Friday, November 05, 2010

Charles Burns -- X'ed Out

An alternating pattern of panels at the front of Charles Burns' latest work in comic art, X'ed Out, presents (almost theatrically) the story to come in the truest and simplest form of comic language. The six by three arrangement of vertical panels (solid black, black, red, red, etc.) sets the precedent for the panel structure of every page to follow. The visual tension of the two colors set on the white background reflects the sometimes sharp and painful moments found within as well as the jumps in the story from the dream world to the real world, and from memory to memory. And look: don't the black panels together form an "X"? The red panels a crude "O"?

X'ed Out is the first book in what will ultimately be a three volume series. The format of the book is based on a European comic album (Tim Hensley's Wally Gropius, released earlier this year, is presented similarly) and is printed in beautiful full color (Burns' work is normally presented in a strikingly graphic black and white). On one side of this checkerboard of a story is Doug, an art school student in 1970's America who reads his William Burroughs inspired poetry at punk shows and snaps photos with his Polaroid SX-70 instant camera; on the other side is Doug's dream-world alter-ego Nitnit, a character homage to one of modern comics more important ancestors, Hergé's Tintin. For the story, Burns' drew on his own subconscious influences and conscious memories, collected over the span of his lifetime and arranged à la Burroughs' cut-up into the final product.

Tintin, though, is perhaps the most important influence found in the pages of X'ed Out. Burns' has been creating loving tributes to the adventurous boy reporter and his band of misfit friends for some time now -- the back cover of his 1992 collection Blood Club and the endpapers of 1999's El Borbah are both direct references to images from the original Tintin albums, in both cases a cast of Burns' own characters replacing Hergé's.

A quote from "Dr. Jerry" (Burns himself) on the back of Blood Club reads:
Pictures within pictures for children who aren't quite sure what they're looking at.
Burns was introduced to the Tintin series when he was a young child, even before he could read the text in the speech bubbles. His family owned just a few of the volumes, so the drawings he saw on the back cover and endpapers would fill him with intrigue, offering only the most frustratingly small clues to the adventures awaiting him in the other books, unknown characters and places. Later on in his youth, a friend showed him a French language version of The Shooting Star (the Tintin book from which X'ed Out borrows its cover imagery), and once again blocked by a language barrier, Burns was unable to read the whole story.

X'ed Out, like Burns' early experience with Tintin, is a tale of fragmented and missing pieces. Burns (no surprise here) employs the comic book medium with mastery, pushing the unique visual strengths of the medium to their maximum potential. The book becomes a flip-through puzzle, a dreamy labyrinth of colors and snapshot memories. Solid color panels (like the black and red panels mentioned at the start) litter the book, serving as bumps between moments in time and space and creating a tense psychological atmosphere by teasing out connections that may or may not have any significance (notice, for example, the color of the green panel below compared to the color of Sarah's shirt).

Repeating images do the same -- the endpapers offer up a few of the more frequently used, like a running river, Mary with the Christ-child, and fetal pig in a jar, to name a few. These repetitions don't answer any questions but instead build up the importance of certain moments in the story and tie them together emotionally -- for example, Nitnit is awoken on the first page by a BZZZZZ which readers can link to the BZZZZZZ! of Sarah's intercom, or even to the ZZZZZ of Doug's tape player during his performance. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the eggs, oh those eggs! "You like eggs, right?"

As if this all weren't enough, hardcore fans of Burns or X'ed Out will be pleased to know that much more of the story of Doug and Nitnit exists outside of this volume (or even the following two). Monthly magazine The Believer has already published a few of what Burns has called "sketchbook" comic strips under the title Random Access, small snippets of inspiration which may or may not have anything to do with the final story (though one strip does feature a lot of eggs). Inspired by Chinese bootleg versions of Tintin books, Burns has also been working on a series of "foreign cover" prints of Nitnit comic album covers, and will soon be publishing in France his own limited edition "knockoff" of X'ed Out. His "pirated" version will tell a completely different narrative by rearranging the panels of the original comic. It will be printed in just one color, and will be written in a made-up language of Burns' design (recall the noseless man who tries to sell Nitnit that terrified grub-creature, or the text in the ads and posters in Nitnit's world). X'ed Out alone is a terrific comic that fans can really dig deep into, but by telling such a story through so many different channels, Burns has elevated not just his own art, but comic art in general.