X’ed Out by Charles Burns

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X’ed Out
By Charles Burns

charlesburnsxedoutcoverEleven years. It’s difficult—if not impossible—for most of us to imagine working on a project for that length of time. But then, most of us aren’t great artists, I suppose. Of course, it’s not as though Charles Burns wasn’t keeping busy during that period, doing illustration work for various publications, submitting work to anthologies, and generally living his life. Still, it’s hard to image dedicating a decade of one’s life to a single, self-contained project as Burns did with Black Hole.

Try a brief imagination exercise—picture yourself as you were, ten years ago. Now take a quick look in the mirror. Could the second person have finished a story the first one set out to tell?

Such devotion paid of, of course. Black Hole is largely regarded as one of the great graphic works of its era, and may well go down in history as Burns’s masterwork. When set designers in 20 years are assembling bookshelves for cool artsy film characters, Black Hole will no doubt continue to be a go-to book.

A half-dozen years after the serializing of that series ended, Burns hasn’t done much to speed up the creation process—understandable, perhaps, given the fact that the success of the book has designated him one of the most in-demand illustrators around.

Given his belabored pace, it should come as no surprise that X’ed Out is an incomplete work, merely the first step into a much larger work, a fact that is simultaneously intriguing and frustrating—at a mere 56 pages, this first installment feels like a big tease.

That frustration, of course, is rooted in Burns’s successes—it’s precisely because the work is so masterfully executed that its brevity is such a blow. The cartoonist spends the book sprinkling in panel after panel of intrigue, only the pull the rug out from under the reader far too early into the process.

And it’s hard not to suspect that such dissappointment was not a conscious decision on his part—after all, Burns is nothing if not deliberate. Those who read Black Hole know exactly what to expect from the graphic construction of X’ed Out—beauty through meticulousness. There’s not a single line in the book’s 56 pages that feels out of place or otherwise misdirected. You can almost smell the brow sweat mingling with Burns’s inks.

Those Black Hole fanatics concerned that color might somehow mute his nightmarish visuals, meanwhile, need not worry. The book’s flat colors only serve to further Burns’s graphic storytelling, highlighting the contrast between bright outdoor landscapes and internal character struggles drenched in the artist’s customary blackness.

It’s all stylish as hell, flitting between a world of punk rock horror art and one—like the colors and cover homage—clearly indebted to Herge’s Tin Tin, a motif that surfaces at nearly every turn.

The storytelling, meanwhile, is every bit as deliberate as the art work to which is married. It’s clear there’s nothing in the book’s Cronenbergian landscape that won’t reveal its to house some vitally important piece of information somewhere down the road, as the story flips between flashbacks and dreams and journeys into a parallel word.

In much the same way that Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron was Clowes’s take on the work of David Lynch, X’ed Out feels like Burns’s 80s punk rock reimagining of the Naked Lunch film—and let’s face it, it’s hard to imagine that combination of words sounding more exciting in any other hands.

It’s an enticing prospect indeed, it’s just too bad that’s it’s a promise we won’t see fully delivered for some time. In the meantime, however, if there’s one thing the book’s brevity affords, it’s the opportunity—in fact the near necessity—to revisit the book several times. Fortunately, Burns has offered us plenty to ponder in this volume, even if he hasn’t presented all the tools to begin properly unpacking.

–Brian Heater

One Comment to “X’ed Out by Charles Burns”

  1. X'ed In | October 8th, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Why is everybody assuming that this is the first intalment of many and complaining about the “brevity”?

    This is the first half of the entire thing!


    Shock: Have you started on your next comic project? You spent a lot of time doing “Black Hole” so are you going to do another project that takes that much time or go back to doing shorter stories?
    Burns: The piece I’m working on right now is almost done. It’s a much shorter piece. I’m going to be doing a color piece, and it’s kind of in not in the style, but in the format of the French “Tintin” books, the Belgian “Tintin” books, so it’s kind of a hardbound book.

    Shock: Have you started writing it?
    Burns: Yes I have, and as far as I know right now, there’s going to be two books, two parts of the story that will come out in two volumes, and I’m just about done with the first.


    Is this going to be another long piece of work?
    No. I don’t have anything as long as Black Hole left in me. I think. No, it doesn’t feel like that. It’ll probably be at most 100 pages or so.