X’ed Out by Charles Burns

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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.

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The Black Dossier by Alan Moore

Black Dossier Cover - wilsonknut.comIf James Joyce’s Ulysses is the demonstration and summation of modernist literature, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier is the paradigm for post-postmodernism in graphic novels.  Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has received critical acclaim for its structure and interconnecting stories.  She includes a section consisting of PowerPoint slides. Another includes text messages. Those techniques pale in comparison to what Moore accomplishes in The Black Dossier.

Volumes 1 and 2 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series are critically acclaimed mash-ups of Victorian literature, pulp fiction, steampunk, and Moore’s own twists.  The Black Dossier was to serve as a standalone sourcebook between volume two of the series and a proper volume 3. It grew into much more.  Moore has stated in various interviews that he and Kevin O’Neill realized early that the series was growing into an attempt to map the entire fictional world and how it relates to fact.  They created a study and commentary on the popular imagination.  But in the structure and complexity of The Black Dossier, I also see the growth and culmination of literary movements throughout history into something new.

Experimental Joyride

Similar to Joyce’s Ulysses, The Black Dossier is very experimental in its structure and construction.  Critics of the book have noted that the narrative plot is very weak.  Mina Harker and Allan Quartermain have recovered The Black Dossier, which contains the secret history of The League.  Emma Night (Peel), Bulldog Drummond, and a young James Bond chase them all over London and Scotland trying to stop them.  In true Moore style, you would have to do a tremendous amount of research to figure out all of the references and allusions. Moore throws in his twists on characters and events for good measure.  For example, James Bond (Jimmy in the book) is a sadistic womanizer and the events take place in 1958 after the Big Brother government from George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty Four has fallen.

The narrative is merely a shell for The Black Dossier itself, which Mina and Allan stop to read at various points in the narrative.  The Dossier takes over the story metafictionally (if that’s a word). There are faux historical texts, comic strips in various styles, a “lost” Shakespeare folio. But wait! There’s more— prose in the style of H.P Lovecraft and Jack Kerouac, post cards, Big Brother posters in the style of English WWII posters, maps, and more.  Throughout these artifacts are mysterious handwritten notes that point back to the narrative at hand and the previous volumes in the series.  The complexity of it all is overwhelming.

Decoder Ring

To add to the complexity, the graphic novel contains a 3D section set in “the Blazing World” with glasses.  The cover to the Kerouac section mimics the paperback style of the early Kerouac books when they were published. It even includes the creases they would have had from being read.  Like Ulysses, you need an annotated version to understand it all.  Some folks have been kind enough to put one together- Black Dossier annotated.

Black Dossier - Alan Moore - wilsonknut.comBlack Dossier - Alan Moore - wilsonknut.comSo what separates Moore’s book from A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Ulysses for that matter?  As a medium, the graphic novel has the potential to capture the contemporary human experience far better than the traditional novel.  We are inundated with visuals and images by television, advertising, and internet.  So much could be done with the medium.

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Strengths & Weaknesses

I think it goes back to the perceived weakness of The Black Dossier– narrative.  Egan’s book, though experimental in structure and technique, is about characters and narrative.  They are “real” characters with “real” stories.  The themes capture truths about the human experience that run deep.  If Moore could capture that along with the genius he has for pop culture, structure, and technique; we would see a phenomenal new literature.

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Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley

can one describe Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life?  Hipster-absurdist-arcade-kung-fu-musical?  Whatever you want to call it, the book exudes coolness, and it’s not the pretentious brand of hipster coolness.  It’s a goofy, kind of stupid and fun coolness.

Scott, 23-years-old, announces that he is dating a high school girl, Knives.  He’s in a band and doesn’t have a job.  He epitomizes the laid-back slacker mentality.  His friends give him grief about the relationship, but before things get hot and heavy with Knives, Scott falls for Ramona, a rollerblading delivery girl.  As the story progresses, the absurdity increases.

Both girls show up at the band’s show, which causes problems.  The real problem, however, is that Ramona’s ex-boyfriend also shows up.  He’s able to summon some kind of demon-girl fighters, and an arcade style kung-fu battle, partially set to a musical, breaks out.  The premise for the rest of the series is established.  Scott will have to fight Ramona’s seven ex-boyfriends if he truly loves her.

The story is a take on the classic medieval epic, but Bryan Lee O’Malley fills it with tributes to manga, retro arcade games, music, sit-coms, and slacker attitude.  There is humor throughout.  It’s a perfect mix of realism and absurdity.  It’s just fun.