Friday, October 23, 2015

Comics review: Millennium #1-5 (complete mini-series, IDW, cover dates January-May 2015)

It's unfortunate but not unexpected that IDW's Millennium mini-series came and went receiving little recognition (and weak distribution, if the trouble I had getting #5 is any indication). By contrast, much like the original TV series did not enjoy as much popularity and longevity as its Ten Thirteen Productions sibling, The X-Files, IDW's The X-Files: Season 10 concluded earlier this year, immediately succeeded by the still-ongoing Season 11.

The greater tragic irony is that the Millennium and X-Files comics share the exact same writer: Joe Harris. Just as all things Mulder, Scully, and Cancer Man are concerned, Harris' knowledge and understanding of Millennium's mythology, continuity, characters, and themes, as well as its general episode format and its script and production conventions is impeccable, showing that his appreciation of The X-Files runs so deep that it extends to its creators' other productions. And as he's done with Ten Thirteen's flagship franchise, in Millennium's five issues, Harris uses his familiarity of the source material and his skill as a writer to present a completely logical scenario for the series' character and the world surrounding them to have arrived at 15 years on, resuming the narrative threads of the show's mytharc to tell a story that's new but feels an awfully lot like the original show -- in a very, very good way.

Given the show's more fantastical elements, another writer might be inclined to "go big" and do the apocalyptic epic that some fans feel the show was building to but never got to do, and wind up with a disappointment, if not an utter mess. Harris knows that a manageable less-is-more approach works better. The mini-series open with Frank pursuing a case involving a psychopathic criminal, a series of devastating child deaths, and a tinge of the supernatural -- not unlike the average episode, or, if you will, Millennium's equivalent of X-Files' many Monster-of-the-Week entries. But said supernatural element, by teasing Frank with some portents that hit the right buttons and setting him on a new course, turns out to be a plot device to take things to the next level by bringing on the mytharc stuff. 

The 15 years that have elapsed since the series ended work to Harris' advantage, picking up with a Frank who -- with complete plausibility -- has grown not just elderly but nomadic and even more isolated than he already had been. This allows Harris to tease at and build to all the things the fans are waiting for: Frank's return to Seattle and the iconic yellow house of seasons one and two, his first confrontation with the Millennium Group presumably since the finale episode, his poignant reunion with Jordan, and finally, the Big One: a showdown with his arch-nemesis, Lucy Butler. ("She's always a big hit with your circle, Frank.") Harris has all of the bases covered, and (switching metaphors) he not only plays all of the right notes, he plays them with the touch of a maestro. As a fan, I truly feel that though the mini-series seemed to end far too soon, I couldn't have been more satisfied with it.

Seeing an ashen Frank living in solitude in a shoddy hotel was bad enough, but the revelation that Jordan as an adult not only harbors deep resentment of her father, but that in cold defiance of him, she has joined and become loyal to the Millennium Group, is absolutely devastating. As heartbreaking as it is, it's wildly appropriate, given the show's hints that Jordan had inherited Frank's gifts, and an ingenious new iteration of a theme introduced on day one, in the pilot: Frank's involvement with the Group encroaching on his family and tearing them apart.

I can't resist listing some of the iconic, self-referencing, fan-baiting moments (trust me, they worked!): 1. Frank logging into his Millennium Group desktop software, uttering the "Soylent Green is people" passphrase for the first time since season two. 2. Our first sight of the (formerly) yellow house since season two, now in symbolic disrepair. 3. Issue #4 ending with the ultimate tease, the cloaked old woman mockingly telling Mulder, "Tell [Frank] Lucy says hi." 4. Frank stating, "I'll need a vehicle" as he sets out to rescue Mulder, and then, in the very next panel, remarking with much understatement, "This'll do" as he approaches a red Jeep Cherokee exactly like the one drove throughout the series.

From the miscellane
ous "former law enforcement" freelancers of season one to the hooded-and-cloaked occult ritual participants seen in season two, the exact makeup of the Millennium Group's membership body and hierarchy was always decidedly vague. The men-in-black-type operatives, the claustrophobic, dimly-lit roundtable meeting, the ornate yet archaic furnishings of Quentin McKittrick's office (which I think is within a high-rise, which means that he's really going for something with the blood-red cushioning of his austere wooden chair and the two rapiers cross-mounted on the wall above a fireplace with an active fire) might be cliché and Dan Brown-esque, but, hey, they work.

Millennium's viability as a franchise is questionable, to say the least (which is why we should be grateful that these comics happened at all), and given how on the first issue cover, Frank stands side-by-side with The X-Files' Mulder, there were some decision-makers who felt the same way. Frankly (no pun intended), I can't blame them, nor would I had they opted to slap the X-Files title logo somewhere on the cover, but to their credit, they avoided being that tacky. However, rather than being an intrusion, Mulder's presence in the story delivers yet another fans'-dream-made-true: a proper Fox Mulder-Frank Black team-up that actually does justice to both characters, unlike the crossover that occurred during X-Files seventh season. (If you look at an episode list, you can probably deduce that it's the one called "Millennium".)

