Early word on Charles Burns’ latest book, X’ed Out, rumbled with possible discontent. ‘I like Charles Burns as much as the next person,’ the word typically went, ‘but with X’ed Out he has gone too far. Too far? I thought. Too far? What was too far? Charles Burns has gone too far? ‘Too hallucinogenic,’ they said. ‘Too abstract. Too weird. Too odd.’ Sign me up for a large helping of that. Having now read X’ed Out, I understand what the problem is that people have but it doesn’t have anything to do with the book itself (or not really). X’ed Out is the first installment of a larger work. You have to approach this as chapter one. It might help you if you read the first 50 pages of Black Hole again (I say again – if you haven’t read Black Hole yet, what is wrong with you? Get out of here and fix yo’self). Read the first 50 pages of Black Hole and then think about how those 50 pages related to the whole. Immediately you’ll realise that it’s difficult to judge a book (or a book by Charles Burns at any rate) on the basis of a taster. X’ed Out is a taster for something larger. If you know this up front, you can relax a little more in regards to the questions and weirdness and hallucinatory oddness of what’s in store.
So what do we have here? Well. We have a cover that shows a man with a plaster on his head stood looking worriedly at a brightly coloured egg in the midst of a terrible wasteland. You open up the book and (somewhat typically of Burns) you see an array of images presented in red and black duotone: pills, a Polaroid camera taking a picture of ‘ourself’, an air conditioner, a pig foetus in a jar, a hole in a brick wall, a cat, a topless lady (whose arms, we’ll later learn, are tied behind her back) staring over her shoulder at us, a cigarette, a cracker, maybe, the Virgin Mary, logs on a swollen river, spaghetti maybe, a fence maybe, clouds maybe, and a person with a quiff who may be the person from the cover, it’s hard to say, they look like they’re wearing a kind of hockey mask.
Turn the page again and you see 18 equally sized coloured rectangles, some of which are red and some of which are black, the reds forming a kind of cruciform arrangement. You might think that these things are decorative but, given that X’ed Out is the first installment etc etc, all of these things are clues. In point of fact, the entire book is a clue. Not knowing where we’re going and unable to see the bigger picture, clues is where we’re at. As regards the coloured rectangles, Burns uses coloured blocks throughout the episode that follows, to cover transitions. Given that they are slabs of colour we can presume (can’t we?) that Burns is using them like Rothko did, to suggest moods. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Turn the page again and you’ll see one of those frontis pages where you get the title and the author. This frontis page also has an illustration however: a startled Tin-Tin-esque version of the man from the cover looking in a window at a many-(open)-eyed legume in a bed beneath a picture of an onion-headed man. In the corner of the room, there is a spider plant with a couple of ugly looking roots. On the wall by the plant is a small circular frame in which we can glimpse one of the red vaginal snake symbols Burns has used before. Another point of interest: the legume in the bed has a plaster on its head, the exact same plaster that the Tin-Tin version of the cover star has (although the cover star, rendered more ‘realistically’ has a more ‘realistic’ bandage).
Turn the page and the book ‘begins’: the Tin-Tin figure we just saw peeping through a window is now in bed, is telling us how ‘this’ (what follows?) is ‘the only part I’ll remember’. He wakes in a room. The silhouette of a cat says ‘Bzzzzz’ from beside a hole in a brick wall. It turns out the cat – ‘Inky?’ – is Tin’Tin’s cat – or was before it was run over. He follows the cat through the hole. We see an odd shape, close, closer, what could be sore skin, book-ended by black rectangles. Through the hole there is the remains of an enclosed dump, a black river, logs, some creature floating by asking ‘Numm? Ummm?’ The cat leads him through another hole and into a room of brightly coloured eggs. A green lizard man (looking strangely like Richard Widmark in Panic in the City) grabs him by his lapels, threatens him and throws him out into what looks like a brighctly lit Turkish street. A man without a nose, speaking in a strange language, points at his mouth – Tin-Tin says, ‘Mouth? Eat?’ – and then indicates a pink fleshy rack of meat that appears to be riddled with worms, worms whose eyes are welling with tears. In the far distance, a cone-shaped building is spewing smoke into the sky. A talkative Oriental dwarf takes Tin-Tin in hand and leads him through the city. We spy an old, desperate (realistically drawn) man through a window. Tin-Tin doesn’t feel so good. Tin-Tin edges out of view. The sore we glimpsed earlier returns. We’re with the old man. He’s smoking, watching a flood – a dog, forepaws up on a log, drifting along a swollen river – reminiscing. The old man gives way to – another realistically drawn person, a version of Tin-Tin, similar hair, head bandage in the same place, waking in a bed. There are photographs all over the bedspread and one – of a topless woman holding a heart impaled with a flick-knife – draws his attention. He gets up, he’s shaky, afraid, struggling to establish a new set of habits, finds some pop tarts but – ‘Bzzzzzz’ – the doorbell disturbs him. He takes a few pills, goes back to bed, looks through a photo album – and falls into a memory of himself, with hair, at an art gallery. Straying into an abandoned area of the building – moving over floor slats as his Tin-Tin equivalent did pages before – he stumbles across a sort of shrine with a pig foetus that either reminds himself of the Tin-Tin dream (in which Tin-Tin found a baby lizard man in a yolk) or finds an echo in the Tin-Tin reality. Our guy – Doug – is a sort of performance poet. He dumps his girlfriend and takes up with a young girl called Sarah from his photo class, the girl responsible for the pig foetus shrine.
Much of the rest of X’ed Out concentrates on the relationship between Doug and Sarah (occasionally returning us to the bandaged Doug in the bed trying to wean himself off his pills). Sarah is a bit of a self-harmer and a photograph of a wrist cut harks back to that vaginal picture we saw on the wall way back on the frontis piece. The old guy that Tin-Tin Doug spied through a window turns out to be Doug’s dad. Bandaged Doug dreams of underground rivers and sewage spewing out of pipes and what may be dead lizard babies. It could be that the dead lizard babies push Doug into deeper dreams, dreams in which he is Tin-Tin Doug, disgusted at the tiny embryo he finds in his scrambled eggs, eating at some streetside diner. And so it goes: Doug and Sarah, bandaged Doug, Tin-Tin Doug, Doug’s dad. The threatening lizard men return. A new Queen – possibly the Tin-Tin version of Sarah – passes on a palanquin on her way to the Hive, the cone-shaped building we saw at the beginning of the book. Next, the last page tells us: THE HIVE.
What to make of it all? Well, of course, it’s all but impossible to make a clear call beyond the fact that there is more than enough here to keep me entertained, to keep me poring over the pages until the next issue surfaces. It’s great to see full colour Burns, it’s great to catch echoes and connections in this book, knowing or hoping that there will be things here that I don’t see yet but will catch when I read this book alongside successive books. The spider plant we saw, with the odd roots? Those roots are firmly wound up in my brain. I can’t wait for what comes next…
Any Cop?: Absolutely the best way to view X’ed Out is as an admittedly high quality comic, the first in an ongoing series of indeterminate length. If you’re prepared to have your interested piqued and you’re a fan of Burns this is about as essential as a book gets.