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Last Look back

Charles Burns

Price: 
16.98

Page 45 Review by Stephen

"N-no!! There's got to be a way out!"

And then you wake up.

This is the sort of work that terrifies me.

It's the nightmare scenario of things being beyond your control: wandering around in your pyjamas, no money to pay for a meal you've just eaten, not knowing where you are or where to go and being alone in the company of deeply unsettling strangers.

And that's just the nightmare - the images, thoughts and scenarios which Doug can't shut out in spite of the number of pills that he's necked - of embryos in eggs, putrescent meat riddled with giant, outraged maggots plucked then gobbled down by a cowled figure whose nose appears eaten with syphilis; terrified creatures clinging to driftwood as they're carried helplessly downstream by the rapids.

Yes, that's just the nightmare. But it seems Doug's real life took a turn for the worse as well.

The book begins with Doug, his features simplified to a TINTIN cartoon with two crossed plasters stuck to his temple, waking up in bed not knowing where he is. There's a hole in the far brick wall which his black cat climbs through, into the darkness beyond.

He's sure his cat is supposed to be dead. Doug dons a dressing gown and follows...

When Doug actually wakes up in bed, you'll notice he's no longer so simply drawn. That's your cue to discerning what's real from what's not, though those lines are so often blurred, are they not?

His temples have been shaved, and a bandage is taped to one side of his skull, but he still hasn't a clue where he is.

Evidence lies on the covers: a basic cassette tape recorder, a graphic novel, a photograph of a girl holding a giant heart to her naked breasts. There's a flick-knife embedded in the heart. The sound of the door buzzer terrifies him. Why?

Some of the answers to this series of puzzles - why he perceives himself to look like Tintin in his dream, who the girl in the photograph is, where the hole in the wall came from and why that buzzer might terrify him - are slowly revealed by Doug's returning memory. But not where the bandage came from, not yet, though one can easily infer.

The production values are beautiful, unusually for Burns it's in colour, and although he's breaking new personal ground, readers of BLACK HOLE will still be in familiar territory. There are disaffected teens indulging in drugs, alcohol and extreme art projects involving the body; violence threatens to break in from outside, and raging hormones may well prove the source of much trouble. Oh yes, holes. There are lots and lots of holes.

"What didn't I tell her?
"What parts of the story did I leave out?
"I wanted to tell her everything. I wanted to tell her the truth.
"…And I tried… I really did."

If the first chapter freaked me out - preying on fears that feature frequently in my own dreams: food you really shouldn't eat, holes that shouldn't be there, getting hopelessly and helplessly lost only to be misled further by strangers (I don't know what happened to the missing stairs, filthy latrines and my teeth all chewed out on the floor) - then the second proved equally unsettling.

There's more of that when he delivers romance comics on a metal trolley to bedridden female patients, pushing the cart down endless, roughly hewn tunnels in a semi-industrial warren prone to unseen accidents that render certain off-limit areas toxic. Apparently there was screaming in the late hours last night. It came from Cindy's cubicle, and it went on for hours… until it stopped.

Meanwhile, in his waking world, Doug is recalling his courtship with raven-haired Sarah: a stroll in windswept, autumn-leafed park where they picked up sixties' romance comics from an old man at the flea market. Sarah was delighted at the find. Doug bought her the lot, and it bought him a kiss.

"You know what? That was really sweet of you. I know you think these are stupid, but… but wait.. here's where you stop and kiss me… just like they do in the comics."

"My kiss was awkward and clumsy," recalls Doug. "But she made up for it… She made it perfect."

The evening too seemed perfect, a simple dinner together back at Sarah and Nicky's. Nicky was out, at band practice but Sarah… Sarah is a little more fragile than she looks.

There's more about the buzzer and the threatening voice behind it, as well as Doug's stage performances behind a Tintin mask. Oh yes, and those photographs.

But it's the romance comics that particularly fascinated me this time: the search for missing issues, and speculation on what must have happened in the gap. For those of us reading comics before the birth of the collected edition that's got to ring bells, as well as dreams in which you finally fill your gaps at a second-hand stall - gaps that in real life might never have existed. The comics are in Japanese so it's even more difficult to fathom what happened, and they're drawn unmistakably by Marvel Comics veteran John Romita Sr. whom Burns nails both in the composition and the man's brush strokes. The hair is quite perfect.

There's a telling scene during which Doug attempts to win a tortuously circuitous argument by shrugging off his own role in its potential resolution, knowing he's doing so and so only looking Sarah's way - more than a little sheepishly, to see if it's working - once her back is turned. It's a precisely judged expression.

A little later there's a rare glimpse at Burns' talent for exquisite photorealism - on the television screen at his father's which is where Doug retreats to.

"I wanted a safe, dark place to hide."

Hmmm.... Is that really any way out?

This collects the hardcover Charles Burns trilogy of X'ED OUT, THE HIVE and SUGAR SKULL.

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