Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Hive by Charles Burns Review


Re-reading series books in an actual series rather than as they come out over the years is worth it - at least for the good ones, which happily includes this title. I never noticed before but the cover shows Doug older and fatter, looking like he’s got some kind of office job, in contrast to the Doug that we left in the last book where he was wandering about as a younger man in his dad’s dressing gown in a haze with a bandaged head. 

Well, shall we? Deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole we go…

Doug is still deeply troubled that the love of his life Sarah is no longer with him, though we still don’t know what happened to her. Time has moved on and his life has changed but he’s been unable to move on. He talks to a new woman - a therapist, a friend? - about Sarah and his dying father, and it looks like he’s become dependent upon booze and pills to cope. Elsewhere in the fantasy world, he’s still the young Tintin lookalike Nitnit but he’s now working in the Hive alongside the lizardmen to supply the breeders with romance comics. 

Images, scenes, phrases noticeably begin repeating immediately. The Japanese romance comic that opens the book re-tells the story of how Doug met Sarah in the first book, and then later we discover Sarah loved to read old romance comics that Doug bought her at a flea market. In each version of the stories Doug is telling, romance comics play a part, and, mirroring this series and his own life, there are issues missing in between the comics Sarah is reading so she’s not getting the whole story. The comics seem to be the key to Doug’s story AND comics are how we’ll find out Doug’s full story. Layer upon layer of meta detail! 

The pig foetus reappears though this time it’s coming out of Sarah’s stomach in a self-inflicted C-section, and the Tintin-esque eggs make another appearance. Small clues like the disembodied voice of Sarah’s psychotic ex threatening to murder them both and the buzzer through which he’s speaking gushing blood hints that perhaps Sarah was killed by him. Or maybe he killed Doug and all of this is purgatory where Doug’s soul is trying to come to peace with his strange life before moving on - is that what this fantasy world is? Charles Burns refuses to give us solid answers and keeps us guessing. 

For the most part this book is a bit more straightforward than the first though an uneasy sense of despair continues to hang over proceedings. We see the highs of Doug and Sarah’s relationship and his performance art as his stage persona Nitnit is becoming well-received. Burns spends more time with Doug and his dying father, exploring his father’s past and how he became such a beaten man. It’s odd how we haven’t seen Doug’s mother yet and that Burns seems to be moulding Doug into his father’s image ever so slowly. 

The Hive itself has biological-looking walls, fleshy sides that produce eggs, so maybe this is Doug’s subconscious hinting still further at the mystery at the centre of this all: Sarah and a baby they were going to have? There’s a scene earlier when Sarah took some photos of Doug that he hated because he wasn’t wearing his Nitnit mask (his protection or real self?) - will we finally understand what’s happening to Doug when he discards the Nitnit persona that “he created” in order to hide from reality? 

This really is a very rewarding comic to revisit now that it’s complete. With the way so much of the story repeats on itself throughout The Hive, it feels like it’s building up momentum and the truth is about to come out. It’s an entrancing mystery told expertly by Burns and drawn in an utterly beautiful way - a masterclass in experimental fiction, challenging comics, and imaginative storytelling. Will Doug find the missing issues he needs to make sense of it all - and what part does the Sugar Skull play? Enough questions - onto the final book and (hopefully) the answers!

The Hive

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