Magazine article The Spectator

'Last Look', by Charles Burns - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Last Look', by Charles Burns - Review

Article excerpt

A woman birthing bloated speckled eggs from her supernaturally swollen womb. Sushi screaming and squirming. A skull-shaped sweet, bearing the message, 'I was you.' Doubting yourself. Knowing you don't love your girlfriend. Waking beside someone beautiful and new, only to notice a filigree of knife-scars etched across her breasts.

If, sensitive reader, these ingredients make you inclined to do a runner (your finger already hooked around the next, less distressing page), then go right ahead. Because Charles Burns's Last Look (illustrated above) clearly isn't your kind of book. But if you're in two or three minds about this, then please hesitate, because I'm not 100 per cent sure, but I think it may be a masterpiece.

Burns, 61, is a big beast of graphic novels, and this is his major work of the decade. The story turns on the quest of a middle-aged depressive (you might call him passive defensive) to explore the stinking canals and catacombs of his psyche, and work out where it all went wrong. Crikey, you may again be thinking: sounds like a riot. And you're right: this vision's bleak. As Doug, our protagonist, sees it, the four ages of man are unwanted foetus, suicidal teen, adulterous adult and cancerous crank. But let's face it, Hamlet isn't a barrel of laughs either.

Neither is Last Look , with allusions linking Shakespeare's inky-cloaked hero to Hergé and William Burroughs. As a love-hungry student, Doug declaims quirky riffs of verse from behind a Tintin mask. In nightmares, he becomes that mask. He calls himself Nitnit: an inverted, introverted Tintin, complete with perky quiff. In its surrealist scenes, this book comes into its own, weaving its motifs with disturbing skill. It manages things faster and more masterfully in graphic form than I can easily imagine in a literary equivalent.

NickyLoutit's New Year's Day is Black

The same, sadly, cannot be said for Love in Vain: Robert Johnson 1911-1938 . When, for a book, I recently compiled a catalogue of 75 key figures in the history of cool, the Mississippi bluesman -- revered by Keith Richards, applauded by Eric Clapton -- was at the top of my list. And by rights his mythic life should have made a doozy of a graphic novel. As any blues lover knows, Johnson is said to have learnt his skill with the six-string from the Devil himself. …

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