His vision is creepy, compelling

Posted: October 19, 2010

By Charles Burns

Pantheon, $19.95 56 pp.


Reviewed by Dan DeLuca

At the start of X'ed Out, Doug is lying in bed with a bandaged head and a three-shark-fin Mohawk in homage to Tintin, the creation of Belgian cartoonist Hergé.

Already, things don't look so good for our troubled hero, but it turns out his bad trip is only beginning. Inky, the green-eyed black cat Doug thought was dead, is standing by a hole in the brick bedroom wall, summoning his master to climb on through and confront the postapocalyptic goings-on, involving one-eyed short-order cooks and particularly unappetizing eggs, in his fevered subconscious.

Welcome to the gorgeously ghoulish world of Charles Burns. X'ed Out is the hallucinatory first volume of the Philadelphia illustrator and comic storyteller's new multi-part graphic novel. Published in vivid color as a 12-inch-by 9-inch comic hardback, it's Burns' first major narrative work since his 2005 magnum opus Black Hole, which was 10 years in the making.

Burns, who will appear tonight with art director and comics connoisseur Chip Kidd at the Free Library, is widely known for commercial illustrations featured in Altoids ads, as well as Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and every cover of the literary magazine the Believer.

To alt-comics fans, however, Burns is as revered for his otherworldly yet lifelike drawings, rendered with what graphic novelist Chris Ware calls "almost metaphysical intensity," as for a disturbing artistic vision that's both creepy and compelling.

The 55-year-old Burns' beginnings go back to Big Baby, his horror-movie-obsessed schoolboy character who turned up regularly in Raw, the groundbreaking 1980s comic journal edited by Maus creator Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. Burns' narrative skills came to fruition with Black Hole, the metaphorically rich tale of a plague afflicting teens in Seattle in the 1970s. The book, featuring black-and-white woodcut-like drawings, was first serialized by Fantagraphics, then published by Pantheon.

X'd Out is instantly recognizable as being of a piece with Burns' previous work. It introduces us to foul-mouthed green tough guys who grab Doug by the bathrobe lapels in his is-it-a-dream? nightmares and propel him out the door with a kick in the pants. And it finds our would-be-artist protagonist - whose career in his waking life as a William Burroughs-influenced slam poet gets off to a rough start at a punk-rock warehouse party - drawn to a soulful femme fatale who has a psycho boyfriend and a disturbing artistic vision of her own.

Burns, a longtime resident of Northern Liberties, also contributed to the 2007 French animated film Fear(s) of the Dark. With X'ed Out, he uses memory-triggering visual cues - a burning cigarette, a Pop Tart broken in pieces in the floor, a log drifting down the river - to advance his story with impressionistic imagery that reveals layers of psychological depth, particularly with multiple readings.

Black Hole was serialized as 12 traditionally sized black-and-white comic books, albeit with beautiful glossy color covers. X'ed Out's large-format presentation not only signals Burns' rising stature in the alt-comic pantheon (pun intended), it also gives his new endeavor instant added pop. Piles of oversized Easter eggs look all the more malevolent in vivid red and white. And so do the yellow worms that a cloaked figure without a nose offers Doug as a tasty treat.

As the initial installment of Burns' twisted tale, X'ed Out works more as a tantalizing tease than a full-blown narrative. How did Doug wind up with that bandage on his head? What evil doings are taking place within "The Hive," the title of the next chapter of this saga? X'ed Out doesn't offer any answers, but while inducing a queasy feeling, it will leave you hungry for more.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca

at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix/

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