“Sugar Skull,” the final chapter in Charles Burns’ surreal trilogy that began with “X’ed Out” and continued with “The Hive,” is emotionally resonant and beautiful, though still appropriately heartbreaking.
Burns pays off the many ideas and symbols he has layered throughout his trilogy, but more than rewarding the reader for attention to bizarre and grotesque details, he finds an emotional resonance to Doug’s story that’s impossible to ignore. “Sugar Skull” brings the somewhat disparate elements — Doug’s past, Doug’s present, and his alter ego/avatar — together, merging into one heart-wrenching end.
Burns has long had an exacting and explicit style to his visuals that serves his storytelling well, especially since he layers in a lot of symbols that pay off over time. A lesser artist risks losing a reader with the lead time between releases, but Burns’ images are so precise and devastating that they’re impossible to forget, and thus powerfully significant when they appear again.
This volume draws together Doug’s past with his girlfriend, Sarah — a woman he never let go of — and his burned out, faltering, discontent present, linked by the bizarre adventures of his avatar in an unreal world. The pain of regret and lost opportunity it absolutely visceral as Doug confronts past behavior that brought him to his current state, and a painful peek at the life he has lost as a result. Burns’ Doug has always been complex and relatable in rather awful ways, but Burns never hid the angry red seams of life from his reader and the result was a more powerful and demanding work, and a character that you both felt for and wanted to punch in the face, kind of how you feel about yourself from time to time.
While the previous chapters of this trilogy felt more disconnected, this volume brings much of that into stark relief and in retrospect though the parts have value — they are less than the whole. And the whole is haunting and complex and will stay with you long after you finish reading.
Burns plays a long game and it’s particularly impressive that he has taken so many horrific images and ideas throughout “X’ed Out,” “The Hive,” and even here in “Sugar Skull” and still managed to bring them together in an emotionally resonant way that feels both tender and sorrowful.