You can always rely on Charles Burns to deliver a sumptuous slice of eerie weirdness, but Look Away puts his subconscious meandering on a whole new level. The book orbits around a young man called Doug. We first meet him through drug-fuelled dreams, where his alter-ego – a Tintin-inspired cartoon character – is lost and wandering through a bizarre post-apocalyptic wasteland, populated by strange mutants. When he awakes we find the real Doug, hiding in his mother’s basement, battered, depressed and addicted to self-proscribed medication left behind by his dead father. He’s surrounded by the detritus of his former life, including a box of photographs, which Burns uses throughout the piece to spin Doug in and out of his memories.
We drift back through Doug’s recent past in a hallucinogenic haze, flitting between memories and bizarre dreams, as he subconsciously interweaves his regrets and guilt into a tangle of nightmares.
It’s a beautiful construction. What starts as a bizarre and alien landscape soon becomes filled with the familiar trappings of Doug’s memories, revealing a deep foundation of real events that are feeding into Doug’s lucid dreams. Even the simple single-colour panels that transition between these states are like fades, as we blur out of focus on a dream and refocus in on a detail that inspired it.
Burns plays with time beautifully, drawing the reader along this non-linear path with his expert eye for pacing, character and plot. The illustration plays along, with the real-life sections echoing the wonderful teen-angst style of his horror masterpiece Black Hole, while the dreamscape blends-in the ligne claire style of Hergé’s Tintin, along with some brilliant references for anyone familiar with the character. The depth is intense – going back through the book a second or third time unfolds more detail, as you familiarise yourself with the cross-references and get a clearer picture of the way that its parts piece together. It’s not that it’s difficult to absorb on a first reading but that it rewards the time and attention you can justifiably spend on it, with Burns layering artistic and literary magic beneath the already rich veneer.
By the third act (which isn’t entirely consecutively placed at the end of the book because of the way the story is revealed) Doug is out of his funk but still chronically dysfunctional. Harbouring deep regrets and incapable of leaving his past behind, he seeks to cleanse his soul, the march of time marked by weight gain and a string of unsuccessful relationships.
Previously published as a trilogy (X’ed Out, The Hive and Sugar Skull), this is a definitive collection, even better than the sum of its parts for binding it all together. Burns is already up there in the pantheon of best American graphic novelists, finding his way into the mainstream by nurturing his underground roots. This brilliant book only cements that position.