I have a head cold, the Grateful Dead’s Truckin’ is playing on an endless loop inside my head, and I have just finished reading and rereading and re... (you get the picture) Charles Burns’ The Hive.
This is the second part of a trilogy that started with X’ed Out two years ago. It clearly establishes Burns as a master of the modern graphic novel, although I must confess that I have no idea what it’s all about.
Like its predecessor, The Hive is sparse of text, although the vivid, detailed and often grotesque illustrations make up for this. The book’s protagonist, at least in one of his avatars, is based on Tintin (he is called Nitnit) and the panel structure of the comic is reminiscent of Hergé’s. But the sunny cheer of the popular Tintin books is replaced by a sense of dread and impending doom.
In short, The Hive is, like X’ed Out, an acid-trip you can’t really categorize as good or bad..
The books play out at two levels. One is an ordinary (or is it?) world where Doug, a performance artiste—he wears a Tintin mask and recites poems—is trying to come to grips with his relationship with Sarah, who drugs him with opiates, photographs him when he is out cold, dresses him up like his father, and has an obsessive boyfriend who may or may not be responsible for an injury Doug suffers.
In the other world, a nether one, Doug is a librarian of sorts in a place where mutants rule, and women called breeders presumably incubate giant eggs. There are reptilian creatures galore, food that moves, and cavernous cells with living walls.
At some point in Book 3 (called Sugar Skulls after some candy we encounter in the last frame of Book 2), all these disparate threads will come together and we will discover what has happened to Doug, and whether the nightmarish other world he finds himself in is a hallucination brought about by his injury, or indeed real.
The Hive is about identity, sex and our deepest fears but there’s also the second act of what could be a very intriguing story in it.
It seems a pity I will have to wait at least a year to know how it ends. What a long, strange trip it has been.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
Write to Sukumar at email@example.com