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Book review: Charles Burns' X'ed Out

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Charles Burns is so highly respected among graphic novelists, he's practically an icon of the genre. He got there by creating fascinating, cryptic, and seriously creepy stories in comics form that mine the human subconscious as powerfully as any "regular" writer of fiction today. He works slowly (it took Burns a decade to finish what many think is his masterpiece, Black Hole), but when you're creating such a distinctive, and deep, body of work, you're allowed to take all the time you want.

X'ed Out continues Burns' vision of a world in which everyday certainties are subverted by the feeling (and often, the direct knowledge) of something terrible lying in wait just beneath the surface of normal, banal suburban life. This new work is the first of a planned three-part epic. It starts with Doug, a student with a bandaged head injury (and who looks a lot, at this point, like comics icon Tintin) waking up and remembering a dream (maybe) in which he follows his cat Inky (as opposed to Tintin's dog Snowy) into a devastated, cavelike space where old statues resembling Doug's head lie around, and frog-faced men threaten him. Medication Doug is taking to keep away the bad dreams isn't working properly, and the story moves back and forth from waking life to dream life, until it's not clear which is which. Not that Doug's waking life is a joy, either: zoned out father, unfeeling friends, a new girlfriend (maybe, again) whose former, unseen boyfriend is ultra-violent.

Burns' artwork here, as in Black Hole and a previous dark tale, Big Baby, is precise and hyper-defined, with hard lines marking objects' and characters' edges, showing the obvious influence of Herge, the artist who created the Tintin series in the 1930s-'60s. Other Tintin references abound in X'ed Out, in fact, along with nods to William S. Burroughs and horror comics from the '50s. Why so many references, I don't know, but perhaps we'll find out in the next two volumes of the story.

Burns' works, and his clear, hard-lined artwork are, to put it mildly, disquieting, particularly when he introduces sci-fi elements (like, oh, say, grubworm-like beings with sad, humanoid faces showing up in dreams — it's OK, though, they're edible). But Burns is also very often funny, with goofy references, both literary and visual, popping up regularly. This is an oversimplification, but it works: Think Blue Velvet with references to cheap '50s sci-fi and film noir, and you'll have some idea of the mood Burns sets.

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