Charles Burns continues to bend reality to his own warped will in The Hive, the second part of the trilogy begun back in 2010 with X’ed Out. That volume introduced us to Doug, a sad-sack loser type who was in pretty sorry shape when we joined his story. Doug was heavily medicated, trudging through life in the aftermath of some incident which had left him with a bandaged head and a reliance upon pain pills. As a result, Doug was constantly fading in and out of the real world, slipping from remembrances of a relationship with a girl named Sarah to fever dreams involving otherworldly creatures, floods, crying maggots and other oddities.
The Hive slips right back into the same surreal groove; and yes, it’s highly recommended that you read X’ed Out before diving in here. It’s not that things will make more sense, exactly – Burns is far from ready for explanations at this point – but there are lots of little clues that harken back to what came in that first book.
As in X’ed Out, Burns skips through a number of different timelines and realities throughout the course of The Hive, each of them echoing back on one another in a dizzying game of “what’s real?” There’s Doug with a young blonde woman, telling stories about Sarah that are getting closer to the incident that seemed to kick off events in the first book. There’s Doug in his other, dreamlike world, a place where he looks like the comic character TinTin (and is, in fact, called NitNit); here, he works as some sort of lowly mail clerk, delivering comic books and magazines to young women called “Breeders” in the enormous hive we glimpsed at the end of X’ed Out. And there’s Doug with Sarah, a woman he once loved, in a relationship that feels increasingly doomed the more we learn about it.
With only one book left to go (Sugar Skull, which maddeningly does not yet have a release date), you might hope that Burns at least begins to hint at some answers here, but you’d be disappointed. Or maybe not; I’m as mad as anyone to know what’s going on, but Burns’ withholding of truth is more tantalizing than frustrating. This is an intricate piece of work that rewards more and more with each careful read, and I’m almost okay with the fact that it may be two more years before we get the conclusion. That gives me plenty of time to pore over the beautiful artwork and off-kilter storytelling to try and piece things together on my own.
Burns’ artwork is amazing as always; his clean style, coupled with the uncluttered layouts and bold colors make this reminiscent of the Sunday funnies – except, of course, for all of the nudity and the blood and the maggots and the pig fetuses. Pantheon’s decision to publish these in a larger format really gives the artwork room to breathe.
With The Hive, Burns continues to produce some of the best, most thought-provoking and engaging graphic novels you can find. Although you’ve got plenty of time to catch up before Burns concludes this particular story, go ahead and track these volumes down now – trust me, the more time you can spend with it, the better.
Order The Hive by Charles Burns (Pantheon Books).
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.