This article will attempt to explore of some of the obvious and not so obvious similarities of the dream imagery that appears in both the X’ed Out trilogy and Brazil and what that imagery represents.
In 2014, Pantheon Books published Sugar Skull, the third volume in Charles Burns’ X’ed Out trilogy that began with X’ed Out, published in 2010 and The Hive, published in 2012. Burns’ career began in the early 1980s with strips appearing in music fanzines like Sub Pop and the highly regarded comics anthology Raw. His longest and most acclaimed work was Black Hole, a surreal coming of age/body horror story set in the early 1970s which was originally published by Kitchen Sink Press but then continued by Fantagraphics. It was collected into a single volume in 2005.
While the X’ed Out trilogy isn’t the longest of Burns’ works, even at three volumes, it is his most ambitious with regard to storytelling. The narrative is composed of two distinct levels of dream states and memories, all interwoven. It’s a pastiche of memories, nightmares, fiction genres, and people both known and unknown. What all three states have in common is Doug, a young man who is an art student and also an aspiring performer. Doug’s memories primarily tell about the beginning and the end of his relationship with another student named Sarah.
The first dream state shows Doug more or less how he is in his memories, though at times older, floating in a river that runs through a post-apocalyptic landscape toward a bridge. In the second dream state, Doug is slightly abstracted and goes by the name of Johnny 23/Nitnit (which is the name he performs under) and he finds himself in a world reminiscent of The Land of Ooo from Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time series and Interzone from Naked Lunch.
In 1985, around the same time that Burns’ El Borbah(i) stories were appearing in the pages of Heavy Metal, Terry Gilliam released his fourth film Brazil, after much contention with the studio, Universal. Brazil is the story of a man named Sam Lowry, a low level government bureaucrat trapped in an Orwellian dystopia whose only means of escape is through his dreams. Brazil is a unique film because it occupies space in two thematic trilogies. The first is about imagination and begins with Time Bandits (1981) and ends with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). The second trilogy is about dystopian futures and begins with Brazil and continues with 12 Monkeys (1995) and concludes with the recently released Zero Theorem (2013).
Compared to X’ed Out, Brazil’s narrative is more straightforward. By day, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce (ii)) works in the records department of the monolithic Ministry of Information. At night in his dreams he wears winged armor and floats through clouds and over a green landscape toward an ethereal woman who calls out to him. As his simple and largely anonymous life becomes more complicated, so do his dreams.
On the surface, the dreams of both Doug and Sam appear to be about escape. Doug’s dreams are heavily influenced by Herge’s Adventures of Tintin stories, which on the most basic level are about travel and adventure and in Sam’s dreams he is always flying. However, a more accurate interpretation is that both dreams signify a desire for transformation. This desire though is subconscious because consciously both Doug and Sam appear to be content with their lives.
In X’ed Out, Burns introduces Doug, an art student appearing to be in his mid-20s. Doug’s art consists of performing audio cut-ups inspired by the work of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin while wearing a mask inspired by Herge’s Tintin character. He also takes numerous Polaroid self-portraits in various situations while while wearing his mask, which represents a kind of alter-ego named Johnny 23. Later in volume 2 The Hive, Doug looks over all of his self-portraits and comes to the realization that he has never really pushed himself to improve, and that the work he has done is empty: “once you got past the gimmick of me wearing my stupid little mask, there wasn’t much there.”
The Tintin references that Burns uses in the story serve two purposes. First, it isn’t strictly Tintin but rather a pastiche of Herge’-inspired character design and color along with Burroughsian images of reptilian humans, disfigurements, and surroundings that blend the nightmarish with the mundane.
The Burroughs imagery (iii) also brings out the idea of transformation through escape, particularly with the Cities of the Red Night trilogy whose central theme is that escape from earth is the means to immortality. Burns uses this Tintin and Burroughs-inspired imagery to suggest that Doug, subconsciously at least, desires to explore, if not the world in the manner that Tintin does, at least his own psyche, to push himself to become a better artist. Herge’ imbued his Tintin stories with as much research as possible (though never at the expense of telling a good story, for example The Shooting Star) as a way to introduce young readers to the world.
For Burns though, Tintin also represents a certain uneasiness in the face of the unknown. In his lecture for the Caroline Werner Gannett Project, Burns describes in detail the influences that shaped his work. One of which is Herge’s Adventures of Tintin. In the lecture, Burns describes a sequence that appears in The Secret of the Unicorn being the first time that he ever saw an intercom: “I don’t know what an intercom is…When I’m looking at it, I see this voice coming out of the wall…this mouth that’s embedded into this wall. There was something very dark and mysterious about the images I was looking at that I wasn’t able to interpret.” An intercom is a recurring image in all three volumes of the X’ed Out trilogy which inspires in Doug a feeling of dread, for reasons that will be discussed later.
