“X’ed” Marks the Spot: Charles Burns

Charles Burns’ most recent work of graphic fiction, X’ed Out (Pantheon, 2010) is testament to the ability of words and pictures combined to stand tall among the finest works of nonlinear prose.

Tribute to Burroughs

X’ed Out not only assumes the structurally complex qualities of postmodern literature, but also pays tribute to one of the movement’s early pioneers, namely William S. Burroughs.

In an annotated slideshow featuring scenes from X’ed Out, Burns provides intriguing and essential commentary explaining the primary influences in the first volume of his three-part series. The book simultaneously chronicles the ongoing events in the life of Doug, a young man with artistic aspirations, and the dreamscape inhabited by Doug’s alter ego, Nitnit. Burns explains,

The world where Nitnit lives is straight out of William S. Burroughs, populated by lizard-men and cyclopes. “Naked Lunch was originally called The Interzone—an agglomeration of places that Burroughs had visited, Mexico or New Orleans or Tangier,” Burns explains. “Where Nitnit is wandering is a reflection of that, vaguely Middle Eastern–looking but full of diverse elements, like punk-rock posters on the wall” (“Tintin gets scalped.” NYMag, October, 2010).

Portrait of William S. Burroughs by Charles Burns. Robert Bly described Burroughs once as a "green-skinned reptilian."

Portrait of William S. Burroughs by Charles Burns.
Robert Bly described Burroughs once as a “green-skinned reptilian.”

The above portrait was included as part of an Adam Baumgold Gallery exhibition in 2008 of Burns’ recent work. Burroughs is credited with having been one of the early innovators involved in literary experiments with fragmented narrative, in particular as embodied in the classic Naked Lunch. Burroughs’ approach was defined through the application of the cut-up technique. The cut-up approach has recently seen renewed notoriety, thanks to dj sampling and multimedia mashups. As early as the 1950s, Burroughs and Byron Gyson experimented with audio cut-ups using electromagnetic tape reels.

At a punk party, Doug courageously dons a Nitnit mask and opens  for the band Happy Fetus. His performance involves playing a miscellany of audio recordings, including “Guitar feedback, television commercials, white noise…” while Doug layers these sounds with cut-ups that he reads live. Doug is largely misunderstood by his audience, and is crassly cut off by a member of the band.

Tribute to Hergé

In X’ed Out, Burns unapologetically borrows from visual tropes that are easily recognizable in Hergé’s Tintin volumes, in particular Tintin and the Shooting Star. Even the format of the book itself is inspired by the Tintin. In an interview with Adam Kepler in the New York Times, Burns remarks,

“X’ed Out” is the first in a series of three books. The format is based on French and Belgian comic “albums” that are color, hardbound books, typically 56 to 64 pages long. I’ve always loved the format and when I decided to create a color comic that’s what immediately came to mind.

Burns explains that he utilizes more than one style in X’ed Out: one the one hand, the dream sequences are rendered using techniques more closely aligned with the “clear line” style of Hergé (see the images below from Ken Parille’s review in the Comics Journal), while the rest of the volume is drawn using Burns’ characteristic, heavy-handed and exquisitely feathered inks. The two styles are intentionally juxtaposed against one another, “…Just like the two different threads of story play off each other” (NYMag, Slide 3).

Non Sequitur Narrative

X’ed Out assumes a hallucinogenic quality not unlike Daniel Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. Burns cites Burroughs’ Interzone as the influence for the setting of Nitnit’s adventures; it is also reminiscent of Tatooine’s Mos Eisly cantina from Star Wars, with its alien life forms and outlaw aesthetic.

The masks worn by Doug during his cut-up performance, as well as the mask worn by the new queen at the end of X’ed Out are perhaps a silent nod to Art Spiegelman’s representation of doubleness through the use of masks in Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Trouble Began.

Eggs, fetuses and baby pigs are recurring symbols in X’ed Out. See Ken Parille’s review notes for an interesting comparison between the photograph of a piglet suckling Sarah’s teat, and the Tori Amos music album cover depicting an almost identical scene. X’s themselves are also prominent throughout the book. The opening page to the work is an x motif  created using black and red elongated rectangles. These same rectangles serve as markers throughout the narrative, indicating scene transitions. The bandage dressing on Nitnit’s head is also in an x-formation. In a Comic Book Resources interview (Oct. 18, 2010), Burns mentions:

“X’ed Out” specifically has to do with the fact that you’ve got this kid who’s trying to go on a drug reduction. He made this crude map and he’s “X’ing” out the days, almost like someone who’s in prison. In a certain way, that just seemed a good way of addressing his personality during this period of his life where he’s just not really functioning very well and almost in prison, a prison that he’s made or a prison that he’s in, and he’s just “X’ing” out the days.

There’s other connotations as well. There’s the whole punk culture where you’re “X’ing” yourself out of “mainstream society.” That was a theme than ran through that whole entire period.


The first volume of X’ed Out is a cliffhanger on many accounts. As readers, we may safely assume that Coleen, Doug’s girlfriend of two years, is no longer in the picture after Doug’s sudden attraction to Sarah, with whom he used to attend photo class. Sarah’s erotic photographs (with a sado-masochistic edge) were prominently displayed at the punk party in an abandoned warehouse where the two crossed paths during Doug’s cut-up performance. Doug ended up spending time after the party with Sarah and her friend Nicky, being willingly left behind by Coleen. We know that Doug ended up romantically involved with Sarah and that their relationship did not continue, but as of yet we do not know how it came to an end.

Doug’s tenuous relationship with his father still requires unraveling, as do the reasons for Doug’s head injury, and his dependence on  medication that it would appear is not even capable of suppressing the visions comprising Nitnit’s dreamscape environment, the surreal storyline running parallel to Doug’s own.

The implicit questions buried in X’ed Out are exactly what make it such a compelling read. As an enraptured audience, all we can do is wait in anticipation for Burns’ next volume.

Self-portrait of the author


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