SUGAR SKULL by Charles Burns
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The third volume in a trilogy concludes a renowned graphic artist’s hallucinatory descent into comic-book hell—and it doesn’t end prettily.

The size and format of the traditional comic book perfectly suits the darker vision of Burns, who's reinforced his reputation through work in magazines such as the New Yorker but lets his demons run wild here. Without ever resorting to a linear narrative, he concludes the story of Doug that began in X’ed Out (2010) and continued with The Hive (2012). Sober for more than a year, he suffers a massive relapse when he returns to his former punk-rock haunts and sees some people who would rather not see him. Yet his dream life and waking life aren’t clearly delineated, for Doug or for the reader, and whatever state he’s in, he fears, “[n]o matter what I do, I’ll never get rid of that voice in my head.” Framing and interweaving Doug’s narrative is the even more nightmarish descent of the bandaged boy Johnny, like Alice down the rabbit hole, through a stack of skulls, a reunion with his cat and a deep sleep that finds him awakening to a nightmare that might be worse than his nightmare. Identities blur as plot points in both narratives involve romance comics, unexpected pregnancies and women as agents of healing for deeply bruised young men. But the art carries the weight here and rewards repeat viewings, as the text resists summary and paraphrase. Like a dream or a very bad acid trip, what often defies linear logic makes connections on a subliminal, surreal plane.

A fittingly audacious finale to an artistically ambitious trilogy, one that pays homage to the comic books of old yet takes the art to another, weirder level.

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-307-90790-5
Page count: 64pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2014


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