In his article “Brazil: Dreams and Symbolism,” Matt Conn draws parallels between Sam’s dreams and the myth of Icarus, saying “[w]hat Sam envisions as his salvation leads to his eventual downfall; his aspirations to be with Jill will be brought crashing down by the grim facts of reality.” However, it is also possible that Gilliam is suggesting Sam’s dream self-image is based on the sculpture in the ministry lobby because it appears in the film soon after Sam awakens from his first dream. Inscribed on the base of the statue is the phrase “The truth shall make you free” and it is something he presumably sees every day. Therefore, Sam’s dream image represents a subconscious desire to advance and gain knowledge (which is practically a currency in his world) in opposition to his conscious desire for anonymity.
In his waking life, Sam is just one of hundreds of people working in the records department of the Ministry of Information. He spends his days moving information from one place to another in between watching old movies on his computer screen. It is only after meeting Jill, the woman who appears to him in his dreams in the real world that he takes steps to advance his position by accepting his promotion to the department of Information Retrieval as a way to learn more about her and also ending his carefully cultured anonymity.
For both Sam and Doug, intrusions of real life into their dream states represent the realized fears that each would end up becoming his father. For Sam, it is this fear that is the root of his desire for anonymity. His father, Jeremiah died some time before the events in the movie, but when he was alive, he was a high-ranking and well respected member of the Ministry of Information. Eugene Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), the current deputy minister was Jeremiah’s friend, and also in love with Sam’s mother Ida (Katherine Helmond) and has offered repeatedly to give Sam a promotion out of the records department. Helpmann speaks of Jeremiah as a presence that still inhabits the Ministry of Information, calling him “the ghost in the machine.” Likewise, Sam’s dreams become haunted by the image and anguished words of Mrs. Buttle after he visits her to give her a refund check for her late husband’s interrogation fees. While Sam believes that his life in the records department is comfortable and simple, the truth is he is part of the machine and gradually becoming more like his father, to the point of later accepting Helpmann’s offer of a promotion. Although Sam’s intention of taking the promotion is to just find out more about Jill, he nevertheless becomes more involved in the Ministry of Information with ultimately tragic results.
Another intrusion into Sam’s dreamworld serves as a harbinger of these tragic results and appears in the form of his now former boss in the records department, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm). On his first day in the department of Information Retrieval, Sam naps in his office and dreams about trying to save Jill. Kurtzmann appears in his dream as a giant stone figure with long arms, trying to hold him down and says “Sam, don’t go. Please.” Kurtzmann’s depiction in the dream, as a being that looks like a cross between an infant and a middle-aged man made out of bricks fits his often childish demeanor. This image is both frightening and comic and serves as an unheeded warning.
Early in X’ed Out, Doug/Johnny 23 finds himself wandering through the surreal streets in his dreamworld. One figure he sees stands out from all of the others because of his distinct lack of strangeness, an old man sitting in a room wearing the same clothes as Doug. In his dream, Doug does not recognize the man, but his appearance makes Doug feel uncomfortable. The man is soon revealed to be Doug’s father. Doug’s father appears in the dream again in volume 2, The Hive as a ghostly figure sitting in the cafeteria for the reptilian workers in the Hive.
The next sequence in the story is a memory of the time Doug and Sarah went to Doug’s childhood home. Sarah gets Doug to dress in his father’s clothes while she takes pictures of him. Later they look through a box of old photographs that his father often spent time looking over. Doug’s reaction to seeing these pictures of his father, looking “so young and hopeful. Someone with a whole life to look forward to” is reflected in his dream encounters with his father as “someone I could barely recognize.” Later in the story. Doug returns alone to his parents’ house after being attacked by Sarah’s ex-boyfriend. He spends his days living in the basement, taking painkillers, sleeping, and looking at old photographs of himself and Sarah. Doug has essentially become his father.
As stated earlier, X’ed Out has two distinct dream states and the first involves Doug floating toward a mysterious bridge. It is later revealed that the bridge is a real place where Doug’s father asked Doug to scatter his ashes after he died, which happened at some point before the events in the story. For Doug’s father, the bridge was a place that reminded him of his youth. It was where he hung out with his friends and the girl with whom he was most in love, but didn’t not end up marrying.
For Doug, the bridge represents the disappointments of both his father and himself. When describing a dream about standing on the bridge with his father, Doug says “he was pissed off. Seems like he was always pissed about something.” For Doug, his own disappointment comes not just from becoming like his father, but also from never trying to push himself as an artist, especially when compared to Sarah.
