods when I was thirteen. Sometimes it’s a hobby, sometimes an intellectual obsession, sometimes, when I’m lucky, a profession.
MW…: Are you hoping that fans of your work on The X-Files stories will be attracted to the novel?
SP: Absolutely. I know it will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading my stuff. The
subject matter is certainly related to the X-Files material, but in Making God I was able
to explore certain ideas regarding belief in a much more in-depth way than either the X-Files series in specific, or comics in general, would have allowed.
MW…: What sorts of projects can we expect from you in the future? Any more comics
SP: The comic industry is pretty depressed and since I’m pegged as the X-File writer
my phone isn’t ringing off the hook. I’m pretty happy with the personal projects I’m
working on right now and would rather not work my butt off on proposals that’ll just
wind up on some editor’s desk for a year or more.
So, a qualified no. If someone did call me tomorrow and the project was right, I’d
certainly be into it but I’m not holding my breath.
Meantime, I am hard at work on that paranormal prose series, and I’m about to start
shooting my second video, Those Wacky UFOs, a satire on UFO documentaries.
My first video, Really Strange Stories, which featured an X-File satire has gotten
some attention and a lot of favorable reviews, so I’m hoping to go even further with this
one. More info is available at our web site.