Whereas there, Frank spent most of the episode sitting around on his ass in the mental ward he'd checked himself into (huh?), here, we see them in action together, following a lead and then chasing what they think is a fleeing killer. (Oh, and later, Frank took out a bunch of zombies with a shotgun, which was weird, because he rarely ever used a gun on his own show.) Whereas the crossover episode didn't even acknowledge their mutual background as criminal profilers, Harris fleshes out their shared universe with some new backstory work, connecting them both to the Monte Propps case, which in fact is a clever expansion of a detail mentioned in passing in an X-Files episode. (I hadn't even realized this until the Internet pointed it out to me -- Harris truly leaves no stone unturned!) And making up for their minimal interaction in the TV crossover, Frank and Mulder interplays finds both of them in top, quintessential form -- communication between the two is prickly and stilted, the no-nonsense Frank repeatedly being short in reaction to Mulder's wry sarcasm, and Mulder bewildered when Frank proceeds to act without telling Mulder what he's thinking, so focused on finding Jordan and keeping her away from the Group.

Re: Lucy seducing Mulder -- given his pornography vice, it makes sense that unlike Frank, he would quickly give into Lucy's wiles!

Though Frank is innately brooding and solitary (hence why I identify with him!), all indications are that if his sister hadn't been abducted, Mulder would be a "well-adjusted", baseball-loving, skirt-chasing everyday guy. Yet despite their stylistic differences, both chose singular, all-consuming career paths -- so much so that they wall each other off, Frank with his stone-faced disposition, Mulder with his all of his flippant remarks. But I'd like to think that there's an unspoken respect and understanding between them. In fact, Frank's concern upon learning that Mulder's in Lucy's clutches, describing him to Jordan as "a friend", is a quietly heartwarming moment.

The Lone Gunmen making a cameo to help Mulder crack the Millennium Group's encryption, Langly remarking that he's heard rumors in the hacking community that the Group's members use movie quotes as passphrases, held special meaning to me, as the nerdy tech guru Roedecker, who'd set Frank up with his "Soylent Green is people" login in the first place, always struck me as Millennium's equivalent of the Gunmen. In fact, I'd always thought that if there were a full-fledged crossover, they should share at least one scene. As the character was killed off at the end of season two, having Langly acknowledge the movie quote passphrases probably isn't a coincidence, but Harris getting as close as possible to a formal meeting of the nerds. That it instead occurs in a quiet almost spiritual, between-the-lines way that only a fan like me would pick up on makes it bittersweet and all the more respectable.

Colin Lorimer's stark, dour ("gritty" would work, too, but it's overused) realism and the bleak moods created by his shading work well for Millennium. He does an admirable job of translating Frank's (and now Jordan's) heavily stylized "vision flashes", a staple of the show, into a comic format. Colorist Joana Lafuente deserves a lot of the credit here, as it's the abstract layers of color over what would otherwise be "regular" drawings that make these equivalent to the way that they were done on the show. (However, to no fault of Lorimer's, I'm not sure if they work in comics -- having to work them into a page layout makes the transitions in and out of "vision" less clear-cut.)

A few years ago, when the fan-driven "Back to Frank Black" Internet campaign for a new Millennium film or TV production was at its most active, I saw some detractors argue that since the year 2000 is now well-behind us, there'd be no point to revisiting Millennium, because -- they claimed -- the whole show hinged upon anticipation of the year 2000. In actuality, the show never even said, let alone promised, that anything in particular was going to happen at the turn of the ( What the show did do, in its earliest days, was allude to Evil's unseen hand directing the portions of humanity it was able to sink its hooks into, once or twice vaguely suggesting that Frank was getting so many gigs because Evil's influence was growing. "Things are getting worse and worse, and the whole world could go to hell any minute now" seemed to be the basic underlying sentiment.

But if Millennium were made during the Great Depression, the WWII era, the Cold War era, or, er the NSA-and-ISIS era, would not its gloom-and-doom orientation seem but a reflection of reality? I believe there was little more to the show's title than the producers seeking a timely hook. In any other era, they could have just called it Zeitgeist, and the title's function would be the same, except in that it wouldn't be dating itself.

The graceful, lyrical "voiceover" coda that brings the mini-series to its close underscores what Harris had just been accomplished: the series' dual nature, preoccupied with both existential human angst and the unseen influence upon humanity by the opposing spiritual forces of light and dark, has been embraced as timeless; and Frank and Lucy were approached and handled as the manifestation of age-old, undying archetypes, while staying completely true to their original characterizations on TV.

The very final word used in this wrap-up narration is a play on the franchise's title, recasting it in light of a millennium being a very long span of time. What should you take away from that? That the content and subject matter of Millennium is too good and too BIG to write off for good just because of a stupid, tacky Dick Clark countdown to a stupid, tacky "ball drop" that was live on national TV several months after the show ended. There was no reason for the passing of such a pointless few moments to preclude catching back up with Frank and Jordan, finding out what's become of the Millennium Group, and seeing Frank triumph over lucy in a battle of their wills. And I'm certainly glad it didn't.

-- Ryan

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