Jacket cover of the book, X'ed Out by Charles Burns. (Pantheon )
"I try to control it … try to focus in on the good things … waking up with Sarah on a clear, beautiful day … walking with her through Chinatown, the sky impossibly bright and blue. Everything bright and clean and new … but my eyes always drift … I always look down." That's how the dream always goes for Doug, the main character of Charles Burns' new graphic novel, "X'ed Out." In a Burns comic, you just know things aren't going to go well from there.
Fans of Burns, who haven't seen a major work out of him since 2004's "Black Hole," will be happy to know he's in fine form. In "X'ed Out," the first volume of a trilogy, Burns continues his personal mission of finding the limits of creepiness possible on a comics page. It's a specific kind of creepiness too — that of the messy, grotesque imperfection of being trapped in these flabby, sweaty, bloody, runny, wrinkled, ultimately failing bodies of ours.
Today, Burns may be best known as the monthly cover artist of the Believer. Born in 1955, Burns grew up in the Seattle area and was published early on by Matt Groening, then a student newspaper editor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. (Groening, Lynda Barry and Steve Willis were the school's other cartoonists). Soon, Burns found fans out East in Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, who published him in their comics anthology "Raw" and later put out his first books, "Big Baby and Hard-Boiled Defective Stories."
"X'ed Out" centers on Doug, a twentysomething performance artist who's recuperating in his mother's house from what looks like a brain operation and a break-up. Doug can't stop thinking/dreaming about Sarah, an art photographer, or the night they met when he did a spoken-word piece as his character Nitnit. Doug is so taken with Sarah, her work and his need to "save" her from a violent boyfriend that his own girlfriend of two years drops him. It's Doug's memories, and then seeing them converted into dreams, that dominate "X'ed Out."
"X'ed Out" is Burns' first full-color book, and seeing him leave black-and-white comics is like watching Hitchcock or Nicholas Ray make the leap into 1950s Technicolor. He lays out a distinct set of palettes for Doug's basement, his memories and his dreams in the classic pop color of a kid's adventure comic — namely, Hergé's iconic Tintin.
Indeed, Burns uses Doug's nightmare as a reconsideration of Hergé's globetrotting boy reporter. Burns creates a comics-negative of Tintin (Doug plays Nitnit onstage and owns a Nitnit comic). He's lured into a large hole in his basement wall by a pet cat his mother said was dead. That connects him to an underground canal littered with pirate treasure and where a strange half-worm, half-human creature grasps a chunk of wood as it floats away. Then, in a warehouse full of red and white eggs (Tintin fans will recognize their alien coloring from Hergé's "The Shooting Star"), he encounters salamander men (in office attire) who toss him out onto the street. A gruff but friendly flabby kid wearing a backpack and a pair of white shorts befriends Doug, guiding him through the city. And there's a lot more.
So, yes, Burns fans will definitely get their dollar's worth of weirdness in "X'ed Out." Why Hergé? In the way that directors of westerns assess John Ford and detective novelists consider Raymond Chandler, cartoonists have Hergé. His crisp art and hermetically sealed worldview have such rigid, spotless boundaries that artists can't resist challenging him. The Netherlands' (and now the New Yorker's) Joost Swarte took the Hergé look into a 1970s Dutch underground binge of sex and drugs. Spiegelman drew Tintin as an adult for "Read Yourself Raw." Currently, New Zealand's Karl Wills uses the look in his punk "Jessica of the Schoolyard" series, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg's Tintin adaptation is supposed to appear as a 2011 Christmas release.
Now entering that debate is Burns, who takes on Hergé's taut line and the Tintin series' simplistic globalism. Given Burns' fascination with our messy lives, his signature grotesques are particularly striking in a Hergé-inspired world. In the dream, when Doug sees Sarah as a "chosen" breeder, taken to a distant factory/hive, he feels the need to save her from her fate as much as he did the night he met her (just as Tintin would).
And that's where Burns leaves us. Given that we're only in the first third of "X'ed Out," drawing conclusions about where it's all going just isn't possible. If "X'ed Out" feels short, on multiple levels of storytelling and art, Burns has still outdone himself in sheer ambition, and to this point, has pulled it off.
Schwartz is editor of the book "The Best American Comics Criticism."