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.
Charles Burns talked to The New Yorker about the influence Herge’s Tintin had on his X’ed Out trilogy:
The format of the three hardcovers is based on Tintin in its Franco-Belgian comics album format… Luckily, I had those books growing up. When I was five years old—I couldn’t even read yet—my Dad, who went to bookstores and libraries all the time, brought back one of those early Tintin books for me. It felt like the first book that was just my own…
Eventually, when they started being imported to the U.S., I found the British translations, but it took a long time. So as a kid looking at the books, I was filling in the holes, the missing pieces—kind of making up my own stories, I guess—looking at the back cover and seeing images that didn’t appear in the stories I knew. Now, the book I made—all three books—feels complete to me. I had a pretty firm idea of what the story was going to be when I started, but many things changed while I was working. In the end, all the pieces fit together the way I wanted, or as close as I could get. I feel like I’ve said everything I need to say.
Got a bound black and white proof of Sugar Skull, the final book in Charles Burns’s Tintin-punk-rock-Interzone trilogy. Out from the good people of Pantheon this September.
Back cover image:
A tender moment:
When I first read the press materials for Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s documentary Cartoon College, I’ll admit that I was mostly interested in the prospect of seeing comix legends like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Scott McCloud, and Stephen Bissette discuss their craft. What Melrod and Wray deliver though is much more—an intimate and often very moving look at the lives of the young artists who attend the prestigious Center for Cartoon Studies. This is a film about passion, drive, commitment, and what it means to be an outsider.
In my review, I wrote: “Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.”
Josh was kind enough to talk to me about making the film over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How did you begin the documentary Cartoon College? How did the project come about?
Josh Melrod: In 2006 my wife, then my girlfriend, Tara Wray, had just finished her first movie, Manhattan, Kansas, and was looking for her next project. She’s a huge fan of Chris Ware and she read an article about how he’d been a visiting lecturer at CCS, which had just opened a year earlier, and that was enough to get her thinking about a cartoon school documentary. She asked me if I’d consider moving to Vermont for a year–we were living in New York, and had been for a while–and I said ok. Then we had to convince James Sturm and Michelle Ollie, who founded the school, to let us film, which took several months of emails and a couple of face-to-face meetings and a trip or two to White River Junction. Once they gave us the green light we basically packed up and moved to Vermont. That was in August of 2007, and we’ve been here ever since.
Biblioklept: So you guys were shooting for like, three years? When you started did you have an idea of the kind of story you wanted to tell in Cartoon College?
JM: Our original conceit for the movie was a year in the life of a cartoon school. It was supposed to be more about the institution and how it was helping to revitalize White River Junction, which had been a town in decline for about a century. So we shot for the 2007-2008 academic year and then started working with an editor in New York that summer. It took about six months to get a rough cut put together, but when all was said and done we weren’t happy with what we had. Part of it was that the story of the school’s impact on the town didn’t quite come together–it was an arc that was unfolding too slowly to really be seen during the year we’d been filming. But we also realized that what really interested us, much more than the school itself, was documenting the creative lives of the students and witnessing these aspiring artists at a very pivotal time in their careers. We basically scrapped the rough cut, which was a pretty difficult decision, and went back to film for what turned out to be another year-and-a-half.
Biblioklept: Some of the students, like Blair Sterett and Jen Vaughn, for example, are on screen a lot more than others. Was this because they were more open to the cameras? Were there students who were reticent to talk to you?
JM: Jen is kind of a natural in front of the camera, so in a sense she was more open than some of the others. But there were only a very small handful of people during the entire production who told us they really didn’t want to be filmed. A lot of the cartoonists we spoke with are fairly introverted, and quite a few, both the younger and the more experienced artists, discussed how they express themselves best through their comics, but it doesn’t take too long for most people to begin to forget the camera is there.
Biblioklept: I like that the film is really about the career of cartooning, and that the film focuses on the arcs of these aspiring cartoonists. You’ve got all these great interviews with people like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, but their comments ultimately work to illuminate or enrich, through their perspectives, what the students are going through. It seems like there’s a lot of restraint and wise editing on your end here. Can you talk about how you put the film together? I’m curious how intuitive the process of forming the narrative was . . .
