Where’s that missing part? That’s the question that hangs over the entirety of “The Hive,” the second installment of Charles Burns’ trilogy of surreal tales. “The Hive” follows 2010’s “X’ed Out” and leads us into the not-yet-released “Sugar Skull.” When I reviewed “X’ed Out” for this site I wondered just what exactly the graphic novel was about and whether or not its confusing nature was in itself the theme of the story. After reading “The Hive,” I’d say that’s big YUP.
Doug, Burns’ main character, is the personification of confused. He wanders in and out of reality, drifting from his world into the previously seen Interzone-like alternate dimension inhabitted by factory droning mole men and shirt and tie wearing salamander dudes. Doug is looking for something. He’s got a puzzle to put together, but he just doesn’t have all the pieces. Actually, he might have all the pieces but someone dumped a whole bunch of extra pieces into his box and now he has to sift through those to put together the image that makes sense to him/makes sense of him. Doug’s been hurt. We know that much. He’s been hurt in the noggin. And we know that the hurt came in the form of his girlfriend Sarah’s ex-boyfriend. We don’t see the attack – yet – but we know it’s coming and we know it was bad enough to shatter everything that Doug was, fracturing him into the man/men we meet in “X’ed Out” and “The Hive.”
Ya see, when Doug enters this strange, alternate world he takes on the identity of Nitnit, the Tin Tin-inspired comic character that he used to pose as while performing his abstract, cut-up poetry. Doug is an artist. He’s an abstract artist. So Doug, post-head injury, lives in an abtract world. Time, pacing, continuity, everything, is completely out of whack. The image is there and the pieces can be put together, but Doug needs to understand what the image is, so he has something to aim for. A running bit through “The Hive” is Doug’s search for the missing issues of the romance comic series that Sarah enjoys. Doug needs to complete the set. He needs to solve the mystery. He needs to find the key to unlock…himself? Maybe.
Many may think the cut-up technique that Doug practices and is so influential on this trilogy is just randomness and chaos. And it is. But but it’s a controlled chaos. It’s randomness with reason. When William S. Burroughs pioneered the artform he cut fully written thoughts and sentences to pieces and pieced them together randomly, creating new meanings and rhythms. But there was cohesion before there was chaos. There was skill and art and creativity before there was madness. Doug was real. Doug was quote/unquote normal. Doug was healthy. But he’s been cut up and pasted together in a random order. Burns’ has an ability to harness a feeling of true chaos and disorder and assemble it with incredible precision. This is work of a perfectionist, which is ironic considering the fluidity and looseness of the narrative. Each moment is chosen, each line is confident, each color is solid and applied with purpose. This is the work of a professional. This is the work of a master.
“The Hive” feels like a continuation of “X’ed Out” but at the same time, it feels different. It’s even more disjointed than its predecessor. It feels more like we’re in the “thick of it” with Doug and I credit that to the fact that this is the middle of a story. Typically the middle is the part where things slow and themes and ideas are fleshed out before we reach the climax. But this is a story about ideas and themes and the confusion that comes from layered, abstract, sideways thinking. The middle of this story could quite possibly be the most daunting part. We’ll see when we get to “Sugar Skull,” but for now I feel more lost than ever…and that’s exactly where I want to be.
“The Hive” is available now from Pantheon.