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.