Charles Burns
Pantheon ($24.95)

by David Kennedy-Logan

With only a cursory flip through the pages, Charles Burns's epic graphic novel Black Hole might seem to be a schlocky horror comic with antecedents such as EC's Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror from the fifties, or the gleefully crude and lascivious underground "comix" movement of the sixties. The pages, after all, are filled with freaks, violence, sex, drugs, and depravity. But spend a little more time poking around, and several qualities of this amazing work will prove that initial impression radically incomplete.

The first is the appearance of the book itself, a hefty and striking hardcover. The second is Burns's eminently recognizable artwork—swaths of solid black chiseled with white, impeccably rendered, like woodcuts printed with pure oil—each page is a revelation, and, at over 300 pages long, it's no wonder it took ten years to complete. The final and most impressive quality, revealed only after the hallucinatory narrative takes hold, is the writing. This graphic novel holds its own as a novel in the literary sense, plumbing emotional depths with complexity, subtlety, and multilayered symbolism.

Black Hole relates the trials and tribulations of a group of high school students in 1970s suburban Seattle. Like typical high schoolers, their symbiotic existence is defined by a Darwinian struggle for social standing among their peers—they are concerned primarily with being cool, fitting in, or, at the very least, being left alone; their bodies and minds are hostage to their pituitary and reproductive systems; they have crushes and infatuations; they feel love, lust, jealousy, and betrayal; they smoke pot, drop acid, get drunk, and have sex. The subject matter is not all that dissimilar from, say, Fast Times at Ridgemont High—except there's no gratuitous nudity, cheap jokes, or Spiccoli. Instead, there's the plague.

When the story begins, a sexually transmitted affliction that causes a smorgasbord of physical deformities—from dermatological oddities to genetic mutations to leprotic abominations—is starting to spread among the teen population. Some sprout horns, others become full-on, rotted-flesh zombies. One character grows a mouth on his chest. Another starts shedding her skin. Yet another grows a tail. (As if it weren't hard enough to get a date.) With a new physical taxonomy for labeling and ostracizing "weirdos," the most hideously deformed flee school and home altogether, setting up camps in the woods outside the city. Proving the author has a wry and sardonic sense of humor, one of these ogre-like monstrosities is a former chess club geek.

Structurally and visually, Black Hole is a tour de force. A palpable tension is generated between the ice-cold, hard-edged, clean look of the art and the warm, odorous, messy organic processes that it depicts. The narrative point of view is subjective, and rotates among different characters from chapter to chapter. Sometimes the point of view changes without warning within a chapter, to jarring effect. The story also includes harrowing dream sequences, memories, and drug-induced hallucinations, and Burns presents the entire affair in a nonlinear fashion, placing visual markers delicately here and there to help the reader piece chunks of time together. It would all be unintelligible were it not for the author's mastery of comics' unique ability to manipulate time and space. He creates a simulacrum of subjective consciousness unparalleled in the graphic novel format—and not often matched in even the best prose fiction.

Without a doubt, the plague wreaks havoc on the lives of these young men and women. But the havoc—and here is the key to the singularly convincing artistry of this book—does not differ qualitatively from that wrought by the run-of-the-mill acne, voice changes, body hair, growth spurts, and sexual urges of puberty. It differs only by degrees. Among the worst fears of adolescence is that of being cast out, considered unwanted or unattractive. Black Hole takes this fear—a faint but persistent hum in the background at any high school—and amplifies it to a wail, omnipresent, deafening, inescapable. Compounding the tension and dread is the fact that, as in a Peanuts strip, the parents and teachers of the town are all but nonentities. These teens, on the cusp of adulthood, face their hellish problems alone. Just as they do, for the most part, in reality. And while some have argued that the debilitating, misunderstood, and uncurable ailment Black Hole depicts is a metaphor for AIDS, most readers will find that restricting the scope of the work to a specific disease rather than a fundamental aspect of the human condition is unnecessarily reductive.

An alumnus of Art Spiegelman's seminal RAW magazine, Burns himself grew up in Seattle in the '70s. Kurt Cobain, another Seattle artist obsessed with biology, mortality, alienation, and decay, in the most famous anthem to teen malaise ever recorded, sang, "Here we are now / Entertain us / I feel stupid / And contagious." The song makes a good soundtrack to the book. As a portrait of high school, Black Hole is disorienting, disturbing, and depressing. Rarely has the genuine terror of this stage of life been explored and presented in such an unadulterated and honest way. High school is a pressure cooker that will, when conditions get bad enough, explode with murderous consequences. There is a thread that, even if only tenuously, connects this fictional work of art to real tragedies like the Columbine and Red Lake shootings. That thread is the terminal isolation, crushing self-doubt, and excruciating growing pains of adolescence.

Despite its fantastically horrific episodes, in the end Black Hole is a tender and heartfelt meditation on the turbulent journey from childhood to adulthood, the painful search for a place to belong, and the fragile, malleable, and resilient nature of identity. It is also a treatise on, and a testament to, artistic commitment. Its roots may be in those schlocky horror comics, but its uppermost branches—like those of the whole comics medium—are growing toward the sky.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006