Charles Burns Enriches His Wonderfully Weird Trilogy with The Hive


In X’ed Out, Charles Burns created a rich and strangely layered world focusing on Doug, a confused and injured young man. In his parents’ suburban basement, Doug parcels out the last of his late father’s painkillers, slipping from haunted memories of his relationship with Sarah into fevered nightmares of abject horror and then into a wholly other world, a realm that recalls William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this alien world, Doug takes on the features of Nitnit (an inversion of Tintin), the alter-ego he adopts when performing spoken word cut-ups as the opening act for local punk rock bands. What made X’ed Out so compelling (apart from Burns’s thick, precise illustration, of course), was the sense that this Interzone was a reality equal to Doug’s own “real world” — that it was somehow more real than Doug’s dreams.


The Hive (part two of the proposed trilogy) deepens the richness and complexity of the world Burns has imagined. The title refers to a location in Interzone. Doug (or Nitnit) has found employment in The Hive as a kind of mail clerk or janitor. His primary role though is secret librarian, catering to the reading needs of the breeders of The Hive. One breeder seems to be a version of Doug’s ex-girlfriend; the other is a double of Sarah, who asks Doug/Nitnit to bring her romance comics—which he does—only he skips a few issues. These missing issues stand in for the information Doug (and Burns) withholds from the reader, the missing fragments that have been x’ed out.


Burns uses romance comics as a framing or organizing device, a motif linking the disparate worlds of his narrative. In the “real world” — which is to say the world of Doug’s memory — we learn that he buys a stack of old romance comics for Sarah on their first date.


Throughout the narrative, Burns plays his characters against the extreme, often hysterical dramas of 1950s and ’60s romance comics; his strong lines and heavy inks readily recall the early works of Simon and Kirby, but more precise and careful—something closer to Roy Lichtenstein, only more sincere, more emotional.

In The Hive, we learn more about Doug’s troubled relationship with Sarah, who has problems out the proverbial yingyang (not the least of which is a violent psychopathic ex-boyfriend).


Burns weaves the story of Sarah and Doug’s relationship into the fallout of Doug’s father’s death—a death Doug was completely shuttered to, we realize. Doug’s drug-dreams dramatize the missing pieces of these narratives, and the Interzone set-pieces propel the mystery aspects of the narrative forward, as Doug’s alter-ego plumbs the detritus of his psychic fallout. Through the metatextual motif of reading-comic-books-as-detective-works, Burns explores themes of trauma, abjection, and distance. Images of pigs and cats, freaks and punks, portals and holes litter The Hive.


Burns has always been a perfectionist of dark lines and strange visions, and his last full graphic novel Black Hole was a triumph of atmosphere and mood. With the first two entries of his trilogy, however, Burns has showed a significant maturation in storytelling, characterization, and dialogue. I often thought parts of Black Hole seemed forced or rushed (no doubt because Burns faced daunting production troubles during the decade he worked on the novel—including his original publisher Kitchen Sink folding). With X’ed Out and now The Hive we can see a more patient artist, working out an emotionally complex and compelling story in rich, symbolic layers.

I reread X’ed Out and then read The Hive in one greedy sitting; then I went through The Hive again, more slowly, more attendant to its details and nuances. We had to wait two years between X’ed Out and The Hive—and it was worth the two year wait. So if we must wait another two years—or more—for the final entry, Sugar Skull, so be it.

11 thoughts on “Charles Burns Enriches His Wonderfully Weird Trilogy with The Hive”

  1. The parallels between the two books are fun to jump into. I had very similar reading experience as you did, re reading X’ed Out and going back and forth a couple times. The comics within comics is always an interesting concept. I love when any medium references themselves through parody or parallel, art within art. . It seems to happen a lot in comics. Do you think this is in line with other mediums (film, novels) or maybe even a more common event in comics?


    1. Hi, Josh—
      I think the act of self-referencing the medium is pretty common to much of postmodernist art and entertainment. The Sopranos, for example, consistently referenced gangster movies and war films; the TV show 30 Rock is basically a study in metatextual TV in-jokes and references. I saw the movie Cabin in the Woods this weekend—again, chock full of references to genre and form alike. Novels: same deal. (We often see novels about novels, novels about writing—think of Tristram Shandy, a novel about storytelling, for instance). I think comic book artists are subject to the same ideologies as any other artist/thinker, and therefore tend to work in a postmodern idiom (whether they intend the work to be postmodernist or not).


  2. How could I forget Community, 30 Rock, Kevin Smith, The Coen Brothers, QT, Adult Swim, Comedy Central, music, post modernism, everything since 1990, and the Internet? Yeah it’s everywhere, so why not comics? I think my original comment stems from me reading nothing but comics for almost a year now. By being totally immersed in them, I can only relate things to them.


  3. I talked to Burns a little while at BCGF this Saturday. He admitted it’ll be just about as long a delay between the second and third installments. It’s such a marvelous book, I can’t complain.


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