Rose City Roll Call 2014: Karl Kesel Takes the X-Files back to "Year Zero"

Karl draws one of the characters he's been
associated with over the years
Rose City Roll Call! Cambot! Gypsy! Tom Servo! Croooooow! Periscope! Dark Horse! Kurt Busiek! Ooooooooooonnnnni! It's another Panel Patter feature on creators and publishers who will be at Rose City Comic Con! You can find all our features for the show right here!

If you've been a fan of superhero comics over the past twenty-five years or so, odds are you've read at least one book featuring inks from Karl Kesel. Whether it was inking John Byrne when he re-booted Superman or more recently providing the heavy lines for Fantastic Four, Kesel is one of the best in the industry as an inker.

I've been fan of Karl's from when I first encountered him, as I slowly saw what a difference an inker can make on a book. (It's why I will never stop arguing that this pencils-to-colors trend is a bad, bad idea.) The thing that I think really makes him stand out as an artist is that no matter who he's working with, Karl enhances the style of the pencil work, even when he's only around for a few issues. "Fill-in" issues get a bad name, but when you get someone good to do them, such as Kesel, they can be a great addition to a longer run.

But Karl isn't just an inker, he's also a very strong writer in his own right. In fact, why Marvel hasn't reprinted his criminally underrated Daredevil run (in which he basically laid out the blueprint for Mark Waid's current version) is beyond me. He also managed the Final Night crossover, and wrote a Harley Quinn series that is a lot better than the current work on the character, showing her as more than a foil for inside jokes and giving her real depth.

Oh yeah, and that Superboy guy. He did a "few" issues of that, too, again coming up with a version that really shaped the character and gave him a meaning past the "Death of Superman" gimmick.

Now Karl's taking his ear for dialogue and strong characterization and turning it on building out the world of the X-Files in X-Files Year Zero, a 5-issue mini-series published by IDW that links Mulder and Scully to a pair of outsider agents in 1946. It seems that the first-ever X-Files case involved a Mister Xero, who may have returned, and it's up to the modern pair to learn from the past in order to solve a 70-year old mystery!

The fact that Karl, who's no stranger to zero-issues, actually puns a bit on the concept with the main antagonist absolutely tickles me. It's a nice touch that doesn't push the story into self-referential territory, something that far too many prequels fall prey to. It's just meta enough to make you wonder if the name is going to matter or just be a red herring--exactly the kind of plot you're want in an X-Files story.

Similarly, I really like the fact that the two agents from 1946 are not clones of Mulder and Scully, While they are still outsiders, they aren't a conspiracy theorist and a truth-seeking scientist. Bing Ellinson is a brash risk-taker who will do anything to preserve the USA. He's a true believer in the righteousness of America. Meanwhile, Millie Ohio is the embodiment of women who served right alongside men and chaffed at being placed in reduced roles once the war was over. They get paired together on a no-win mission, but it won't stop them from finding out the truth.

They're exactly the kind who'd end up chasing a being of unnatural power--and who are unlikely to be believed when their story is finished. You know, just like a certain other pair of FBI agents.

We're only two issue in so far, but it's compelling work from the start. Kesel absolutely nails the banter between Mulder and Scully, effortlessly incorporates what's been happening in the main series (using his skills as the consummate fill-in artist to know what needs referenced), and keeps the balance between investigation and action at just the right level. He also draws things together nicely, using the current events as a framing device that very quickly turns out to be more than the usual fare. We soon see that we're not going to just have a cameo from the main characters or use the new-old story as background information. The two are connected in fine X-Files fashion, and the tension as the two separate pairs of agents fight to keep alive while the mystery they pursue is one step ahead of them, builds on every page.

Karl's plotting and script are aided by two artists, Greg Scott (modern era) and Vic Malholtra ('46 story) who are just different enough to make it clear which time period we're in but not in such a way that it's jarring. Scott works with quite a bit of shadow, allowing what we don't see to menace the reader. I got almost a Dick Tracy vibe from his use of heavy blacks, as he sometimes allows characters to fall into shadow regardless of the light source, something Joe Staton is a master of managing on the daily strip's current run. He tries a bit too hard to keep Mulder and Scully on-model which means things aren't quite as fluid as it could be from panel to panel, but his high level of detailing and slightly grimy portrayal of the world works well here.

Malholtra's work is a bit brighter, with colorist Mat Lopes moving from the mood work he uses on Scott's sections and changing the backgrounds constantly to match the setting. It sets the historical pieces off from their modern counterparts when combined with the slightly rougher, less-detailed lines of Malholtra. On the other hand, his sections have a bit more fluidity to them, as it feels like the characters are in motion when they attack/get attacked. Freed from having real-life actors to draw, he's also able to give Ohio and Ellinson more emotions.

X-Files Year Zero is a really strong series that continues IDW's tradition of quality comics based on media properties. Karl's a perfect fit, and it uses his skills well. You should stop by and talk with him about it, and perhaps pick up some original art of his, which he'll have at the show. Even if you can't make it to Rose City, X-Files Year Zero should be on your pull list. There's plenty of time to catch up before issue 3 hits later this month.