X’ed Out by Charles Burns, Grandville Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot

20/11/10, The Times

The man with the oddest, sickest and most twisted imagination in the world of graphic novels is back. Charles Burns follows up Black Hole, his sharp-focused, black-and-white horror fable of dysmorphia, with X’ed Out, the first instalment of a multi-volume graphic novel – called ‘fever-dream’, quite aptly, by his publishers – that stretches the horizon of even his own vision. The story, a fluid collage of past, present and dream, in unlinear form, tells of Doug, an aspiring artist, who finds himself waking up from the sleep of heavy medication only to enter a nightmare world of peculiar and repellent life forms. Is he really awake or is this fantastical world the realm of his dreams? Intercut with this is a stutteringly emergent account of how he found himself in this injured, medicated torpor. In this saner past, an ill father, a growing infatuation with a photographer called Sarah, an unnamed illness (depression?), Polaroids and pills all set up threads that will be taken up in the next instalment.

Sometimes a book is so idiosyncratic and original, so much its own thing, that it resists all attempts at excerption or précis; X’ed Out is a sumptuous example of such a book. It brings to mind some of the surreal creepiness and tension of David Lynch’s Eraserhead but in ravishing all-colour; some of his baffling and effortless segues into different time frames and different planes of reality too. Hallucinatory and disturbing, it is also joyously allusive; Tintin and the Shooting Star is referenced in the cover while Doug’s own quiff in inescapably the boy reporter’s.

Gorgeousness of colour and draughtsmanship are in stunning evidence too in another follow-up: Bryan Talbot’s inimitable steampunk thriller Grandville Mon Amour, featuring DI ‘The Badger’ LeBrock of Scotland Yard on his second outing. As in the debut, Grandville, the counterfactual history provides a delightful frisson; newly-independent Britain has managed to see off long years of Napoleonic rule but France and Britain remain entangled in a still spikily antagonistic relationship, not least because of a complicated history of violence during the ‘colonial’ era. A superb, cinematic prologue, about the escape of ‘Mad Dog’ Mastock, a Hannibal Lecter-type anarchist psycho, from a maximum-security British prison to Grandville (Paris), brings out LeBrock from the blues he’s been nursing since the death of his beloved Sarah in Grandville in the previous book.

In Grandville, Mastock is on a spree, killing and butchering prostitutes. LeBrock establishes that he’s looking for something the women had found on the person of a dead client and, realising its explosive nature, had hidden it away. The search seems to end at a dry cleaner’s, aided by his faithful Watson, Ratzi, and some clues provided by the romantic interest, Billie, a prostitute who’s a dead ringer for the dead Sarah. But Mastock is not far behind and the story spins out to become a far darker political tale, involving the very top levels of the two governments. This is gripping, intelligent, flawlessly-executed entertainment of the highest order.