By Charles Burns
56 pages, color
Published by Pantheon Books
Two years ago, Charles Burns began a new trilogy of graphic novels with X’ed Out, an odd book that shifted between reality and a different, cartoonish world following its protagonist Doug. It was simultaneously intriguing yet also frustrating; as good as it was, so much was still feeling nebulous and unfinished with two more installments still en route. Burns’s second installment The Hive is now just around the corner, and with it comes not only a larger feel for Burns’ new story, but also a slightly more satisfying look back at X’ed Out.
The Hive in many ways doesn’t break any new ground that we haven’t already seen in X’ed Out. Doug is struggling with relationships in the real world—both with his dying farther as well as with Susan—and with fitting into the bizarre insect and lizard dominated science-fiction world where Doug’s features have been stripped away into something more iconic. But in giving us a larger glimpse at both worlds, where The Hive succeeds is that it makes both much more familiar and comfortable. The initial strangeness has faded into the distance, and as a result we’re able to start to get a feel for the smaller details.
None of Doug’s relationships seem to be functioning on a healthy level; a combination of bad communication and furtiveness. But in reading The Hive, it feels almost like it’s that level of failure that keeps Doug moving. If he’d ever stop and realize just how bad his entire life has rapidly become, the chance of collapse would leap up dramatically. Instead, it’s a certain sense of oblivion that both makes Doug fatally flawed and also somewhat approachable. His trajectory is bound for disaster, and you want to see just where that terminus will bring him.
More intriguing to me, though, remains Burns’ art. His ability to draw portraits of every-day people continues to be outstanding (not a surprise for anyone who’s seen his covers for the magazine The Believer, of course), and that continues through a lot of The Hive. His characters in the real world have such depth and expression on their faces that it makes the switch to the Hergé-esque look of the other world that much more jarring. All nuance drops away, and it’s clearly such a deliberate choice on the part of Burns that it’s hard to feel like it’s a big clue dangled in front of the reader. Is this other world Doug’s attempt to step away from the more difficult real world, even though on the surface it seems like the more horrific one? Or is there something bigger going on here? Whatever the reason, it’s hard to keep from reveling in the art in both worlds; the people crowded into a performance space, the alien foodstuffs laid out in a revolting manner, the dark curtains looming behind Doug in a hospital. The Hive is a gorgeous book to look at from start to finish.
With one more volume still on the way (tentatively titled Sugar Skull) to wrap things up, The Hive doesn’t give us any huge revelations on Doug or Susan’s story. But at this point, I feel like Burns has proved himself enough that we didn’t need them. The Hive has helped set X’ed Out alongside it in part of a larger narrative, and in doing so The Hive not only feels strong, but it’s managed to elevate X’ed Out with it. I enjoyed X’ed Out, but thanks to The Hive I’m fully on board for the conclusion. Burns is a master of the medium, and books like this remind us why.