Thursday, 6 January 2011

Review - X'ed Out by Charles Burns

I don’t usually mention the price of a book until I get towards the end of a review but this time I’m going to make an exception, because the price of this book seriously affected my enjoyment of it. I mean, this slender hardcover is only 56 pages long and it only took me about twenty minutes to read it, but it has a cover price of £12.99. I only paid £8.05 because I bought it from Amazon but even that seemed like quite a lot for a twenty minute read and I was simply unable to get my head around the fact that I had bought a book that (in theory) cost so much but contained so little. This book didn’t even tell a complete story, as this is just the first of three proposed volumes.

Now I know I probably shouldn’t judge works of art by their price and how long it takes me to consume them, but being unemployed, I’m afraid I do take price into account when passing judgement on books, comics, etc. The unique selling point of this blog is that we do judge things based on the amount of bang we get for our bucks, that we provide you with tips on how to enjoy your favourite hobby without spending too much money, so that you don’t feel like a c**t every time you buy a graphic novel and eventually quit comics in disgust, like so many before you. Based on our strict rules (which are actually completely random), I feel obliged to tell you that this book seemed like a bit of a rip-off.

Before I go any further, I think I should point out that I am a fan of Charles Burns’ work and have been ever since I picked up a copy of Hard Boiled Defective Stories in Forbidden Planet in London in the late-1980s – a book I still own and doubt I will ever sell, and I feel similarly about all the other Charles Burns books I own. I did really want to like this book and if I had enjoyed it more I probably wouldn’t be complaining quite as much – £12.99 for the greatest book I had ever read would be quite a bargain, even if it did only take me twenty minutes to read it – but I even found the content a bit disappointing.

X’ed Out is about a teenager called Doug, who appears to have suffered some kind of head injury (we don’t find out what happened to him in this volume), is hooked on painkillers and is suffering from some seriously weird dreams. Before the head injury, we find out that Doug was a pretentious aspiring poet / photographer who got together with a strange girl called Sarah at a party and this somehow led to his current predicament. Sarah is also into photography – she is in Doug’s photography class – and Doug finds a photograph of Sarah breast-feeding what appears to be a baby pig, along with the corpse of this pig in a jar, at the party. Some other photographs show her naked and tied up. We don’t find out exactly who took these photos but Doug’s chain-smoking dad seems to have a photograph of Sarah, too.

Most of the rest of the book takes place in a weird dream world and makes little sense. Dream-world Doug looks a lot like Tintin (but with black hair) and is led into the dream world through a crack in his bedroom wall by his dead black cat Inky (rather than a white dog called Snowy). There may be a lot more Tintin references here but if there are they are lost on me because I am one of the few people on the planet who has never read a Tintin book before (I do now own one and am going to read and review it soon), so I may be missing something bigger.

I enjoyed this a lot more the second time I read it (I managed to find twenty minutes in my busy schedule), but the first time I read it I only really became interested towards the middle of the book, once Sarah appeared, and the first half of the book just seemed like a lot of random weirdness, complete with William Burroughs references. I gradually became more and more intrigued by the story, but only really got into it right at the end of the book, which was very frustrating as there will presumably be quite a gap between this volume and the next.

This looks amazing, of course, and Burns’ art looks surprisingly good in colour. By the time this series is finished, it could turn out to be the greatest graphic novel ever produced. The problem is, this volume only contains a third of that graphic novel and I wished I had just waited a couple of years for the inevitable collection of all three volumes. My problem here isn’t with Charles Burns, who I assume is not a creator who is able to churn out comics at great speed and probably has to serialise his work to make a living, but more with the expensive format in which it has been published. How many people who picked this up in a regular bookstore – and I have seen this in lots of regular bookstores – will bother to come back for the next volume once they realise they have spent £12.99 on an incomplete story that it only took them twenty minutes to read? I am a fan of Charles Burns and even I am unlikely to continue with this story in this format. Bizarre publishing / pricing decisions are rife in the comics industry at the moment and it’s a shame to see even quality publishers are making the same wrong-headed moves that the likes of Marvel and DC have been making recently. I kind of understand why they have done it; I just think it’s the sort of thing that drives people away from comics.


  1. I'm more tolerant of smaller publishers that publish in this way but... Like you, I love Burns' work but because of a lack of funds and a huge reading pile, I'm likely to hold out until this is finished at least.

  2. I think I probably moaned about this one a bit too much but I did really wish I hadn't bought it.

  3. Rob,

    Well done review (on an overall nice blog, I might add). Would you mind if I reprinted it in the next issue of my Google site, The Comics Decoder? I have just about everything Burns has published (minus the hard-to-find and unaffordable Pixie Meat), but I haven't gotten around to picking up a copy of X'ed Out yet; so the inclusion of your review in the next edition would fill a void (make that a 'black hole'--this is Charles Burns we're talking about).

    The first issue of The Comics Decoder was posted about a year and a half ago, and created a bit of a stir because of my essay, 'Webs In Lynch's Closet', which argues that David Lynch based Blue Velvet on the early Spider-Man comics. I intended to get the second issue out this past summer, but certain essays proved trying, certain fellow contributors fell on their faces, and my site was sabotaged by (apparently) some malicious Lynch fanatic. Anyway, while I'm trying to tie up some loose ends with the intended second issue, I'm going ahead and posting the third--a bit of an improvisatory quickie, but hopefully still worthwhile. As far as reviews go this time around, X'ed Out is a must. Your blessing would be much appreciated.

    Anyway, please get in touch via email (just follow my Blogger profile), or simply respond to this comment. I'm looking for essays on all aspects of comic books, comics strips and single-panel cartoons, by the way--feel free to submit, and maybe get a monkey off your chest.


    Rob Watkins