All Cut-Up: Charles Burns’s “X’ed Out”

Rather than simply deconstruct the cultural engine that popularized Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, writer-artist Charles Burns relies on visualizing the cut-up technique of Beat writer William Burroughs in X’ed Out.

“This is the only part I’ll remember. The part where I wake up and don’t remember where I am.” This is opening line to X’ed Out, Charles Burns’s latest graphic offering from Pantheon Books, and a line, like many aspects of the book, which the reader will encounter more than once. The opening line of dialogue lies atop a neatly constructed three tier page. Emerging from the darkness of the opening panels is the protagonist, a punk rock version of Hergé’s Tintin, ironically named Nitnit.

Like the Franco-Belgian comics to which Burns alludes, Nitnit begins his adventure by curiously wandering from his bed to the black hole in the wall, chasing after his pet cat, Inky. In line with Tintin and Snowy, Nitnit and Inky move quickly from motivation to action, allowing X’ed Out to quickly unravel without much in the way of a proper “set up.” Beyond the wall of Nitnit’s bedroom lies a dark otherworld of strange aliens, lizard men, mutated fetuses, and giant eggs, and Nitnit and Inky amble mind-boggled amongst this foreign world.

It is only after a dozen or so pages that one learns that this long introductory adventure is really the dream narrative for our “real” protagonist, Doug, an ostracized teenager who still lives at home while marginally participating in the flourishing punk rock subculture of 1970s America. In this world, Doug is equally alienated. His Burroughs-influenced cut-ups are rejected by even the punk community, and his brief interactions with his father are strained and awkward. Something is wrong, but just what lead up to this moment is withheld.

In the “real world,” it is Doug, not Nitnit, who says “This is the only part I’ll remember. The part where I wake up and don’t remember where I am.” And so readers are thrust into the tangled narrative of X’ed Out, moving back and forth between Doug and his dream persona, Nitnit. Doug’s troubled dreams are due in part to the hallucinatory effects he suffers from as he attempts to wean off strong prescription drugs. Where they prescribed? Why? What caused Doug to enter this state? Moreover, why is Doug’s father bizarrely present in Nitnit’s world? And what has happened to Doug’s mother and ex-girlfriend? These questions are only indirectly answered, if at all, and although the absence of rational explanation results in further confusion, it allows the reader’s experience to indirectly mimic the vertigo of Doug/Nitnit.

While Doug and Nitnit both experience feelings of being a stranger in a strange land, Burns crafts a distinct style and feel for each persona. Doug’s narrative most closely resembles the style we have come to known Charles Burns for—the bold, clear lines and heavy attention to detail and precision. To some extent, it makes perfect sense to mimic Hergé’s ligne claire for Nitnit’s narrative. Doug as Nitnit is stripped down and more cartoon-like, yet the bold black lines and equal attention to detail allow this variation to sit nicely against the counter narrative. In some ways, it’s a nice visual representation of the relationship between dreams and waking life, or the real and the surreal.

Like David Lynch or David Cronenberg, X’ed Out plays upon the irrationality of dream logic. Surreal narratives borrow elements from real life, and although we may not remember or comprehend all that we dream, it is possible that their effects carry over into our waking life. So although Nitnit is bandaged across his head from the beginning, it comes as only a slight surprise to Doug when he wakes up to find a mysterious wound and bandage gracing his temple. Dreams have consequences in the real world, and vice versa.

The loose associations between dream worlds and the “real world” present a type of lucidity for the reader. If some of the unexplained can be understood, it is only from the perspective of experiencing dual narratives, wherein each persona lives in his personal “real world” with real problems.

On another level, the multiple narratives of X’ed Out playfully reference many artists, bands, comics and subcultures in American avant garde and fringe societies. Readers of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch will find easy comparisons between Nitnit’s world and the Interzone. Nitnit is even aided by a Kiki-esque character, a bizarre man-child who seems to point Nitnit toward frightful reminders of Doug’s waking life. The allusions to cultural aspects of the 60s and 70s add a strange layer to X’ed Out; they inject an additional rationality and reality to Nitnit’s world and the space between Doug’s world and the readers. This intertextuality is more than a passing homage. Rather, it further unifies the worlds of Doug and Nitnit by referencing texts living outside the page.

Given the subject matter, color suits X’ed Out extremely well. Nitnit and Doug look upon a pink fetal pig and a green fetal alien. Burns’s color palette is vaguely familiar to readers of Hergé’s Tintin. The mimicry of Hergé’s solid colors creates a disturbing connection between child-like adventure and nauseating psychological horror. Moreover, the oversized album format is also a clear nod to Hergé and European comics. It is a slim hardcover volume, the first of a planned trilogy, according to Burns.

Like The Adventures of Tintin , X’ed Out presents a narrative with an identifiable ending, but one that will certainly be picked up and explored in future installments. Although Tintin and Snowy conclude many of their adventures with the apprehension of the villain, or a praiseworthy news article highlighting their efforts, X’ed Out appropriately offers a much less coherent resolution. X’ed Out offers up many interpretations to the slow, deliberate reader. Those that decry the lack of “answers” need to further explore their own dreams. You might be frightened by what you discover.

RATING 8 / 10