From the 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential.
Had a surreal moment the other day while reading the Charles Burns’s collected Big Baby strips: I knew the dialogue, somehow, word for word—could actually hear it—but I couldn’t remember from where. I thought maybe Burns had, I don’t know, adapted it from an old movie or something. Anyway, a Google search later and I figured out that I knew it from Savvy Show Stoppers, an album by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. I owned the album, or, rather a taped version of the album, back in the early nineties—the song “Having an Average Weekend” was the theme for The Kids in the Hall—and the song—actually called “Big Baby”—was the last track—a CD bonus. It was actually written for the film, and that’s Charles Burns doing the vocals.
In X’ed Out, Burns introduces us to his protagonist Doug, a would-be art-punk poet whose Burroughsesque sound-collage performances are misunderstood by everyone but Sarah, a troubled artist whose photographs and installations reverberate with menacing violence. We first find Doug in the aftermath of an unnamed trauma involving Sarah and her tyrannical boyfriend—a trauma that Sugar Skull must and does answer to. The trauma transports Doug from his dead father’s office, where he’s been hiding and popping pills, into a fever-dreamscape reminiscent of William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this world, Doug becomes Nitnit, his own features transmuted to the Tintin mask he wears when performing his cut-ups.
The Hive takes Doug/Nitnit even deeper into Interzone, into its subterranean caverns, gaping like tumorous wombs, while simultaneously moving the “real” Doug forward and backward in time, through his doomed relationship with Sarah and into the fallout of their split, where Doug short circuits.
Sugar Skull completes this circuit, offering readers the complete picture—and an exit out of Interzone—even as it dooms Doug/Nitnit to repeat the past. We find here the traumatic violence of love, death, begetting, and denial.
The trilogy’s development evinces in Burns’s rich cover art. X’ed Out shows us young, skinny Doug, his head bandaged, his haircut an echo of Tintin’s cowlick. Wrapped in his dead father’s purple robe and set against utter wreckage, young Doug regards a massive egg, itself a visual echo of a Tintin cover. The cover of The Hive shows us an older, heavier Doug, lost and confused in the abject uterine labyrinth of the Hive. In the lower-right corner—the same space the egg occupies on the cover of X’ed Out—lurks one of Interzone’s mutable mutants. This figure repeats in the trilogy, an amorphous being who shifts from Nitnit’s aide and familiar, to a dog stranded in a flood, to a piglet in a jar, to a massive breed-sow, to, perhaps, Doug’s father—and then Doug himself.
The figure opposite an older, fatter Doug on the cover of Sugar Skull condenses these roles into the emblem of death: it is at once the skeleton of the mutant, but also the frame of Doug’s dead father and the emblem of the symbolic infanticide at the core of the trilogy. And so we get the natural progression of life—from egg and embryo to a pink bundle of mobile cells to skeletal remains—set against an uncanny, chaotic backdrop.
Throughout the trilogy, Burns forces reader and Doug alike to navigate that chaos. The first two volumes in the series propelled the reader (and Doug, of course) through different times, different realities, sifting through the awful wreckage for clues, for a pattern, for an answer that might explain poor Doug’s trauma. By the beginning of Sugar Skull, our hero is finally equipped with a map to guide him through the underworld:
“Why does this have to be so difficult?” our hero wonders. Because of repressed fear, anger, hurt—and failure. The real trauma, the secret trauma, of the trilogy is Doug’s radical failure. This failure keeps him up at night, both in waking sweat, but also in his Interzone, the fantasy world where the repressed returns, where his alter-ego Nitnit can play boy detective. And yet, as we see in Sugar Skull, Nitnit, dream warrior, is ultimately unequipped to right the wrongs of the past. He can only replay them in a dark, surreal space. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
X’ed Out and The Hive point repeatedly to the specter of violence and infanticide, both through implication in the dialogue as well as intense imagery. Both novels ominously arrange events that could only lead to the head wound that our hero sustains before the trilogy begins—a head wound that may or may not be a primary cause of Doug’s excursions into irreality.
