Review: Sugar Skull by Charles Burns

We already know Charles Burns from his 12-issue comic series Black Hole (1995-2005), a true graphic novel classic. Well Sugar Skull, his latest work and the last volume of his trilogy (which started with X’ed Out [2010] and The Hive [2012]), has finally arrived!
However impatient I was to know how this internal conflict would be solved, I must say my waiting was rewarded! With Sugar Skull, Burns’ trilogy finds closure in a very moving way! 

If Doug, the main character, echoes HergĂ©’s protagonist Tintin, it’s only by means of opposition. Doug’s a real antihero and solely relates to Tintin in superficial ways. In fact, Doug’s stage name, Nit Nit, also embodies this reversal. 

Indeed, whereas Tintin always finds a way to solve the mystery and complete the adventure, Doug is unable to find the missing piece of the puzzle. But why? 

Burns tells us that it’s because the mystery is within our immature and ambivalent main character. Since Doug’s internal struggle ties the narrative together, the reader will discover the fascinating universe developed by Burns through the lies the narrator tells himself.

The three books deal with memory, insisting on its plasticity or in other words, its changeable and malleable nature. If Modiano, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, has made the art of remembering a central part of his work, it’s right to say that Burns’ Sugar Skull is particularly apropos.

Suffering from a blackout that is visually reminded through an x-shaped bandage on his head, Doug engages himself in a remembering quest where past, present and fantasies intertwine in an intriguing amalgam.

Burns pushes the limit of the temporal confusion by deciding not to include page numbers! Stories interlace with fluidity and a good number of visual motifs throughout the three books create an effect of consistency. As an example, the motif of the (alien, human, or pig) foetus is particularly prominent and we quickly grow aware that it has to do with Doug’s trauma.

The main character, a photography student, evolves in the underground punk scene of the 80’s. 

Thanks to some old polaroids he took while dating the gorgeous Sarah, who's also a photography student, Doug is able to remember some traumatic life episodes he had forgotten. Therefore, Burns’ framing is very photographic.

There are also a lot of close-ups, echoing one of the story’s leitmotivs "try[ing] to focus in on the good things." Of course, the narrator fails to focus on the good things and is instead haunted by a troubled past, as "…[his] eyes always drift."

The rapid succession of images that Burns uses frequently reminds me of Doug’s father and his continual TV zapping. In fact, the father is also an ambivalent figure, taking an active role in Doug’s conflictual memory. If the narrator doesn’t seem to identify with him, he nonetheless wears the same bathrobe and slippers and adopts the same regime: cigarettes, denial and isolation.

It’s also important to comment Burns’ usage of colors, which is anything but aleatory. Vivid and beautiful, the colors enhance Burns’s apocalyptic world, but also allow narrative transition, in a non-linear narrative. As an example, Sugar Skull starts with a brick-red monochrome panel, followed a page later by a midnight blue monochrome panel, that signals, as "once upon a time" often does in a fairy tale, the start of a new temporality. We are then projected into the realm of Doug’s fantasies.

Once again, Burns gives the reader the impression that nothing is left to chance. Sugar Skull unfolds itself beautifully, exploring reality as much as a crazy post-apocalyptic universe. Burns’ trilogy finds closure in a deep human way. It ends by revealing the responsibilities that Doug tried to escape from and shows us that past can never be truly erased. Sugar Skull is touching and poignant because of its sincerity and simplicity. Truth is simple, but is in no way less hard to bear, for the reader as for Doug. Thus, the antihero, in Sugar Skull’s final pages, goes back to his fantasy world, which is devastated and foreign, but somehow preferred to reality.

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