Saturday, October 23, 2010

X'ed Out: Review Notes

[From Hergé: The Calculus Affair]

[From Charles Burns: X’ed Out]

Earlier this month, I sent in my first piece for The Comics Journal, a review of Charles Burns’s X’ed Out. [Note: it's now up at the Journal's website.] When The Journal was only a print publication, reviewers knew that readers, who had to go out of their way to purchase the magazine (in dank ‘n dirty “specialty shops”), would likely be knowledgeable about comics. But because the journal is now online, anyone interested in reading a review of X’ed Out might find mine through google. So past assumptions about who might be reading and what “the general reader” would know, for me at least, are no longer valid.

I find writing reviews a challenge. The format typically requires a focus on summary and evaluation, blending the modes of consumer guide and opinion piece. I wanted to try to write a review that gave “the general reader” what she would expect, yet would offer an interpretation of the work -- I wanted the review to be equal parts analytical argument and “buyer’s guide.” [Special thanks to Anne Mallory for commenting on drafts of the piece.]

What follows are notes I compiled while reading XO, rereading Burns's Black Hole + Tintin volumes, and writing the review; many contain ideas that didn't make it into the review. Since they were typed, I figured I’d post them here . . .


What’s so interesting about X’ed Out is the way it builds upon aspects of Burns’s last graphic novel, Black Hole, and comes out of Hergé’s Tintin stories; it’s as if Hergé did an adaption of Black Hole, not so much by reimagining the plot, but by turning its mood and iconography into a kind of psychological ‘adventure’ story. It doesn’t just use the look of Tintin, it acts as a kind of internal reading of the world of Tintin, an analysis of what’s there and what isn’t -- what's x'ed out of Tintin, what's really at the other end of the hole. [And though I based part of my review on this premise, there’s a lot more that could be said about it. I eliminated material on this topic to keep the focus on XO.]

My reading of X’ed Out is informed by Burns's approach in his comic strip Random Access, which runs in the comics section of The Believer. These strips can be narrative or non-narrative, often working on an associational logic; sometimes Burns makes obvious connection between what’s depicted in the panels, and at other times the logic seems arbitrary. In a way, Random Access is a kind of bridge between Black Hole and X’ed Out. And the compositional method of RA plays out on many pages of X’ed Out. RA replicates the ways that Doug (X’ed Out ’s main character) experiences aspects of his life. Images clearly have a power and an attraction that the artist and/or character does not understand -- so the image returns as a kind of haunting -- a search for an explanation of its power that never comes . . .

Doug’s girlfriend Sally, who appears often, is associated with the mother, who is fully absent. Though his mom is mentioned (and perhaps visible in a single photo), she never is seen in the comic. Doug’s father descends into the basement whenever the mother is mentioned (the descent motif). The mother is hidden, a source of fear. “The mother” could be connected to “the breeder,” who looks like Sally and appears in the Nitnit dream world (if that’s what it is). The collective archetypal and horror approaches that Burns takes invite a reading in which “the mother” = “fear of biology” -- “the mother” is the source of the (dead) fetuses and embryos we see throughout the story. In fact, the mother is connected to one of the defining images of the comic: the egg that appears on the front and back covers and throughout the story (and also to the many black holes, “the vagina as absence” -- a primal male fear). The absent mother hovers over the story.

The mother/the female is the origin of life, and all of Doug’s existential problems originate in a disgust for life and food (again, the egg) and therefore the maternal. Also, the egg Burns uses is literally a symbol for Hergé (the mother or father figure in whose creations XO originates): it appears on the cover and in the climactic scene of Hergé’s The Shooting Star.

The book’s focus on Art. Doug’s performance art, Sally’s photographic art, Herge’s art, art exhibitions, the punk band “The Happy Fetus” -- Patti Smith (and Tori Amos cover art allusion?)

Art, eros, and violence: Photo of Sally slitting her arm. - Doug seems attracted and repulsed.

The relationship between Lucas Samara’s art and Burns’s – compare Sally’s altar with Samara’s photographed staged autobiographical environments. (Dark room scenes)

Polaroid scrapbook pages as analogues for comic pages -- and non-narrative aspects of these two grid forms. Discuss the nature memory and visual narrative. Also: Doug’s pill calendar as grid analogue.

XO appears to have a psychological and narrative center: 1970s Doug dreams/hallucinates many of these scenes, especially those with the different versions of the Nitnit characters. So everything emanates from him. Yet, this doesn’t seem right or fully explanatory. The cut-up, non-chronological aspect of the text destabilizes all readings. The center is diffused -- Doug is not really the main character. Doug’s life imitates Nitnit’s dreams, not the other way around.

The grid here is often not connected to order, stability, rationality (what that regular grid typically offers) -- but to sadness and pain -- refer to opening line of comic.

Compare exotic world seen in XO’s ending to scenes through Tintin: holes, ladders, dense groupings of buildings . . .

Black hole and wound panels from Tintin. (TT in America . . .)
Scenes of “flow”: blood, river, and toxic waste – these scenes bring up the question of origin; the source for the waste is never revealed. Also why are there Tintin skulls in the chamber near the toxic waste? River as Styx (underworld -- descent motif). “River flows under me, dragging me down,” Doug says.

The X of X’ed Out: wounds, bandages, scars, X marking the most important spot: Doug’s head. X as repression; blocked out. X marks the treasure on the map, but here the goal is marked out, is inaccessible. X as cartoon symbol for eyes of a dead character; x as poison marker.

Trauma and adolescence -- Black Hole versus Tintin.

Horror archive: blood, skulls, chambers, opening/doors . . .

If some of the scenes are Doug’s dream, then all of the character/objects/actions in the dreams are versions of Doug --Doug as maggot, Doug as black hole, as fetus, dog/animal on raft.
Connect XO with RA, William Burroughs’s “cut-ups,” and Tintin. Poetic lyricism and non-narrative panels transitions.

Inky and Snowy, Burns and Tintin -- also cigarette “burns” as artist’s visual signature pun

Pink blanket in XO and Black Hole -- comfort

Burns’s color use and Herge’s – significance of color in XO as transitions and memories. The lyricism implied by colored panel – content that is disembodied, disconnected in clear ways from a sentient or “camera” p.o.v.

Panels without image content: color, text.

Characters and the “open mouth”: hunger, waiting, passivity.

Opening line: who is the “I”? – this is the constant question – like the disembodied “I” of some lyric poetry.

Character’s names and uncertainty.

Art, connected to sleeping, adventures, and Little Nemo. Tintin and Nemo—different tones.

Burn’s approach to horror vs., say, EC comics.

[use Pop-tart box with '7 cents off' coupon to identify story’s time period]

The Nitnit character has popped up throughout the years, in RA and various illustrations that Burns has done.