Out There With Charles Burns's X'ed Out

What is Charles Burns latest, first fully-colored graphic novel, X'ed Out about exactly? Honestly, I don't entirely know. But that's the point.

I think.

X'ed Out is a book full of so many ideas that it might not be possible wrangle all the disparate thoughts that cropped up in my head as I read the tale and manage them into a concise review. X'ed Out is about a drug addicted and mentally unstable man named Doug who travels into an alternate reality made up of symbols that represent the many important moments and mistakes in his life.

And Tintin. It's also about Tintin.

For me, X'ed Out might be an examination of the artistic process. It is about the idea of ideas. The birth of inspiration. The moments in our lives that are digested and transformed into something different, something abstract, something that we don't fully understand. Every panel, every page is loaded with images that can only be interpreted as clues. But are they clues? Are they pieces in a puzzle? Will they connect? At this point, it's impossible to say as X'ed Out is only the first in a trilogy of tales. The next installment, The Hive is coming at some point in 2011.

The story is fractured into multiple timelines, spanning through many years in Doug's life. We see his experiments with art, we see glimpses of a relationship that turns sour, we see the death of his father, we see some type of natural disaster, we see much of Doug's life, but only as Doug has interpreted it.

In Burns world, I believe the artist--both Doug and Burns himself--is examining the cyclical nature of the creative process. Experience informs the creation of art, which aides or hinders the understanding of existence, which just leads to more art and so on and so forth, forever and ever. Layer upon layer of understanding/misunderstanding pile and melt into a molten mass of meaning that is Doug's dream-world.

The dream world in X'ed Out is very similar to the Interzone in William S. Burroughs legendary, experimental novel, Naked Lunch. Burroughs proves to be a serious influence in Doug's life as he attempts to perform his own cut-up poems--a literary technique popularized by Burroughs in which he literally cut up pages of his writing and randomly reassembled them--in front of some friends at a party, which does not go well for our hero. Doug is locked in a cycle of self-analysis. He is a cut-up. His life has played out, but we're seeing it chopped and rearranged, and seeing it as something new, something strange, something that should be difficult to understand, but something that seems startlingly clear.

As Doug wanders his dream world, he takes on the facial features of a Tintin-esque comic book character named Nit Nit. Nit Nit was influential to Doug in way that is not entirely revealed yet, but the relationship between Nit Nit and Tintin are far some subtle. Is Burns drawing a relation between jovial boyhood adventure and a decent into, hazy, drug-induced madness? I'm going with yes, and I love that. On the beautiful cover we see Doug, as Nit Nit standing by an egg that is shockingly similar to a mushroom on the cover of the Tintin story, The Shooting Star. Burns is clearly telling us something here.

A book like X'ed Out is so abstract and dense that it can almost seem random. It can seem like weirdness for weirdness's sake. But that is far from the truth. Burns chocked this sucker so full of seed-like ideas and concepts that when planted can only grow into rich analysis of not only the story but Burns' intentions, the concept of creation, the origin of art, and the complexity of life.

X'ed Out is quite possibly the beginning of Burns' finest work. Time will only tell if that does turn out to be case, but I'm eager to travel deeper into this world. I want to get lost with Doug. I want to be challenged further. I want to piece it all together. I want to theorize, analyze and confuse myself. This is a confusing story about confusion. But being confused is essential to understanding it because in X'ed Out, confusion is understanding. And you need to understand that.

I think.

But I'm confused.

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