In 2005, Charles Burns’ serial graphic novel, Black Hole (Pantheon), combined 10 years of comic frames and 12 separate volumes (the first four by Kitchen Sink, the remaining eight by Fantagraphics) into one hard cover. Black Hole would prove to be arguably the first literary crossover of the graphic novel-not a memoir or a superhero, but a bona fide work of multi-media fiction.
Black Hole was typical of the work of Burns, a longtime illustrator for The Believer, for its evidently deep care, stark black-and-white lines, and spartan narrative and composition. In 2005, John Hodgman of the New York Times described the project—now a screenplay by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, with David Fincher attached to direct—with unqualified awe:
“Burns’s intricate, controlled and pulpy penwork (he is an alum of RAW Magazine) is one of the most recognizable styles in comics, and Black Hole is his masterwork: an uncanny imitation of traditional comics at their most mannered and melodramatic, invigorated by the shock of the deeply human and the deeply weird.”
Five years later, in Burn’s latest effort, X’ed Out, Pantheon takes up its own serial. The ambience of the first volume of X’ed Out, a graphic novel to be released in a number of volumes currently undisclosed or unknown, is the Burns we have come to expect: sentimental and pulpy, but clean and articulate.
But there are differences: full color, for starters. “I started the story in black and white,” says Burns, who experimented with several narrative formats before settling into the current iteration of X’ed Out. “My initial reason for using color was to emulate the feeling of the Tintin books I grew up with. What I wanted to do was tell a story where the element of color is an integral part of the overall storytelling.”
Burns’ palette—simultaneously in keeping with a 1950s horror comic book, Baroque drapery, and the 1970s setting of X’ed Out-recalls the Burns’ aesthetic, a tension between the superficial appeal of culture and the monstrosity that it engenders. “I wanted to contrast the antiseptic, ‘70s era American furnishings with the exotic decay of the ‘outside world.,” says Burns. “I have a Sears catalogue from that time period to make sure I got the colors and designs right. What were the most popular colors of that era? ‘avocado’ and ‘rust.'”
Like a pulp comic, a Baroque painting, or a mail-order catalogue, X’ed Out is consciously moody; as with his composition, Burns won’t let readers forget that the color is a process, that the lives of his characters are as considered as his renderings of them.
Divined through a present-day cinematic lens, one that’s internalized Joseph Campbell’s postmodern narrative study, Hero’s Journey, the story rolls out in familiar tropes, like the animal guide, the crossing of the first threshold, friends and enemies, etc. But Burns’ hyper-awareness of conventionality is yet another characterization—Doug, our protagonist, a present-day Tin Tin in a present day elaboration of a Tin Tin adventure, is a punk-era reader of the comic “Nit Nit.” He is bits and pieces, and his tragedy is not that he is void, but not quite void. In a William Burroughs style prose-poem, a “cut-up,” Doug provides a key to his psychology, and the underlying psychology of the narrative:
THIS IS THE ONLY PART
WHERE I WAKE.
A DISTANT FLICKER
ABOUT THE FLOOD
JUST A GHOST IN
A VAST MUTTERING
COLORS BLOOMING …
THIN PINK BLANKET
OLD PHOTOS FADING IN
FLOATING DOWN THE
ROTTEN DAWN WIND
FEELING EGG FLESH
CRUEL IDIOT SMILES
GREEN BOYS WITH
DO I WANT TO LOOK …