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Art of the grotesque

Art of the grotesque
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First Published: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 07 17 PM IST

Alter ego: We don’t know whether the world in X’ed Out is real or a figment of Nitnit’s feverish mind.
Alter ego: We don’t know whether the world in X’ed Out is real or a figment of Nitnit’s feverish mind.
Updated: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 07 17 PM IST
Once in a while, a comic book comes along that defies genres and intrigues, bemuses and enthrals readers, leaving them wanting more, yet almost frightened to see just what the writer will come up with next. X’ed Out is one such.
The late 2010 release has received a lot of press (fine, as much as a comic book can) and will continue to do so, largely because it is a deviant take on Hergé’s Tintin comics in particular and European comics of that era in general. This is evident in the format of the book. And it is obvious in the cover, the artist’s impression of Hergé’s The Shooting Star.
Another reason for the huge interest in X’ed Out is the artist and writer behind it, Charles Burns. This is the man who authored and drew an epic tale of teenage angst, Black Hole, featuring a sexually transmitted disease that causes strange and grotesque physical mutations in the people it infects.
Alter ego: We don’t know whether the world in X’ed Out is real or a figment of Nitnit’s feverish mind.
Such grotesqueness is also on display in X’ed Out. The style is uniquely Burns, but it did remind me of Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri, the Italian comic book writer and artist whose classic and sexually explicit series Druuna has been featured in Cult Fiction earlier. Maybe that’s because Druuna is also about a mutant infection that disfigures people. Interestingly, like Serpieri before him, Burns has been a contributor to Heavy Metal magazine.
X’ed Out is a comic whose story is slowly revealed in layers and which is still largely unclear at the end of the book. What we do know is that the protagonist, Nitnit (yes, reverse it please; and his real name is Dough; Nitnit is a stage name he uses, along with a funny mask when he does his routine), a William Burroughs-quoting, stand-up poet who even looks a bit like Tintin, has suffered a serious injury to the side of his head, perhaps inflicted by a new girlfriend’s abusive and obsessive ex, and keeps going off to this other place where everything is corrupted (anyone for meat with worms, strange eggs and other assorted horrors?). We still don’t know whether this place (with a provision of the edblotched exploding spores made popular by Hergé in The Shooting Star) is real or a figment of Nitnit’s feverish mind. It could well be that just as Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy keep going off to strange places and finding strange things, the protagonist of X’ed Out and his faithful (and dead) cat Inky are allowing their curiosity to lead them to equally strange places to discover even more strange (and grotesque) things.
Burns is one of my favourite comic book writers (yes, Black Hole too has been featured in Cult Fiction previously) because he uses the medium’s obvious visual strengths to great effect to heighten the literary qualities of his work. Comic books are often criticized for their shallowness, despite the obvious literary qualities of some of the works of Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, (most recently) Bryan Talbot and others. Works such as X’ed Out prove that comic books can be as allusive, abstruse and interpretative as non-graphic novels (or fiction as the poor sods who don’t read comics call them). I believe that sometimes the indirect or elliptical style of storytelling works better in the case of comic books. It definitely does in the case of X’ed Out.
X’ed Out is the first Burns work I have seen in colour. And unlike other comic book illustrators who are happy to have expert and specialized colourists handle these duties, Burns has coloured the comic himself. That could explain why the solid colours are as much part of the story and the storytelling as the illustrations. Finally, Burns has also used a three-tiered panel grid for X’ed Out, another first for him, but somehow, this seems to suit both the format as well as the plot. I will probably find more with my fifth reading of the comic book, but that can wait till Cult Fiction revisits this story after Burns has finished telling it.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
Write to Sukumar at cultfiction@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 07 17 PM IST