Back when Charles Burns’ X’ed Out was first announced, I’m pretty sure I was still at Wizard. The idea was that he’d publish this story in three parts over the course of years. At the time, I don’t think I’d read Black Hole yet, but was still curious about the book. Even so, I figured I’d wait until the entire thing was out in the world before I read it.
Cut to a few weeks back when I was looking at my library’s art section and found several shelves dedicated to books on the history of comics and even a few seemingly misplaced graphic novels like X’ed. I grabbed it and put in a request for The Hive and Sugar Skull immediately after getting home and read them all within a few days of each other, which is definitely the way to go unless you can sit down and knock them out one right after the other.
These three books chronicle large chunks of Doug’s life. Doug’s a dude who liked to dress up in a Tintin mask (called Nitnit in the book) and spout half-written poetry off to the sound of noise collages at rock shows while in college. He had a girlfriend, but left her for a girl he found far more interesting named Sarah. In a lot of ways, Sarah changes his life. He finds a fellow artist in her, someone who actually does more with her talent than take awkward self portraits with a Polaroid. But, like Doug, Sarah has a lot of other things going on, including a crazy ex boyfriend.
None of this is expressed as linearly in the book as in the above paragraph. We cut from periods of Doug’s life — usually designated by haircuts, chubbiness and scars that you just have to pick up on — to a Nitnit-inspired world filled with overly mean lizards, red and white eggs and bed-ridden versions of the women he loved who birth those eggs. I’m far from the best person in the world to analyze anything, but upon my first reading, I saw this world as the place Doug retreated to to punish himself for not being the person he thought he could be.
When I finished Sugar Skull I felt very much like I did after watching David Lynch’s Lost Highway for the first time. In both cases I felt moved by the ingestion of art I just partook in, but knew that I wouldn’t actually understand it without repeated attempts (or possibly ever). Some people love having every beat and moment explained to them — and I honestly wouldn’t mind an in depth conversation about these books in the next few weeks before the memories begin to fade — but man, I love this kind of thing. It’s not the sort of entertainment I put into my brain often, because of general parent-related tiredness, but when I do, this is exactly the kind of deep, dark, layered story I want.