Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: X'ed Out by Charles Burns


CARTOONIST: Charles Burns
ISBN: 978-0-307-37913-9; hardcover (October 2010)
56pp, Color, $19.95 US, $22.95 CAN

Cartoonist and illustrator Charles Burns rose to prominence in the mid-1980s when his comics began to appear in RAW, the avant-garde magazine founded by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. He went on to illustrate album covers, advertisements, and magazine covers. Burns is best known for his comics works, such as the 12-issue series, Black Hole, and graphic novels such as El Borbah and Big Baby.

X’ed Out is the first volume of a graphic novel trilogy from Burns. X’ed Out is published as a 9x12 hardcover, similar to the oversized format Fantagraphics Books used for its “Charles Burns Library.” Apparently, Burns has drawn inspiration for X’ed Out from Hergé (Tintin) and author William Burroughs (although film director David Lynch could also be an influence).

X’ed Out opens in the peculiar dream time of an unusual fellow named Doug, a photographic artist who has a head injury of some kind. Doug awakens to find his deceased cat, Inky, standing next to a hole torn in a brick wall. Inky walks through the hole, silently beckoning Doug to follow. Doug follows and finds himself near a putrid stream running through a crumbling badland. That leads to some kind of egg processing plant, full of huge white eggs with splotches of red on them (the Tintin reference?). Then, his journey and the narrative become a shifting reality and landscape of reptilian thugs, pills, fetal pigs, an Interzone-like market, and lots of Polaroid pictures. Will Doug find clarity? Can he?

I first encountered Charles Burns work in RAW, but I avoided reading it (much as I would do when I first saw Richard Sala’s comix). Something about that first story I encountered made me feel uncomfortable. Someone even gave me a copy of Big Baby or El Borbah after Fantagraphics Books published them, and I still didn’t want to read Burns. Somewhere, it happened, but I don’t remember when I first relented or why.

There is something disquieting about Charles Burns’ work. He is cryptic without being oblique, and the reader can always figure out that something wrong or some problem in a story. This must be what is known as creeping dread, and X’ed Out is filled with that.

This slim volume that is X’ed Out, however, merely asks a lot of questions that future volumes will hopefully answer. Only Burns could get away with offering relatively little in an opening salvo. It is the meticulous craftsmanship of his high-contrast art and his ability to make every single element on a page matter that engages the readers’ imaginations, and for the reader, that will have to do, here. Where is X’ed Out going? I don’t know, but I will follow.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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