Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: Charles Burns' THE HIVE

PANTHEON BOOKS – @PantheonBooks

CARTOONIST: Charles Burns
ISBN: 978-0-307-90788-2; hardcover (October 2012)
56pp, Color, $21.95 US, $25.95 CAN

Charles Burns is the Philadelphia-based comic book creator, cartoonist, and illustrator known for such works as Black Hole and Big Baby. Burns grew up in Seattle in the 1970s and rose to prominence in the mid-1980s when his comics began to appear in RAW, the avant-garde magazine founded by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly.

Burns’ latest work is The Hive, the second volume of a graphic novel trilogy that began in 2010 with X’ed Out. Both volumes are published as 9x12 hardcover editions, similar to the oversized format Fantagraphics Books used for its “Charles Burns Library.” Apparently, Burns has drawn inspiration for X’ed Out and The Hive from legendary cartoonist Hergé (Tintin) and author William Burroughs (The Naked Lunch), although I think the films of David Lynch could also be an influence.

Like X’ed Out, The Hive is the story of Doug, a photographic artist who has a head injury of some kind. Following his cat, Inky, who is supposed to be dead, through a hole torn in a brick wall, Doug discovers a place called The Hive. As the second volume begins, Doug works in that nightmarish alternate world as a lowly employee who carts supplies around The Hive. He strikes up a friendship with a breeder named Suzy, and that new relationship is almost like another he had.

In fact, in the real world, Doug is talking about his past to an unidentified woman. He struggles to recall a mysterious incident with his now-absent girlfriend, Sarah (who is also a photographer), and her menacing boyfriend. Where are the answers?

I have to admit that by the time I finished reading the first half of The Hive, I was bored with it. Actually, I thought I was bored; I was simply lost in and confused by this narrative, which not only travels between two worlds, but also moves back and forth through time. The hero, Doug, is also unmoored in time. I think he’s an unreliable narrator, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s dead, in a coma, or intellectually disabled.

Once I got my bearings, I realized that Charles Burns had done it to me again. He’d drawn me into another one of his surreal landscapes – infused with a sense of creeping dread and filled with the dreadfully creepy. When he draws a figure, human or humanoid, Burns beats back the ordinary (except for a nude depiction of Doug, who is ordinary), choosing the extraordinary and the bizarre. As Chris Ware just showed with Building Stories, Burns reveals with The Hive that, as a comics creator, he is in a place where few other cartoonists are.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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