The Hive
by Charles Burns (Pantheon, 2012)

The second installment of Charles Burns' trilogy, The Hive continues the tense surrealism of the first chapter (X'ed Out). The trip is a dreamy one, though it's even stranger than the first.

Doug's life is not getting any easier. It's still sort of aimless, with him acting as a mascot to a punk band and dating a girl who obsessively reads Romance Comics. He's still enmeshed in a dark, twisted alternate world that he has no control over visiting, and through which he must fight his way, layer by Inception-like layer. Each layer, it seems, is more horrifying than the last, a reflection of the unending grimness of his real-life world.

The information-dribbling flashbacks continue, creating more questions and twists with each revelation. Without revealing too much, Doug and his girlfriend experience a crisis common to teenage couples, all the while dealing with her stalkery boyfriend. On top of all this, Doug's father has cancer.

Burns' work is always a mind trip. His artwork is wonderful in its meticulous, near perfect presentation, from the colors to the fluid line work to the flawless centering within the panel. It says something about an artist when art that depicts so much disturbing and sometimes numbing brutality is still stunning. It's sometimes near-total weirdness, but exquisitely drawn. It's a great dark mirror of the vintage Tin Tin style, the appropriation of which makes for one very otherworldly feeling as you proceed through the funhouse of horror.

The story is more grounded this time with more of the focus on Doug's real-world problems. The emotions in the book are certainly believable, and the sense of denial experienced by Doug is realistic. The sense of dread so prevalent in Burns' other work is very present here, playing into the theme perfectly. It's the nature of life to be brutal and a bit murky. Every single part of our lives is surrounded by or is caused by serious issues. And redemption is something we all desire. The decline into the dream world is an allegory for the long, slow mental decline that major depression causes. Burns is to be commended for being bold and taking chances. He goes where alternative comics are supposed to go, to the edge of disturbing and somewhat beyond, and it's impressively done.

review by
Mary Harvey

2 May 2015

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