This July, IDW Publishing explores the origins of TV’s most popular paranormal investigators in “The X-Files: Year Zero”, a five-issue miniseries by writer Karl Kesel and artists Vic Malhotra and Greg Scott. “Year Zero” switches between agents Mulder and Scully in present day and their 1940s counterparts Bing Ellinson and Millie Ohio as both duos track down the elusive Mr. Xero.
Kesel chatted with CBR News about re-inventing “The X-Files” for the 1940s, revealing his hopes for the future of his new characters and how his parents almost gave him an offensive name. Kesel, currently the inker on “Fantastic Four,” also gives his thoughts on the rumors surrounding the demise of the Marvel Comics series.
CBR News: Karl, what are Mulder and Scully up against in “The X-Files: Year Zero”?
Karl Kesel: A case comes up for Mulder and Scully that relates back to the very first X-File. So in this miniseries we cut back and forth between present day and 1946 when the X-Files unit was formed.
Is there a ’40s version of Mulder and Scully?
Yeah, this is the team put together in the ’40s to investigate something that comes up. There’re two characters. A guy named Bing Ellinson — he’s referred to in the first issue as the FBI’s most unwanted. He’s not what you would call an exemplary agent. His problem is following the rules, which, in an odd way, makes him really ideal for the X-Files. He’s teamed up with a female operative. There were no female agents in the ’40s, but circumstances arise that put this woman in the middle of it. She’s an FBI employee who has aspirations to be an agent. Her name is Millie Ohio. She’s given a special status, which is ‘Special Employee.’ She’s assigned as Bing’s assistant to investigate what happens. I’m going to be totally honest and say I hope we can do a lot of stories set in the ’40s with Bing and Millie.
Is Millie’s struggle for equality a theme of the book?
It’s always there on some level. People are surprised if not shocked when they see a female “agent” and most are certainly condescending towards Millie. It puts them at a disadvantage because they underestimate her. The other thing going on here is that she’s coming to the FBI from the Woman’s Army Corp — The WAC — so she has military training. She was stationed in London during the blitz. She’s got some chops. And the other side of that tension is Bing, who was not a soldier because of being 4-F [rejected for physical defects], so he did not serve in World War II. This is a very sore subject with him. Now he’s teamed with a woman who did serve.
How much of the X-Files’ origin was already established when you got started on “Year Zero?”
We followed what was canon. I’ll admit I’m not the world’s biggest “X-Files” expert, but I did love the show and remembered watching an episode in the first season called “Shapes.” In that episode it’s established that the very first X-File was in 1946 and investigated a werewolf creature — which they called a Manitou — in Montana. I was talking to Chris Ryall at IDW and said that a werewolf case seemed a bit pedestrian for the X-Files’ first file, but what if that was just part of the story? And that’s what we’re doing. The FBI, specifically Millie, gets a tip about what’s happening in Montana with the werewolf. That’s their first adventure. But then the same source gives them more tips, and that’s what they’re really investigating. Where are these tips coming from? Who knows about these odd things? Unlike Mulder who has a predisposition for the strange and unknown, Bing and Millie are just people. They have no idea what the hell they’re getting into.
Who is Mr. Xero?
Mr. Xero is the man supplying the tips. Mr. Xero in the ’40s spells it with an X and in the present day a Mr. Zero shows up who spells it with a Z. Are they connected? Are they the same person? That’s part of the story and that’s one of the questions Mulder and Scully are trying to answer.
He’s a mysterious man. He seems to have certain abilities. He can move really fast. He’s really strong. His appearance seems to change when you don’t look right at him. He says he can see the future. A very enigmatic character.
How did you land this project?
I’ve been talking to Chris Ryall for years about doing a project together and he asked if I’d be interested in doing something with the “X-Files.” I remember very specifically asking if I could do something with the origin of the unit and what was happening in the ’40s. I find that setting fascinating. The atomic scare was going on. There was the red menace. Today the X-Files have terrorism and biological warfare but there’s something really archetypal about the red menace and atomic mutations. They’re a lot of fun to play with. The time period lends itself to a noir approach, too — people walking into dark places with flashlights. It’s a natural fit.
As I write the mini, I’ve really come to appreciate Mulder and Scully, more than simply enjoy them as a fan. It’s easy to write them. They are such well-defined characters they seem to write themselves. I didn’t realize, because I’ve done little work with licensed characters, that it’s very helpful to have a voice in your head already. I could tell what Mulder might say in a given instance. Same with Scully. Her voice is very clear in my head.
