Sunday, 7 December 2014

Sugar Skull by Charles Burns Review

Sugar Skull Cover Charles Burns

Dear me. By the end of The Hive, Charles Burns cranked this beauty up to top speed - then in Sugar Skull he ran it smack into a brick wall. 

Sugar Skull was an immensely disappointing let-down to what has otherwise been a fascinating series. Charles Burns explains everything in this final volume of his X’ed Out Trilogy, which is something you’ll either appreciate, because you hate any ambiguity at the end of a story, or dislike because that’s not consistent with the way this has been written thus far. 

But worse - far worse - is the disproportionate balance between the apocalyptic, messed-up, heightened tragedy of Doug and Sarah’s story, that has been built up now over two volumes, and the bafflingly banal and truly uninspired reveal of the secret at the heart of this series. 

I was expecting Burns to show us something shocking and horrific that explains why Doug’s life has been shattered and why he’s created this elaborate fantasy world to cope. And the reveal, without going into spoilers? It’s so ordinary and unbelievably disappointing, not least because there’s no mystery, while the ending was terrible - it was an art school cliche!

I re-read the first two books in preparation for this final volume so I wouldn’t miss anything and so I could fully appreciate what I was sure was going to be a modern masterpiece - and all I got from doing this was the renewed admiration of the journey, and gorgeous art, that Burns provided. He completely fumbles the ending like you wouldn’t believe. 

And those are the reasons to read this series: the journey and the art. Maybe it’s just me and you’ll love the ending too - it’s all there, no further mystery leftover - in which case you’re really going to enjoy the series. But if you spent any time in thinking up elaborate explanations for what it all means, prepare for major disappointment going in.

What, specifically, am I talking about? What’s seriously got my goat and how does it all play out? It’s spoiler time! 

OK? OK. 

First of all, nobody’s dead. All of the dead foetus imagery was a red herring, or actually it’s just to do with their “art”. Doug does get Sarah pregnant but she doesn’t have an abortion or a miscarriage, and even her psycho ex, who we discover is named Larry, doesn’t follow through on any of his threats of murder. 

So Sarah has Doug’s kid, Danny, but Doug’s such a baby himself that he can’t deal with any level of responsibility, let alone being a father, so he runs away and totally shuts himself away from Sarah. Years pass, Doug eventually marries someone called Sally, whom he occasionally cheats on with someone called Tina (the blonde he’s talking to in The Hive) because he’s still an immature idiot, and, though he’s sober most of the time, he relapses into the booze now and again. 

All of which is to say, Doug is a fuckup. He was a pretentious douchebag with his performance art, and he never really grew up at all. His performance art fell by the wayside, he went to work in a record store, the band Sarah’s roommate was in, Bacon, took off and became a successful group called Animal Byproducts. Doug continued being a fuckup.

When Doug goes to the fantasy realm he becomes Johnny 23 (though he previously called himself Nitnit), a Tintin lookalike who’s escaping from reality by pretending he lives in a crazy landscape filled with monsters and aliens and whatnot. That’s really what the performance art was all about - the mask. Putting up a barrier between himself and the outside world and pretending he was someone else. It’s pretty pathetic. 

Why’s he bandaged? Sarah’s psycho ex beat him up. Yawn. 

What’s with all his dad flashbacks? His dad was sad because of the one that got away and he deeply regretted it. This prompts Doug to seek out Sarah after all these years. That’s it. 

It ends with Doug retreating back to his fantasy as Johnny 23 and reverting back to the same imagery of the opening pages of the first book. He’s lying in bed, he sees his dead cat, there’s a buzzing sound and a hole in the wall. He’s doomed to repeat his nightmares forever because he’s a self-loathing dick who can’t change or deal with the reality of his life. Awful. 

So the whole story was about a guy who knocked up a girl, ran away, felt guilty about it, eventually talked to the girl without really making an effort to involve himself in her or his kid’s life, she told him to get lost (and good for Sarah for saying that!), and that was it. He built up a massive fantasy mystery around what was a very ordinary story. 

See what I mean about the build up not really balancing out with the explanation? Oh well.

Sugar Skull

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