BEDHEAD: The feverish dreams of a character named Doug lead to a menacing place in 'X'ed Out.'
Notes From the Underground
In his new 'X'ed Out' series, graphic novelist Charles Burns voyages to a nightmarish post-punk landscape
By Richard von Busack
HALLOWEEN comes early this year with the release of X'ed Out, the new book by Charles Burns. Of the phantoms that stalk it, one of the unquiet is the ghost of punk rock, called forth from the late-1970s setting of this nightmarish but oddly innocent graphic novel created by one of the most notable exponents of the form.
The most distinguished cartoonists in the world have drawn horror stories, but in our time Charles Burns is the most shockingly elegant of them all. The new series X'ed Out (Pantheon), which will be continued in two subsequent volumes, represents some of his most visually mesmerizing and handsomely presented work to date. It's a fresh triumph for the cartoonist known for his series Black Hole, which is awaiting adaptation into a film. Burns, who will sign copies of X'ed Out at Bookshop Santa Cruz this Tuesday, gave me an update on that development from his Philadelphia home last week. "I think the last I heard is that things are still moving forward," he said, "and as far as I know there's a script, and David Fincher [The Social Network] is still attached as a producer. They're still looking for directors."
X'ed Out takes place on two dimensions, with a shaky barrier between them. In a basement, Nitnit, a cartoony shock-haired figure, wakes up on his fold-out couch. Inky, a long-lost cat ("God, I ... I thought you were dead") leads him through an aperture in a brick wall into a parallel world. It's in ruins: there are collapsed tombs and green swamps where piggish humanoids float. The wanderer passes by an incubation room full of enormous eggs with scarlet blotches tended by furious man-sized salamanders.
The trek continues into a threatening foreign setting where diseased merchants sell repulsive living food. Nitnit is aided by a sinister swollen half-pint in a dhoti. Unbidden come visions of an ailing, depressed father who is giving up his life to booze, TV and cigarettes, his skin jaundiced to a pale urine color.
Perhaps this is all the dream of Doug, a sickened layabout of the late 1970s, very ill himself. Doug's half-shaven head is bandaged, and he's dependent on a dwindling supply of some increasingly ineffective medicine. Doug's fevered mind flashes back to a time when he had his health, when he was an aspiring performance artist wearing a Nitnit mask and reading from his dream journal at an underground galley. There, Doug meets Sarah, a girl who poses for troubling photos. She herself is stalked by some raging ex-boyfriend who has already started destroying her possessions.
Those familiar with Burns can guess how smooth such a jagged-sounding trip is. Laid out in what are primarily nine-panel pages, the foreground characters are drawn in that so-called ligne claire style popular with Low Country cartoonists, particularly the best known of them all, Hergé.
The rest of the art is unmistakable Burns: flat panels of color or pulsating squares that look like dark-field microscopy. Placid smooth skin gives up jagged wounds; there are suppurating masses of flesh and oozing meat, or blasted rocks and swamps and flotsam. Throughout X'ed Out is that most elemental discontent: an atmosphere of being in the center of a crowd of people who want to do you harm.
X MARKS THE SPOT: Burns' tale is to be continued in two subsequent installments.
Burns grew up in various spots all over the country. A childhood touchstone, often referred to in interviews, is his fascination with The Outer Limits. This was a popular 1960s TV drama with regular parables of strange invaders. The adventures there forecast the stories of Burns' odd child Big Baby.
The name David Lynch gets dropped by critics who read Black Hole, which was serially published between 1995 and 2005. It was finally collected in book form in 2005. Black Hole's setting is a Cobainian northwestern landscape, sometime around 1975. An unnamable plague is striking the young on the fringes of a Seattle suburb, the result of a degenerative disease carried by sex and shared saliva. A circle of seemingly harmless "freaks"—as vegetating drug-takers of the time proudly called themselves—are here genuine mutants. It's Burns' usual blend of fantastic monstrosity with almost photorealistic high-contrast black-and-white figures and faces.
But the originality of this tale is rooted in the unbearably sharp feelings of adolescence. Seascape raptures are ruined by turds, bones, litter and broken glass. Vertiginous circles and jagged rents tear open the fabric of the ordinary world. Maybe the worst damage is caused by the adolescent delusion that a lover is actually a messiah.
Black Hole alludes to the shame of adolescence—a chemical change that turns an unwitting child into a stranger to himself. This too is the theme of Lynch in Blue Velvet and the real story of the demon-haunted Washington woods in Twin Peaks. Both artists were from the Pacific Northwest; Lynch from Idaho, Burns from Washington state (as well as Washington, D.C.).
And both Lynch and Burns lived in Philadelphia. "Lynch is on record saying he'd never live in Philadelphia again," Burns says. "But I like big decaying cities."
The sensibilities of Lynch and Burns, however, are ultimately different. There is, for example, the out-and-out humor in Burns that isn't found in Lynch. Where Lynch is the kind of artist who could turn up for years at the same coffee shop, Burns is more of a wanderer. Burns' schooling was varied, and it included a stint in art school at UC-Davis during the peak of the funk-art years.
