The title of Charles Burns's new graphic novel, X'ed Out, refers to the days marked off a calendar tracking its protagonist's opiate reduction therapy, as he sits sweating in bed, flickering between pained remembrance and warped fever dream. Doug, a 70s art student navigating a burgeoning punk scene while in creative thrall to William S. Burroughs and photographer Lucas Samara, is the sort of non-mainstream character grubby black-and-white alt-comics were created to depict. Which is why the decision to present the material as a full-color, large-scale Franco-Belgian "comics digest," the breezy format popularized by series like Goscinny and Uderzo's Asterix and Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin, seems so singular. The Tintin allusion, specifically, is drummed home first with the cover's overt homage to 1941's The Shooting Star and then dozens of times within, as a parallel narrative follows the adventures of suspiciously Doug-ish cartoon character "Nitnit" and his wayward black cat, Inky.
The story veers back and forth between the fantastical and the merely weird, the wall between the two halves already significantly cracked. Doug, head part-shaved and bandaged from some trauma the reader has yet to glimpse, gropes for his pills and remembers the girl who presumably got him into this mess, a transgressive photographer named Sarah. Nitnit, with a bathrobe, slippers and cartoon "X" bandage echoing Doug's, wanders a surreal Middle Eastern landscape in an amnesiac state, harangued by pushy lizard men in New Wave ties, led around by a squat little diapered gnome (who might be a stand-in for real-world Doug's father), and offered nauseating street food. Despite numerous visual clues suggestive of duality, the narrative parallel between the two stories is, as of yet, unclear. Recurring images of a fetal pig, oversized eggs and monster embryos foreshadow a possibly impending abortion/miscarriage storyline–as does a creepy cliffhanger. Where the Euro digests were self-contained, Burns eschews that convention by making X'ed Out a beginning only, introducing characters and throwing alternate worlds into motion before ending with a sudden halt (the story will continue in two forthcoming books).
Burns' comics have been characterized by blackness, establishing an oppressive noir vibe by filling frames with more ink than empty space. This dim shading has leant weight to his narratives' outlandish science fiction elements. Using a vivid color palette for the first time, Burns focuses on an intersection of the plainly beautiful and the deeply grotesque. The real-world plot, still heavily framed by darkness, uses color to ick up its everyday–a jaundiced skin tone suggests serious illness, a trickle of blood pops dark red. Nitnit's adventures are bright, flat and 2D cartoonish, their old-fashioned style mixing with the queasy revolt of sights like a noseless Bedouin chomping down on a screaming, man-faced mealworm. As nothing much transpires in this initial volume, the visual splendor of the pages is X'ed Out's chief pleasure. Burns' disquieting images burrow into the mind even without narrative momentum. There's little doubt that all of it is moving towards something, though, something that will almost certainly be deeply horrific.