Burns’ seventh book – if we view the collections El Borbah, Big Baby and Skin Deep as books in their own right, rather than anthologies of his earlier disparate work – concludes the trilogy begun with X’ed Out and continued with The Hive – and as you’d no doubt expect from the conlusion of a trilogy, it answers a lot of questions whilst at the same time urging you to re-read the first two books (hell, the trilogy as a whole) in order to glean more in the way of understanding (you know you’ll never get everything – leastways until someone does an Alan Moore and provides commentary – but this is a reading experience that repays concentration and repeated readings). In many ways, you can’t really review Sugar Skull without reviewing the trilogy as a whole.
Start with the covers: X’Ed out shows a young man with shaved, bandaged head staring at a large red speckled egg in a wartorn landscape; The Hive shows a slightly older man, carrying a little weight, in an underground tunnel, holding a number of romance novels under his arm as a pink, piglike beast crawls around the corner; and Sugar Skull shows a man who is slightly older, still slightly heavier, with a quiff and sideburns, standing on a rocky outcrop directing a torch at a pile of what you must imagine can only be baby bones. Once you’ve read the books, you’ll see that the covers actually throw you a lot of bones, figuratively and literally, when it comes to grasping what it is we’re reading here. This is the story of Doug, a young man who hangs about on the periphery of a scene, who makes something of a name for himself as a bemasked Tintin reading cut-up poetry to the largely bemused indifference of various crowds waiting to watch bands. He has issues with his dad. We see him injured, a plaster on his head, sorting through pics of a girl – who herself poses naked, with a knife in a heart – from his sickbed. We see him dating a girl called Colleen, a girl called Sarah, a girl called Tina, a woman called Sally. His relationships anchor us to which Doug we’re interacting with. It is his relationship with Sarah, though, that messes him up in a way, whose baggage he carries through subsequent relationships, whose resolution Sugar Skull answers in a way.
There is a second significant narrative skein involving a version of Doug who looks like Tintin (Burns has admitted that he approached these books in the way Herve approached the writing of Tintin, delivering them episodically – Burns has also admitted that he was a huge Tintin fan as a child even though it was difficult at that point to track down editions, and he sometimes read out of order, which might also subtly influence your reading of this trilogy) who exists in a sandy dream landscape of cursing green lizard men, worms with faces who cry when they are eaten, and women who are kept in seclusion to breed those large eggs that grace the cover of X’ed Out. Dream Doug (also known as NitNit) develops something of a crush on one of the breeders – the one who looks the most like Sarah – and searches out romance comics for her before being called on to help with the delivery of her eggs, which of course he gets wrong. Sugar Skull also resolves the issue of the bandage that graces Doug’s head, bringing to the foreground a previous relationship Sarah had with a creepy looking guy with a history of violence. We can also draw out, if we so wish, the comparison between Doug and this previous boyfriend – Sarah is a person given to making bad choices. But in a way she finds happiness in the end, in a way that Doug doesn’t. By the conclusion of the book, see that the dream Doug, the NitNit, is still wandering, searching in the sun, the carcass of one of the pig beasts possibly hanging from a tree, as he makes his way back to the house we saw in The Hive, the house that possibly sat upon Sarah’s head in some of the photographs of Sarah Doug retained, a place NitNit says is creepy. He finds his cat again, lost at the beginning of X’ed Out, and he sleeps curled up, possibly at peace, only to be woken by the buzzing of a broken intercom – are we supposed to think that maybe just maybe Sarah has had a change of heart? Will Doug get a happy ending after all? Is she coming to disturb his slumber and maybe ease Doug into the adult world he has been resisting for so long. It’s a question that hangs.
Just as the dream Doug wakes (and interesting given the different Dougs we have seen, it is the DREAM Doug that wakes and so perhaps we are not meant to take too much solace from the climax of the book, Doug’s dream world is quite nightmarish), so does the reader, with a sense of satisfaction – as if emerging from a particularly vivid set of dreams – but also with a memory of savagery, of things seen that were perhaps better left unseen (like the infested kebab in X’ed Out or the pigbeasts rutting on the bed back in The Hive or the contents of the broken egg in Sugar Skull, or the floppy vaginal hole from which they emerge – are we supposed to think that it is women who breed monsters like the green men, or are we supposed to think that the problem lies with Doug and his fear of intimacy – I’m thinking the latter). These books are undoubtedly challenging and difficult and ask the reader to try and work things out, which is no bad thing. Burns does not offer answers easily but his art and the way in which he looks at the world are savage and unique. It’s been quite a journey – and it’s been hard at times waiting on the next instalment – but it has all been worth it and these three books easily stand alongside Black Hole, the book regarded by many as the Ulysses of graphic novels.
Any Cop?: If you’ve read the two previous books, you won’t be able to stop yourself reading this; if you’ve yet to dabble with Charles Burns, these three books might just open your eyes to a whole new world of adult graphic novels.