Book of the Month

Book of the Month – X’ed Out

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Avg Rating: 5.0
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by Charles Burns

Size: 56 pages
Price: 19.95

In the world of comics, especially the world of alternative and underground comics, there are a handful of creators who are well known for that one thing they did.  For me at least, Charles Burns was that type of creator.  With a reputation built up around his epic work, Black Hole, published serially for over 10 years across multiple publishers and finally collected in one volume in 2005, Burns established himself as one of those creators.  Admit to someone in the know that you've never read Black Hole, and they'll tilt their head in sympathy and advise you that you simply must read it immediately.  I'm poking fun at the mythos of Burns and other creators, but as with most humor there's a grain of truth.  Further it shouldn't be minimized that those all knowing comics know-it-alls are right.  If you haven't read Black Hole, you simply must.  Burns' ability to use black and white art to control the mood along with his patented creepy yet oddly realistic and relatable cartooning style earns Black Hole all the accolades it's received over the years.  Naturally, given that pedigree, a new work by Charles Burns demanded immediate attention, and this past winter, much like Dan Clowes' Wilson, we were treated to his first new and unpublished work in years, X'ed Out.
 


 

Holding X'ed Out in your hands, it's hard not to immediately think of the graphic albums of France and works like the legendary Herge', creator of the Tintin series of comics.  This reaction is far off, in fact it's pretty much well intended.  The oversized format of this hardcover book, the first in a three part series, clearly is meant to stand alongside those classic works of Tintin as Burns begins to tell the tale of Doug, a sickly boy who slides in and out of his life into a fever dream and then info to memories of his life and the women in his life (presumably) before he's taken ill.  Filled with weirdness and oddities, Burns has created a darker amalgam of Tintin, in the form of "Nitnit" a character that Doug has created in his past as part of a lame art-school attempt at Burroughs-esque cut-up poetry.  His origin isn't as important as the meta-representation of Nitnit, complete with a black tuft of hair and a cat named Inky, living in stark inverted contrast to the blonde tuft of Tintin and his dog Snowy.  Fans of the Tintin series of books will be delighted to other references and similarities to original Tintin works, but to describe X'ed Out as a Tintin meta-parody would absolutely be not seeing the forest for the trees.  I, of all people, can understand that hearing that this book is a meta-referencial play with Tintin is enough to make most people roll their eyes and move on, so I really don't want that to be what you, a potential reader takes away from this review.
 


 

I'm not going to lie to you, Charles Burns, much like his graphic novel contemporaries, is a weird guy with some weird ideas.  I'm also not going to sit here and tell you that I understood every moment of this book, of what was happening or how it tied into the greater story, but this is one of those rare cases where that's okay.  The fact that this is the first volume of a three volume trilogy/story leads me to believe that while we be missing information now (like how Doug got ill etc.), that that information may be forthcoming in future volumes.  In addition to that fact, some solace should be taken in understanding Burns and his approach.  Having read Black Hole, and having moments throughout where the story just seemed so out there, I know that Burns is a master graphic story-teller and is weaving this story in this manner for a reason, and the curious reader in me simply needs to hold on and enjoy the ride.
 

For me, what drew me to X'ed Out and Burns' work is, much like Dan Clowes, his ability to tell seemingly out there and insane stories in a wholly relatable kind of way.  Clearly reading the story through his cartooning style, Burns is able to present characters and emotions in a way that you can connect with them instantly.  The frustrated feeling of Doug as he stumbles out of bed, cursing himself for not having his shit together.  The distant feeling Doug has with his girlfriend of two years on the night they break up.  The curiosity of a new girl and getting lost in her photography and interests.  These are all moments and emotions that we can identify with and relate to and Burns preys on this as he pulls the reader in deeper with Doug/Nitnit into the story.  Sure there's a pig fetus in a jar and unexplained snapshots capturing moments that you know have meaning, but without the context you simply feel lost.  But that's all part of Burns' plan.
 

Artistically, X'ed Out is interesting in that where as Black Hole was done in black and white and a masterful use of shadows and negative space, X'ed Out shows Burns embracing bright and vibrant colors.  Colors that take on symbolism and carry through connections from reality to the fever dream, to the memories, nearly effortlessly.  Additionally, the use of colors to fill entire panels of a page's layout, alternating with text and culminating with Burns' cartooning gives several sequences a cinematic feel.  That would be enough, but factor in the bouncing between Burns' known cartooning style with that of a Herge'/Tintin-esque cartooning style for the dream sequences and you get an artistic tour d'force.  It's during those fever dream scenes that really blew my mind personally.  With Nitnit being surrounded by bizarre and unnatural creatures, and through their actions and events, those scenes feel as normal as the languished memories of reality and past girlfriends.  Burns ability to bend reality and somehow keep it grounded, much like in Black Hole, rings out as a special moment to begin this trilogy with.
 

