Nov 11 2010

X’ed Out by Charles Burns

Dan Nadel

web exclusive

X'ed Out

by Charles Burns


$19.95 List Price

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Like a lot of good adventure stories, Charles Burns’s graphic novel X’ed Out begins in the dark. Alternating color fields give way to black, and then our first image: the silhouetted head of Tintin, the character created by the classic cartoon artist Herge. A panel later it becomes clear that it’s not Tintin we’re looking at, but a character named Nitnit, who wakes up and follows his black cat, Inky (Tintin’s white dog was named Snowy), through more darkness: this time into a hole in a brick wall that leads to a sand-hued landscape worthy of Herge himself. A few pages later, Nitnit fades out. When we return to his bed, we find Doug, a more realistically rendered character who sports a Nitnit haircut, a t-shirt emblazoned with a Nitnit icon, and a three-dimensional version of Nitnit’s two-dimensional cartoon bandage. Next to him lies a book titled Nitnit.

X’ed Out is the first in Burns’s projected four-volume series. It is formatted like a Tintin graphic novel: tall and wide, with a regimented panel grid, and colors that both depict (Doug’s antiseptic brown and yellow suburban home) and layer symbolic meaning (a burgundy red that evokes both biological fluids and Doug’s literal and figurative brainstorms), while perfectly complementing Burns’s drawing.

Doug and Nitnit’s dual adventures continue Burns’s exploration of genre conventions; he has previously found rich territory in suburban teen horror (Black Hole) and noir fiction (El Borbah). Here, he treats Herge as a genre unto himself—one, as the opening sequence suggests, full of external discovery and subtle hints at authorial psychodrama.

Doug, wrapped in a robe and swaddled in depressed thoughts, is clearly not well. A personal catastrophe of some sort has occurred, but we’re only privy to his sporadic memories. He is a masked performance artist (that’s a third ego in play, if you’re keeping score at home), and has an apparently doomed romance with Sarah, a photographer with a flair for both the theatrical and the grotesque. As always, Burns is gifted at rendering a peculiar mix of lust and innocence, as well as the dirty floors, obtuse posters, and badly strung guitars of his subjects' post-adolescent world. This unnerving blend comes from Burns’s staging, which places the viewer on the outside of the frame, lending a seemingly objective perspective, rendered in wide, confident, and seductive brushstrokes. As we pick up hints of an impending disaster between Sarah and Doug, the couple’s encounters take on a disturbing eroticism.

The brilliance of this volume of X’ed Out, which, at just fifty-six pages, succeeds perfectly, is that Burns’s mirroring of Herge’s visual and thematic motifs never seems heavy-handed. Herge’s comics' surface and psychological opacity (Tintin famously doesn't have a post-Freudian psyche, even if his creator did) is the perfect foil for Burns, who uses a similar artistic precision to dig into unruly emotional territory. So, when we leave Nitnit at the end of the book, having just been led to “The Hive,” an enormous biological pile that seems to be a birthing area for strange creatures, it is both Herge-esque and classic Burns in its resonant psychological meaning. It is another act of doubling in a masterful volume of many, and there’s just a year to go before we get to witness what Doug/Nitnit are about to remember.

Dan Nadel is the founder of PictureBox, a visual book publisher based in Brooklyn.