If you have not yet read what Charles Burns has been up to lately, don’t panic. You have options. There are two installments of his current wild ride, “X’ed Out” and “The Hive.” Both graphic novels can work as stand alones and you will do fine whether you read one first or the other. Essentially, this is a story that follows the main character mostly through flashbacks and alternates with his doppelganger in a parallel story set in a more cartoony and sinister world. Enjoy it as a multi-layered horror story. We’ll focus here on “X’ed Out,” the first graphic novel in the series which came out in 2010. And you can then proceed to a review of “The Hive” in the next post.
“X’ed Out” is as much about the angst of Generation X as it is a horror story. The two themes actually compliment each other rather nicely here. You will find equal amounts of supernatural horror and the self-inflicted horror of disaffected youth. Consider any art school crowd of a generation ago (or any generation, really) and you will find an inner core of self-loathing malcontented rebels ready to set the world on fire. What will it take? Start up a band? How about a magazine? But what will it ultimately take to make the pain go away? What happens when raw idealism and Prozac aren’t enough?
We begin with the cartoony doppelganger. He is sitting up after a restless sleep in an old fold out bed. He has a bandage across the side of his head which can’t be a good sign. He has no idea of where he is. And, once he makes his way out into the outside, we see that this is a very strange place he has found himself in. As we progress through the story, we see that this world is more real in some ways than the hipster world that Doug and his girlfriend, Sarah, are so enthralled by. It’s as if the chickens have come home to roost, as if all those extreme misfits staying up late at night have finally summoned up the Devil. There’s a hint that Sarah may have actually done something like that. And then there’s that strange bandage across the side of Doug’s head.
It really is easy to enjoy both of these installments in either order. Although you can sense the force of the narrative progressing from the first book to the second, the numerous transitions in both books can act as so many elements building up, providing clues. Who is the old man in the creepy cartoon world that Doug’s doppelganger is spying on? Wait, now we have a scene with the old man followed by a scene with Doug and they’re all wearing the same purple bathrobe . Is it a much older Doug in one scene? Maybe. But, in another scene, we know the old man is Doug’s father. “X’ed” will definitely leave you wondering about what will happen next, who is who, and what is what. It’s when the last book in the trilogy, “Sugar Skull,” arrives in 2014 that the sequence will be clear and the resolution unmistakable.
“X’ed Out” and “The Hive” are available in bookstores, comics shops and online. You will find in many shops that both books are neatly displayed side by side. Visit Pantheon Books.