Sugar Skull

The concluding volume in a haunting graphic novel trilogy, Sugar Skull concludes the hallucinatory, heartbreaking, hilarious, and mysterious odyssey begun in X’ed Out and continued in The Hive.

Like all of Charles Burns’s works, including the acclaimed graphic novel Black Hole, the Xe’d Out trilogy features the same starkly-penned, startlingly-detailed drawings, but with one major difference: it’s all rendered in full color, adding a whole other dimension of dark beauty.

I could get more into some of the specifics of Sugar Skull, but the thing is, the X’ed Out trilogy doesn’t unfold in a traditional linear narrative. With each volume, Mr. Burns presents bits and pieces of a mosaic of five different storylines, and it’s up to the reader to figure out how they all add up.

Over the course of those different storylines, we get to know Doug, a lonely nebbish who’s just trying to get a good break in life. In one of the storylines, Doug is in his teens, living with his overbearing father and occasionally performing spoken-word songs from behind a mask at punk rock shows; at one point, he befriends and starts to date a moody and mysterious girl named Sarah. In another timeline, there are scenes of Doug and Sarah living together, while still learning more about each other—often through Sarah’s photographs of darkly erotic self-portraits. Then there’s Doug’s life after Sarah, where he wastes his days in his father’s house, recovering from a (mostly) unexplained accident. Later still, we see Doug, now seeing someone else, trying to come to terms with all his problems. Finally, there’s Doug, several years later, having recovered from an addiction and trying to move on with his life with his ultimate lover, Sally.

Woven throughout Doug’s story, there are glimpses of the strange saga of “Nit Nit,” a character that’s at once a surreal caricature of Doug and a bizarro parody of the famous comic character Tintin, created by Belgian artist Hergé. The darkly humorous adventures of Nit Nit take place in a strange dystopian world full of odd creatures, including a foul-mouthed, porcine-featured midget of a man wearing a diaper, who in showing Nit Nit around, becomes almost like a friend. Nit Nit where he is put to work by (and alongside) lizard-like creatures in office suits, slaving away at “the Hive,” where…well, let’s just say that’s where it starts to get really weird. Is this all a dream, drug-induced or otherwise, of Doug’s? Maybe. Is it a surreal summary of different passages of Doug’s life? Maybe. Is it an alternate reality from Doug’s altogether? Maybe. Does it really matter what this storyline means? Probably not.

Ultimately, I spent a lot of time reading these books with my brow furrowed, because honestly, the fractured narrative was more than a little puzzling. I even re-read the previous volumes before each new one came out, just to make sure everything was as fresh as possible, but that didn’t always help. I suppose, if one was to cut out all the pieces of the comic and arrange them into a somewhat linear storyline, one might be able to discern the big, weird picture—but what would be the fun of that? Although the X’ed Out trilogy thumbs its nose at the reader with one hand, its other is pointing the reader to travel even deeper down the rabbit-hole of its strange story. Like all of his previous books, this is a tale that only Charles Burns could tell.

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Blood, Bones, and Brushstrokes: A Review of Daniele Serra’s Veins and Skulls

Veins and Skulls, Daniele Serra’s beautiful, dark, and hauntingly surreal study on the complex layers of the human condition, is both a visual and emotional masterpiece. From cover to cover, this book is a stunning display—a gorgeous publication in which one could easily be lost for hours upon hours, again and again, finding threads and ties that bind each theme to its respective imagery.

As Jeff Mariotte says in the introduction, Serra “opens our hearts to the suffering of others… By showing us his dark side, he makes us feel better about our own. Precious humanity is his gift, and we, viewing his art, are the lucky recipients.”

Serra’s graceful artwork translates seamlessly onto the page. The watercolor feel and texture from his canvas is captured in consistent somber hues that lure the viewer in by becoming, for lack of a better word, familiar. Perhaps this lends itself to Serra’s evident connection to us all; as humans, as artists, as lovers of dark beauty and concepts and imagery which might be deemed taboo by others who do not share our fascination with grimness and morbidity. Or rather, it might be his innate ability to understand what it takes to truly draw us into his art: finding a way to connect—to make us want to keep searching, feeling, dreaming—losing ourselves in these portraits and landscapes to interact with and imagine what lies beyond with infinite possibilities left unsaid by his brushstrokes. These are not still-lifes, sculptures, or conceptual art forms we are seeing here—they are essences, ideas, specters and shadows—they are places to which we are transported and presences we need to understand more about on a profound and unsettling level.

Yet in all its macabre gloom, Serra’s artwork is delicate, elegant, and strangely comforting. His lines are soft and fluid, lending themselves to the feminine forms and erotic undertones he showcases in the first two parts of the book. The depth Serra creates on an artistic level is exquisite; particularly in Part One, where many of the figures are set against a backdrop of some sort and successfully convey varying layers of perception. But the depth is also one which transcends space and reaches an intimate, emotive level where the figures and images have no borders, no boundaries—no definitive meanings or messages, nothing blatant to be gleaned. They are black veiled allusions to the most organic of elements—Water, Breath, Seeds—to arcane notions such as Love and Goodbye.

