In a graphic novel, each panel participates in a complex dialogue with other panels. It’s also part of a larger historical conversation involving hundreds of similar panels from earlier comics. These contexts — the comic itself and the comic-in-history — lend each image interpretive resonance and possibility. In Daniel Clowes’s 2000 graphic novel David Boring, for example, the title character finds a stray image from one of his father’s comics:
An inveterate childhood reader of comics, Clowes knew that panels like this one frequently appeared in post-war American comics, whether superhero, horror, science fiction, or war titles. An atomic mushroom cloud fills a small rectangle that’s trying to contain something beyond containment:
By summoning up the 1945 nuclear bombing of Japan, the panel threatened Americans readers with their own, seemingly imminent, apocalypse. Given this context, the panel was inherently consequential, an easy way for writers and artists to associate even the most clichéd fantasy plot with the harshest cold-war reality. Clowes, who uses the famous panel as a metaphor for David’s personal apocalypse, pays homage to comic book history by having it surface near the end of his narrative, the location it often occupied in previous comics: "And in the last panel . . . get this . . ."
Like H-Bomb panels, the opening two panels of Charles Burns’s The Hive have significant histories. The second panel
features what’s arguably the most widely-used composition in the history of American comics. It’s one of the ‘money shots’ of romance comics, a girls’ genre that flourished in the 1950s and ’60s, yet had all but vanished by the mid ’70s:
A close-up of an attractive couple, the panel depicts a male, likely in his early twenties, ardently kissing a female of the same age or a little younger. Eyes closed, the entranced lovers occupy nearly the entire text-free frame. For this fleeting moment, the kiss’s sensory power obliterates the outside world: one small rectangle holds the girl’s entire universe. She longs for physical contact with an intensity so powerful it must be, on some level, self-destructive:
The romance artist (almost always a man) gives the male lead ‘pride of place’ by positioning him above the female (he's often on the right, and so is 'read' first). The image tells readers that they are a male’s visual, physical, and romantic subordinates, passive figures on the receiving end of a world-creating/destroying kiss. Only a boy can make a girl smile or cry, her heart throb or ache. (In these stories, the emotional responses of ‘the heart’ also represent the reactions of the body, which can never be seen sexually throbbing.) Though marketed to girls, romance comics surrender nearly all social and erotic power to males.
The kiss, a climactic counterpart to the famous ‘crying girl’
(she cries when the kiss’s promise goes unfulfilled), typically appears two or three times per story, and numerous times in each multi-story comic book. Burns, who has notebooks filled with panels cut from romance comics, departs from his artistic precursors in one pronounced way. He shows far less of the girl’s face; in fact, he almost erases it.
The perfectly preened male dominates, his luxurious eyebrows positioned near the panel’s center. The Hive’s tormented teenaged protagonist, Doug, has a small scar across his left eyebrow:
Does Burns show the full kiss panel — as it appears in the romance comic read by a pregnant character in The Hive
— or does he reveal only what Doug sees? Is Doug focused on the eyebrow, one of the things that makes him incomplete, a romantic anti-hero with a broken heart and wounded face?
In X’ed Out, the first volume of Burns’s trilogy-in-the-making (The Hive is part two), the cartoonist explores the Tintin stories of Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Burns excavates the gothic subtext of these ‘all-ages’ adventure tales by looking, not at the plots, but at recurring images scattered throughout their pages, such as mystifying black holes and other fear-inducing openings and ruptures:
What X’ed Out does for Tintin stories, The Hive does for romance comics, and DC’s 1960s line in particular: it reveals the un-romantic reality these stories conceal. Throughout The Hive and the comic books within it, Burns foregrounds sex, pregnancy, abortion, drugs, and flesh — he removes the lingerie that magically clings in girls’ comics. Each iteration of the opening kiss comments on the romance at the heart of the story, the relationship between star-crossed lovers Doug and Sally. While readers often dismiss girls’ romance comics as kitsch, overwrought sentimentality, or pervy comics by old men, Burns’s repetitions call attention to the genre’s power. In one sequence, the young lovers imitate the famous panel:
This kiss is not a joke for Doug, but a deeply emotional moment. If we take this image seriously in The Hive, perhaps we should be moved when it surfaces in earlier comics . . . Later, Burns includes an image rarely seen in traditional romance comics: he re-imagines the couple (as they appear in the kiss panel and other embrace panels) by inverting the male and female positions:
Since The Hive has been exploring Doug’s womb fantasies, it makes sense that he would want to be cradled by a woman — and cop a feel while he’s at it.
