Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #1: The Hive by Charles Burns

Burns is the master of creepy comics, from his early work on characters like Big Baby and El Borbah for RAW and others in the 1980s through his masterpiece, Black Hole, which appeared in parts throughout the '90s. But his slow pace does mean that we only see a Burns ending every other Presidential administration, at best -- Black Hole took him a decade to complete, though the end product is worth every minute of that.

So it's no surprise to find ourselves in the middle of another dark, unsettling Burns story in The Hive. It's the middle book of his current trilogy -- each of them a European-style album of around 50 pages of story, deliberately evoking Tintin in format as well as in a few visual ways -- following 2010's X'ed Out, and to be completed, in another year or so, by a final book. The Hive begins in the middle and ends in the middle, as the center of a trilogy always must, serving to deepen and complicate rather than to explain or complete. And that's assuming that expecting a clear explanation from Burns at all is a reasonable thing to do.

Our young hero, Doug, continues his unsettling adventures in two worlds -- the "real" one of which may be entirely in flashbacks, the fantastic one of which may be entirely in his head, or both or neither -- where he is nearly as confused and uneasy as the reader is. In the realistic world, Doug looks like a normal young man of his era -- probably the middle days of punk, in the late 1970s or early 1980s -- with a girlfriend, Sarah, who is drifting away from him as they both try to continue their art and it becomes clearer that she has more ambition and focus and talent than he does. Not unrelatedly, she also has more problems than Doug does, including a nasty ex. In the fantastic world, Doug has a simpler face -- one which echoes the mask he used for his art in his own world -- and a simpler existence, toiling in the titular Hive for the foul-mouthed lizard men, cleaning and fetching and doing other menial tasks.

The two worlds are linked mostly by Doug's face, and by his relationship with the women in the two worlds -- Sarah, who may be pregnant, and the "breeders" of the Hive, who are something less defined so far but more unsettling than just pregnant. So the body horror of Black Hole is back, though the focus on women's bodies could feel just a bit regressive here -- Doug is a naif, almost an innocent, rather than one of the participants of Black Hole, and all of the lurking unpleasantness is caught up in women's sexuality and reproduction.

Still, we don't have the whole picture yet, and it's not at all clear if we're seeing scenes in anything like the order they happened -- there's plenty of room and time to learn more about Doug, and to have him turn out to be more or less than he seems to be. And there's no one who does horror in comics form like Burns: he's the master of the lurking dread, the uneasy suspicion, and the creepy implication. We may well have the end of this story to look forward to in 2014, so lets leave those questions open, and see how Burns ends this all.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment