Bending the Light: The Otherworldly Masterwork of X’ed Out [Review]
I read X’ed Out by Charles Burns at a laundromat in a torn down section of Los Angeles. Have you ever been in one of these places? Mildew in the corners of the particleboard ceiling, broken greenish lightbulbs that pop and fizz and sputter out with the sweltering condensation of the dryers, identical velvet-canvas portraits of the same hideous clown-painted gangbanger at the end of every aisle. And everywhere the hiss and boom and clang of the towering World War II-era laundry machines, so huge and deafening that it hits you like wind when you come in the door. Dim lighting, so dim you have to squint onto the pages. You feel you might at some point have become invisible.
No, I’m not talking about the work yet, but then again I really am because X’ed Out is a printed comic book. Not a piece of text, where the words are only keys and all the images and ideas happen in your head, and not something you can read on a computer, which glows from within and looks the same no matter the hour of the day. There’s something that happens with printed comics, visual art on the page, before the pictures even hit your eyes. They are bent to their surroundings, your surroundings. Like all visual art, they are at the mercy of the light in the room. Its color, its brightness. Every print comics page you’ve ever seen was coated, sunken, covered over in light, and it was a different light every time. Every panel. Every second.When people talk about comics seriously they often bring up “context”. I’ll probably do that very thing in this article. But there is a context more real and immediate and powerful than the artist’s biography or the publisher’s history. Where are you when you read the comic? How does that make you see it? In a lot of ways it’s more important than the lettering fonts or the paper texture, more important than any one thing you could name. I read this comic at a laundromat in a torn down section of Los Angeles, and though I knew then and know now that the panel borders were black and they led onto white between-panel gutters, there and then it was black onto the same sickly pale green that glowed from the fungal lightbulbs in that place. And it made me feel something.
Why am I choosing to talk about these things in an article about this particular print comic? Because if every artist is forever at war with the million random circumstances readers will open their books onto, few realize it. And no artist ever wins. Comics started as pure escapism, and in large part they are still – certainly X’ed Out has its escapist moments – but I’ve never heard of a comic so successful that even one of its readers was swallowed whole by it, ceasing to exist in the world they read it to be taken from. Small victories are the name of the game for the comics artist; a sequence that brings a smile to the lips or a tingle to the spine, a scene that makes the reader forget everything but what’s going on in the pictures, a drawing that can bear up under solid minutes of intense scrutiny.
This is the only comic I’ve ever seen that stabs back at the light that encases it, that radiated something off the page and into my eyesight, that actually made my eyes do something they wouldn’t have otherwise. The image above is the first page of X’ed Out, and as I looked into it my vision blurred uncontrollably, I stopped being able to focus, and gray-black dots appeared in the intersection of its white gutterlines. Comics are about seeing at least as much as they’re about reading, and with the opening salvo of this book, Charles Burns floats off the page and makes you see something that isn’t there.
Seeing things that aren’t there is, appropriately, a major focus of X’ed Out. Almost half the book is taken up by dream scenes – and what are dreams if not just that, seeing things? What’s astonishing is just how boldly Burns steps into the place between conscious and subconscious (the place, perhaps, where art is made) and sets his story there. The book opens with a richly imagined, perfectly logic-light sequence full of fetal monsters and rotting faces and kindly near-naked dwarves, and it’s more than a quarter of the way over before we realize that it’s only a dream, that the baffling netherworld and broadly cartooned faces aren’t the whole comic.
It sets the story’s queasy, evasive tone beautifully, but it also allows the artist to address the baggage that he was inevitably going to bring to any new book he drew. Burns is coming off a masterpiece, the decade-in-the-making tome Black Hole, and whatever X’ed Out may be, its fate is to be judged against that book, one of the most accomplished comics of the past twenty years. The dream sequences, with their bright, stained-glass colors, their absurdist progression and the Herge-influence apparent in their cartooning (right down to the shapes of the word balloons) are a buffer between that book and this one, an opening siren that indicates X’ed Out is going to be a whole different kind of ride.
Of course, we get the artist we know and love eventually. In a lot of ways, the “real” story of X’ed Out resembles Black Hole: a few somewhat neurotic but generally likable ’70s teens are menaced by invisible terrors and form bonds that hold until childhood ends and it’s simply too late. At least it seems so from this book. What X’ed Out‘s terror is we don’t know yet, because that one sentence of oversimplified synopsis is where the similarities between the two books end. We knew from the beginning what Black Hole’s ultimate antagonist was (a sexually transmitted plague, just read the book if you don’t know and thank me later); here we get a few vague, creepy sentences of narration, a few flash-forward scenes of a brutally damaged protagonist who spends his days highly medicated in the basement and goes into anxiety attacks at the sound of the doorbell, and that’s all.
Which brings me to another difference between the two books, a more important one: format. Black Hole was serialized as a 12 issues of a black and white pamphlet series before being collected in a fat prose-novel sized omnibus that’s probably been much more widely read; X’ed Out crosses the Atlantic for its template, with the look of a European comics album. At a breezy 56 oversized color pages, it’s dressed up in art book drag while the Black Hole collection could have been mistaken for a fiction bestseller.
The album format is an integral part of the comic, both in terms of length and size. Burns wrenches as much story as humanly possible out of his little cluster of pages, and it’s only after you’ve finished that you realize you still don’t know any more about what’s going on than you did in that opening dream sequence. The space between the two most common modes of American comics (22 pages or 128, door number one or door number two and we don’t offer much of a three, sorry pal) is perfect for what Burns does here, allowing him to ground you deep in the world he’s creating but let you go just before the explanations start. As a reading experience there isn’t too much else that’s designed like it in American comics. This is a rich, fully immersive book that goes well beyond the quick-hit disposability of even the best pamphlets. But like I said, I read the thing cover to cover in the time it took me to do a load of laundry.
It mimics the feeling of dream itself, clusters of evocative imagery and elliptical dialogue sequences flowing in and out of one another, building up their own rhythms and call-and-response patterns, and then just as you’re enmeshed – it ends. The stop-and-start pattern that serialization necessitates is used as an actual narrative device in X’ed Out, with the book’s final note – the final thing it does – hitting the strangled, pleading sharp yell of cliffhanger. There’s absolutely no wrap-up here, no mini-arcs or subplots concluded, only an end placed deftly in the exact spot that it’ll cause the most upset. You want more when that final page slams down, a lot more, and that feverish, nervous feeling is exactly the way you should feel when you’re done. It’s a feverish, nervous comic, and it gets you going.
That’s not to say, however, that X’ed Out is all plot and no payoff. The narrative enjoyment to be had here, the meat of the story, is just much subtler and more unique than what we’re used to seeing in an art that, let’s face it, places way more emphasis on linear plotting than most other story media. To state what might be too simplistic a fact, Burns knows he’s making comics, and the pictures are what pull us forward through his pages, with the words merely shaping the forms, clarifying here and making a point there. Where it really comes through is watching the images interact with one another as they accumulate, the way a panel toward the end calls back to a similar one at the beginning, or recognizing dream characters as versions of people from the waking narrative, or finding the sources for the dream story’s massive, desert-mirage surrealist set pieces in the everyday mundanities of the real life segments.
A plate of scrambled eggs becomes the jumping-off point for a sinister factory-farming operation run by a cluster of truly terrifying reptile men just as easily as a pathetic quasi-humanoid floating down a river of sludge finds its origin in an episode of Lassie on TV.
This all might sound like pat, cute, mirror-mirror self-referencing right out of the Mooreison playbook, but it’s much harder, much stranger, much more real than that. X’ed Out isn’t a checklist of familiar things that get shoehorned into dreams any more than it’s an adaptation of the Tintin albums that it gets the lion’s share of its visual tropes from. Even the most basic reality-dream transferences get muddied up when we see two interpretations of the same event float by, or when the panel sequencing makes us wonder whether the dreams or the waking experiences came first. What’s causing what? And then, again, we slam up against that final page and there are no answers whatsoever, only the vast mire of the human mind in all its complexity and contradiction.
