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X’ed Out (Pantheon)

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Charles (Black Hole) Burns channels his inner Hergé in the first volume of his trippy new series.

 
56 pgs., color; $19.95 hardcover
(W / A: Charles Burns)
 
Fans of Charles Burns’ druggy, surreal adolescence parable Black Hole will be pleasantly surprised by the new flavor of surreal drugginess he conjures up in X’ed Out. The story follows Doug, a junkie weaning himself off an unidentified pill addiction who, in the story’s reality, never gets any further from his bed than a quick trip to the kitchen to grab a Pop-Tart. Instead, we see the world through Doug’s fever dreams, a trippy fantasy world of resurrected cats, talking lizard men, and a mutant-filled desert street market. When not lost in his dreams, Doug (who has a large, mysterious wound on the side of his partially shaved head) is lost on Memory Lane, specifically his days as a Burroughs-wannabe poet chasing after Sarah, a photographer whose self-portraits feature enough bondage, self-mutilation, and pig fetuses to assure that even the “real world” portions of the book have a dark, twisted edge.
 
Black Hole established Burns as an artist with a very singular style: bulbous-nosed characters captured with pools of black that ended in meticulously feathered ink lines, placed within pages that were positively soaked in negative space. Working this time in full color, Burns still has his feathering technique in full effect but the pages are no longer seas of black, instead left open for Burns to fill with solid flat colors that nicely complement his boldly-outlined figures. In the fever dream sequences, Burns goes even further outside of his wheelhouse, channeling his inner Hergé by using simplistically cartoony figures to make Doug’s bizarre visions seem like a Tintin-esque adventure.
 
Burns also took the much stricter storytelling conventions of Tintin to heart: gone are the trippy layouts and misshapen panels of Black Hole, replaced with a simpler approach of three equal-sized tiers split into various rectangles. Within that strict framework, though, Burns still finds room for experimentation, using panels of solid color to convey transitions or mood and shifting the placement of narrative captions and dialogue balloons to control the flow of the story. Despite the fact that the story is non-linear and rarely literal, Burns’ perfect pacing makes it an easy read.
 
As the first volume in a planned three-volume set, the story barely even begins cooking before the final page of X’ed Out. But, much like Black Hole, the plot isn’t the point: it’s Burns’ artistry and skilled use of symbolism that are the main draws here. His artwork is well-served by the format, an over-sized hardcover in the style of European comic albums. Some may scoff that the scant page count isn’t worth the $20 price, but the large size really let the reader soak in the artwork, and the thick, matte-finish pages are the perfect pairing for Burns’ flat color palette. The higher cover price is also more than justified by the layered, non-linear, symbolism-heavy storytelling style that makes this a book that’s not only worth re-reading but pretty much has to be read more than once to find all of its hidden treasures. Simply put, X’ed Out is one of the more accomplished efforts of the past year, and a stellar piece of art that is well worth seeking out. | Jason Green
 
Click here for an interview with Charles Burns (courtesy of Comic Book Resources), and here for a brief preview of X’ed Out (courtesy of Boing Boing).
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