By explicitly referencing the colorful boys’ adventures of Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin, Charles Burns turns his latest works, X’ed Out and The Hive, into something of an intertextual puzzle box. But the surreal, existential horror of Burns’s work has never remotely resembled Hergé’s. In his warped evocation of Hergé’s impressively realized world (which in itself was a rather off-kilter, and sometimes bizarre, vision of our own), Burns highlights its peculiarities: boy hero Tintin’s careful asexuality, the conspicuous absence of female characters or any kind of romance or sex, the surreal exoticization of the real and the familiar. He does this not as metatextual critique, but as a catalyst for his own tale of the meeting of two wounded souls, Doug and Sarah, both art students making their way through a pretension-laden underworld of entitled middle-class youth during the 1970s.
Doug’s appropriation of a Tintin-like comic-book character, “Nitnit,” as a secondary artistic persona becomes a telling indicator of the way he, and in turn all of humanity, interacts with art—as medicine and mask for everything ugly and animal about us. Doug puts on a Nitnit mask and recites poetry “cut-ups” at an art show, cruelly hoping that Sarah, the girl he has a crush on, will “push her way through the crowd to get [him]” even as his current girlfriend looks on. When his recitation is interrupted by a harsh critic, he fantasizes about looking on as his heckler shamefully admits she’s never heard of William Burroughs. Doug’s hypocrisy is key to understanding his terrifying, vivid fantasies and dreams. Burns weaves Doug’s dream life into the two books along with his memories, creating one continuous hallucinatory, cascading narrative that skips across different times and realities.
Throughout these two books, Burns always returns to art and how his characters interact with it, and use it to define their lives. Doug and Sarah first bond over photography and their mutual appreciation of Lucas Samaras. Doug likes comics and reads Nitnit, which of course pervades the entire story, and Sarah becomes fascinated with florid romance comics from the ’50s as something of a ridiculous ideal. At one point Sarah puts on Brian Eno’s Before and After Science for Doug because it sounds like “[their] soundtrack,” only to become overwhelmed by the sadness it evokes in her. Even in the dream world Doug explores as Nitnit, Sarah-doppelganger Suzy reads a romance comic that reflects Doug and Sarah’s relationship through noir-ish black-and-white trappings.
These layers of art become veils that both obfuscate and explain Doug’s story, that keep his naked horror at his own experience of love and sex hidden. And so we come again to the separation of the intellectual and the physical, and the curious bridge between the two that love forms. In his masterpiece, Black Hole, Burns literalized sexual fear as a bodily disease, as physical mutation and malignancy. In X’ed Out and The Hive, sexual/romantic love becomes a mental disease, infecting Doug and Sarah’s psyches, causing them to self-medicate with art and drugs until they’re lost in a spiral of confused self-reflection. Beneath the wrappings of civilization we clothe ourselves in (be it our unique and personal tastes in art, our knowledge and assimilation of culture), lies the call of the lizard brain. And Doug is all too aware of it, of the way it controls our desire for sexual companionship. This makes love a tainted endeavour for him—dangerously close to the bilious toxicity of our basest impulses, to uncontrolled lust and the primal violence of jealousy. Doug, the sensitive art student, is just a dream away from the masculine, sexualized rage of Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, who asks him through the intercom: “Have you ever had anyone stick a knife up your ass?”
Perhaps it’s the safe, neutral asexuality of Tintin/Nitnit that makes Doug assume him as a dream avatar, though this skews the character into another extreme: of passivity, blundering through an alien world, bullied by aggressive, yellow-eyed lizard men sprung straight from his masculine id. While Tintin’s asexuality is certain and heroic, Nitnit’s is faltering and weak, like Doug’s own ambivalence toward women and sex. Tintin doesn’t have to worry about love and sex because Hergé omits it entirely from his world. Nitnit, on the other hand, faces the strange literalization of such a world, where women are kept locked away as “breeders” in a “hive,” turning reproduction into an industrialized process overseen by those very lizard men of the id. The thought that romance and love exist in service to that lizard-brain impulse for reproduction and survival is a worm constantly burrowing through Doug’s mind. It feeds off his anxiety when Sarah admits she’s late after forgetting her diaphragm during sex. It jaundices his dream life, affecting Nitnit’s odyssey through the hive city. Doug’s fear of the animalism that lurks beneath love surfaces constantly in the grotesque fetal and sexual imagery punctuating the two books: a recurring pickled pig fetus, bestial pig men fucking openly in a rotting house, lizard embryos floating in sewage and food, the motif of eggs and their consumption.
Doug’s halting confrontation of the figurative (and perhaps literal) dead babies floating in his psyche makes for a disturbing, absorbing reading experience, even without a conclusion. For fans of The Adventures of Tintin, the references and parallels are numerous, from the cover of X’ed Out, which mimics the cover of The Shooting Star, and artistic choices like the gorgeous colored artwork and ligne Claire style in Nitnit’s world, to more obscure nods like the similarity of a scene in which Doug buys second-hand comics in an open-air flea market to a scene in which Tintin buys a second-hand model ship (The Secret of the Unicorn). But X’ed Out and The Hive form a mystery that will be equally, if differently, fascinating to readers unfamiliar with Hergé’s comic-book world. The pieces missing from the traumatic story of Doug and Sarah’s relationship will, of course, be revealed in the third book of the trilogy, Sugar Skull. But even if Burns gives us concrete answers, his trilogy will undoubtedly demand endless re-reading and unpacking, while resisting any absolute interpretation.