Tag Archives: X’ed Out Trilogy

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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