Sugar Skull
by Charles Burns (Pantheon, 2014)

Even though you may have to go back and read the first two books of the trilogy to pull everything together, Sugar Skull, the final installment of Charles Burns' three-part saga, is still compelling, even touching, reading. It's a very fitting end to a very interesting chronicle.

Still damaged from a wounded childhood from which he never seems to have recovered, Doug -- mulleted, sideburned and with a pot belly -- has a new girlfriend, who's much more mature than he deserves; some legitimate, steady-employment style interest in his art; and he is ready to at least try to revisit his past for a look and perhaps some resolution. He's getting his artwork off the ground, and trying, in his own, shaky way, to come to terms with his past by looking up his ex-girlfriend, Sarah.

The dream world that still holds part of his psyche captive -- the part that, apparently, can't move on -- is beautiful in its grotesque way, but still dynamic and even heart-wrenching, once you make the connection to the real world narrative that the dream world was mimicking. Every part represents a different phase of Doug's life, which leads him to a crossroads. Even in the real world everything is surrounded with intense symbolism, as Burns slowly lets his character waken from what appeared to be a long nightmare into a reality that's far more difficult than a mere nightmare, to say the least. Although Doug himself is too depressed, too immersed in his own inertia to ultimately be a very interesting character, the rest of the story continues the tense dread from the first two. By turns comical, violent and graphic, the journey through his spiritual underworld is interesting and interestingly done. Doug goes back to the point in his life where his world began to slip away, when he slipped through a doorway in a dream, into a previously unknown world. But there's a price to pay for tying up loose ends. Sometimes the price is having your eyes forcibly opened.

Whether he's drawing daily life or supernatural, surrealistic figures, Burns' art has always embraced the surreal, the most grotesque, sometimes downright macabre world, where open wounds and fetal pigs can be as beautiful as a father and son bonding over a sepia-toned photography. Sugar Skull goes further in horror than Burns has ever gone before. It's brutal but it's also stunningly realized, a great fantasy whose artwork raises the bar. The ending is a bit of a deflated tire, but overall, the story -- one of regret and trying to go back in time -- is worth it.

review by
Mary Harvey

13 June 2015

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