JM: By the time we finished shooting we had something like 150 hours of footage. I don’t remember how it all broke down, but maybe forty percent was interviews. There was a lot to go through. But it was pretty clear what the character arcs were for Blair and Al and Jen. Actually, it’s kind of hard for me to remember the process in any great detail. I was just starting to work on the rough cut when Tara and I had our twins, so for the first six months of the edit I was working from around ten at night until six a.m., stopping every couple of hours to help with feedings and changing diapers, and getting a few hours of sleep here and there during the day. It’s all very blurry, and sort of miraculous that I finished the rough cut at all. My method of working was to cut the footage down from 150 hours to just 10, which is a manageable amount of material, and from there put together an assembly that had the basic structure of a movie, and then loosely refine that into a two-hour rough cut. Then I went to New York to work with another editor, Chris Branca, who came in with a ton of great ideas and further refined the story. As for the interviews serving to illuminate what the students were going through, that was pretty organic. The challenges that a person faces when they decide to become an artist are fairly universal–the self-doubt, managing your time, coming to terms with your own limitations, figuring how to make a living, etc.–so the experiences shared by the established artists were in-line with what we documented from the students.
Biblioklept: You brought up that Tara’s interest in Ware’s work kind of sparked the genesis of the documentary. Were you a fan of comics too? How much did you know about the cartooning world going into the filming process?
JM: As a kid I loved Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County/Outland and The Far Side, but those all ended when I was in high school and I pretty much stopped reading comics at that point. Then, after Tara and I moved in together, I’d pick up some of the books she’d leave around the apartment–like Jimmy Corrigan and Hate, I remember in particular–but I knew virtually nothing about the cartooning world when we started the movie.
Biblioklept: Have you become a fan since then?
JM: I love comics, but I’m a very casual fan. I still gravitate towards non-graphic novels, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Comics certainly demand more attention from the reader, if the reader we’re talking about is me–the interplay between the pictures and the text require a level of focus that isn’t needed when you’re just reading words, although I’m not sure I ever noticed that when I was a kid–and so maybe it’s that I don’t always have the mental energy to pick up a heavy graphic novel. I am really interested in reading comics from the people in the movie–CCS graduates are doing just incredible work and a lot of the former students we followed are starting to put out books now. Katherine Roy just illustrated a book and has a couple of others coming out soon; Jen Vaughn released a book last week; Josh Rosen is going to start serializing the project he was working on while we were filming; Joe Lambert, who we interviewed but didn’t appear in the movie, although he designed the poster, made a book about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller that’s just incredible.
Biblioklept: What kind of movie would you like to do next?
JM: I’m working on a short, a fiction movie, with a couple of guys who used to edit a literary magazine with me. It was called the Land-Grant College Review and we published for five or six years starting in about 2002. We wanted to work on something new, and I’m really interested in doing a narrative, and they’d been thinking of doing a screenplay, so that’s what we decided to do. We’re still writing, but we have some good advisers on board and the plan is to shoot next summer. And I’m in the development phase on a pair of new docs. They’re both about personalities, as opposed to being issue-based, which is a common denominator. One follows a semi-famous performer and the other involves a family on its summer vacation. It’s still pretty early to talk confidently about any of this stuff. I just have to keep plugging away and see what happens, but these are the projects I’d like to do next.
Biblioklept: The docs sound intriguing. I spent some time in the Land-Grant College Review archive just now—what a great collection of authors. Your little microfiction there is a good creepy laugh. What are you reading now?
JM: Thanks! We had a short but good run, and got to publish a lot of great writers. One of my most prized possessions is a postcard that David Foster Wallace sent me–in response to a letter I’d written asking him to send us a story–saying that he’s “just working on stuff that isn’t suitable for publication any place.”
As for what I’m reading, I just started [Erik Larson’s] The Devil In The White City, which I’d been hesitant to open for a few years since I do a lot of reading before bed and I thought it would mess with my sleep. So far so good.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JM: No, never stolen a book, but I have gone a long time without paying for a book. A lot of the books on my shelf I picked out of piles left on the curb or at the recycling center near where we live now. Sometimes I like to let the universe decide what I read depending on what I find in front of me, which is how I got to read The Universe And Dr. Einstein, a lay readers guide to general relativity that I still managed not to understand.
1. I don’t know.
I spent most of this day—Sunday that is—swamping out my garden shed, recently rat-infested. Big wood rats, or river rats as we sometimes call them here, some of us.
This meant sterilizing the whole deal, spraying a bleach solution, wearing appropriate eye and nose and mouth protection, because getting older and having kids I now seem to care about my oh-so-important sensory organs more than I did in my twenties. This meant removing rat feces and a few dead rats. Just fucking gross, really.
I don’t know.
2. Point 1 has almost nothing to do with Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. It’s just that I told myself I’d finally write about it here, after finishing it a few weeks ago and all. The farther out it gets, the harder it is to write about.
