Welcome to hipsterville. If there is something that is both scary and fascinating to observe (like a train wreck) it is the activity of a hipster. Charles Burns completes his ode to the lives of hipsters gone terribly wrong in the final part of his Nitnit trilogy, “Sugar Skull.” Outside of a Stephen King novel, this new book by Burns offers up plenty to be creeped out over. Think of it as “Carrie” for the Gen X set.
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“A Night at the Sorrento and Other Stories” is now available at Comics Dungeon in Seattle. It is a collection of comics, short works and one long form work, all about people searching for something: clues, treasure, the meaning of life. It holds up well, even invites, multiple readings. It is offbeat and alternative in the best sense of those terms. Let’s say that, if you enjoy the weird, intense, and quirky world of Charles Burns, then you will find a lot to enjoy in this book, my first book collecting some of my best work in comics.
If you have not yet read what Charles Burns has been up to lately, don’t panic. You have options. There are two installments of his current wild ride, “X’ed Out” and “The Hive.” Both graphic novels can work as stand alones and you will do fine whether you read one first or the other. Essentially, this is a story that follows the main character mostly through flashbacks and alternates with his doppelganger in a parallel story set in a more cartoony and sinister world. Enjoy it as a multi-layered horror story. We’ll focus here on “X’ed Out,” the first graphic novel in the series which came out in 2010. And you can then proceed to a review of “The Hive” in the next post.
“X’ed Out” is as much about the angst of Generation X as it is a horror story. The two themes actually compliment each other rather nicely here. You will find equal amounts of supernatural horror and the self-inflicted horror of disaffected youth. Consider any art school crowd of a generation ago (or any generation, really) and you will find an inner core of self-loathing malcontented rebels ready to set the world on fire. What will it take? Start up a band? How about a magazine? But what will it ultimately take to make the pain go away? What happens when raw idealism and Prozac aren’t enough?
We begin with the cartoony doppelganger. He is sitting up after a restless sleep in an old fold out bed. He has a bandage across the side of his head which can’t be a good sign. He has no idea of where he is. And, once he makes his way out into the outside, we see that this is a very strange place he has found himself in. As we progress through the story, we see that this world is more real in some ways than the hipster world that Doug and his girlfriend, Sarah, are so enthralled by. It’s as if the chickens have come home to roost, as if all those extreme misfits staying up late at night have finally summoned up the Devil. There’s a hint that Sarah may have actually done something like that. And then there’s that strange bandage across the side of Doug’s head.
It really is easy to enjoy both of these installments in either order. Although you can sense the force of the narrative progressing from the first book to the second, the numerous transitions in both books can act as so many elements building up, providing clues. Who is the old man in the creepy cartoon world that Doug’s doppelganger is spying on? Wait, now we have a scene with the old man followed by a scene with Doug and they’re all wearing the same purple bathrobe . Is it a much older Doug in one scene? Maybe. But, in another scene, we know the old man is Doug’s father. “X’ed” will definitely leave you wondering about what will happen next, who is who, and what is what. It’s when the last book in the trilogy, “Sugar Skull,” arrives in 2014 that the sequence will be clear and the resolution unmistakable.
“X’ed Out” and “The Hive” are available in bookstores, comics shops and online. You will find in many shops that both books are neatly displayed side by side. Visit Pantheon Books.
If you are interested in seeing comics taken to their outer limits, the world of Charles Burns is the place for you. “The Hive” is the current installment in Mr. Burn’s work. He’s an artist, at the top of his game, not to be taken for granted. If there was a Mount Rushmore dedicated to comics, there he’d be, alongside Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman, who all happen to be published by Pantheon. Once you put the awe aside, the story and art of “The Hive” sweep you away. This is a story within a story, life imitating art and vice versa, the innocuous mixed in with the surreal. In some respects, it is an even more enigmatic work than the previous, “X’ed Out.”
There is one key additional layer added since “X’ed Out.” We now see that Doug is looking back at his youth. So, we have yet another version of Doug, this time, in early middle-age. He hasn’t taken care of himself and looks tired and pudgy. He treats the woman he’s now involved with to endless analysis of what went wrong with Sarah, the love of his life. Those days of youthful angst are over and have been replaced with a deeper anxiety only possible once you’ve lived long enough to have your dreams crushed. There’s no more Sarah. She’s not coming back. Try to deal with that, Doug.
As in “X’ed Out,” we have Doug, the cocky provocateur performance artist compared to his doppelganger in a world stranger and more surreal than anything his art could imply. In “The Hive,” we add to that same young Doug, his older despondent self full of regret, full of his own well-earned horrific nightmares. Doug, you once surly youth, searching for pain, you have arrived.
Meanwhile, we follow Doug’s cartoon version as he toils away at a menial job in The Hive, a place run by lizards that appears to be breeding humans. Ultimately, Doug’s own personal misery pales in comparison to whatever is going on in that evil alternate world. The conclusion to this trilogy is entitled, “Sugar Skull,” and will surely be something to look forward to. Given that “X’ed Out” was published in 2010 and “The Hive” was published in 2012, we can expect “Sugar Skull” to come out in 2014.
“The Hive” is published by Pantheon. Visit them to find where to get your copy and learn more about this leading publisher of graphic novels.