Sugar Skull

Writer / Artist
Sugar Skull
Alternative editions:
Sugar Skull review
Alternative editions:
  • UK publisher / ISBN: Jonathan Cape - 978-0-2240-9674-4
  • North American Publisher / ISBN: Pantheon - 978-0-307-90790-5
  • Release date: 2014
  • Format: Hardcover / Colour
  • UPC: 9780224096744
  • Contains adult content?: yes
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: no

This final volume of the trilogy concludes the two parallel narratives Charles Burns explored in X’ed Out and The Hive. All feature classic Burns themes of alienated adolescents looking at the adult world. It’s rendered in his distinctive pristine brush strokes, and in these volumes, a rich palette of flat colours.

As with the earlier volumes there is a naturalistic narrative of art student Doug, and a fantasy take on the same story, that is occasionally sweet, but mostly grotesque.

This volume opens with an older-looking Doug, and over the book more of his story is revealed in flashback as he develops his relationship with edgy fellow student Sarah. Her possessive ex-boyfriend Larry has been an unseen threat in the earlier volumes, and here Doug comes face to face with him. Questions from the earlier volumes about quite what happened with him and Sarah are answered.

Things aren’t easy with the older generation either. Doug is troubled by memories of his father and the realisation that he too, was once young with his hopes and desires not yet transformed to disappointment and regret. The flashbacks take us up to the point where the first book started, as the story continues into the years ahead.

In the fantasy version, the unnamed protagonist goes back into The Hive to see the girl he likes. While the world itself is grotesque and filled with mystery and dread, the main character and the girl are sweet and innocent. He looks like Tintin, an unworldly boy man, on an adventure where nothing bad can really happen. Or is Burns softening us up to be more shocked by the conclusion? And how will they face up to the real challenge of adulthood and responsibilities?

It’s an intricate construction, with the two narratives from the earlier books, the parallels between them and now the multiple time-frames for the story of ‘real Doug’. No doubt Burns had it all planned in great detail, and he resolves all the strands, tying it all together beautifully.

The hardback edition is a beautiful book, with illustrated end-papers (subtly different in each volume), and a cloth spine to sit perfectly beside the other two volumes, and the three Charles Burns Library hardback collections of his early work: Big Baby, El Borbah, and Skin Deep.

Charles Burns has never published a mediocre comic. His previous book Black Hole, (both his most realistic and most sustained narrative) achieved new levels of acclaim. This trilogy, with the mirroring fantastic and realistic narratives, the addition of brilliant and sympathetic colour, and the overall quality of execution – might still be his best yet.

Burns fans won’t be disappointed, and new readers will find this trilogy read in order, a great place to start. Alternatively the entire story is collected in paperback as Last Look.