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Charles Burns
The Hive
Pantheon / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-90788-2
Publication Date: 10-09-2012
56 Pages; $21.95
Date Reviewed: 11-23-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Science Fiction  Fantasy  Horror

We like to think of the world, and our lives, as a serial affair. I say something; you reply. One thing happens. It causes another to happen. Time moves in one moment to the next. Charles Burns, in his new graphic novel trilogy, clearly sees the world differently. In the first book, 2010's 'X'ed Out' and now, in 'The Hive' we see the world in layers, in colors, we dream and we are awake at the same time.

Burns graphic novel annihilates the barriers between moments, between lives and breaks down our serial timelines. It blends gritty reality and an equally gritty surreal dream-world to tell a story not of how life is, but rather, how it feels. Read 'The Hive' and you will be dreaming in gorgeously designed and rendered color.

Make no mistake; 'X'ed Out,' 'The Hive' and the forthcoming final book in the trilogy, 'Sugar Skull,' are all required reading if you want to truly experience Burns' unique story and storytelling skills. Each book is 56 pages long; you can easily read them in one sitting — the first time, at least. They're best read in order, and they are well worth re-reading.

Because Burns is telling his story in a parallel, rather than a serial fashion, re-reading is probably a must. You have to let Burns open a door in your brain, and then let his story and characters crawl in. It won't be that pleasant an experience, in that Burns is not trying to offer the reader any sort of comfort. But it is a superb work of art, and the experience of reading these books is not to be missed.

As book-objects, Pantheon and Burns have given readers something to die for, probably literally given the distressing storylines. They're large (10" by 12"), with heavy board covers and thick pages. The presentation is clearly part of the story. There's a feel of the forbidden here. a whiff of pornography mixed with a heavy dose of unsettlingly adult themes. The printing and production values are top notch, and the price is incredibly reasonable.

As 'The Hive' opens, we find ourselves in a classic 1950's-style romance comic book. But the language is nothing ever seen on this earth. When reality intrudes, it's not the reality you and I wake up in; Burns' Tintin-like figure is taking a break while the lizard-men holler at him to get back to work. Burns takes us deeper into this alternate world and fills it out with new characters. He does an amazing job at balancing the sinister and the sweet, then wakes us up into something a bit more familiar.

The familiar, of course, is shot through with the Forbidden, flashes of nightmare art and punk noise performance, sex that slides into violence, and the tedium of staying up the entire night. Art about art collides with lovingly-rendered grubs and maggots with faces leering up from food trays. Fathers die, beds float downriver, layers of color remind us of where we once were, and where again we might be. Life is pulled apart, mixed with dreams and nightmares, then put together by Burns in a manner that is tantalizingly just beyond reach.

Burns' sense of story is powerful. Despite the largely, lushly illustrated nature of these books, they feel like prose. Burns burrows his way into the readers' minds in with raw, powerful imagery that connects with the story-experiencing part of brains in much the same way as words. There's clearly a mystery at work here in the connections between the two distinct worlds and the sinewy tissues that connect them. 'The Hive' offers readers the second part of the question and the second part of the answer.

No matter how the story concludes, 'X'ed Out' and 'The Hive' are pristine, pure injections of nightmare and story, roiling unchecked into the real world. All of our hopes and dreams and fears reside not in the world, but in our minds, and the way we tell ourselves our own story to make it all work. We do indeed live our lives in a serial fashion, one moment to the next. But we put together our stories afterwards, editing out the bits we don't like. With 'The Hive,' Burns picks up those scraps from our personal cutting room floors, he mixes in our forbidden dreams and desires with the daily grind of a workplace where your co-workers are angry lizards. You can wake up after reading 'The Hive.' When you do, you will realize that waking up in your own life might not be quite so pleasant as you'd hope.

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