Ultimately, for both Doug and Sam their dreams and lives revolve around women. For Doug, it’s Sarah and for Sam its Jill. While Doug’s story begins with him dating Colleen and ends with him living with Sally, the central figure in his memories and dreams is Sarah. Doug’s first memory is of being at a warehouse party with his girlfriend Colleen. He is there to do a performance piece that involves William Burroughs-inspired cut up audio and poetry. After he’s finished he and Colleen have an argument and she leaves him at the party. That’s when he meets Sarah and her roommate Nicky, who are trying to avoid Sarah’s psychotic ex-boyfriend. They all go back to Sarah and Nicky’s apartment and stay up all night doing drugs, talking about art, and listening to Patti Smith. All while staring at the intercom on the wall, which Sarah’s ex-boyfriend uses to try to talk with Sarah.
Like Doug, Sarah is an art student, though her work is much more intense and personal than his, featuring fetal pigs and bondage self-portraits. She also lives in fear of her violent ex-boyfriend, whose name is later revealed to be Larry. Doug and Sarah soon begin a relationship that runs through the bulk of the story and whose ending is an important aspect of Doug’s dreams.
By contrast, Jill in real life is almost as mysterious as Sam’s dream version. Very little is ever revealed about her apart from her job which is a truck driver and that she lives above the Buttles. It’s her appearance first on the monitors in the Ministry of Information and later peering through the hole in her floor to the Buttle’s apartment that sets Sam on his course of falling in love, meeting her (in that order), and eventually trying to save her from the government.
The dreams of both Doug and Sam contain elements of chivalric romance in that the women in the dreams are both idealized and imprisoned, and the men go on a quest to save them. Sarah’s counterpart in Doug’s dream is named Suzy and she makes her first appearance at the end of the first volume. She is introduced as the new queen of the dream world and she’s being taken to a massive structure called the Hive. Although she is a queen, she is really little more than a prisoner who must produce eggs presumably for the nearby village.
In Sam’s dreams, Jill always appears as a floating ethereal being. In Sam’s third dream, Jill is caged and being taken away by the forces of darkness, heaps of rags and bones with baby masks. Sam goes on a quest to save her from the forces of darkness and also from a metallic samurai warrior that, as Matt Conn says “represents the technological colossus, the totalitarian state, as vast and unconquerable as it is impossible to pin down and hurt.” Sam eventually defeats the samurai, but in a nod to The Empire Strikes Back, discovers that it is his face behind the mask. Another warning from his subconscious that he is part of the machine he is trying to defeat, and a foreshadowing of his ultimate fate.
Doug’s quest is decidedly less traditional. After seeing Suzy at the end of volume one, he gets a job in the Hive as a kind of orderly or deliveryman just to meet her. While working in the Hive, Doug and Suzy strike up a friendship and spend a lot of time together. Doug brings Suzy romance comics, which is something Doug did for Sarah in his memories. The comics that Doug brings to Suzy tell the story of Doug’s relationship with Sarah, but like the memories in X’ed Out, the story is broken up and out of sequence, with large pieces missing.
In volume three, Doug and Suzy are spending time together in her room in the Hive when her stomach suddenly starts to swell. She’s about to produce eggs ahead of her scheduled time. She begs Doug to help her but he panics and leaves her. Doug escapes from the Hive and then falls into a river where he floats until he climbs onto a rickety wooden bridge and passes out.
It is later revealed in the story that Doug’s dream is a reflection of the end of his relationship with Sarah and also an expression of his guilt. She tells him that she is pregnant and he begins withdrawing from her. Soon after, Doug is attacked and severely beaten by Sarah’s ex-boyfriend. After he gets out of the hospital, Doug moves back into his parents’ house where he spends his time in his father’s basement taking pain medicine, sleeping, and avoiding any contact with the outside world, including Sarah.
In the end neither Doug nor Sam is able to save the women they love, and both men meet very different ends. Sam at least believes he was able to save Jill and that they escaped the city to live happily in the countryside. This is Sam’s final dream which happens in the interrogation chamber while being tortured at the hands of his friend Jack. Doug, with the support of his current girlfriend at last goes to visit Sarah and meet his son. However, after everything that has happened, Sarah says that she doesn’t want him to come around anymore. Although in the end Sam is a completely broken man, he still has his dreamworld and a life with Jill. Doug on the other hand does not have the refuge of a dreamworld, but he does have the potential to become a better person.
[i] . El Borbah is a luchador private detective whose cases often involve mad science and the paranormal.
[ii] . In the documentary short What Is Brazil?, Terry Gilliam says that the role of Sam Lowery was originally written to be a younger character, but he decided to change because Pryce did so well. In the original script then, Sam Lowry was much closer in age to Doug.
[iii] . Gilliam also makes use of similar imagery in Brazil, though it’s purpose seems to be more atmospheric and symbolic and exists not in the dreams, but rather in the waking world that Sam inhabits with shots that highlight tentacle-like ducts that in some scenes writhe and breathe as if alive, and always appear menacing.