Admittedly, this book is not for everyone.  If you're a super-hero comics fan, you're probably going to turn your nose at the low page count (56 pages) and high price ($19.95.)  But for the alternative comics fan, this one hits right in your wheel house.  Oversized hard cover, cloth binding, beautiful full color with the first work of one of those great creators? It's a no-brainer.  If you've read and enjoyed Black Hole and wished there was more, Charles Burns finally comes back with X'ed Out,  a book that will make you happy, with just as much creepiness and mystery all rolled up in a nice package, with some added comics history metareferences just for good measure that makes for a graphic novel delight.
 

Ron Richards
And the eggs, I cannot forget the eggs…
ron@ifanboy.com

 

Buy X'ed Out at Instock Trades or Amazon:

Comments

  1. I saw this in the bookshop yesterday and although it looked interesting and I’m a big Tintin fan, I feel that it’s gonna be one that I wait for the omnibus collecting all three volumes. I don’t think being a superhero comics fan has anything to do with the page count vs price point argument – it’s simply very poor value for money. 

  2. I’m a huge Black Hole fan so I bought this when it came out and loved it. Tintin et Le Lotus Bleu was the first thing I really read on my own, i was like 8 (I’m from Montreal and my first language is French). Burns takes the iconic concepts of Tintin, put them in his world and mash it up with an overdose of Lynch influences(Mulholland drive kept coming into mind while reading this).  Great article, Ron. 

  3. I was recently on a cross country trip, and this was one of two books I bought while I was travelling. I COULD NOT wait till I got home to read it. Great review, you are absolutely right.

  4. Like most of Charles Burns work, I didn’t know what to think of this when I first read it. But after a second re-read (and realizing it was only part one of a three part series) I enjoyed it a lot more. I never knew this was some type of Tintin modern remake, but it also makes a lot of sense when thinking about it.

    Good choice Ron. 

  5. About the price : 19,95 $ (minus a possible discount) is the right price for this art and the production & distribution of this magnificent hardcover.
    One of my top 3 picks of 2010 (along with “Wilson” & “Acme Novelty #20”)

  6. Awesome! Cant believe the head shop I work for is carrying this. Wholesale pricing here I come!

  7. ooooo, look…PUNKS!!!

  8. It looks good but that price is insane. Discount services don’t help me much either because by the time shipping and taxes have been added to send it to South Africa it’s cheaper if I just buy it from local comic book stores or local online merchants. I’ll keep my eyes out for a cheap copy down the line though.

  9. I decided to pick this up yesterday at Midtown and read it on the train.  It was good, not great, and the ending left me pretty intrigued.  I’ll pick up the next volume to see where it heads, it should be interesting.

  10. How is this book of the month for January when it came out in October?

  11. @andybmcd  Because that’s when it was picked. The Book of the Month doesn’t have to actually come out that month.

  12. @conor  OK. I was wondering the same thing.

  13. I just ordered this after listening to the podcast. It sounds really cool.

  14. @vadamowens & @andybmcd – that’s what I totally dig about BOTM. It could be something brand new, somewhat recently or sometimes the guys seems to toss in a wild card from a while back. 

    Always thought that was very cool. 

  15. Read this column & had to give the book a shot. Very glad I did.

    I just finished it as I’m writing this so I know it’s not completely sunk in yet, and there are (I think) 2 parts of the story to still come out…..but I know what I like, and this was very good.

    @Ron – Funny too, cause I seriously haven’t read Black Hole, though it’s sitting on the desk next to me. I guess I should give that mother a turn, huh?

    Thx for the great suggestions as always 

  16. Nice pick and I thought the cover reminded me of Tintin before I’d read about it.  (I have the Tintin issue that resembles this cover.)  I like Burns anyway so I’ll have to pick this up at some point in time.  I enjoyed Black Hole, but I have to say the colors on this one look even better, or attact my attention to it.   It is definitely pricey though, which is one of the reasons I may wait.  I bought about half of the individual Black Holes comics, and then the collected BH book, and it was cheaper that way.   Makes no sense, I know.

  17. Is there an archive for the book of the month selections?

  18. Scratch that, my eyes decided to open up and work…