Sugar Skull is the third and final instalment of Charles Burns‘ graphic novel, which started with X’ed Out in 2010, followed by The Hive in 2012. If you read the other two volumes, you might be wondering how Burns might manage to pull together this typically Burnsian mix of teen angst and surreal sci-fi horror, but holding this book in your hands is like holding the key to an optical illusion: all the pieces suddenly come into focus, revealing a big picture that’s enormous in its human emotional scale, yet finely tuned and expertly crafted to be the precise and very real fateful nightmare of one dysfunctional man.
We see Doug pulling himself out of The Hive‘s world of internal depression, and Burns turns Doug into an older (but barely wiser) adult. A series of sympathetic relationships can’t help him break the cycle of guilt that plagues his dreams, so he eventually faces up to his demons, only to find that his own fears, hang-ups and failure to engage with the real world have been his ultimate downfall.
This leaves us with a book that is more human than we were expecting. Nitnit’s apocalyptic world turns out to be more internal than you might imagine, a dreamscape that feeds not only off Doug’s own experiences but the guilt he has about his past actions. The nightmare is shattered at the conclusion, but not in an easy and straight-forward way. Doug has been feeling guilt for all the wrong reasons, though his ultimate shame is perhaps a greater sin than he even realised.
Any Charles Burns book is worth your time but with this series he’s stepped up to a new level, with contrasting styles, intermixed settings and time-twisting flashbacks combining to make a stunning graphic novel that has to be read to be believed. Calling it a comics masterpiece isn’t strong enough praise – this is a truly unique work of art that doesn’t shy from Burns’ unusual sources of inspiration, but creates something that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best modern literature around.