sugar-skullSugar Skull is the conclusion of Charles Burns’ trilogy about a troubled young man with an Tintin-esque alter ego operating in a acid-trip fantasy that parallels his real life. In this volume, the grotesque and hypnotizing world of toxic sewage, dead babies, and mutant hovel-dwellers introduced in X’ed Out and further explored in The Hive is finally explained for what it is, and it’s frankly a bit of a burst bubble. I remember hungrily gobbling up X-ed Out and buzzing with the suspense of it, scrambling to get my hands on The Hive and looking forward to a climactic and creepy ending in Sugar Skull. Instead, Burns opts to use this volume to wind things down and wrap things up, providing surprisingly pat and predictable answers to connect the dots between the fantasy and real world.

Charles Burns is a master of the grotesque and of building tension—eight years after reading it, Black Hole’s gleeful horror still lingers in my mind. This trilogy maintains that thrill in exploring the dark side in full, eerie color, in a world only Burns could imagine. As we get deeper and deeper into this psychological nightmare, the world becomes richer and darker. Unfortunately, since Sugar Skull seems bent on explicating why its protagonist’s strange psyche has formed this world, it doesn’t take much time to develop that world any further, nor does it even revel very much in what Burns had created. It’s basically just bizzaro Tintin and his hospital bed-bound girlfriend awaiting whatever strange creature she is ominously destined to birth.

Most of Sugar Skull is spent in the comparatively “real” world, where our (anti) hero takes a trip down memory lane to his performance art days with his girlfriend, remembering the threat of her violent ex-boyfriend and his attempts to reconcile with her in the present day. He is able to tie up all his loose ends, but as many reviewers have said, the conclusion is banal, obvious, and uninspired. What started out as a mysterious madness becomes little more than another young man’s existential meanderings, and not particularly profound ones at that. Comic books have plenty of that to go around, and Sugar Skull treads no new ground.

I’d like to think if you read the entirety of the trilogy in one go, this would feel more satisfying, being the completion of an intense story, but holding one’s breath for its publication was not a particularly wise choice on my part; it just kind of fizzled. It’s not terrible by any means—Burns’ images are satisfyingly precise and other-worldly all at once—but it just doesn’t deliver on the build-up of the first two volumes.

Sugar Skull
by Charles Burns
ISBN: 9780307907905
Pantheon, 2014

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

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