by Charles Burns
Charles Burns has finally wrapped up a trilogy of books that he began in 2010 with X'ed Out. I'm not sure if anyone's settled on a name to call this story, so for now I'll just call it The Doug Trilogy.
The story follows Doug, a photographer/poet/performance artist, and his relationships with the women in his life, particularly Sarah, another photographer with a dark past. So much of The Doug Trilogy is contingent on a past that is kept hidden. Doug has his own secret that he keeps from us, the readers, and to a certain extent, himself. X'ed Out introduces Doug as someone who is unable or unwilling to remember some kind of violent trauma, choosing instead to spiral down the hole of self-medicating on pain killers. Similarly, Sarah has her own secrets, and Doug is happy to ignore them, at least at the beginning of their relationship.
A large component of these stories is the strange dream world that Doug finds himself in for a good portion of the series. On the surface it's a strange, alien world with its own rules, dominated by a kind of surreal bureaucracy run by rude lizard men, but going a bit deeper, we begin to understand that it is further a continuing dream or some kind of sustained hallucination that gives us some clues about those secrets that Doug and Sarah keep from us and each other.
When I first read X'ed Out I remember wondering about that dream world and its connection to the main story, if it was a dream at all or if it was something else entirely. One explanation points out that the cover to a Nitnit comic that Doug reads in The Hive is the exact last page from X'ed Out, suggesting that the dream world portions are actually scenes from the Nitnit comics. After reading the whole thing, I'm of the opinion that it is a dream, a mysterious allegory to Doug's checkered past, but even if these were pages from a comic that Doug reads, I think the overall effect of explaining our characters' murky pasts through some sort of allegory or parallelism is the same. If it seems like there are more concrete connections to the waking world of Burns's story, it's reflective of our dreams having the tendency to elicit a seemingly real connection to what we see and experience in our waking lives, like when you see something while walking home and you swear you'd seen it before, maybe in a dream.
The art style that Burns uses for the dream portions evoke Hergé's Tintin books, and in some ways the dream world story takes on the spirit of a Tintin adventure. The cover and book design of the three books certainly mimic that of a Tintin book, but aside from the art style and the loose theme of getting caught up in a strange new land, I'm not sure there's much else to connect it to Tintin. However, Burns playing with Hergé's style has less to do with the content of Tintin and more to do with the effect it has on the reader. I think I remember a section of Understanding Comics where Scott McCloud is using Tintin as an example of simplifying linework as a way to maximize the readers' identification with a character, and juxtaposing that with more complicated or specific looking backgrounds as a way of creating a feeling of displacement/alienation (it's been years since I've read Understanding Comics, so forgive me if I'm conflating or misremembering), and I think that principle applies itself well to the Doug Trilogy.
The dream world and the waking world are key in understanding this. The dream world is one of total alienation for Doug. Strange creatures with even stranger customs dominate the otherworldly landscape, but through it all, Doug is able to retain some sense of self in as much as he realizes he is out of place, and that he would do well to comply with the strangeness around him in order to survive. The Nitnit (this comic's Tintin analog) mask he wears for his performances serves as a visual tie, connecting the waking world to the dream world both for the readers and for Doug. Perhaps we could take this to mean that Doug self-identifies as the comic book character Nitnit, and he thusly sees himself as Nitnit in his dreams. It's feasible that Doug imagines his true self as the "Johnny 23" persona he's created for himself onstage, considering the fact that in The Hive, the dreamworld Doug is assigned the number 23 when he wears the lizard men's uniform at work. There are other links too, like the Nitnit comics that Doug reads, and the romance comics he buys for Sarah. Again, these may seem like fairly superficial connections, but they are important signifiers that are used to connect Doug's dream to Doug's life, demonstrating to the readers that these dreams have a connection to the details of the story that Doug has been concealing.
I appreciated the dream world sections for their strangeness and for the scope of vision that Burns applies to this fantastic and uncanny world, but after I put down Sugar Skull I felt that those scenes ended up undercutting the emotional resonance of certain powerful reveals, particularly the scene where Sarah's dream-world analog explains the plot of her romance comics (and by extension, Sarah's dark history) to dream-Doug. That bit felt like exposition rather than a revealing hint about Sarah's character, and I suppose it is understandable since she is literally giving comic book exposition, but I have to think that revealing that information about Sarah in the real world would have had more impact. Revealing these key character moments in the midst of the dream setting lends them an ambiguity that mitigates the emotional weight of a new insight about a character.
However, I think I can understand some of Burns's intent in revealing things in this way. That ambiguity that results from some critical character backstory being revealed in a dream allows Burns to place a sense of doubt or distrust in a reader because what we see in dreams is innately untrustworthy. Then when we see what we saw in the dream world confirmed in the real world, the effect works in two ways: 1) We get confirmation that the dreams are relating something rooted in reality, thereby making them important to us as readers 2) We develop a sense of dread when we see how things in the dream world unfold for Doug. In that regard Burns very effectively shows us the unsettling power of a prophetic dream. I still feel they'd have more impact if these moments were revealed in the waking world, but perhaps that speaks more to my own inclination toward Doug and Sarah's mysterious romance than it does to a mistake in Burns's method. The dream world adds a layer of obfuscation to character and story development which seems to be in line with Burns's storytelling preferences (as far as I can gather from my memory of his previous work).
