Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Written and Illustrated by Charles Burns
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
I’m sure I’ve used that quote before when talking about serialized comics. One nice thing about trade-waiting is that you tend to get complete stories and I’ve grown used to that. And like being used to it. To the point that when Pantheon sent me a copy of Charles Burns’ X’ed Out, I didn’t read it right away because I knew it was only the first chapter in a continuing saga. The instinct to hold off until it was done kicked in right away and I put it on my shelf unread. And then all the accolades started pouring out of my computer screen.
When Chris Mautner told me it was his favorite comic of the year, I finally caved. Chris and I don’t have exactly the same tastes, but they cross over enough that when I realized I had his #1 pick for 2010 just sitting there unread – and it’s pretty short – I figured I’d end the year with it. What could it hurt?
Little did I know. The bastards.
I figured it would be a decent book to talk about for this column too, since no one can talk about it without also mentioning Tintin, one of the most famous adventure comics of ever. I’d been told that there’s a lot of Tintin homaging going on in X’ed Out and everyone was absolutely right about that. And also about how good it is.
The first squiggle of a line in the comic is an impression of Tintin’s familiar haircut. As the lights come on and the story begins, it becomes obvious that this isn’t Tintin, but damn if poor Doug doesn’t look exactly like him, only with dark hair and a classic, x-shaped, cartoon bandage on his head. In fact, Burns’ style in this opening sequence is very Hergé-esque and not much like what I became familiar with through Black Hole, except maybe for the weight of his lines and my God the details (like all the little divots in the bricks making up the wall of Doug’s room). Okay, actually, the room is very Burns-like. Only Doug looks different. Which immediately raises questions and puts me on edge, which is also quite Burnsian.
Doug’s first comment is that he’s lost some memory. “This is the only part I’ll remember,” he says. “The part where I wake up and don’t know where I am.” That sets the tone for everything that follows. The buzzing that comes from a hole in his wall. What he finds when he crawls through it (horrifying in content; so, so beautiful in the way it’s drawn, which is also classic Burns). The jumps in and out and between events that may be happening out of order or all at once.
I’m making it sound more confusing than it is. Burns is skilled enough that I never felt lost, even when I had no idea what was going on. He grounds the story in Doug, his relationships, and his desire to follow in William S. Burroughs’ artistic footsteps. I may not know exactly who Doug is or how he ended up having bizarre dreams in which he looks like Tintin, but I know that I like Doug and want him to figure it all out. Because Doug is trying to use his dream to untangle his past, confusion plays a large part of the story, but it’s just linear enough to keep me engaged and interested in putting the puzzle together too.
The real Doug (I think) looks much less like Tintin and more like someone Charles Burns drew. He does have a large part of his head shaved though, so that from his right side his hair kind of sticks up and gives him that familiar silhouette. The bandage is no longer small, cartoony, and x-shaped, but a large piece of gauze taped to Doug’s head. Has he had brain surgery? What relationship does that have to his bizarre dreams and lack of memory?
There are adventuresome elements to X’ed Out, especially in the dream portions with their lizard-men, desert cities, and caches of huge, spotted eggs. But it’s mostly a mystery, and as such, there are a ton of clues to help the observant reader piece things together. Some of Doug’s dream-imagery correlates directly to things he’s seen – or thinks he seen – in real life. I enjoyed piecing together what I could from my single reading, but I know there’s more to keep me busy through repeat trips. Which is good, because this is only the first part of the series and it ends on a cliffhanger just like you’d expect from any monthly issue of Detective Comics or Spider-Man. Now I’ve got to wait for the next installment.
I thought I’d left behind that part of my comics reading experience, but they sucked me back in. The bastards.