Fevers and mirrors: the surreal graphic novels of Charles Burns

Green, one-eyed men, a chubby, disfigured dwarf, writhing worms with humanoid faces, aborted foetuses and vast, white eggs with red jigsaw patterns on them.

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X’ed Out; The Hive; Sugar Skull 
Charles Burns
Jonathan Cape, 56pp, £12.99; 80pp, £12.99; 80pp, £12.99

Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole (2005) brought him to the attention of a wide, reverent readership. A twisted story of body dysmorphia and weird sex set in suburban Seattle in the 1970s, Black Hole played knowingly and thrillingly with genres, including the horror of the Evil Dead series and The Blair Witch Project, while achieving the wider resonance of a symbolic Aids tale. The clarity and focus of its black-and-white artwork and the depths of its chiaroscuros made for a book of great beauty.

For the past four years, Burns has been engaged on a new trilogy, the first volume of which, X’ed Out, came out in 2010, followed by The Hive in 2012 and, now, the concluding volume, Sugar Skull. X’ed Out is 50 or so large (slightly bigger than A4) full-colour pages of an intense, baffling fever dream. A sick, bandaged Doug wakes up from medicated sleep and follows Inky, a cat he thought had died, through a black hole in the wall of his bedroom and emerges in what looks like a rubble-strewn, post-disaster landscape, which quickly changes into a world – clearly a dream – peopled by green, one-eyed men, a chubby, disfigured dwarf, writhing worms with humanoid faces, aborted foetuses and vast, white eggs with red jigsaw patterns on them. It is a world of horror, most of it biological.

This dream world keeps alternating with Doug’s real world in the present, in which he is recovering from something terrible that has happened to him, and the past, before his world was transformed. That past story revolves around Doug meeting an artist called Sarah at a party and falling in love with her. Sarah, however, is being hounded by a violent boyfriend from whom she is trying to escape. The alternations between the time frames are effected with astonishing fluidity and often not signposted, replicating Doug’s disorientated mental state.

It is vital that we take note of the recurring imagery through the three books: a man’s surprised face seen through a basement skylight, dead foetuses, eggs, ashes, a blanket full of cigarette burns, TV screens, rivers of effluent, a buzzing intercom.

The Hive gives us more on the progress of Doug’s and Sarah’s relationship, a tender story of young love with the shadows of fear and depression raking it, but the telling is anything but linear. Doug is now significantly older and healed of at least his physical damage. Crucial information is released in widely dispersed bursts and that dream or fantasy world keeps interrupting, seemingly arbitrarily.

This world, too, receives extended treatment. Doug works here as a dogsbody; in a forbidden wing of “the Hive”, a ziggurat-style building that dominates the town of weird creatures, he secretly carries romance comic books to the “breeders” – incarcerated women picked solely to give birth to “workers”, who are not human. These comics, missing crucial issues, tell the story of a passionate romance between a man and a woman that is troubled by the return of a violent ex-boyfriend. Time frames and boundaries between reality and fugue states dissolve; chronology is severely fractured and redistributed as pieces of a seemingly random mosaic; texts within texts intervene, as do texts within dreams that bear deep connections with the framing reality. Confusion has never been so exhilarating nor, as we later discover, so intelligently and intricately patterned.

Burns brings it all together in Sugar Skull. I don’t know which impressed me more – the slow build-up, over three books, to the revelation and knowledge that the final volume delivers, changing entirely how we see Doug, or the way in which Burns pulls his pieces together into such a coherent whole. I don’t want to give anything away, but the reasons behind Doug’s fugue states and how they torque the affective aspect of the trilogy are breathtaking. Burns repays the reader’s trust in him with riches and with interest on the riches, too. Everything – the havoc wreaked by drugs, a father dying of cancer, Inky, channel-surfing on TV, the reason for the elaborate and elaborately depicted fantasy-horror, the theme of fathers and sons – tightens into meaning.

Burns has the kind of sick, profuse imagination that Hieronymus Bosch had. This imaginative fertility produces a frisson of atavistic horror, playing on the same revulsion of sex and an attendant gynaecological phobia that the mad Lear rails against: “Beneath is all the fiends’:/There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit,/Burn­ing, scalding, stench, consumption . . .”

A joy of the trilogy is its dazzling allusive play. David Lynch seems to inform the porousness of Burns’s worlds, which seamlessly flow into one another, and another David – Cronenberg – lurks behind the bio-horror. The harmless exploding mushrooms seeded by meteorites in the Tintin comic The Shooting Star acquire the cumulative force of a symbol and become the objective correlative for horror for Doug (whose younger self has a Tintin-esque quiff). The confidence with which Burns positions himself within the larger map of other writing and art is entirely earned.

Neel Mukherjee’s “The Lives of Others” was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten