- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2010

THE ALCHEMIST: A GRAPHIC NOVEL
By Paulo Coelho
HarperOne, $22.99 187 pages

X’ED OUT
By Charles Burns
Pantheon, $19.95 51 pages

Comics are the new canvas. Their panels offer artists a clean slate for sharpening their illustrations and then segmenting them so they achieve maximum flow for readers’ eyes. They offer the stasis of a painting and the pacing of a movie. Most important, comics are bursting with creativity. Comics illustrators can cast the net so widely they often land in wildly different universes.

Take a pair of eye-catchers likely stocking the same shelves yet existing worlds apart - a graphic novelization of author Paulo Coelho’s acclaimed novel “The Alchemist” and the first issue of renowned illustrator Charles Burns‘ new series “X'ed Out.” The former is a beautiful retelling of an inspirational quest, the latter a bleak mixture of surreal nightmare and existential crisis.

“The Alchemist” likely will prove more popular, given that the book that inspired it is an international best-seller hailed as a modern classic. It tells the tale of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who leaves his homeland questing for treasure in the Middle East. Readers accompany him on this allegorical journey, discovering through Santiago’s trials that faith in one’s personal dreams will always prevail against trials and tribulations.

Chief illustrator Daniel Sampere wisely keeps his art lush and vivid in expressing such an uplifting theme. His drawings are bright and straightforward, often projecting a dominant emotion by zeroing in on facial expressions or evocative symbols. Such simplicity proves a virtue - his work recalls illustrated children’s Bibles, a perfect choice given the story’s proverbial tone.

Derek Ruiz, who wrote the adaptation of the novel for the comic, maintains this atmosphere in the story’s dialogue. Santiago is a childlike narrator, approaching obstacles with a naivete gradually shed as he matures before readers’ eyes. His words reflect this, often appearing plain but containing an increasing amount of wisdom over time. Praying after the outcome of his travels, Santiago tells God, “Thank you for making me believe in my personal legend.” It’s a short, uncomplicated offering but one revealing how Santiago learns to value himself.

Sadly, “The Alchemist” has few interesting characters besides its protagonist. Most lack names, and even those possessing them (his love interest, Fatima, for example) rarely escape the fact that they’re little besides vehicles for the book’s message of following one’s dreams. A cast of characters ranging from a king to the titular alchemist all fall into this trap, repeating quasi-mystic mantras such as, “Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the language of the world.” Such phrases likely dazzled on the pages of Mr. Coelho’s original novel, but in comic form, they come across as hokey.

No such failings plague Charles Burns“X'ed Out.” It’s a stellar work made all the more powerful by how visually (dis)pleasing it is. “X'ed Out” introduces us to Doug, a teenager strung out on pills following a mysterious head injury. His haphazard bandage soon symbolizes disorientation, his life oscillating between two equally horrifying worlds after he discovers a pocket universe in a hole in the wall of his room.

Herein lies the comic’s brilliance. Doug’s life is terrifying - he’s either trapped in loveless suburbia, alienated and drugged, or wandering through a cartoonist’s version of Hieronymus Bosch. The difference between the two is hazy and unclear, largely because of Mr. Burns‘ masterful art. His sketches contain the absolute minimum of lines, lending them an air of confidence bordering on the natural. The effect is jarring - the story’s images appear normal, commonplace. It’s an impressive feat given that pig fetuses, sobbing worms with human faces and post-apocalyptic wastelands haunt Doug’s mind.

The dialogue is equally sparse, rarely lasting past a sentence or two. Despite this, it contains revelations rivaling those found in “The Alchemist.” During one scene, Doug and his love interest, Sarah, overcome tragedy by staying up all night and discussing their interests. The line “And as the light flooded into the kitchen, all of the sadness and ugliness of the night before finally started to fade” captures the moment exquisitely, showing the depth in the pair’s relationship as it grows deeper.

“The Alchemist” and “X'ed Out” share one crucial trait - comics are a valuable medium of expression. Those looking for eye candy in words and images have quite the feast with either choice.

Mark Hensch is an intern for The Washington Times. He writes a heavy-metal music blog, Heavy Metal Hensch, for its Communities website.