Angoulême 2012: Charles Burns talks about X’ed Out
Charles Burns’s X’ed Out is a celebration of Tintin, William Burrougs and the Franco-Belgian comic format
The American comic artist and illustrator Charles Burns (b. 1955) is known for the teenage horror story Black Hole (1995–2005). In Black Hole, a sexually transmitted disease called ”the bug” or ”the teen plague” spreads amongst adolescents in mid 1970′s Seattle. The bug causes grotesque mutations and turns its carriers into social outcasts. Burns has said that the disease is a metaphor for adolescence, but Black Hole can be read as a straight-forward horror story, too.
Burns’s latest major work X’ed Out (2010) is the first volume in a three-part series. If judging the book by its cover, X’ed Out feels more European than American with its 56 colorful A4-size pages. The content, on the other hand, is familiar: teenagers of the 1970′s pissing on previous generations’ ideals and taking enough bad drugs to be able to face the world that will end in nuclear war soon anyway. Plus the usual horror weirdness.
At the center is Doug, a student who does performance art inspired by William S. Burroughs and who strugless with the opposite sex. His father is not that well, either. There is also a character that looks like the Tintin version of Doug, who explores a middle eastern-like village full of nightmarish characters. He either is or is not the real Doug’s dream. In short: things hardly make sense at this point of the story, but despite the confusion (or perhaps because of it), it is all very enjoyable.
What anchors X’ed Out to reality is its setting in the late 1970′s America. Burns, who was a teenager during the punk explosion, uses his own experiences as basis for the story.
- The hippie dream had crashed and broken on the shoreline, Burns reminisces. – This was almost a celebration of something darker and more realistic. For me it felt more of a realistic vision of America. There was more humor. It was an acknowledgement of not necessarily feeling nice.
Burns recalls how everyone at that time was doing something, be it making art, organizing events or at least playing in a band. Anything seemed to be possible those days, as punk had not yet become the stiff establishment and sets of guidelines that destroyed its vitality.
- What was interesting at that time was that there were no real rules yet. Everyone would look at The Sex Pistols and think ”Ok, I need to have a torn jacket, a safety pin in my ear, I need to cut my hair short and dye it pink”. And some would look at The Ramones and think ”I need to have torn jeans and bangs”. Or trying to decide if Blondie is punk. ”They are playing with The Ramones, so I guess they are punk.”
In X’ed Out, visual markers of identity have a certain role. For example, in the beginning of the story Doug has long hair that refers to the hippie era. Later when Doug turns punk, he cuts his hair short. Also, there is a colorful lot of side characters, some of which Doug addresses as ”punk posers” who, obviously, are not punk for ”the right reasons”.
Poetry reading was definitely not punk, as Doug finds out one night at a party when he’s given some stage time before the band. For the audience, who want crude guitar sounds and pogo-friendly rhythms, Doug’s challenging poetry is not punk – even if it happens to be inspired by William Burroughs.
- In a way, Burroughs was kind of a dark father figure of punk. A lot of people were interested in things other than just commercial pop music. William Burroughs had this dark vision of the world. For me there was something incredibly visual in his writing, Burns explains.
Burroughs’s prose was in part anti-narrative. X’ed Out reflects this, as the chronology of the story feels cut up and organized if not totally randomly but at least in a way that the flow of the narrative feels a little distorted. Burns points out that whereas Burroughs really collaged his pieces together, X’ed Out only has the impression that it is done the same way.
The other major influence for X’ed Out is Hergé, whose Tintin Burns discovered as a child. Burns refers to Tintin in several ways. One of X’ed Out’s two storylines happens in real world. While performing, Doug wears a mask that has the look of Hergé’s resourceful character. The other storyline vaguely resembles boys’ adventure stories, although the tone is – despite the bright colors – guaranteed murky Burnsian delirium. In this storyline, Doug looks a bit like Tintin and even has a cat companion. Also, the shapes and colors of the eggs Doug finds in the dreamland remind of the mushrooms in 1941′s Tintin adventure The Shooting Star.
- When I started the series, I wanted to do a colored book. I immediately thought of Hergé. As a child before reading his books, I used to stare at the pictures for hours, delving into them. There was something about the world he created that I could really sink into.
Burns’s art is as precise as it is black and white. His carefully inked pages are all about dark shadows and bright highlights, razor-sharp high contrasts without any in-between grey. In X’ed Out Burns revised his established methods and used color for the first time. Burns opted for not just doing a colored black and white story. Instead, colors carry messages.
- The first time you see this solid red color is when you’re introduced to this girl and the dark room with the red safety light on. There are some colors repeated. As you see those colors, it takes on another significant. In the beginning of the book there is this pink color, but you don’t know what it is yet. Later you find out that it is associated with the father’s blanket on his bed, Burns elaborates.
X’ed Out is published in A4 size, which is a common format in Europe but relatively atypical in the USA.
- The Franco–Belgian format is normal in comics, but at least for me it is still exotic. I love the form and the size of it. I liked the idea of being able to do a series of books that would eventually tell a full story. When my agent was trying to sell the book there were responses like ”that’s a very small graphic novel. It’s not 400 pages, what are you trying to do?”
X’ed Out leaves everything open and the reader with an uneasy but curious feeling of wanting to know more. There are not any news about a follow-up yet, but sooner or later, more parts will come.
- It’s all mapped out in a general way. But the way that I’m writing is that I allow ideas to enter into it. I know the structure, I know what has to take place, I know what’s going to take place. The intriguing and kind of unnerving part is to find the right way of telling the story.
It remains to be seen when exactly we get answers. It may take a while. After all, it took some eleven years for Black Hole to be completed. Until then, one can but enjoy Doug’s bumpy ride.
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