Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: X'ed Out and The Hive, by Charles Burns

I first learned of Charles Burns' work in the pages of the anthology RAW, and I've been seeking out his work wherever I could find it ever since. I was curious to see what would follow his magnum opus Black Hole (collected in 2008), as that book seemed to sum up the "Teen love/Horror" themes he'd been exploring for some time.

X'ed Out (2010) and The Hive (2012) are the first two parts of a new trilogy. Love and horror are still there, but they're both... even weirder than they were before. (Those of you already familiar with Burns' work will realize how much weight the word "weirder" carries in this context.) Doug, a young performance-poet ("Hi, I'm Nitwit, also known as Johnny 23") with an ailing father, falls in love with a Patti Smith-loving photographer who forces him to explore some of his family secrets. "Meanwhile" (in some way) in an alien landscape, a simplified version of Doug finds work caring for "future queens" of a hive (even procuring strange romance comic books for one of the women) while constantly being berated by his alien co-workers; his name in this world almost seems to be "Asshole," given the number of times he's called that. His one friend in this world, a homunculus-like grifter, is on his side but also seems untrustworthy. Oh, and there's body-horror everywhere.

It had been about year in between my reading of X'ed Out and The Hive; once I read The Hive, I had to go back and re-read them both in order to try and understand what's going on. I'm not sure I succeeded. Burns' storytelling here takes "non-linearity" to new heights; there are visual and verbal echoes between the two worlds on a number of levels, but two-thirds of the way through this tale, things have yet to come together. That's to be expected in a work like this, but it's still a frustrating experience to be in the middle of. Once the third volume comes out it will be easier (I hope!) to come to terms with the narrative.

Visually, the books are stunning. Burns has occasionally let his love for Hergé's Tintin shine through in his publication designs, but here their influence of informs every inch, from the European album format to the flat colors (amazing to see this much color work from Burns, after decades of mostly black-and-white work) to "alien" Doug's quiff of hair to the endpapers featuring scenes from the books. 

I always thought that black and white perfectly suited Burns' work, so I'm surprised at how much the color really adds to the storytelling here: some scenes play out in heavily-tinted monochrome; the pages of the alien romance comic books pulse with odd printing techniques; and there's a sublime juxtaposition of a green, buggish alien face scowling over a white dress shirt, with a loose necktie flailing in the breeze. What would normally be the half-title page in these books becomes an eighteen-panel page, with panels of two colors in different patterns from book one to book two. I can't help but expect that these patterns will ultimately be revealed to be meaningful once book three, Sugar Skull, is published (this year, I hope).

These books aren't for everyone, perhaps, but I can't wait for Sugar Skull - its answers and, I expect, its further mysteries. 

X'ed Out
by Charles Burns
Pantheon, 2010
ISBN-10: 0307379132
ISBN-13: 978-0307379139
56 pages, $19.95

The Hive
by Charles Burns
Pantheon, 2012
ISBN-10: 0307907880
ISBN-13: 978-0307907882
56 pages, $21.95