The Hive takes readers deeper into a surrealistic dream world
By Charles Burns. Pantheon Books. 56 pp, hardcover
If you read Charles Burns's 2010 graphic novel X'ed Out and were hoping the next chapter in the story would provide some answers, or at least some narrative clarity, The Hive might disappoint you. On the other hand, if the first volume's surreal enigmas left you wanting more of the same, the latest installment of the planned trilogy certainly delivers the goods.
A quick recap: in X'ed Out, Burns introduces us to Doug, a young would-be artist whose recent head injury has left him with a fuzzy memory. What he recalls most is his relationship with Sarah, a seemingly emotionally damaged photographer whose unseen ex-boyfriend is a jealous, violent piece of work. That seems like a simple enough story to follow, but in Doug's dream life he looks a lot like a punk-rock Tintin and lives in an alternate world where all manner of quasi-humans dwell and where young women are used as breeders for...well, it's not entirely clear what purpose. It's also not clear exactly how Doug's waking life intersects with his subconscious, if it does at all.
As The Hive opens, Doug's dream self is now an employee at the facility of the title, where he has befriended one of the breeders. Suzy whiles away her bedridden days reading issues of an old romance comic series, the plot of which happens to parallel Doug's affair with Sarah. Burns complicates things further by adding yet another dimension to the story, namely the perspective of an older, heavier Doug, still trying to make sense of things some time (months? years?) after the event. By "the event", I mean whatever happened to our protagonist that resulted in his lying in bed with a bandaged head, popping his late father's old sleeping pills. The most likely scenario is that he received a solid trouncing at the hands of Sarah's ex, but with Burns you never know.
The Hive doesn't so much answer the questions raised by X'ed Out as it poses a whole set of new ones. Visually, the new book is a stunner, with Burns alternating between the clean-lined realism of the waking world, the subtly more cartoonish realm of the Hive, and a dead-accurate pastiche of 1960s romance-comic drawing styles.
I'm still not entirely sure what the hell's going on, but it sure is nice to look at.