Not the typical comic’s playground, and with good reason: while it’s deeply thought-provoking and simply has more going on in it than just about any other comic released this year, X’ed Out is a mess of a book, a sticky black sprawl that dares its readers to draw premature conclusions, then laughs in our faces when we can’t even do that. It turns even the most analytic attempts at reading its plot into experiences with passive reception – there’s just no other way to do this book than to surrender and let the images whir by you, almost like watching a movie. X’ed Out‘s ultimate vindication is also its greatest pleasure: the art.
Like all Burns, every frame is beautifully drawn, every textured, liquid line astonishing in the surety of its thickness and placement. The layouts tread a similar tightrope between exactitude and expression, rigidly adhering to a three-tiered grid structure but stretching out in the space between claustrophobic panel subdivisions and panoramic, widescreen frames. It’s like watching water flow around inside a tank, infinitely malleable and capable of assuming any shape, but held in by perfectly neat, squared-off corners. The subtle variations in the grids are pointed up by the variations Burns works into his visual style – Herge is all over the dream sequences, from the simple shapes and brightly colored ligne claire drawing to the tight framing and bare-minimal cartooned faces, but there’s also plenty of Geof Darrow twisting around in the desertscapes, and a Gary Panter design sense at play. The waking-life sequences, by contrast, are Burns amplifying Burns, all the atmospherics and flat pop art darkness of Black Hole ratcheted up and pounded with wave after wave of shadowy hues.
The most interesting thing going on here isn’t the drawing itself, though, it’s Burns’ use of color and sequencing. I mentioned the filmic aspect of X’ed Out a second ago, and as in film these images flow fast and furious, with a magnetic pull to them that doesn’t let up until every last one has flickered by. There’s an intensity of experience to comics art that moves this fast, an immersive quality that few artists ever touch. Largely responsible for the quick pace (as well as the relatively small amount of things that actually happen in this comic) is the way Burns cuts from panel to panel, eschewing American comics’ typical “point of impact” approach for what at times comes close to a second-by-second, strobe-light effect. A scene of some kids having a conversation by a chain-link fence becomes high drama when a few sentences of dialogue get montaged into seven panels, each shot at a different angle, the camera probing around in between the characters to get at the high drama in every few words. It’s so much quicker, time chopped up so much more finely than we’re used to seeing it, and while that works wonders for the impact of Burns’ narrative, it really starts slamming when he gets a little more abstract.
The most visually interesting part of the book comes in the moments between. Between sleep and waking or memory and the present, it’s always the flickering back and forth of the inner world and the outer. Burns goes absolutely wild with his sequencing at these moments, slicing the panels into razor-thin flashes with a disorienting near-flipbook effect, images hitting as fast as the mind can conjure them, blowing past like machine-gun fire. These passages are also where X’ed Out‘s use of color moves from visual beauty into narrative necessity: In the most dislocated, central moments of the transition scenes all visual information fades from the panels and they’re filled with color alone, flickering chroma that goes from the shade of the last thing we see in one place to the first that we see in the next.
It’s a highly advanced use of the comics form: colors and panels by themselves and speaking more eloquently than words, saying something that can be understood in this medium alone. In the book’s best moments, Burns’ nonlinear imagery, his rapid-fire sequencing, his gloriously variable layouts, and his willingness to let pure chroma speak for itself do what so many comics strive and fail at: it all overwhelms you, pulls you deep enough into the spray of visuals and wrench of tone that you feel what the characters are feeling, that you lose yourself and enter something stranger. A dream, another reality, a story.
And then, of course, you wake up – you do not disappear, nor would you want to, because the world inside X’ed Out is vaguely horrifying, vaguely sickening, vaguely alien, vaguely numb. You are only reading a comic, and the light from whatever place you are reading it in shines down onto the pages. The comic hasn’t been printed yet that shines back, that actually illuminates itself with a light that comes from the pages. I hope that day is coming, but it’s not here now. Until then, though, here is a book that can floor you, that can left you drift away into something else until you don’t notice that the white gutters aren’t purely white, that can make you feel what it tells you to feel, that can even make you see things that aren’t really there.
That alone is reason enough for everyone to come forward and be touched by it. But it’s also an incredible example of something simpler, of comics doing what they do, and in the end that’s the reason it’ll go down in history as a masterwork.