Granted, this book is very nearly two years old, but I’m reviewing it now because a) I was concentrating solely on film reviews here at the time this came out, and b) the second part of the as-far-as-I-know untitled “magnum opus” by cartoonist extraordinaire Charles Burns this book marked the start of, The Hive, is coming out in a couple of months here, so it’s apropos, in my own humble view, to re-examine this introductory chapter as we whet our appetites for the the next one.
For those of you who may be largely unfamiliar with Burns’ work, suffice to say it’s really in a class by itself. His career spans all the way back to the early days of Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s legendary Raw, and while certain themes — adolescence and its attendant mysteries (both physical and mental), altered states of consciousness (often drug-induced), inexplicable and frequently grotesque biological phenomena, and a childlike sense of wonder at even (sometimes especially) the ugly side of life — run throughout his oeuvre, it’s probably fair to say that he’s grown both more obsessive about both exploring this stuff and detailing it meticulously via his superb illustrations as time has gone on. He’s been at it for a few decades now, and it still feels as though he’s just getting started.
Put it this way — if you could put Herge, William Burroughs, David Lynch and David Cronenberg into a blender, you might come up with something that approximates Burns’ singular worldview. Oh, and you’d have to throw some seriously potent acid into the mix, as well.
After finishing what many —myself included— considered to be his masterpiece , the sublimely alienated and warped Black Hole, it was an open question as to how he was going to “top himself,” so to speak, and his new series, presented Tintin-style in 56-page oversized hardbound volumes published by Pantheon Books, answers the question for us — he’s heading, as ever, into unexpected, even previously unimagined territory, all the while wearing his influences on his sleeve but striking out on a decidedly independent path (even though the cover itself is an open homage to the classic Tintin adventure The Shooting Star, and the interior artwork bears a closer resemblance to Herge’s style than ever before).
The story in X’ed Out at least seems to revolve around a loser-ish late-teen character named Doug, who wakes up in a strange bedroom with no idea where he is or how he got there, and a hole in the wall of the room ends up leading him into an Interzone-type world-within-a-world that seems, for some reason, to revolve around the trade of giant spotted eggs. We’re given a series of flashbacks to Doug’s “normal” life as the tale unfolds, but to say we have any idea as this point where things are headed, either in terms of what happened in the past or what’s happening in the present would be premature. So far it’s one pleasingly absurd enigma after the next, and while I admit this may make tough going for a newcomer to Burns’ work — do yourself a favor and go with Big Baby or Black Hole first — for those of us who have learned to trust him implicitly over the years, it represents a very strong start to what’s certain (we hope) to be another groundbreaking, classification-eschewing lengthy work, and all presented in glorious, hand-done color, no less!
On the economic front, I’ll admit that twenty bucks (assuming you pay full price, which I don’t know if anyone does these days) for 56 pages is pretty steep, but this is one of those books where the first thing you’re gonna do when you’ve finished it is read it again, and you’ll find yourself flipping it open pretty often in the days, weeks, months, and yes, at this point even years, subsequently, and that each successive reread will reveal not just new details, but new ways to look at the whole thing (or what we have of it so far at any rate) . Right now I don’t know exactly what it is we’ve even got here, much less where’s it’s headed, but I do know that I like it. A lot.