by Charles Burns
A young man, sick in his house, eating Pop Tarts, popping pills and remembering his last girlfriend – all while a Tintin analogue wanders an Interzone rife with Freudian creepiness. I love a challenge, especially one coming from Charles Burns, whose Black Hole, a tale of sexually-transmitted teenaged body horror, is one of my favorite comics ever.
Cartoonists generally work at a rate ranging from Woody Allen to Terrence Malick, so it can take a long time to see new work from a creator. If you’re looking at complete stories, Burns lies closer to the latter, considering Black Hole took an entire decade for him to tell as a serialized story. By contrast, X’ed Out is a three-part story released in fiftysomething-page hardcovers, so it’s a touch less tempting to sit back and wait for the inevitable collected edition.
X’ed Out seems like the result of William Burroughs’ cut-up method, but it’s more of a controlled explosion as Burns jumps between the two narratives and draws obvious parallels. After all, the comic book page is a series of rectangular frames, so there’s a degree of constriction going on that allows Burns to tell a fairly clear story, albeit an unconventional one.
Nitnit (get it) wakes up and ventures down the proverbial rabbit hole to enact some kind of wish-fulfilling mash-up of Burroughs and Herge – Tintin in Tangiers – which suggests some kind of postmodernism at work, but I’d hesitate to give X’ed Out that label, as the pastiche seems to have been rendered in earnest. Characters are being postmodern, though; Nitnit’s real-life counterpart, Doug, wears a Nitnit mask as he performs cut-up poetry over a cacophony of white noise and television audio.
The Tintin Interzone scenes give the book a surreal weirdness, and a hilarious juxtaposition of two creative individuals who, now that I think about it, were producing work at the same time in different parts of the world. However, they pale in comparison to the compelling “real life” scenes, but only due to familiarity. By which I mean that the Doug scenes are vintage Burns, a thematic successor to his Black Hole milieu of young people and emerging youth culture. In Black Hole, a glam rock David Bowie was only kind of just emerging in the American youth consciousness with these kids caught in between major phases, too young to have been hippies and too old for punk. A lost generation of sorts, I suppose. But in X’ed Out punk rock is in full swing and kids are taking Polaroids of self-harm and putting piglets into jars in the name of art.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t any trace of Burns in the Herge pastiche. There’s a ton of Freudian weirdness afoot – vaginal openings in walls, cocks with vertical slits for eyes, stillborn alien fetuses spilling out of bloody sewage pipes – but Burns doesn’t signal any sort of adventure or quest, which seems essential to a Tintin story, even one filtered through Naked Lunch, until the very end of this first chapter. Once that section gets into full swing, it may dissolve any misgivings I have about these sections.
Burns has, thus far, worked in black and white, so it’s shocking to see him realize X’ed Out in full color, which he employs beautifully. Most modern comic book coloring is about being cinematic and playing with mood and creating lens filter effects on the page, but here Burns lets his inks do all the lighting work, and he uses colors to render his pages in a bright, Laura Allred pop-art palette. It’s a great aesthetic choice: the cartoony, iconic Herge style begs to be rendered in simple colors, not complex Photoshop effects, and these colors carrying on to the regular Burns-style scenes further unite the two despite the difference in art.
It’s more than just aesthetics, though; Burns uses repeating color schemes to give his pages a rhythmic, almost musical quality. This isn’t just colorized, it’s a deliberate choice that adds a new layer to the book. Moreover, Burns’ storytelling has changed, presumably because he’s working in tighter confines than the longform Black Hole, and thus creates dense pages; this approach doesn’t cause information overload but also doesn’t shy away from 10-panel grids, all of which are presented strictly in three-tiered layouts that give it a consistent pace and more formal constraints. To contrast, Black Hole had varying layouts that changed depending on what Burns wanted to convey.
Since it is part one of three, X’ed Out ends with a lot of unanswered questions in terms of story. What happened to Doug that rendered him a nervous invalid? What is the significance of Nitnit? We’re going to have to wait a bit for those answers, but I don’t expect it to take ten years this time. Until then, there’s still a wealth of things to appreciate about X’ed Out, even if the story is just kicking off.
by Danny Djeljosevic