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Charles Burns
X'ed Out
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Pantheon Books / Random House
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-37913-9
Publication Date: 10-19-2010
56 pages, $19.95
Date Reviewed: 10-30-2010

Index:  Fantasy  Horror

Dream imagery sounds so easy, and it is often attempted. The general idea seems to be to throw in some calliope music, a few random images from elsewhere in the text or story and a dwarf, then presto-change-o! You've got a dream.

Well, everybody has dreams. Few of us remember them, fewer still with any kind of accuracy. But just writing down what you remember from a dream does not convey in a reading experience the sensibility of dreams. Nor does including random images from elsewhere in a story. Dreams are not random. They're very precise, but they are also surreal. They're a lot like the work of graphic novelist Charles Burns, and 'X'ed Out' is Burns' best bad dream yet. It's as if he took a razor blade to an intense, emotional story arc, cut it into pieces just to watch it bleed to death, then grafted his nightmares about doing so between the oozing body parts. And this time, he dreams in color.

'X'ed Out' begins with the endpapers, that show us a series of iconic images; a cat, a camera, a pig fetus in a jar, a hole in a brick wall, a man wearing a mask, a startled, topless woman who appears to have her hands bond behind her back; more. Dark red on black.

From there, things get stranger.

Doug is asleep in his bed, and wakes up to find his cat, Inky, beckoning him to step through a hole in a brick wall that leads to a desolate wasteland. But Doug is narrating the scene and Inky is dead. We're not in a world we know. We are elsewhere.

'X'ed Out' leads readers between two very different worlds. The world on the other side of the wall — which you see on the cover of the book — is a surreal nightmare, perfectly rendered. It makes sense, but it is manifestly not our world. Our world, such as it is, is the 1980's punk-art scene. There, Doug attends a party that unfurls like the perfect party nightmare. He gives a spoken word performance, and the night goes awry. Burns immerses us in discomfort, in interpersonal unpleasantry.

Those familiar with 'Black Hole' will find his new color work equally evocative and richly satisfying, and those who have never seen his work before will find it disturbing and beautiful. Burns has a visual sensibility that operates below our symbolic radar. His work is simple and direct. He combines disparate elements with grace, but the combinations are upsetting and evocative in a manner that is uniquely difficult to comprehend. We know we're being played with. We're off kilter, the floor is tipping and we are slipping into some place where we will not be able to control our own lives.

'X'ed Out' is beautifully produced and printed. The first installment is not very long, but we're told there will only be three. The story we see set up has the feel of a novella, but it is far stranger than 'Black Hole.' Burns creates indelible images that will haunt you, and tells a story that is fantastically unique. The dreams of Charles Burns, rendered in this graphic novel, seem infectious. Burns' talent is such that it is difficult to tell if the illness is transformative — or fatal.

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