Looking Inside Charles Burns’ X’ed Out
In Charles Burns’s X’ed Out, Doug remembers coming off stage after a brutally unappreciated performance art gig in the late ‘70s. He says to his girlfriend: “You just don't understand... God... if... if you could just look inside my head, you'd know.”
Oddly, I suggested almost the exact same thing the first time I mentioned Burns’s art in Bookslut -- that it creates “the sense that you're staring directly into someone else's subconscious.” His stories are so visceral, emotional, and nightmarish they can convince you there’s no difference between the book you’re holding and the images that first flickered through his head. I recently spoke with Charles Burns and fell promptly into this same trap. He reassured me I wasn’t the first.
“When people meet me, in the flesh, there have been moments where I see this brief look of disappointment: ‘This guy is just way too normal!’ There’s certainly at least the façade of normalcy in place. I live in a normal home, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got two daughters, so you know -- I can manage in the real world. My stories deal with much more of an interior world, and I can’t necessarily explain why there’s that fascination with the darker side of things, but there certainly is a fascination.”
Like many, I came to his work through Black Hole. I honestly believe it’s the single best evocation of adolescence I’ve ever read -- and by “the best.” I mean “the most fucking terrifying.” It uses the sexually-transmitted mutations of its protagonists to capture all flavors of teenage horror: staring at yourself in the mirror, sure that you’re becoming a monster, even surer that everyone else already knows it. What’s the appeal he finds in stories of adolescence?
“That’s a good question. The best answer I can come up with that it’s such a strong, tumultuous period in anyone’s life; there are so many things at stake. You’re literally transforming, changing from a child into an adult. You’re coming to terms with being a sexual human being. I guess I have very vivid memories of that period of my life, and that was something that I was attracted to, and wanted to explore.”
I had no memoir-worthy adolescent trauma, but I’ve still always wanted to forget how those years felt. Black Hole brings those memories back. Reading it, for me, is like poking at a nasty bruise -- it hurts, but you can’t stop. (It’s only fitting considering that the book is filled with open wounds.) X’ed Out, though, is looking further forward.
“X’ed Out is the first of three books, and there are ideas that I’m going to explore in them that move away a little bit from that time of adolescence and young adulthood. For example, Black Hole takes place in the early ‘70s, and I’m pushing forward -- I’m now in the late ‘70s, and spilling over into the early ‘80s.”
The book is split between two worlds. One shows Doug, broken and alone, eating pop tarts, swallowing pills, and remembering back to the late ‘70s punk scene. In another world, Doug is replaced by Nitnit: his features more cartoony and abstract, the bright colors around him popping off the page. It’s inspired by Hergé’s Tintin and the Franco-Belgian comics Burns read in his youth.
“It’s very unusual for any cartoonist of my generation to have grown up with Tintin, but I’m one of those rare Americans who did. My dad liked comics, and he bought me those books at an early age. He could tell right away that he’d done the right thing. This was before I could actually read -- I spent countless hours absorbing every square inch of the pages. There was just something that really appealed to me about them. The characters, the color, the beauty of these hardbound books. I wanted to do a book that reflected them in some way.”
At one point, Nitnit glimpses an old man through a basement window: the former’s face an egg, dots for eyes, squiggles for eyebrows; the latter a shadowed, slack-mouthed regular human. Burns says that playing off those different styles of drawing is “fun to do” -- but it’s a moment of horror for Nitnit. How can an abstract figure possibly understand all those lines, folds, and wrinkles? I asked if Charles had seen the photographic "real life" recreations of his Black Hole characters that recently appeared in print.
“That was just one of those oddball things. I guess it was a fashion magazine, but very slick, high production values. I think the theme was something about America. It was nothing I had anything to do with. When you’re looking at those photographs, you’re looking at the characters in a different way. You’re seeing the grotesques that I draw, horns growing out of heads, skin coming off. It’s much more… I don’t know how to describe it. I guess if I know that it’s makeup, it’s fine, but if I thought that it was someone’s real skin, I’d have problems with that.”
In X’ed Out, Doug remembers wanting to transform. He says he wanted to “slip out of my skin... cut the lines... turn into someone else.” In one of the book’s many slippages between its two worlds, Doug wears a Nitnit mask while on stage for his performance art. Does he want to simplify his own features? It reminded me of the reproductive health films the teens are shown in Black Hole that were “always so safe and clean... everything simplified down to diagrams and animated cartoons” -- especially compared to the seething, black-ink biology drawn all around them.
“During the period of time in which X’ed Out takes place, I was in art school. Whatever the mold of the character I’m creating, it’s certainly based on at least some of those experiences. I had friends or acquaintances who would say ‘Charles, you love all that weird, sick stuff. Here are some photos of deformed babies!’ I’d say ‘You don’t understand. That’s the real stuff that I can’t look at.’ I may be able to dish it out, but I don’t take pleasure in looking at deformity.”
Nitnit’s world isn’t exactly all rainbows and puppies, and yeah, there is definitely something more awful about watching a cartoon innocent confront monsters and mutations. No matter what it’s depicting, however, there’s something near-transcendental about seeing Burns’s iconic black and white art bloom into new, vivid color.
“What I found initially was that I was kind of retracing my footsteps, where I’d been before. I think it was partly the idea of taking on color that allowed me to let this story in a very different way. There are certain ideas that resurface, certain themes that rise up that are similar to Black Hole -- but at this point, I’m fully immersed in this series of stories, and it feels good.”
X’ed Out is a slim volume with a hefty cliffhanger, finishing just as you’ve sunk into it and leaving you hanging for more. (Personally, I want to see if Doug’s unexplained head wound is due to someone testing my theory and trying to take an unmediated peep at his interior world.) I asked if another difference between Black Hole and X’ed Out might be that Nitnit is not so much trapped in a nightmare as exploring a dream; maybe a fantasy kingdom that -- despite its surreal horrors -- possesses the rules that adolescence lacks.
“You can speculate,” he told me. “You’re allowed to speculate all you like.”
Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He wants to thank Charles Burns for laughing politely when he compared Black Hole’s teens to X-Men with really terrible powers. Find him at www.martynpedler.com.