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X'ed Out by Charles Burns, a review

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X'ed Out


Dirty rivers. Cracks in the walls. Dead cats. Razorblades. Bacon and eggs. Pigs. Revolving around two versions of protagonist Doug--one a trauma victim living during the original punk era, the other a cartoonish doppelganger that roams a post apocalyptic terrain--Charles Burns' X'ed Out (Pantheon, 2010) tackles dream logic on an entirely new scale. An inquiry into the relationship between dreams and reality, this oversized graphic novel displays the surreal effects of human relationships when sex and violence are at the core.

We meet a Tintin-esque Doug who wakes up in a nightmarish wasteland filled with lizard men, one eyed cooks and strange creatures without noses. Although it's clear by his amnesia, bandages and shaved head that Doug is in bad shape, Burns flexes his storytelling muscles further by introducing another Doug, drawn in the style of his magnum opus Black Hole, and casts the reader out into a barely cohesive narrative. Now there are two Dougs, but as to which one is real remains unclear. This, of course, is intentional and part of the pleasure of Burns' storytelling. He carefully peppers fragments of a larger story and arranges each piece between darkened panels for effect: we feel something eerie lurks around the corner, and like Alice, our curiosity compels us further down the rabbit hole.

As we would expect, from the moment our eyes gaze at the first pages of this beautifully illustrated work, we are plunged into darkness and left to make sense of numerous unanswered questions. What happened to Doug? Why is he taking heavy opiates and "X'ing" the days on the calendar? Which world is real? The promise that Burns sets up at the conclusion of X'ed Out is first rate and set to continue as a second installment, The Hive, which will undoubtedly be another sensational ride.