The Hive’s initial panel is not a composition per se; it’s an all-black rectangle, a widely-used ‘utility’ panel that hides the artist’s hand:
No matter who draws it, the content looks the same. In the formal push-pull of comics, the play of positive and negative space, the black panel works in tandem with the white gutter between panels. Both forms evoke absence and uncertainty: something’s happening, but we’re not allowed to see it. Fans sometimes deride the black panel as a cheat, a way that artists avoid labor. But it may inspire a little interpretive labor. In or out of context, the same black ‘image’ suggests numerous meanings: it can represent something literally black, like darkness; or figuratively black, like the ‘black out’ of sleep or unconsciousness (is unconsciousness really black? why not white?); or abstractly ‘black,’ like an un-narrated passage of time. It can even imply censorship, summoning up the black rectangles that excite and frustrate readers of redacted documents. On Burns’s pages, the panel is anything but a cheat.
The Hive’s black panels (and related single-color panels) play ever-changing roles, representing sleep, drug-induced unconsciousness, a transition from daydream or hallucination back to consciousness, a building block (part of the hive formed by a series of panels in the front matter), or something we can’t name — not all images are paraphrase-able.
The monochrome box — both a presence and an absence — signals that crucial things are x’ed out in The Hive, as they are in Tintin stories and romance comics alike. Tapping into our desire to know what’s really going on, Burns plays this erasure for anxiety and comedy. He knows readers will try to decode the repeated ‘blank’ panels, the different Dougs, the shifting levels of reality, the narrative’s non-linear chronology, and the ontological status of each panel: is it a dream, a hallucination, or a panel from another comic book? Burns teases the reader, having Doug voice questions that we want to ask:
The kiss panel appears within a comic being read by a “Breeder,” who, in turn, appears in another comic, the Tintin-styled The Secret of the Hive, which is being read by Doug. In The Hive, teenagers can’t escape the everyday horror of bad sex, bad drugs, bad rock ’n roll, and bad relationships. Burns’s narrative logic is one of ‘gothic circularity.’ In gothic tales, victims often find themselves trapped in traumatic familial and personal histories, a psychological condition represented by the trope of ‘the inescapable building’ (often the ‘Family Mansion’), in which staircases, hallways, and doorways lead back to the point of origin. (Both X’ed Out and The Hive feature mystifying passageways to nowhere). The Hive offers no escape, only comics within comics and panels within panels.
By drawing on romance stories, Burns places his circular, self-referential Hive into American comic book history. As one of his graphic novel’s hallmarks, the all-black panel represents Burns’s narrative method: he draws attention to what’s hidden. The panel is a theater curtain that’s never opened. In the hands of an artist as historically-aware as Burns, the repressed returns, encouraging us to rethink the visual/narrative power of romance comics and arrive at a new understanding of the medium’s history: he gives us a new origin story for contemporary comics.
The Hive argues that we should take girl’s comics seriously — a case this strong could never be made in prose. If we, like Burns, shed the baggage of post-Roy Lichtenstein comic book kitsch and contemplate these narratives directly, we will see something new: The Hive is a repository of the forgotten.
By having Doug stare at romance imagery, Burns compels us to do the same. Such contemplation reveals that these stories, more so than EC Comics or Underground Comixs (two widely-celebrated alt-comics antecedents) are the ‘Breeders’ of Burns and his generation, cartoonists obsessed with the terror and banality of human relationships and the artistic possibilities of debased comic book genres.
[For my review of Burns's X'ed Out, see here. For ideas left out of that piece (many of which are relevant to The Hive), see here.]