Ken Parille reviews X’ed Out Vol. 1 by Charles Burns

Posted by on October 25th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Pantheon; 56 pp., $19.95; Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-0307379139

Throughout the Tintin stories by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, a brief scene reappears: the hero and his canine companion, Snowy, are about to enter a black hole. Always in pursuit and often pursued, they pass through natural gaps and man-made holes that open into uncertainty — who or what lies on the other side? — but ultimately lead to a happy ending. The mystery is solved, the rupture figuratively closed-up. In X’ed Out, Charles Burns turns the fictional world of Tintin inside out as he explores the visual and visceral appeal of such seemingly routine scenes and images. Burns makes black holes central, linking them to mental and physical wounds that drive Doug, X’ed Out’s unwilling and alienated hero, to undertake his adventure — he needs answers that can only be found at the other end of the opening. We don’t know how Doug got his visible wound (a scar intersects his eyebrow to form an X), but we see glimpses, in the distressing depictions of his life, of how he got the invisible ones.

Doug is a performance artist, but his audience isn’t ready. He dons a stylized Tintin mask, calls himself “Nitnit,” and, accompanied by tape-recorded noises, performs William Burroughs-inspired “cut-ups” for a crowd of punk poseurs who don’t get it. Hurt and angry, he wishes they would go home to their “mommies and daddies in the suburbs.” He is also is alienated from this social world, his family and himself. This estrangement breeds multiple identities, some self-chosen, like “Nitnit” and “Johnny 23,” and others forced upon him, like “Dougy.” When Doug’s girlfriend calls him this, he insists she use “Doug”: “You just don’t understand. If you could look inside my head, you’d know.” The multiple narratives of X’ed Out offer a look inside, but the view wouldn’t give her (as it doesn’t give us) any simple answers. X’ed Out is cut-up, a “wounded” non-linear story whose many psychological layers resist the reassuring certainty that linearity gives us, the clarity Doug is searching for.

X’ed Out’s narratives shift between many Dougs, each more cartoony than the last: Doug as “Nitnit,” a version of Doug with Tintin’s trademark haircut (who appears both in “the real world” and as a dream avatar), the cartoon Nitnit (who differs from Nitnit the performer) and even the monster from the title page, a five-eyed, bandaged Unconscious who lies underneath the pink blankets that always appear on Doug’s and Nitnit’s beds. Doug seems to be the source from which all other characters and narratives emanate. But in his dreams (if that’s what the different parts of the story are), he appears as cartoon characters whose actions echo, predict or possibly even create those that happen to him. So who’s dreaming-hallucinating-imagining whom? Doug may be the protagonist, but the comic opens and closes with the unsettling adventures of the cartoony Nitnit, who, like Little Nemo, undertakes exotic and disturbing journeys without ever leaving his bed.

Just as Tintin has Snowy, his white dog, Doug and Nitnit have Inky, a jet black cat whose disappearance through a black hole sets the story in motion. Inky is also the cartoonist’s feline doppelganger — Burns’s inking is perhaps the most tightly controlled brushwork in contemporary comics. This effect is balanced by X’ed Out’s open and at times even quiet approach to visual storytelling. The comic’s pages often resemble lyric poetry more than narrative prose.

A grid of panels serves not as a container for the plot, but as a kind of memory box that holds still images, creating a haunting schematic of Doug’s fragile psyche: his cat’s face, an apartment intercom, a pipe spewing industrial filth, and blocks of color. Burns uses panels without images — frames filled only with color — as transitions between scenes and as shapes that echo Doug’s emotions and memories: the black of sleep, the blue of a cloudless sky, the pink of his blankets, the black of fear. In this way, much of the narrative is x’ed out, replaced with evocative colors. The opening page’s red and black panels form a large X, a warning to readers about what is — and isn’t — to come.

Like the teenage protagonists in Burns’s 2005 graphic novel Black Hole, Doug expresses a tragic longing for the ideal and a profound disgust with life’s imperfections. The comic is haunted by life interrupted and mocked — a formaldehyde-soaked pig fetus appears to nurse at a girl’s breast — and obsessed with life as food. Fertilized embryos infect scrambled eggs, rancid meat breeds worms that cry and scream when eaten. Doug and Nitnit wander through the comic with their mouths open, as if waiting for something wholesome to eat, desperate for something that will finally satisfy them. Given their desperation, a scene in which a delicately rendered Pop-Tart breaks into pieces becomes a touching moment of sorrow and loss. Burns reserves his most detailed and textured line work for a plate of bacon and eggs, turning America’s breakfast favorite into a grotesque object of contemplation. Yet Burns’s liquid cartooning style and near-electric coloring transforms it into something beautiful.

X’ed Out taps into the archive of gothic and grotesque imagery: black holes, skulls, secret chambers, blood, hidden altars lit by candles. But Burns is not out to “shock” the reader, the effect EC Comics claimed for their famous 1950s horror comics, which had a strong influence on the cartoonist. Instead, he continually disturbs us. The suspense that drives conventional horror stories — tension builds and is released with an act of violence — is diffused. There’s no Saw-style sadism here. X’ed Out’s mood and pacing are almost introspective, resembling a slowly developing skin disease, not a series of knife wounds. Unnerved, we watch as Doug-Nitnit, an Orphic adventurer, slowly descends into the hell of everyday life, floats on underground rivers of toxic waste, wanders though exotic worlds and suffers the hellish boredom of art gallery openings. Like Orpheus, he’s searching, though who or what he wants to bring back (his true love Sally? the wholesome thrill he had when reading Tintin?) is uncertain. Perhaps X’ed Out Vol. 2 will solve this mystery.

Burns, like Doug, has descended into the vault of Tintin’s adventures. He’s found something terrifying hidden in the warmly colored, “clear-line” style of these family-friendly stories. The egg on X’ed Out’s front cover, which reappears throughout the story, alludes to The Shooting Star, in which Tintin and Snowy explore a mysterious meteorite that has crashed into the Arctic Ocean. They discover what appears to be an egg (“Let’s scramble it,” a hungry Snowy barks), but before they can crack it open, it becomes a giant mushroom and explodes. On X’ed Out’s back cover, Burns’s egg, like his black holes, opens into something unnatural, giving birth to a grotesque yet beautiful flower (or is the oval, spiky-tipped bloom yet another Nitnit?) What’s dormant inside of Tintin —  the abject fear that Hergé rarely acknowledges — X’ed Out brings to life.

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8 Responses to “Ken Parille reviews X’ed Out Vol. 1 by Charles Burns”

  1. DerikB says:

    Excellent review, Ken. I wasn’t that interested in this book before, but now I am.

  2. kenparille says:

    Thanks, Derik. I have some review notes here:

    Also, the first two Burns and Tintin panels in the review are next to each other at the above link, making it easier to compare the two.

  3. Matthias Wivel says:

    Nice review Ken! This is a really compelling comic and an intelligent realization of some of the potentialities that make Tintin so great.

  4. kenparille says:


    Thanks — I think there’s a lot more to be said about X’ed Out and Tintin. And people should check out Burns’s comic Random Access in The Believer; many are directly relevant to X’ed Out.

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Thanks for this review, Ken. The book looks fascinating.

  6. Ng Suat Tong says:

    So any plans to expand this into a full length essay like your piece on David Boring? This has to be one of the most narratively complex comics I’ve read this year, so I agree with you when you write that there’s a lot more to be said about X’ed Out.

  7. kenparille says:

    I’ve thought about that — I read that the book will be finished with a second volume, and it might be good to wait until then to do something more comprehensive, though volume one is certainly interesting enough on its own to justify a longer essay.

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