34. Charles Burns, The Hive

4 Jan


People come to Charles Burns for the subconscious, rendered in tiny, scintillating black brushstrokes like leeches or eyelashes or wounds. Burns stories aren’t stories, really, though they shuffle through the conventions of storytelling, they’re portals to the non-narrative self, land of grotesquery and longing.

How much you like to be here is up to you. I like it very, very much.

Burns’s previous work, Black Hole, published in 12 installments and then as a collection in ’06, is on my all-time lifetime shortlist of favorite books. The Hive, his latest release, is the second volume of a planned trilogy reflecting the concerns and despairs of a slightly older protagonist named Doug, or sometimes Nitnit (the TinTin series provides some foundational material). The non-linear story jumps between times and states of consciousness, from an alien world that’s possibly a drug hallucination, to Doug’s years in art school, to a sadder, older Doug, probably in his late 30s.

The motif in the Hive is the phrase “What didn’t I tell her? What parts of the story did I leave out?” and it feels like the book’s project… What’s in the dark space? What parts of the story can’t we tell? (Most of it, though does that means we’re missing an iceburg or a squib?) Present-day Doug is trying to convey some important truth, what happened to fuck him up so much, where it all went wrong, who he really is, something like that. And of course he can’t.

The first volume (X’ed Out) focused on Doug’s art-school relationship with a girl named Sarah, who he still thinks is a key to something. I remember those guys, don’t you? The ones who were so young but still had already had that one tragic past love that explained why they’d never like me (or anyone) back? This kind of fiction-we-tell-ourselves, the soporific, distracting, comforting, misleading, threadbare, vital romantic fantasy is a theme in The Hive, which incorporates comics-within-a-comic drawn from vintage romances. They’re what the human cartoon-girls (Doug’s counterparts) in the alien frames read, tucked cozily in their beds inside a terrifying flesh-lined smokestack, while pregnant with ginormous alien eggs.

Only Charles Burns can make the horrible that wonderful. There’s something existential in his clinging, absolute shadows, every one inky black and made from 1,000 tiny strokes. And there is reason to revel in the voluptuous organic terrors of every wart and sack and tube and nipple (look closely at the cover, above). And nothing makes me happier than Burns’s violation of the cutesy, irritating, repressed Tintin, creating a work that’s all subtext from one that repels it.

Indications  for volume three point towards an exploration of age. Doug is haunted by his dead father, and what went wrong with his life (we see the story repeating itself, the bathrobe, the recreational anesthetics, the the lost One Great Love). The Hive ends on an image of a “sugar skull” with the words “I was you” written on it. I don’t–yet–know the terrors of being failed and old, but I fear Burns will be telling me somewhere around 2014.

2 Responses to “34. Charles Burns, The Hive”


  1. 12. Logicomix, Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou | An Anthology of Clouds - March 23, 2013

    […] book fans might not mind, but my taste in graphic novels runs towards writer-illustrators like Charles Burns and Alison Bechdel, who are so expressive everyone else feels wooden by […]

  2. 26. Sugar Skull, Charles Burns | An Anthology of Clouds - September 24, 2014

    […] last volume in Charles Burns’s graphic novel trilogy that began with X-ed Out—one of my favorite works of art of the past few years—ends here with a bzzzz and a […]

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