3. But really, there is some kind of corollary between my rat business and The Flame Alphabet: Both were repellent experiences. Now, to be fair, the rat purging dealie was wholly repellent and in no way intriguing, whereas Marcus’s book was simultaneously attractive and repellent. The novel’s ugliness hit me hard sometimes, and the final chapters were a sludgy slog.
4. Maybe you’re just like, Hey, c’mon, cut it out with the rats, nobody came here for that, get with the program, tell us the plot:
So, language becomes toxic. First in kids, who hold an immunity of some kind, but the toxicity spreads to all elements of language and just kills people and makes them sick &c. In this mix our (reliably unreliable) narrator Sam kinda sorta tries to protect/save/help his family, wife Claire and daughter Esther. He undertakes home experiments, his “smallwork,” and keeps up the old time religion of the forest Jews (you’ll have to read the book for clues to this mysticism; I am too exhausted from rat-swamping to further explicate).
Society falls apart, sort of. (This is one of the major maybe-problems with The Flame Alphabet: There’s this hideous apocalypse underway but there also seems to be authority somewhere, external to the narrative, a government or scientific cadre or just really a they who keep the system moving, bread baking, electricity crackling &c).
There’s our narrator’s nemesis LeBov (the name undoubtedly borrowed from William Labov, who you learned about in your linguistics classes, I’m sure).
Midway through the novel our feckless hero starts new smallwork for Labov. LeBov is my favorite character—whenever he shows up the novel is alchemically invigorated.
Other stuff happens.
5. Really though, The Flame Alphabet is an apocalypse novel, filled with mounds of salt and despair and isolation and probably madness, rarely energized by action, but hardly ponderous.
6. (Here’s a paltry criticism for me to critically make: I wish The Flame Alphabet was shorter. Like significantly shorter. Maybe a novella. Maybe a long short story).
7. Finishing the novel, I sketched out a list, which hey why not just cut and paste here:
- Joseph Cornell’s boxes.
- Much of J.G. Ballard, especially the stuff in the ’70s and ’80s.
- The Residents.
- The films of the Brothers Quay.
- Charles Burns’s stuff.
- Wm. Burroughs, or the idea of Wm. Burroughs.
- Joseph Beuys and his goddamn fat and felt.
This is the stuff that The Flame Alphabet reminded me of—this and David Cronenberg’s films, which Jesus, how did they not make the list?
8. I mean, really, I think Ben Marcus has given us a sort of lost Cronenberg film here. Maybe what the book most reminded me of, language plot aside, was Cronenberg’s underrated icky 1999 effort eXistenZ, a film that seems to take place in several worlds at once (including the imaginations of the protagonist and the viewer).
9. Actually, comparing Marcus’s novel to a film is stupid.
Really, I think what The Flame Alphabet most resembles—its best parts, I mean—are directions to some kind of far-out art installation.
Which may be a way of saying The Flame Alphabet is best—or really, I like The Flame Alphabet best—when it recalls Ben Marcus’s older, more “experimental” stuff.
10. To wit:
The practice of language smoking originates in Bolivia but quickly travels north. In Mexico City it is perfected. Words and sentences tested by a delegate in a smoke-filled tube, at the end of which is stationed a sacrificial listener called, for unknown reasons, the bell.
The bell’s brain, when he dies, is pulled and separated into loaves. The loaves are tagged and named. Only drawings survive.
11. Or maybe you want some textual evidence of TFA’s Cronenbergian contours:
Ruptured mattresses littered the floor, sleeping bags with the bottoms kicked through. A brittle pillow bore the facial welt of the last patient who slept here. A man’s work shirt had been chewed, swallowed, spit up in a glaze of bile.
Mesh baggies of hair hung from the ceiling, repelling flies. Possibly the hair attracted them instead.
12. Or a Joseph Beuys moment. Our narrator in his language lab:
To test this I created white text on white paper, gray on gray, froze water into text-like shapes and allowed it to melt on select surfaces—slate, wood, felt—which it scarred so gently, you’d need a magnifying glass to spot the writing.
13. And a passage that showcases our narrator’s smallwork as an act of love (of sorts):
On Esther’s final birthday in our house I went to the kitchen to get to work on the cake. There wasn’t much food left in the cupboard, just some pancake mix and a blend of baking powders I’d dumped into a bag. From the meaty, mineral smell I figured this would give a lift to the cake, at least if I got the batter down to room temperature and shocked it into a hot oven so it might have some spring.
