Wednesday 2 November 2016

Last Look by Charles Burns Review

Last Look is the collected edition of Charles Burns’ X’ed Out Trilogy comprising X’ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull. I really liked the first two books for their disturbing, trippy and utterly weird story which was really imaginative and compelling but the ending was a disappointing let-down. For that finale I’ll drop the trilogy rating to a three-star average but it’s still worth checking out if you’re an indie comics fan, especially those who enjoy the work of David Lynch. Also you don’t need to look for three books anymore, the whole story is conveniently found here. Below are my reviews for each volume - enjoy!


X’ed Out - 4 Stars

Before the story even begins, Charles Burns invites comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001 and Kafka’s Metamorphosis with a page of black and red panels followed by a picture of our protagonist, Doug, looking through a window at a vegetable monster lying in bed. This will be an unusual book.

And, with the beginning of the story where a Tintin-lookalike character (the cover’s homage to The Shooting Star is an indicator of one of this book’s key references) with a bandage on his head, waking up in bed, it’s clear Burns is aiming to place the reader on the same uncertain footing as Doug with his deliberately choppy narrative style. Is this a dream? A hallucination? What's real and what isn't?

Like Alice in Wonderland, Doug starts off following an animal into a hole that leads into a fantasy land. Rivers of green water, ruined houses, talking lizardmen, noseless monsters and strange red and white eggs, populate the eerie landscape as Doug tries to figure out what’s happening through a fugue state brought on by drug abuse and/or head trauma. 

The story then switches to our world and Doug’s appearance changes from the cartoony look to a more realistic face. We’re presented with fragments of his earlier life as an unsuccessful performance artist called Nitnit (Tintin backwards), who reads Burroughs-esque cut-up poetry (a nod perhaps to the way Burns has written this book?) over discordant music while wearing a Tintin-like mask. 

Scenes of his sickly father, his disturbed art photography love interest Sarah, and foetus after foetus - human, pig, alien - pass by. The mood is tragic, doomed, violent and dark, though it’s unclear (so far) what the story is. It’s possible that this is how Doug is dealing with heartbreak from losing Sarah, and maybe the miscarriage of their baby is responsible, especially as a Sarah lookalike enters the fantasy land at the end and is introduced as a “breeder”, a new Queen for the Hive. 

And, though the story is as mysterious and unsettling as a David Lynch film, X’ed Out is so well-written, presented, and drawn that not knowing exactly what’s happening doesn’t matter because it’s so enjoyable. The swiftly moving story sweeps you up and you want to know more, you want to find out what’s happening and how it’ll end, and that’s the mark of a great story.

X’ed Out’s short episodic nature is what keeps it from being a masterpiece - maybe after Black Hole Burns didn’t want to make something quite so lengthy? - especially as it seems like it will read much better as a whole rather than individually. But it’s still a brilliant comic that’s ambitious, thoughtful, creative and compelling, and definitely worth reading.


The Hive - 5 Stars

Re-reading series books in an actual series rather than as they come out over the years is worth it - at least for the good ones, which happily includes this title. I never noticed before but the cover shows Doug older and fatter, looking like he’s got some kind of office job, in contrast to the Doug that we left in the last book where he was wandering about as a younger man in his dad’s dressing gown in a haze with a bandaged head. 

Well, shall we? Deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole we go…

Doug is still deeply troubled that the love of his life Sarah is no longer with him, though we still don’t know what happened to her. Time has moved on and his life has changed but he’s been unable to move on. He talks to a new woman - a therapist, a friend? - about Sarah and his dying father, and it looks like he’s become dependent upon booze and pills to cope. Elsewhere in the fantasy world, he’s still the young Tintin lookalike Nitnit but he’s now working in the Hive alongside the lizardmen to supply the breeders with romance comics. 

Images, scenes, phrases noticeably begin repeating immediately. The Japanese romance comic that opens the book re-tells the story of how Doug met Sarah in the first book, and then later we discover Sarah loved to read old romance comics that Doug bought her at a flea market. In each version of the stories Doug is telling, romance comics play a part, and, mirroring this series and his own life, there are issues missing in between the comics Sarah is reading so she’s not getting the whole story. The comics seem to be the key to Doug’s story AND comics are how we’ll find out Doug’s full story. Layer upon layer of meta detail! 

The pig foetus reappears though this time it’s coming out of Sarah’s stomach in a self-inflicted C-section, and the Tintin-esque eggs make another appearance. Small clues like the disembodied voice of Sarah’s psychotic ex threatening to murder them both and the buzzer through which he’s speaking gushing blood hints that perhaps Sarah was killed by him. Or maybe he killed Doug and all of this is purgatory where Doug’s soul is trying to come to peace with his strange life before moving on - is that what this fantasy world is? Charles Burns refuses to give us solid answers and keeps us guessing. 

For the most part this book is a bit more straightforward than the first though an uneasy sense of despair continues to hang over proceedings. We see the highs of Doug and Sarah’s relationship and his performance art as his stage persona Nitnit is becoming well-received. Burns spends more time with Doug and his dying father, exploring his father’s past and how he became such a beaten man. It’s odd how we haven’t seen Doug’s mother yet and that Burns seems to be moulding Doug into his father’s image ever so slowly. 

The Hive itself has biological-looking walls, fleshy sides that produce eggs, so maybe this is Doug’s subconscious hinting still further at the mystery at the centre of this all: Sarah and a baby they were going to have? There’s a scene earlier when Sarah took some photos of Doug that he hated because he wasn’t wearing his Nitnit mask (his protection or real self?) - will we finally understand what’s happening to Doug when he discards the Nitnit persona that “he created” in order to hide from reality? 

This really is a very rewarding comic to revisit now that it’s complete. With the way so much of the story repeats on itself throughout The Hive, it feels like it’s building up momentum and the truth is about to come out. It’s an entrancing mystery told expertly by Burns and drawn in an utterly beautiful way - a masterclass in experimental fiction, challenging comics, and imaginative storytelling. Will Doug find the missing issues he needs to make sense of it all - and what part does the Sugar Skull play? Enough questions - onto the final book and (hopefully) the answers!


Sugar Skull - 2 Stars

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! 


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. 

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