The infanticidal images that haunt the first two books pointed to a deeper mystery though, one beyond the physical violence Doug suffered. Those books hinted at abortion or miscarriage. But there are other ways to lose children.
Have I over shared the plot? Or am I hinting too vaguely? Reviewing my lines, it seems like I’ve said nothing at all, or perhaps dwelled on the first two books too much.
To simplify: Sugar Skull is sad and beautiful and strange and deeply human—this is not the tale of a doppelgänger’s adventures in wonderland, but rather the story of youth’s cowardice, of how we fail ourselves and others, how the versions of ourselves that we try to pin down—like Doug, who takes endless selfies with a Polaroid—are not nearly as stable as we might like them to be. Sugar Skull also explores how we cover over those instabilities and failures—I didn’t do those things; This isn’t happening to me.
The final moments of Sugar Skull enact a shock to stability, to sense of self. Burns fulfills a narrative promise to his readers, and to Doug—one that, if I’m honest, was not what I had predicted at all—and then sends Doug’s altered-ego Nitnit into the desert wilds. The last few pages of Sugar Skull seem to borrow as much from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as they do from Hergés Tintin or William Burroughs.
And yet Doug passes through the wasteland to a refuge of sorts, the dream-double of two other settings that figure prominently in the trilogy, condensed into a place that is and is not. The setting mirrors Doug’s doomed double-consciousness, a consciousness condemned to repeat the same cycle, to respond again and again to the same terrifying call to nightmare-adventure.
I’ve neglected to comment on Burns’s wonderful art, mostly because I think it speaks for itself. His heavy inks and rich colors help unify the shift in styles that mark Doug’s movement between worlds. The trilogy would be worth the admission price alone just for the art, but Burns offers so much more with his storytelling. What’s perhaps most impressive is how thematically precise Burns’s images are—how panels, angles, shots, poses, gestures, and expressions repeat with difference from volume to volume. Burns uses these repeated images to subtly evoke his theme of cycles, doubles, and reiterations. In rereading we see again, recognize again—but from a different perspective.
And if Burns strands Doug/Nitnit in a loop of repetition, he also extends, perhaps, that same chance to his hero—to see again, but from a different perspective. If Sugar Skull forecloses the possibility of escape from the past, it doesn’t cut off a generative futurity. And as our protagonist awakes—again—to follow Inky into the strange wreckage of the past, many readers will feel prompted to follow the pair—again, and then again.
Sugar Skull is available now in hardback from Pantheon.
I’ve been a fan of Roman Muradov’s strange and wonderful illustrations for a while now, so I was excited late this summer to get my hands on his début graphic novella, (In a Sense) Lost and Found (Nobrow Press). In my review, I wrote: “I loved Lost and Found, finding more in its details, shadowy corners, and the spaces between the panels with each new reading.” The book is a beauty, so I was thrilled when Roman agreed to discuss it with me over a series of emails. We also discussed his influences, his audience, his ongoing Yellow Zine projects, his recent cover for Joyce’s Dubliners, and his reaction to some of the confused Goodreads reviews his novella received. Check out Roman’s work at his website. You won’t be disappointed.
Biblioklept: When did you start working on (In a Sense) Lost and Found? Did you always have the concept kicking around?
Roman Muradov: The idea came to me in 2010 in the form of the title and the image of a protracted awakening. I wrote it as a short story, which had a much more conventional development and actually had some characters and plot movements, all of them completely dropped one by one on the way to the final version apart from the basic premise. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what was to be done with that premise, but the idea kept bothering me for some time, until I rewrote it a few times into a visual novella when Nobrow asked me if I wanted to pitch them something. Since then it went through several more drafts and even after everything was drawn and colored I had to go back and edit most of the dialogues, which is a nightmarish task in comics, since it involved re-lettering everything by hand.