On the other hand, it’s been fun discovering the Bing and Millie characters. I knew in very general terms who they were but as I write the story [they change.] For instance, I didn’t want Bing to be modeled strictly on Robert Mitchum but the more I write him, the more Robert Mitchum’s voice is who I hear in my head. And Mitchum was a great noir actor. They don’t look similar but Bing has developed the same kind of sardonic, droll attitude that Mitchum brought to almost every roll he played. On the other hand, Millie is modeled somewhat on Bette Davis and how she handled situations. She’s got some sass to her that I really like.
I hope “Year Zero” is very successful so I play in this sandbox more. [The other day] I was listening to the latest volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, and it really struck when Caro explained that LBJ felt destined to become the president. He said even when Johnson was 17 years-old he knew he was going to be president of the United States. I think there’s an “X-Files” story there. This sense of pre-destiny — maybe it’s more than just a hunch. Maybe LBJ met someone who told him something. I would love to do a story set in the late ’40s when he’s a Senator and bring him into an “X-Files” story.
Have you worked in the ’40s time period before?
I’ve done some Captain America stuff for Marvel set in the ’40s — The “Captain America 1940s Newspaper Strip,” and there was “Captain America: Patriot,” which was set in this exact same time period after World War II. It was a time of great optimism in America but it was also a time of great fear in America, a time of great paranoia. Everyone was worried about communism and the bomb. It’s a fascinating setting.
What’s it like working with artists Vic Malhotra and Greg Scott?
The artists are both doing a great job. I’ve had a lot more contact on a regular basic with Vic Malhotra only because he’s covering new ground designing new characters and such. We needed to settle on a color pallet that’s appropriate to the story, for example. The “X-Files” have a real distinct look, and we’re trying to get something that matches and at the same time stands on its own. Vic has been a lot of fun to work with. And Greg Scott’s likenesses are astounding. I look at them and it’s Mulder and Scully. He was drawing another character and it looked just like Louis C.K. to me! I love it. It’s been great working with both of them.
What other projects do you have coming up right now?
I’m inking “Fantastic Four” on a regular basis over Leonard Kirk’s amazing pencils. James Robinson’s the writer there. Quite honestly inking that and writing “X-Files” keeps me very busy. Plus, we’ve adopted two children recently so we’ve got two kids under two years-old in the house. My cup runneth over right there.
Speaking of “Fantastic Four,” have you heard any of the rumors going around recently?
Someone sent me a link about them. I have to say I don’t spend a lot of time on the internet so I don’t know the current chatter. You’re talking about how the “Fantastic Four” is going to be discontinued or something?
People are saying Marvel might stop publishing “Fantastic Four” for a year or two just to spite Fox’s upcoming film.
This is what I would say to that. And believe me, I am not coming from any inside knowledge at all. None whatsoever. I can’t believe they would do that to spite Fox. That isn’t a win for anybody.
However, the idea that they would shake things up in the comic so that the Fantastic Four as a team are split up for some reason and go their separate ways and only appear in other books for a couple of years? I think that’s a great storyline. Just like the storyline of killing Captain America, or having someone else wear the Iron Man armor. It’s just as valid and just as interesting. If it happens, I would suspect it happens for reasons of being a good story.
So the rumors are just being interpreted incorrectly?
That would be my take on it. It just seems so pointless to want to snub Fox.
Finally, I notice we have similar initials.
It’s great to meet another Karl K!
Well, I have to ask you something as a fellow Karl K. Growing up people always asked me the annoying question “Does your middle name start with a K?” And, of course, the answer is “No, my parents aren’t idiots.” Did you get that, too?
Well, I will tell you this — my parents aren’t idiots, either, but they almost gave me a middle name with a K! [Laughs] I could not believe that when I heard it. My middle name is Clifford and they were actually considering spelling it with a K. I mean, what were they thinking?! My parents almost did that. I can’t believe it.
The thing that always happens to me — and I’m interested to hear if this happens to you — is when I meet new people and introduce myself as Karl, they come back at some point and call me Kurt. Constantly.
I always get Kyle.
Karl. Kyle. I can see that.
Now I introduce myself as ‘Karl with a K.’ For some reason people will always remember my name if I point out how it’s spelled. If I just say Karl then I immediately become Kyle again.
I can see that. That makes sense. More sense than Kurt. For my whole life I’ll meet someone and then a few minutes later they turn to me and go, “What do you think, Kurt?”
I don’t know why people can’t remember it. Karl is a great name.
Don’t have to tell me!
“X-Files: Year Zero” #1 goes on sale July 16 from IDW Publishing.