Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #357: Sugar Skull by Charles Burns

When a trilogy is finally finished, the first question is "how's the ending?" And so we're here, having made it through X'ed Out and The Hive, ready to finally know what happened to Doug in the real world and Johnny/Nit-Nit in the strange world, and wanting to find out if it all makes sense and if it's all worth it.

It definitely does all make sense in Sugar Skull, Charles Burns's end to the trio of graphic novels that very weirdly play homage to Tintin. Whether it's all worth it will be more a matter of personal opinion: some of the answers have to be assumed or derived from what we see, but all of those answers tend to be deflating.

Doug has been passive and unhappy for three books now, obsessed with a failed relationship with Sarah and his own many failures. Johnny is almost as passive, but with a flatter adventure-story affect, as he wanders through the strange world he finds himself in, full of odd creatures and body-horror. We have assumed they were the same person for three books now, that Johnny's story was a vision or dream or other experience of Doug's. The exact connection is still not explicit -- is Johnny's world one Doug retreats to continuously, or did the entire Johnny-story happen at once, after the event that sent Doug running to his father's house just before the beginning of X'ed Out? -- but all of the outlines are clear.

And none of it reflects well on Doug. Burns's post-RAW work has mostly focused on weak, passive young men -- both Black Hole and this trilogy -- but Doug is here revealed as a Platonic sad sack, working on what we assume is really bad "art," being a whiny annoying drunk, and morose about the death six years before of the father he didn't even like. There's nothing wrong with stories about characters like that, but the modern American comics field is a particularly infertile ground for them, and so Doug stands that much further out for being that pathetic and miserable.

The big explanation in Sugar Skull works, and explains well everything we've seen in the first two books. But it's an entirely real-world explanation, and, like so many other plot developments, it shows Doug once again to be weak, whiny, and acted upon. That's who he is, clearly, but many readers, lured in by that Tintin connection, have wanted at least a touch of heroism or selflessness or at the bare minimum compassion. Charles Burns will not provide that: not in this trilogy, and very rarely in any of his other works. And, this time out, he's not providing that deep frisson of horror that's been a hallmark of his previous stories, either: the secrets have all to do with Doug and the real world.

Sugar Skull, then, is a bit disappointing: we didn't expect exaltation, but we hoped for something creepy and mysterious. There are creeps and mysteries in this trilogy, true, but they're not central to Doug's story.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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