Biblioklept: When you say you wrote it as a short story, I’m intrigued—like, do you mean as a sketch, or a set of directions, or as a tale with imagery? Part of the style of the book (and your style in general) is a confidence in the reader and the image to work together to make the narrative happen. When you were editing the dialogues, were you cutting out exposition, cues, contours?
RM: No, I mean a traditional pictureless short story. I was struggling with forms at the time and didn’t feel confident with any of them. In a way this still persists, because my comics are often deliberately deviating from the comics form, partially in my self-published experiments. The story itself was still ambiguous, I never considered showing what she lost, or how. With time I edited down all conversation to read as one self-interrupting monologue.
Biblioklept: I want to circle back to (In a Sense) Lost and Found, but let’s explore the idea that your work intentionally departs from the conventions of cartooning. When did you start making comics? What were the early comics that you were reading, absorbing, understanding, and misunderstanding?
RM: I came to comics pretty late; I only discovered Chris Ware & co around 2009. As a child I spent one summer drawing and writing little stories, ostensibly comics, then I stopped for a couple of decades. I’m not really sure why I started or stopped. In general my youth was marked by extraordinary complacency and indifference. I followed my parents’ advice and studied petroleum engineering, then worked as a petroleum engineer of sorts for a year and a half, then quit and decided to become an artist. I still feel that none of these decisions were made by me. Occasionally certain parts of my work seem to write themselves and I grow to understand them much later, which is weird.
Biblioklept: Was Ware a signal figure for you? What other comic artists did you find around that time?
Ware, Clowes & Jason were the first independent cartoonist I discovered and I ended up ripping them off quite blatantly for a year or so. Seth was also a big influence, particularly his minute attention to detail and his treatment of time, the way he stretches certain sequences into pages and pages, then skips entire plot movements altogether. Reading Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius was a huge revelation, it felt like I was given permission to deviate from the form. Similarly, I remember reading Queneau’s “Last Days” in Barbara Wright’s translation, and there was the phrase “the car ran ovaries body” or something like that, and I thought “oh, I didn’t know this was allowed.”
Biblioklept: Your work strikes me as having more in common with a certain streak of modernist and postmodernist prose literature than it does with alt comix. Were you always reading literature in your petroleum engineer days?
RM: That’s certainly true, nowadays I’m almost never influenced by other cartoonists. I wasn’t a good reader until my mid-twenties, certainly not back in Russia. I stumbled upon Alfred Jarry (not in person) while killing time in the library, and then it was a chain reaction to Quenau, Perec and Roussel, then all the modernists and postmodernists, particularly Kafka, Joyce, Nabokov and Proust.
Biblioklept: How do you think those writers—the last four you mention in particular—influence your approach to framing your stories?
RM: From Nabokov I stole his love for puzzles and subtle connections, a slightly hysterical tone, his shameless use of puns and alliteration, from Kafka–economy of language and a certain mistrust of metaphors–it always seems to me that his images and symbols stretch into an infinite loop defying straightforward interpretation by default, from Joyce and Proust the mix of exactitude and vagueness, and the prevalence of style over story, the choreography of space and time. I should’ve say “I’m in the process of stealing,” I realize that all of these things are far too complex, and I doubt that I’ll ever feel truly competent with any of these authors as a reader, let alone as a follower.
Biblioklept:(In a Sense) Lost and Found begins with a reference to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and then plunges into a Kafkaesque—to use your phrasing—“infinite loop defying straightforward interpretation.” How consciously were you following Kafka’s strange, skewed lead?
RM: I wanted the reference to be as obvious as possible, almost a direct copy, as if it’s placed there as an act of surrender–I’m not going to come up with a story, here’s one of most famous opening lines that you already know. Usually I know the beginning and the ending and I often downplay their importance, so that the work becomes focused mostly on the process and so that readers don’t expect any kind of resolution or satisfactory narrative development. In the password scene the phrases are copied directly from Eliot’s Wasteland, which itself refers to Paradise Lost in these passages. It’s a bit like a broken radio, shamelessly borrowing from the narrator’s visual and literary vocabulary, the way it happens in a dream.