Sunday, 7 December 2014

X'ed Out by Charles Burns Review

Before the story even begins, Charles Burns invites comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001 and Kafka’s Metamorphosis with a page of black and red panels followed by a picture of our protagonist, Doug, looking through a window at a vegetable monster lying in bed. This will be an unusual book.

And, with the beginning of the story where a Tintin-lookalike character (the cover’s homage to The Shooting Star is an indicator of one of this book’s key references) with a bandage on his head, waking up in bed, it’s clear Burns is aiming to place the reader on the same uncertain footing as Doug with his deliberately choppy narrative style. Is this a dream? A hallucination? What's real and what isn't?

Like Alice in Wonderland, Doug starts off following an animal into a hole that leads into a fantasy land. Rivers of green water, ruined houses, talking lizardmen, noseless monsters and strange red and white eggs, populate the eerie landscape as Doug tries to figure out what’s happening through a fugue state brought on by drug abuse and/or head trauma. 

The story then switches to our world and Doug’s appearance changes from the cartoony look to a more realistic face. We’re presented with fragments of his earlier life as an unsuccessful performance artist called Nitnit (Tintin backwards), who reads Burroughs-esque cut-up poetry (a nod perhaps to the way Burns has written this book?) over discordant music while wearing a Tintin-like mask. 

Scenes of his sickly father, his disturbed art photography love interest Sarah, and foetus after foetus - human, pig, alien - pass by. The mood is tragic, doomed, violent and dark, though it’s unclear (so far) what the story is. It’s possible that this is how Doug is dealing with heartbreak from losing Sarah, and maybe the miscarriage of their baby is responsible, especially as a Sarah lookalike enters the fantasy land at the end and is introduced as a “breeder”, a new Queen for the Hive. 

And, though the story is as mysterious and unsettling as a David Lynch film, X’ed Out is so well-written, presented, and drawn that not knowing exactly what’s happening doesn’t matter because it’s so enjoyable. The swiftly moving story sweeps you up and you want to know more, you want to find out what’s happening and how it’ll end, and that’s the mark of a great story.

X’ed Out’s short episodic nature is what keeps it from being a masterpiece - maybe after Black Hole Burns didn’t want to make something quite so lengthy? - especially as it seems like it will read much better as a whole rather than individually. But it’s still a brilliant comic that’s ambitious, thoughtful, creative and compelling, and definitely worth reading.

X'ed Out

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