When discussing the eerie, enigmatic, and creepy work of master cartoonist Charles Burns, the obvious comparison is to the cinema of David Lynch. In fact, if you Google the names of the two creators together, you’ll get nearly ten thousand shared hits. And it’s true that both artists employ transgressive characters and events, odd juxtapositions, surreal segues, meticulous contemporary naturalism, arcane symbolisms, dream logic, and primal tropes of violence and sex. But in Burns’s newest, X’ed Out—which is the first 56-page installment in a longer tale of indeterminate length—I found myself thinking of earlier models for the type of story Burns seems bent on telling. Namely, two great fantasists at either end of the Victorian period: George MacDonald and David Lindsay.
MacDonald, best recalled today for his YA fantasy At the Back of the North Wind, wrote several odd books for adults that juggled Jungian and Campbellian motifs long before either scholar codified them. In Phantastes, a young man coming into his inheritance finds himself conversing with a tiny woman who emerges from his dead father’s secret cabinet. In Lilith, the protagonist follows a strange intruder into uncharted realms of his own home. As for Lindsay, his A Voyage to Arcturus, admired by Harold Bloom among others, is simply the essential template for cosmic odysseys among the strange.
Burns follows the MacDonald-Lindsay vector in X’ed Out, while also shattering the linearity of time that these two pre-quantum predecessors obeyed. The book opens with a Tintin-esque sleeper awoken by the appearance of his dead cat in his bedroom. He follows the animal through a crack in the wall and emerges in another world where lizard-men dominate humans in a shambolic post-Armageddon landscape. But his tale is intercut with the narrative of a young man named Doug, whose forays into the historically recognizable avant-punk scene of a few decades past are dogged by danger and erotic thrills. Burns cleverly employs two distinct drawing styles for each thread, much in the manner of Dan Clowes in his recent Wilson. Both the outré cartoony style and the more realistic style have their distinct charms, and play nicely off each other. We sense that the “super-deformed” protagonist in the alien world is a version of Doug. But the connection between them remains enticingly undefined. As to which timeline, if any, has primacy, the text sayeth not. All this mystery is part of the allure of the tale, which all readers comfortable with uncertainty and multivalency will revel in. Burns’s sly use of recurring motifs that span both universes—rivers, cracks in walls, fetuses, pets, and so forth—allow the reader to assemble some tentative clues to the relationship between the worlds of Doug and his doppelganger. Additionally, Burns employs classic page layouts and innovative “camera angles” to great effect. Burns’s concerns and imagery also recall the work of two of his contemporaries: Jim Woodring and Kaz. He doesn’t feature the religious mysticism of Woodring or the absurdist irreverency of Kaz, but he plainly travels in realms adjacent to Woodring’s Frank-iverse and Kaz’s Underworld. While this book successfully and laudably launches a major new masterpiece from Burns, I do have a concern about the format. While it’s nice to see a creator of Burns’s stature getting the hardcover treatment, the $19.95 book is essentially the equivalent of two $3.99 “floppy” comics. Also, the longer timescales of book production seem less favorable for continued reader satisfaction with a serial story than the old monthly or bimonthly schedule of floppies. But these quibbles aside, we are privileged indeed to re-enter the broken precincts of Burns’s deliciously nightmarish subconscious.
–PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.