There’s a telling line in The Hive, the second book in a proposed trilogy that began with X’ed Out and will conclude, possibly next year, with Sugar Skull: Cindy, a dark haired young woman with a bit of a thing for Romance comics from the 50s, is trying to piece together a narrative from an issue having missed two issues but, she says, ‘it drives me crazy ‘cause there’s all this stuff going on that I can’t figure out.’ This, taken in tandem with what comedian Stewart Lee said about Charles Burns’ last major work Black Hole (he said it was the Ulysses of comics – is this trilogy his Finnegans Wake?), has contributed to the slight feeling of puzzled bemusement and confusion you get from reading The Hive.
We were introduced to Doug in X’ed Out, a relatively sombre young man who took up with a photographer called Sarah who had some issues vis-à-vis self-harm. Doug enjoys – or at least used to enjoy – performing as a sort of Bez character alongside a local band wearing a sort of Tin-Tin version of a hockey mask (he also used to enjoy, pre-The Hive, taking polaroids of his Tin-Tin self). There is also (I presume) a sort of dream-version of Doug, a differently drawn Doug with an all but shaven head (he has a black Tin-Tin quiff) who exists in a nightmarish dreamscape populated by foul-mouthed lizards (he has a job as a sort of librarian with a cart of parcels in a place that we presume is the Hive we were introduced to at the climax of X’ed Out). Dream Doug bookends The Hive but we hear from him far less (or so it feels) than we did in X’ed Out. Which isn’t to say that Doug – the Doug we know with the girlfriend called Sarah – doesn’t dream; he does dream – he dreams himself on a bed floating down a toxic river.
If The Hive could be said to have a centre, it is in the character of Sarah: we learn a lot more about her problems, and Doug’s reaction to them (which is about as sympathetic as you could expect given Sarah’s problems). Arguably Sarah is to The Hive what Doug’s dying father was to X’ed Out. Doug’s father is still present, glimpsed in the background of the canteen Dream Doug passes through on his way to eat sushi – sushi, it feels important to add, that comes with both a tail and a face. We also see Doug’s father as a young man but the focus of those scenes is Sarah, how she pushes at things that Doug doesn’t want to deal with or think about. There is also another girl, the girl who follows Sarah, who is fed up with Doug’s shit. Sarah (like Cindy) is looking for back issues of a romance comic but when Doug spots them in a dream (in which he wanders naked through a sort of flea market) ‘the image(s) won’t hold’ and there’s nothing he can do about it and ‘nothing to hold on to’.
A dark interlude then with fantastical elements and no real resolution, as is to be expected from The Empire Strikes Back portion of a trilogy. Provided you can deal with being presented with more questions than answers (or, if we’re being honest, only questions), you’ll be fine. Charles Burns continues to up the ante on what can be expected from the form (Burns’ career feels like he’s channelling The Pixies in reverse – these books feel like his Doolittle). A delicious mind fuck in other words.
Any Cop?: Dark, irreverent, obscure, obtuse, awkward, brilliant, funny, perverse, nightmarish (particularly the pig crawling from Sarah’s belly). Everything you’d expect from Charles Burns.