For liquids I had an egg and some buttermilk, the custardy sludge from the bottom of the carton.
I could boil the buttermilk to kill off bacteria, then flash freeze it before dumping it into the batter. The egg, too, would need flame, because it was likely spoiled by now.
I broke it into a pan, stifled a gag, then whisked it over a simmer until it frothed up, sputtered, and grew clear again. Mostly it did not congeal. The hardened parts were easy to flick out. When the pan cooled I slid it into the freezer, went to work on sifting the powders.
For sugar I reduced the last of the orange juice until it thickened into a syrup, then whipped in a thread of honey. This would have to do, because I needed the last of the sugar for frosting. I liked to feather it on lightly, then comb it up while hardening it with the medical cold blower, as if the cake had a fright wig.
The frosting I colored silver with a bead of food-grade aluminum.
14. These are all great fragments. Let’s keep going:
15. Desire—need—predicates language:
Presumably if you wanted nothing, you’d have no occasion to speak.
16. And Beckett:
“Failures have their place in our work,” he admitted, after hearing me out. “I’ve had my flirtations with failure. There is a small allure there. I commend you for seeking out failure so aggressively. But this idea people have of failing on purpose, failing better? Look at who says that. Just look at them. Look at them very carefully.”
17. Failure: Failure to imagine (better):
The linguist held forth, smugly dismissing an idea that had recently come into its own. It interested me that the linguist’s inability to imagine something constituted a sound rejection of its possibility.
We kept believing it couldn’t get any worse, as if our imaginations held sway in the natural world. We should have known that whatever we couldn’t imagine was exactly what was coming next.
19. I think I’ve shared a nice slice of Marcus’s prose. Dude can sling it. Seriously. I think he’s a great writer. I just wish more was stripped away from The Flame Alphabet. Feels overtly novelly at times—I mean, yes, it’s a novel, but this seems to be its biggest weakness: Marcus’s concessions to the form.
20. ( Let me parenthetically insert here what might be my biggest problem with The Flame Alphabet: I felt the ghost of Sam Lipsyte working under its contours. And I love Lipsyte’s stuff, seriously—but I often felt like Marcus was copping Lipsyte’s syntax, rhythms etc. as a means to a more, I dunno, normal narrative.
And while I’m here, in these parentheses, maybe I should direct you to a good and proper and real review. David Winters does a marvelous job at The Millions. And he brings up the Lipsyte thing that I just brought up, but he does a better job parsing the two styles than I.
21. The biggest tussle I had with TFA though is undoubtedly my agon (look how I make myself protagonist!) with its confounding reading rules.
The novel’s overtly parricidal/infantical scope, its estranging metaphors of language and extinctions, its remote anxieties of parenting—all of these pop up like red flags.
I wanted to—no, I set out to––deny the book as an allegory. I sought to resist metaphor, symbolism, analogy. But it’s hard, you know?
22. “Mythology is the lowest temptation,” our narrator tells us at one point.
And then Marcus wedges fairy tales and fables into the mixology.
23. And then our narrator:
I grew so alert to its obvious meanings that they sickened me, leading me to secondary, ironic intentions, disguises of rhetoric I would not normally notice. But soon these, too, felt fraudulent and then I returned to the literal meanings, which had gained more force now that I’d spurned them. That, however, did not last, and by the end the words had shucked their meaning entirely and evolved into a language of groaning, beyond interpretation. Or susceptible to the most obvious interpretation of all.
Language! Language! The problem of language!
24. And hence, what I take to be the book’s thesis, a two-sentence manifesto:
Explanations of any kind, in fact, were simply extinct.
Among the many rhetorical modes that had perished.
25. Does The Flame Alphabet enact its own holocaust, its own perishing; does it self-immolate? I don’t think so—although maybe that’s not what it sets out to do, maybe that’s just what I think it should do. I see a stronger book writhing there under the language, eager to consume some of the unnecessary pages, paragraphs, sentences, words. A book that would consume itself. (This is a silly metaphysical conceit; please move on).
26. So maybe I’ve knocked on the book a bit, rated it low even, you may perceive, dear reader: Let me be clear then: The Flame Alphabet is the sort of burning ugly vibrant affecting blazing grueling confounding bizarre novels that we need more of. It’s stronger than most of the contemporary stuff out there, definitely the stuff coming from the major houses. And if I seem to pick at it, it’s only because I see in it concessions to a so-called reading public; I wished to see Marcus pull publishing and readers closer to him.
I won’t forget cleaning the dead rats from the shed anytime soon; neither will I forget reading The Flame Alphabet.