It should be common knowledge by now that X’ed Out, the first volume of a new trilogy by Charles Burns, is chock full of weirdness, mystery, and beautiful artwork. The book is part revision of Hergé’s TinTin, part tribute to William Burroughs, part Alice in Wonderland, and something new yet to be revealed. Within all of that, there are some interesting themes that I’m sure Burns will expand on in the next two volumes.
Doug, the protagonist, has suffered some mystery trauma and spends most of his time in bed in the basement of his parents’ house looking at old Polaroids of his girlfriend. The narrative slips back and forth between this reality, a Burroughs inspired dream world induced by Doug’s painkillers, flashback sequences where Doug meets and falls in love with Sarah (the girl in the Polaroids), and past conversations with Doug’s father.
The idea of motherhood, or more specifically failed motherhood, runs throughout X’ed Out. Doug’s mother is mentioned, but never seen. Doug and his father both want to avoid her. In one flashback sequence Doug remembers his father saying, “Your Mom and I…We started out with such high hopes…But I guess things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.” Like Doug, his father retreats downstairs, which Burns has admitted is a symbol for the womb. Doug comes upstairs for Poptarts and reminds himself that his mom will not be home from work until 5:30 He says, “…at least I don’t have to deal with her.”
Sarah has a thing for fetal pigs in jars, one of which gets broken by her “psycho” ex-boyfriend at the party where Doug meets Sarah. She poses topless with one fetal pig as a Madonna and child (she poses topless a lot). There is a panel of an actual Madonna and child. Lizard-like fetuses and eggs are everywhere in Doug’s dream world. To top it off, a cartoonish version of Sarah appears in the dream world. Doug’s nameless, baby-like alien guide tells him she is the new Queen of the hive, a breeder.
Identity is another interesting issue in the book. Doug’s alter-ego is Nitnit. He puts on a mask that resembles TinTin when he reads his cut-up poetry in reality, perhaps subconsciously wanting to hide from his audience. In his dream world, Doug is Nitnit. Doug also identifies with his father. Like his father, Doug spends his time in the basement looking at photographs and dwelling on the past. Doug’s guide in the dream world smokes like his father and, I would argue, vaguely resembles his father. Adding to that, Nitnit has several visions of his father while he is with the guide.
What does this all mean? It’s too early to tell. X’ed Out is short and leaves more questions than answers, but it is only volume one of what should be a great trilogy. Burns has stated in interviews that all of these “threads” will come together in the next two volumes. And let’s not forget the beautiful artwork. I’ve compared Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork to fever dreams before, but I have to say that Burns has really captured that particular strangeness in his vivid colors and style. Get your copy here. The next volume, The Hive, is slated to come out sometime in 2011.