The second of IDW’s “X-Files: Case Files” (“micro-series featuring stories that explore X-Files of the past and present by top talent from comics and prose”, for those just joining) pits Mulder and Scully against an owl man, a sheriff named deputy and the peculiar predictions of cult genre author Joe R. Lansdale. It’s no “Home,” but there’s definitely something weird going on out in the boondocks….
Written by Keith and Joe Lansdale
Illustrated by Silvia Califano
Colored by Valentina Pinto
Lettered by Shawn Lee
In “Hoot Goes There?”, Scully and Mulder find themselves on the road again, this time to a small East Texas town to investigate the disappearance of a woman said to have been carried away by a creature fitting the description of a harpy from Greek myth. But things only get stranger from there…
For such a relatively young country, the United States sure is full of weirdness. Where more established cultures across the world have their own superstitious, folk tales and cryptids developed over the course of centuries, the US has sheer scale and the geographical isolation of its non-metropolitan population on its side when it comes to developing tales of the supernatural. There’s a lot of open land, untamed wildlife and secluded people with minds all too ready to play tricks on them…and plenty of people looking to make a quick buck, too.
“The X-Files: Case Files—Hoot Goes There?” #1 kicks the tires of one such local oddity, and the dubious locals involved in reporting on and building up the mythology of such creatures, as much of the original show’s “monster of the week” episodes did. That Joe R. Lansdale, riding shotgun here with son Keith, is writing this one is enough to suggest a level of backwoods freakiness than even a Jersey Devil or vegetarian cultists couldn’t match.
It all starts off reasonably enough, as these things tend to. Mulder and Scully rock up to the fictional town of Muddy River, Texas, about as isolated and non-metropolitan a place as you can get. A tenant at a nearby trailer park (and her irritatingly yappy dog) has been reported missing. Her neighbour, the last person to see her alive, claims she was taken by a giant “owl man.”
Before they can begin their investigation, however, the FBI agents have to solve an even trickier mystery: why does the local sheriff’s station appear to be a dog-themed donut shop, and why does said sheriff insist on being called “Deputy Doglet?” The answer to that one may simply beyond their human understanding.
In these establishing scenes artist Silvia Califano passes the first test of a licensed comic with flying colours. Her Mulder and Scully not only look like their small-screen counterparts, but they react to this baffling introduction to Muddy River in much the same way you’d expect David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to play it. Her work throughout this issue, the first of a two-parter, is refreshing in its clarity, precision and style.
The “showiest” moments she gets come in the characters and their eyebrow raising at the various shades of local color they meet during their investigation of Muddy River — including Sacky, the one witness to the feathered foe, who collects empty beer cans believing they’ll be worth something one day and works at the local “oddity shack” tourist trap — but there’s some low-key storytelling chutzpah on display as well.
Or rather, storytelling chutzpah which is impressive because it’s mostly hidden. The panels and pages flow seamlessly, and the moments where she breaks with the page-wide panels (whose widescreen look mimics the dimensions of a modern TV screen) are always justified. Her thick ink lines and shading suggest a hidden darkness during the central pair’s daylight hours strolling through town, and come into their own — along with Valentina Pinto’s colors — during a flashlight-lead pursuit of the owl man through the woods. That sequence ends with a silhouetted Mulder reaching the edge of the thicket, a full moon dwarfing him, the brisk and bold sketched figure and landscape recalling similarly evocative images from early Jeff Lemire.
“The X-Files: Case Files—Hoot Goes There?” #1 is better than any licensed book has any right being, basically. That easy mastery of tone, eeriness and character voices carries on through the writing as well. Lansdale the senior is a dab hand at this point, having published a couple dozen novels and countless more short stories that run the gamut from offbeat crime (as with the superb Hap & Leonard novels, currently being adapted by SundanceTV) to full-bodied horror (his “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” is comfortably one of the most discomfiting short stories of this century).Continued below
His confidence when it comes to character and dialogue, especially within this sort of setting and genre, is apparent from the off. He also has form in the comics field, having contributed typically left-of-centre stories to “Jonah Hex,” “The Spirit,” and even a couple of episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. As such there’s none of the sometimes awkward finding-of-feet that comes from a traditionally prose writer trying out comics for the first time, from either him of the junior Landsdale, himself a writer of prose and screenplays.
The town and characters of Muddy River are quickly established and still distinct, helped in no small part by the writers having intimate knowledge of the sort of small-town cultural peculiarities from which deep-fried “doglet balls,” a tourist attraction boasting the World’s Largest Gopher and a killer owl man wearing tennis shoes can all leap with the same uncanny acuity.
Along with being a rollicking “monster of the week” story that could easily stand alongside (and, frankly, above much of) similar instalments of the show, neither the Lansdales nor Califano fall into the shallow characterisation of Mulder and Scully’s roles or relationship; faced with as kitsch a cryptid as the owl man — that’s a step below even the mothman, surely — Mulder is often incredulous and Scully, and each tackles the investigation with their personal biases but also their notable intelligence intact.
Like stand-out one-off episodes like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” the first part of “The X-Files: Case Files—Hoot Goes There?” manages to be quirky, genuinely funny and frightening all at once. From that final page, I can only assume it’s going to be one heck of a conclusion.
Final Verdict: 8.9 – Full of heart, humour and heebie-jeebies, this could easily have stood against some of the TV show’s best hours. Is there higher praise for an “X-Files” comic than that?