Funk art was a '70s post-Pop movement based on salvaged or untraditional materials, with deep veins of humor and political content: its ecstasies countered the austere minimalism then popular in New York. Nearby in Winters, Calif., Robert Crumb drew and edited Weirdo magazine, a conduit between the smartest of the hippie cartoonists and the most astute of the punks.
Later, Burns would come to worldwide attention at a magazine that was diametrically opposed to Weirdo. Art Spiegelman's New York-based Raw was an attempt to create the kind of high-art presentation the comic book was getting in Western Europe. Designing the cover for Raw and appearing in several issues, Burns became one of its most noteworthy artists.
All this came later. At Davis, Burns became one of the first Anglos to admire lucha libre culture, from which he sourced one character, the masked-wrestling detective El Borbah. "There's a lot of little towns around Davis that would have Mexican magazines with wrestlers on the cover," Burns says. "I found myself interested in that look and these almost ridiculously fun costumes."
At the Central Valley university, Burns studied a series of different disciplines. "I was learning photography and drawing and painting and sculpture. But a lot of my drawing had this narrative feel. I hadn't really done a lot of comics per se."
It wasn't until he was almost gone from Davis that the light went off. "Right during the end of my time there, I started doing a photo comic based on the Mexican magazines I'd seen," he says. "It got me into thinking about wanting to do comics, to tell a narrative for mass circulation. I thought, 'You could put two weeks in a drawing and sell it and never see it again. Or you could work for publication. If five people wanted to read it, that'd be great. If 50,000 people wanted to read it, that'd be even better.'"
Tintin in Hell
Burns has never been an artist who fancied direct autobiography, but the passages of X'ed Out regarding punk rock in the late 1970s are as evocative as the stories of teen rejects in the woods in Black Hole. Even the title of the book itself has that telltale X. It's a tremendously symbolic letter for punks, the letter of secrets, of the unknown. It is the letter of negation: a double pen slash through the glossy face of a poster or a billboard. There was, of course, Geza X, Billy Idol's Generation X and that certain husband and wife band from L.A. If punk was a movement that chose exile, it also made a home for exiles.
"It was liberating, that period," Burns said. "I lived through it, and a portion of it has stuck with me. What I liked is the idea of taking responsibility for your own work. If tomorrow comes and my books don't sell, I'll still do comics, even if they're Xeroxed photocopies. At this point in my career, I have control. No one at Pantheon explained to me what kind of project I should be doing or how I could make it a corporate project."
Burns' graphic punch is due to his evocative use of black and white. "I have a fair sense of color," he says, "and I wanted to make sure I was avoiding coming up with a colorized version of black and white. Obviously part of what I wanted to do was a book in the style and that format of the French/Belgian comic book album, a style commonplace over there, if not here."
X'ed Out's cover is a tribute to Hergé's 1942 Tintin adventure L'Etoile Mystérieuse (The Shooting Star), which depicts our journalist hero as flabbergasted by a 15-foot-tall mushroom. And of course the shock-haired dream figure "Nitnit" is about as cleverly disguised as "Count Alucard" in a horror movie. That goes double for Nitnit's pet Inky the Cat, standing in for Snowy the Dog.
But the nightmare landscape is almost like Tintin's Naked Lunch, as if Burns had sent the Belgian boy reporter to William S. Burrough's "The Zone," just as modern artists send characters to Alice's Wonderland or Dorothy's Oz.
"Certainly," Burns says, "that influence comes from that period in which the core of the story takes place, the 1970s. Burroughs fit into that world, that dispossessed youth culture. In Burroughs there always was this polarity of disgust and fascination. His dark vision of the world was something I related to."
The passage where Doug, wearing a Nitnit mask, performs a staged reading of "cut-ups" of the William Burroughs/Brion Gyson school, was indeed something Burns did when he was a student in the 1970s. "There's no documentation, thank God. I wasn't like the character Doug in every way, just in some ways. He reflects what I was doing at school."
Wimps and Bruisers
Ultimately, even punk proved to be a temporary way station for Burns, and X'ed Out may well be his elegy for it. The story is told elsewhere in memoirs of those on the scene, but as the artist says, "I was just talking to Gary Panter [a fellow artist at Raw], who was the first person who I'd ever had a sense of being a punk cartoonist because he worked at Slash magazine. He was saying that the early days of punk were mostly girls and very wimpy art students. They were the kids who got their asses kicked at school walking around with a guitar—but then before long, the surf punks descended into the mosh pit." When the bruisers crashed the dance floor, punk was all ready for commoditization.
X'ed Out is a nightmare vision, but there's a kind of paradise that complements its inferno. And that's what draws me in: the moments of youthful happiness. Burns is trying to reclaim the earlier sense of possibilities of punk, "the goofy art student feel," Burns says. "Culture wasn't defined yet at this stage; maybe some people had seen some English magazines, they're wearing something they've seen the Sex Pistols wear, and they still don't know you don't have to draw swastikas on your arms. Maybe they've still got long hair to go with the skinny tie."
It's a rich vein for Burns, who hints he may explore it further. "Once in the fall of 1977, this girl on the street passed me; she was wearing a crooked pair of plastic sunglasses and she stopped to ask me, 'Do I look punk?' There's a certain sadness to that kind of behavior—I may put it in the next comic."
CHARLES BURNS appears Tuesday, Oct. 26, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free.
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