Before approaching Charles Burns’ latest book, X’ed Out, be prepared for an entirely different comics experience than his celebrated Black Hole, which won the Harvey, Eisner, and Ignatz awards in 2005. The creepy teens are still there, exploring bondage and pig fetuses in photography projects this time, but Burns has returned to the uncompromisingly hallucinogenic storytelling of earlier works like Big Baby, El Borbah, and Skin Deep. Yet if it were possible for Charles Burns to up the paranoid ante from his award-winning work, then he has achieved it with X’ed Out, which is due in October from Pantheon.
Main character Doug (never “Dougy”) seems to be embroiled in a particularly bad bit of luck. The right side of his head is shaved to make room for a bandage over an as-yet-unrevealed wound; he has an addiction to medication prescribed for said injury and lives a stoned existence in his mother’s basement; his William Burroughs-inspired poetry is mocked by his peers; and then there are his dreams. Doug has unbelievably vivid dreams rendered in the style of Tintin creator Hergé--by way of Charles Burns, of course--but there isn’t much whimsy or pleasant adventure when Doug drifts off to sleep.
Instead, Doug is transported to a wasteland of walking, cursing lizards, one-eyed side-order cooks who serve up the most unappealing plate of eggs I have seen (probably something to do with embryonic reptiles nestled within the spongy mess), and teary-eyed larvae that silently shriek as they are plucked from the hive and chewed as a street food delicacy. His only guide on this journey is a squinting, bare-chested creature with an appetite for cigarettes and, again, eggs.
The first of several proposed installments (with no mention of when the next will arrive), X’ed Out is a haunting book from Burns. Disturbing images abound: at a party in the supposedly real-world portion of the story, characters simultaneously laugh while grimacing, experiencing joy with revulsion; as Doug’s love interest puts a razor to her forearm, she flatly utters, “It’s okay…go ahead and take the picture” as the blood streams and the panels zoom into her exposed vein. Burns also makes unsettling use of repetition over the course of the 56 pages: characters seem all too happy to serve eggs to Doug, both in the real and dream worlds, and the dream world is filled with giant, shelled eggs with no mention of who or what could be laying them until the very end. Then there’s the ubiquitous Tintin haircut that is atop Doug’s “Nitnit” mask and on his t-shirt, which is also the dream-world hairstyle of choice for Doug and the cyclopean cooks. Doug bursts into tears at the buzzing of an intercom, while later panels fixate on images of intercoms until one morphs into, yes, a black hole in the earth, a suggestion of terror at the communicative wires unraveling between dreams and reality for Burns’ troubled protagonist.
The ending of this episode arrives quickly and without answers (although there is a heck of a cliffhanger). Instead, it’s a book filled with suspicion, giving the reader cause to consider panels, panel placements, dialogue, imagery, and periphery with a wary eye. The questions do not linger so much as flicker and contort once the book is closed.