The Horror! The Horror! and X’ed Out

by on Oct.30, 2010, under Comics

The horror comics of the 1950s are experiencing a boomlet lately (see, for example, the new Fantagraphics collection Four Color Fear). You probably already know this, but the horror and crime comics of the 1950s were so shocking to some grownups—notably, obsessive child psychologist Frederic Wertham, author of the anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent—that the Senate actually held hearings on them. The result was a voluntary Comics Code that banned much of the gory imagery of those “dangerous” comics: no more “depravity, lust, sadism, and masochism,” “excessive bloodshed,” “scenes or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism,” or abnormally large-breasted women. It even banned the very words “horror” and “terror,” and mandated that all stories have happy endings, with all criminals and evildoers punished.

This history is recounted in The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!, along with 1) some interpretive essays I didn’t much care for and 2) awesome cover art and stories from many of these vanished issues. It also comes with a DVD of a 30-minute TV program from 1955, warning parents about the dangers of comics.

I recommend The Horror! The Horror! to serious lovers of comics (or anyone who likes the trippier side of the medium’s history). But you can also get the feel and style of those 1950s horror books applied to a modern story in Charles Burns’s X’ed Out.

Burns has been working this visual vein for a while now. It was the core of the appeal of Black Hole, his previous book about a sexually-transmitted plague sweeping a suburban high school. No working artist is better at drawing disease and mutation. He makes rotting wounds and suppurating faces disgusting, of course, but also beautiful. They are often symmetrical and always embedded in a world that can be as abstract and cartoonish as Hergé, so plastic and unreal that such earthy images are an extra shock.

Where Black Hole was all firmly set in a single world like our own (except for the plague), X’ed Out starts in a hallucination. The protagonist climbs through a hole in his bedroom wall and onto the streets of another planet, guided by a dwarfish creature that looks a bit like a toad.

We know this is all a hallucination because he wakes up in a more realistic-looking world with a bandage on the side of his head. Then we get an extended flashback that begins to tell the story of how he got this way, something about self-involved art teens and a jealous boyfriend. Before the end of that story, though, we’re sucked back into the dream world.

There are suggestions along the way that something is seriously wrong with the protagonist’s father, who lives in the basement and consumes nothing but cigarettes and pain pills. His mother is alluded to once, but we never see her.I can’t tell if I’m supposed to like the hero and his friends int he flashback sequences—they come off as pretentious douches, and I think they’re supposed to. If so, I like the direction of the book very much. If I’m going to have to sympathize with the douchey version of the hero, there may be a problem.

We’ll just have to see, because Burns had brought the comic book model of serialization to mainstream publishing. X’ed Out is a big hardcover put out by Pantheon and priced like a book. But it’s only Part 1 of a series of indeterminate length. I assume when it’s all over it’ll be collected into a single volume, but if this one is $20 how much will the collection be? $70?

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