Thursday, October 21, 2010

best "comic" of 2010?

I'm gonna call it early: Charles Burns' X'ed Out

Of course, it's still early in the game. As the classic pamphlet format of comics slowly dies out, the first to abandon ship have been "art" comics. Even in the heyday of the pamphlet format, art comics had a hard time making their mark. Now that comics, under the more PC / mainstream friendly term "graphic novel," are beginning to infiltrate regular book stores, many of the most "high brow" comics creators have been the first to switch to a yearly (hardcover) book / album format, and many of them seem to pick release dates late in the season. This year has already seen Seth's first such effort, Palookaville 20, but still to come are some hard-hitting front runners as Chris Ware's ACME Novelty Library and, a personal favorite, C.F.'s Powr Mastrs.

Nevertheless, much as I love Ware and C.F., I have a hard time imagining their efforts making the same kind of impact on me as Burns' latest effort. In particular, Burns has broken with past form in a fashion that's produced overwhelmingly positive effect. This takes courage and vision. And it's a damn compelling read.

"old" Cronenberg, The Brood, 1979

It's interesting to compare the development of Burns' style with that of David Cronenberg. Cronenberg started with grotesque horror, always themed around the body, modifying itself and rebelling in bizarre ways, and the effect these distortions have on identity. In his later films, however, the same fascination with body and the perversion of identity have remained, but become internalized. No longer is the grotesquerie on the outside in the form of mutations, now it is thrives on the inside in the form of secrets, confusions, and split personalities (e.g. A History of Violence and Eastern Promises). And, remarkably, as Cronenberg's themes have become internalized and more subtle, the power of his works has increased dramatically.

"new" Cronenberg, Eastern Promises, 2007

Likewise, Burns' oeuvre has always focused on the same collection of themes: self-consciousness and fear of body and the physical, teenage confusion about one's place in the world, conflict and mystery in interactions with parents and members of the opposite sex. In early works like Skin Deep, these themes are represented by surreal metamorphoses of body. As his career progressed, these themes progressively became sublimated. In his most recent epic, Black Hole (1995-2005), much of the action is more "realistic," a scathing tale of teenage fear (and cavalier lack thereof) about a weird sexually transmitted disease. Nevertheless, there are still many surreal and grotesque moments, just more smoothly integrated into a plausible narrative about teenage paranoia.

Hmmm, something in the eggs . . .

Now, in X'ed Out, Burns breaks new ground in several respects. The first, and most striking, is that the work is in color, whereas all Burns' previous work has been in stark black and white. Second, at least so far, the main narrative itself does not feature any "unrealistic" mutations or grotesque body morphing at all. The surreal shows up in a big way, but in the (apparent) drug fueled dreams of the main character. Finally, these dream sequences feature a brilliant and twisted parody of / tribute to Hergé's Tintin, complete with Inky the cat (instead of Snowy the dog).

The plot circles around the same collection of themes which define all of Burns' work: identity crises, teenage angst, self-doubt, twisted sex, poor parental relationships, etc. Just as in the case of Cronenberg, however, the imagery and themes seem to have subtled and deepened with age, feeling more real, and striking harder, here than they ever have before.

Of course, this is just the first chapter of an new extended work, and only time will tell how the story as a whole pans out, but damn I'm hooked here at the beginning!

This guy speaks in calligraphy.

Stylistically, it's remarkable how smoothly Burns has transitioned to color after a career's worth of black and white. Of course, in order to do a proper Tintin homage, it's almost essential. And these are beautiful, old-fashioned, Tintin-style colors, not the sculpted, CG crap which clutters most modern superhero comics. Furthermore, the attention to detail throughout is remarkable. A particular favorite of mine is the language spoken by an early character in the Tintin-parody dream world. Although it is basically unintelligible squiggles to the casual reader, patterns ("words") are obviously repeated (always a sign of attention to detail), though with slight variations (as whenever words are handwritten). Furthermore, the squiggles look suspiciously like Chinese grass-style calligraphy, or certain flavors of Japanese calligraphy.

I sure hope this one doesn't take 10 years as well . . .

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