Tag Archives: The Hive

26. Sugar Skull, Charles Burns

24 Sep

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The last volume in Charles Burns’s graphic novel trilogy that began with X-ed Outone of my favorite works of art of the past few years—ends here with a bzzzz and a whimper.

In it Doug, the Tintin-like protagonist chasing his girlfriend Sarah through alternative dimensions, is older, fatter, sober, and finally ready to grow up, at least a little. Burns neatly wraps up the stories and symbolism behind all the strange elements—the radioactive eggs, Sarah’s confinement in the hive, the depressed father watching TV in the basement of Doug’s childhood house, the man clinging to a log in a river of muck—and that was, for me, a problem.

The power of the earlier volumes relied on interrupting narrative. Doug slipped in and out of dream-states; elements changed dramatically between books one and two; some pages were populated with empty frames and clouds of smoke. In their looseness and weirdness, the books slipped into psychic spaces that realism just can’t. I’m befuddled that Burns chose to tie it all up in a bow in the end.

Sugar Skull mostly takes place in the real-world, with the parts in the hive-world offering obvious counterpoint to Doug’s real-world morality play. The wrap-up offers a legit premise—a young man is unwilling to grow up and becomes an asshole because of it. He’s the guy who, when you strip away the drama, is just stunted and eventually misses the boat on love and life. The guy whose pain is the only interesting thing about him. It feels real, but falls flat. Somehow Burns fails to animate the horror of that position. We’re still watching Doug freak out about girls and eggs, without the meta-data that this is now utterly boring and beside the point.

That’s another way of saying that somehow I feel punches were pulled. There’s a beautiful frame where we see the face of the child Doug abandoned, and the child’s face is both dazzled and sly, and we know that he will grow up to wreak suffering if not on Doug on others, and it will be Doug’s fault. This child is not the end of a story, he’s the beginning. The terrifying thing is not that he’s dead, like the tiny little baby skeleton on the cover suggests, but that he’s alive.

I am sad, because I adore Charles Burns and could live inside his lines forever.