It has been five years since Charles Burns made a major splash with Black Hole, a dark masterpiece about a sexually transmitted plague that mutates its way through unsuspecting teenagers in a 1970s Seattle suburb. His first serious attempt at long-form narrative, the hulking 368-page graphic novel managed not only to wow the cartoonist's fans but also to convert countless new readers to the uncomfortable pleasures of his unique brand of broody modern horror.
After some time away to indulge his interest in photography, Burns has returned to comics with X'ed Out, a book that draws heavily on two of the author's key influences, William S. Burroughs and Tintin.
The first of a three-volume series, X'ed Out focuses on the plight of Doug, a young man with a nasty-looking head injury who has sequestered himself in his parents' basement to help kick his addiction to prescription painkillers. (The title refers, in part, to the days Doug crosses off - with an "X" - on his detox calendar.) The book shifts between Doug's grim reality and his even grimmer dream state, which he navigates as "Nitnit," a simulacrum of Tintin, the boy reporter made famous by Belgian cartoonist Hergé.
The story kicks off as a drugged and dreaming Doug/Nitnit follows his long-dead cat Inky (a dark echo of Snowy, Tintin's terrier pal) into an Interzone-like city populated with punk-rock lizard men and pushy street vendors who berate him in alien tongues (Burns allegedly created several new languages for the series).
The section of the tale based in Doug's reality provides only marginally more insight into our hero's predicament. These take the form of flashbacks that explore Doug's budding relationship with Sarah, a beautifully messed-up art student with whom he hooks up at a loft party. The entire narrative, which fills up a brisk 52 pages, takes place in between these two worlds, with Burns cleverly allowing aspects of each reality to bleed into another.
With much of the art echoing the Belgian ligne claire school of cartooning, the result plays out like a lost fever dream of Hergé, one that is compelling, captivating and potentially frustrating all at the same time. That's not to say that there's not a lot to satisfy fans.
Burns's art, with its sensuous inky brushwork, is as strenuous (and creepy) as ever, and his masterful use of visual iconography remains intact. There are enough sinister masks, erotic Polaroids and embalmed pigs' fetuses to satisfy even his most fervent admirers. But the author also takes some creative leaps here that are sure to displease some.
First is his decision to publish in full colour, something he hasn't done since 1991's Blood Club. In fact, one could argue that black-and-white has become his trademark, one that he should be wary of stepping away from. The other is his decision to publish this puzzling work in three instalments, the second of which, The Hive, is still two or three years down the road. It's hard not to see this as risky, especially when your first book drops more clues and raises more questions than it intends to answer. If there are any answers to this, perhaps they can be found with Tintin himself.
Burns, who developed a formative love of Tintin as a child, consciously designed X'ed Out as homage to the iconic character, from the cover (his take on The Shooting Star) to the page count, which is just 10 shy of the standard 62 demanded by Hergé. Not only is The Shooting Star one of Tintin's most peculiar adventures (it features an apocalyptic dream, giant exploding mushrooms and a monster spider), it also happens to be the first Tintin album to appear in full colour, a fact only a true Tintin-ologist would be aware of.
Yet Burns isn't satisfied with simply emulating the look and feel of a classic Tintin. With X'ed Out, it's as if he's trying to replicate the emotional experience of reading such work as well; an experience that is defined by the anticipation and frustration one feels with a staggered publishing schedule. In a culture that thrives on immediacy (including illegal torrents of comics), perhaps he's forcing his readers to reconnect with the unknowable - to not only confront it, but to embrace it as an integral part of the reading experience.
Sure, it's a leap of faith. But we're talking about a master of modern horror comics here. If we were once more than willing to wait a few years to read the follow-up to The Secret of the Unicorn, why can't we cool our collective jets to see what Burns has up his trusty sleeves? It's the least we can do.
Brad Mackay is co-editor of The Collected Doug Wright: Canada's Master Cartoonist, to which he contributed a biographical essay.