Charles Burns wraps up graphic novel series with final piece of the puzzle

It was for decades an editorial rule of thumb in serialized comics publishing that every issue be treated like some reader’s first.

Perhaps it’s possible to engage Sugar Skull cartoonist Charles Burns’ third and concluding volume in his latest graphic novel series without a recap. Not that anything was clear in previous instalments X’ed Out (2010) and The Hive (2012) of course — but either way the reader seems intended to experience disorientation from the start.

Indeed Burns continues by juggling countless recurring motifs whose meaning and relevance remain both cryptic… and pregnant with latent menace. There’s a disquieting ongoing parade of fetuses (human and swine) dank tunnels skulls eggs bondage mutilation blood contamination mutation and overall decay.

Additionally the staggered narrative’s loops and feedbacks seemingly endless continue to unfold like an Escher drawing or Mobius strip — that is until Burns at least appears to distill events to a final clarity first intimated in The Hive.

This will for some readers likely come as anticlimactic; it’s ultimately unimportant after all that the artist’s fractured web coalesce into a master pattern since the series’ real spell has been in how Burns evokes an insidiously enveloping dream-like state.

His conclusion is no less compelling however for explaining — or again at least seeming to explain — all. And when Doug allows himself to finally assembles his emotional mental and experiential jigsaw the picture formed is one some readers may have already guessed but which comes into focus with prolonged sad and inevitable recognition.

To recap in breathless comic-book fashion:

In X’ed Out we met young Doug… though which Doug when exactly appeared a case of multiple choice. We also encountered Doug’s alter ego — a comic character named Nitnit who wanders through a bizarre seemingly post-apocalyptic version of Herge’s Tintin. Finally we also met bombshell artist Sarah who came attached with danger: her menacing unseen old boyfriend.

In The Hive we met a more despondent Doug further along in time. As for Nitnit: What’s happening in that apparent… breeding factory?! What unknown traumas scar Sarah?! What’s happened to her by the time Doug can’t stop talking about her?! And in Sugar Skull will Doug finally face both Sarah’s malevolent ex and the ghosts that ceaselessly haunt him?!

This (attempted) synopsis shows how comics narrative like film is suited to fragmentation. This says celebrated comics writer Alan Moore (Watchmen) is one of comics’ distinguishing strengths: a reader can leisurely flip back and forth to unpack the imagery.

In Sugar Skull one really must do so — granting that anything can be trusted as real that is. That possibility is reflected in Burns’ visual approach which contrasts his clean handsome illustrational style of drawing attractive young people and everyday surface reality with increasingly intrusive surrealistic elements.

What emerges is a character slowly waking up to himself having self-sequestered — literally and figuratively — behind sturdy doors and within his bed’s warm safe cocoon. So desperately does Doug retreat into the womb of self-repression that when a character reveals having spied on him we too feel unnerving violation.

What Burns illustrates in Sugar Skull and its preceding volumes is that even our waking life perceptions are so much more fragmentary than we realize. Thought feelings and memories can be a stew we ourselves don’t always understand and can’t necessarily explain.

It’s thus to narrative forms that we turn to construct some semblance of order — not that we like Doug may really want to know the full story even while we’re inexorably drawn out of need to pursue it. And along the way — or perhaps even ultimately — Burns may be using his medium to demonstrate the illusory nature of seeking pat explanations. This is the kind of graphic narrative whose pages are meant to be revisited again and again.

SUGAR SKULL by Charles Burns Pantheon Books (64 pp.)