For all its exciting dream logic and allegory, the Doug Trilogy is still a story about a relationship falling apart because of Doug's selfishness and inability to mature emotionally. Doug's relationship with Sarah is a kind of "the one that got away" story, but throughout the course of the trilogy it becomes clear that Sarah "got away" because she had to. Doug is a nice guy but he is unable to give Sarah the emotional support she needs because he himself is unwilling to mature. We are able to see this in the relationships he has before and after Sarah. Doug immediately runs out on Colleen, the first girl we see him with, in order to take in the art scene at a warehouse party and perform for an audience that couldn't care less about him. Colleen only goes to the party to be supportive of Doug, and Doug repays this kindness by ignoring her for most of the party except when he wants her input about how he looks before he gets on stage to perform. When Doug is with Sarah, it's fun and perfect until Doug finds out about Sarah's past and when Sarah actually needs Doug to be with her during a pregnancy scare. Doug loves the idea of the perfect girl in Sarah, but is unable to handle a reality with a real woman with a troubling past. He is unable to deal with the consequences that would result from being unselfish and emotionally available to her. Tina, the woman he is involved with after he and Sarah break up, is a rebound relationship, but when we see her interacting with Doug, it is again in the role of unreciprocated support. Tina takes care of Doug when he drinks too much, and to her credit, she stands up for herself and tells Doug she's sick of hearing about his relationship with Sarah and his father's death (more on his father in a bit). Finally, Sally, the woman that Doug seems to end up with, is again not so much an equal as she is someone who Doug is with because he's become accustomed to her doting on him. By the time he ends up with Sally, Doug still hasn't made any meaningful changes, and he is still hung up on seeing Sarah again. The way that Doug treats the women in his life show that what Doug wants is not really a partner, but rather an emotional receptacle to dump on when he's feeling low or needy.
The women aren't the only indication of Doug's stagnation. Take Doug's photography. He takes the same polaroid self portraits, making the same dumb face in most of them. When he finally does something different (taking a picture of Sarah posing with an animal heart) it's out of spite for Sarah's past with her abusive ex-boyfriend Larry. He never progresses with his art. He eventually ends up working at a record store and dabbling in photography when he has time, but he never really made a commitment to making any serious progress. For Doug, his photos are not a way to relate his view of the world so much as they are a way to remember himself at a certain time. Perhaps that's why he revels in his onstage Johnny 23 persona: The masking is ageless and unchanging, his t-shirt is iconic. When he finally tries to reconnect with Sarah at the end of Sugar Skull, Doug wears his Johnny 23 shirt in the hopes of sparking a visual reminder of what they once had, but it's doomed to fail because it's not a reminder of their relationship, but rather it's a demonstration that Doug is still the same person he was all those years ago.
Doug's father is also reflective of an inability to change as well as being a warning about getting hung up on the past. We see Doug's father in the real world, and more unsettlingly, in the dream world. When we first see him, Doug's father is not introduced as such. We know nothing of him except that he is dressed in the same robe and pajamas that the dream version of Doug wears, visually connecting him to Doug. This visual connection without any concrete knowledge about his identity suggests initially that this person we see is perhaps some kind of future version of Doug. It is understandably uncanny and unsettling for the dream Doug to see this, but the reality of it is fairly close. Even Sarah, when looking at old pictures of Doug's father when he was Doug's age, remarks that Doug and his father look very similar. This goes further than a mere visual connection, however. After Doug's father's death, Doug and Sarah find in his robe an old picture of a young woman who is not Doug's mother (whom we only hear about, but never see). We don't know who this woman is, but in a flashback we do see Doug catching his father staring wistfully at his secret photograph, so we could infer that this woman meant something to him, so perhaps an old girlfriend. Like Doug, Doug's father is also hung up on a woman from his past. We also get a sense that Doug's father is a sign of Doug's future to come when we hear Doug talk about how he remembers his father's life and how a once vibrant man that can be seen in old photographs eventually became uninterested in anything else besides TV and cigarettes. The visual connection between the two, given the significance of visual connections between the dream world and the real world, would suggest that Doug's father is a warning of what's to come for Doug, and it becomes even more foreboding when we get to the final revelation in Sugar Skull of Sarah's son looking just like Doug.
The Doug Trilogy is a story about relationships and the dangers of never learning to move on. The surrealistic connections between dreams and reality allow for a lot of further unpacking and varying interpretations, but I think at its heart all the nauseating and mysterious dream imagery relates to exactly what we see in the real world. Burns is an immensely talented artist, using these three books as an opportunity to play with varying styles and to experiment with color effects. His strong technique delivers a story that is an experience equal parts repulsive and rewarding.