X'ed Out
by Charles Burns (Pantheon, 2010)

Whether they are about destroyed societies or destroyed memories, dystopian stories, both external and internal, are about personal darkness that can't be walked away from. It can be a real world post-apocalyptic society or it can be a completely internal world, a hallucination; either way, a dystopian story can still be a compelling story, if told right. The first of the Hive trilogy, X'ed Out, another offering from the Lynch-like mind of Charles Burns, is a fever dream of dark, dystopian storytelling. It's definitely mysterious and unsettling. The numerous strange twists also definitely make it a real challenge to follow.

Doug, a lonely and rejected teenager, lives at home in 1970s America, trying to participate in the underground '70s punk scene. He's in love with and having an affair with a girl who is in an abusive relationship. Like Guy Pierce in Memento, Doug is experiencing an altered reality due to a head injury. This complicated real-life teenage world interweaves with a wild, post-apocalyptic world Doug finds himself every time he sleeps. Each time he trips over to the other side, his real life becomes a bit stranger.

Beyond that it's difficult to say just what exactly the story is about. I like that it's open to interpretation but sometimes it felt a tad too open-ended. The grotesque imagery was fascinating but it becomes disconcertingly horrific, after a bit. The difficult plot is frustrating and can end up leaving the reader feeling somewhat disconnected.

Heavily influenced by Herge's ligne claire cartoon-like style, Burns' surrealistic art is an excellent representation of the relationship between dreams and reality. It's very post-modern, or at least it seems as though it's trying to be. Tin Tin comics were themselves pretty subversive and quite surreal. Burns does match that type of absurdity on the surface, but the investment in the protagonist is missing. All we know about Doug is that he lives in a world of delusion and that it's progressing. Without understanding, it's hard to empathize with him, leaving the reader with the feeling that whatever is being held back will be resolved in the next two chapters.

review by
Mary Harvey

4 April 2015

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