Lives Worth Examining in Charles Burns' Last Look

Last Look
Written and Drawn by Charles Burns
Published by Pantheon Graphic Novels

In Last Look, Charles Burns is telling stories on multiple, yet equal, levels. You could read this book as the story about reality and a fantasy world constructed by the main character Doug, where a performance character of his named Johnny 23 navigates a twisted an alien landscape. But let’s turn this perception around briefly; maybe Doug is a character that Johnny 23 is reading about in the romance comics that he enjoys with the breeder patients he serves on some strange, foreign world. One of these characters exists in the others stories but thanks to the structure of Last Look, Burns never says one story is real and the other is fantasy.  He never elevates one character or reality over the others.

Owing a lot to William Burroughs (the endpapers for the original printing of the third part Sugar Skull contained a very Burroughs-like portrait,) the cut-up nature of Last Look creates a puzzle for the reader to solve. On one hand, you have the story of Doug, a young man who watched his father slowly die and takes that into all of his relationships and attempts at art. But the book also contains this story of Johnny 23, another young, naive man who ends up in an alien city and has to figure out how to survive. Doug’s story is about dealing with the past while Johnny 23’s story is about a man with no real past trying to navigate a cruel world. And even with all of their differences, from the different visual approaches that Burns uses for these stories to the separation of the real and the fantasy, these two stories brilliantly align to create one cohesive narrative about something so simple as our search for happiness.

As these tales of these two characters interweave, Burns builds this story of isolation and loneliness. When we first see both men, they’ve each suffered a head injury; the side of their heads are shaved and bandaged. Johnny 23 wears the crossed bandages like a badge for the entire book while as Doug’s story jumps forward and backward through time eventually revealing what happened to him. Both Johnny 23 and Doug are, like all of us, trapped in these worlds that they didn’t make but have to live in. Neither character takes complete responsibility for their lives even if their troubles are self-inflicted in a lot of the cases.

Like in his classic Black Hole, Burns uses his fantasies to explore the emptiness in us. Transitioning into and out of the stories of Doug and Johnny 23, Burns switches up art styles a bit. Johnny 23’s story is told in a faux Hergé style, using the Belgian cartoonist’s clean line style to set the world apart and to also make it feel a bit more simple and safer than it really is. Burns’ use of this style suggests a more innocent world and character in Johnny 23 even if his world is full of all kind of oddities and horrors. Doug’s story is, arguably, the “real” world but it’s a much harsher image of existence even though it’s an everyday vision of our lives. But in all of the pages, the imagery has this ability to portray the drama of the moments.

Burns moves effortlessly between the real and the unreal but is one story any more or less real than the other. Johnny 23’s portion of the story is more challenging because it’s physically more unrecognizable because it’s not filled with people like you and me; it’s not even really filled with people. “Alien” is really the best word to describe this portion of the book based on oddness and horror of it. But Johnny 23’s story is really quite simply of a stranger in a strange world who is maybe just a bit too willing to believe the goodness of people.

If anything, Doug is a bit of the opposite of Johnny 23 that way. While Doug isn’t the antithesis of Johnny 23, he doesn’t share Johnny 23’s trust in others. Doug’s story is a story of escalating emotional tragedy, from the sickness and illness of his father when he was a teenager through to his self-reflection over the mistakes he’s made in life. His life is a collection of words unsaid and love never given. Last Look is full of the desolation about the circumstances of a life and the way of life is lived. That’s really the tension of Doug and Johnny 23’s stories-- one of their sorrows are due to the life he finds himself in and the other’s sorrows are due to the way he’s lived his life.