Serra’s erotic pieces in Part Two are reverent and tender tributes to the female form in keeping with those which precede them; yet these are void of the colors, textures, and structures present in the others and direct all attention to the innate but elusive dichotomy of the female body—and perhaps its very essence. The ability to create life, which is inherently sexual—for one does not exist without the other—and the somewhat alluring, intriguing inevitability of death, as we see portrayed here in Serra’s sensual relationships between voluptuous women and lifeless skulls.

The breathtaking scenic landscapes in Part Three are a perfect way to close. However melancholy, these depictions give way to a rebirth of sorts—a renewed sense of hope—for the viewer. We have seen veins and skulls, blood and dust, life, death, and many unspoken things in between. But Serra leaves us with Light…a sun rising in the distance. This says a great deal not just about the intended journey and evolution of the story told in the illustrations, but perhaps that of the artist himself.



Click for larger images

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Sunday Digs: Dracula’s House for Sale, Tattoos, and Cthulhu for Children

A country home in the UK, used as a film set for the 1958 Dracula starring Christopher Lee, is now on sale. The 118 bedroom mansion was also used as Frank N Furter’s castle in Rocky Horror Picture Show and several Hammer Films due to its close proximity to the studio.

Looking to get in shape this summer? Use the Zombies, Run! app for the extra motivation. Convince yourself that hundreds of lives are at risk from an undead horde and the energy to run an extra mile is just there. It’s better than caffeine.

This time of year seems to get people antsy for new ink. Here’s a lovely gallery of scifi/fantasy/horror themed tattoos. My favorite has to be the zombie Princess Leia.

Artist R.J. Ivankovich, also known as “DrFaustusAU” on DeviantArt, has combined an H.P. Lovecraft classic and illustrations eerily similar to favorite Dr. Seuss picture books to create The Call of Cthulhu—for Beginning Readers.

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Sunday Reads: On Drugs, Zombies, and Creepy Children

Here are a handful of links from around the Internet that we found interesting this past week.

Artist Bryan Lewis Saunders takes several different kinds of drugs and then draws self-portraits. Drugs are bad, m’kay, but the results are interesting.

I’m sorry, zombie friend, but I didn’t quite catch that. One of the funniest things I saw this week was a Bad Lip Reading of The Walking (and Talking) Dead.

Zombies aren’t creepy. Children are creepy. Nothing exhibits this better than this very cool, very strange Reddit conversation about the creepiest thing your young child has ever said to you .

And after you’ve been chilled by little Jimmy’s prophecy of your death, or sweet Molly’s insistence that SOMEBODY IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU, you can finish freaking yourself out by looking at these hyper-realistic dolls…of you.

Knock yourselves dead, darlings. See something cool that should be in the roundup? Drop me an email, or leave a post on our forum. Let’s while away our time in the dark.

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Devour It Before It Devours You

John Guzman sent in this incredibly awesome pic. Rock.

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Evolution of a Book Cover

Most artists live in the shadows of their work—and few see them.

We have sold thousands of copies of Shock Totem, and one thing we’re consistently complimented on is our cover art. This happens all the time. Think about that. We get complimented for something we did not create. All the time. The artist, for the most part, is ignored.

Sure, someone from Taiwan got on his back a tattoo of a slightly altered version of the cover art for issue #1—which is flippin’ brilliant—but that’s an extreme compliment. How many people have just e-mailed our artists to tell them how great their work is? Few, if any. I’d bet a lot of money on that.

But they tell us. Again, all the time.

Much like the fact that most people don’t understand how much time and effort an author puts into creating his work, I don’t think people understand or appreciate how much goes into creating cover art—or album art, a painting, a cartoon, etc.

On our Facebook page, we have a photo collection called Resonance. In it you’ll find a series of photos that includes numerous drafts of ideas for cover art we didn’t use, as well as early/alternate versions of the cover art we eventually did use. We want people to see part of the process, because it’s a long one that takes a lot of time and hard work.

As mentioned recently, we will soon reissue James Newman’s ode to 80s horror, The Wicked. We commissioned new artwork from Jesse David Young, as well as numerous interior illustrations. This process began back on September 16, 2011. Over six months ago. To give you a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, I’ve put together a little slideshow which begins with the very first sketch idea and ends with the final product.

(All the artwork was done by Jesse David Young, but the layouts for final three covers shown were done Mikio Murakami, Rex Zachary, and Yannick Bouchard, respectively.)


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Scroll down this page a bit, and on the right sidebar you’ll see a section labeled Artists of the Totem. Below it, links to all the artists that have helped make Shock Totem great. Check them out, hire them—or, at least, if you like their work, let them know.

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