Comic Shop: Black Hole by Charles Burns

July 10, 2008 at 12:05 am 8 comments

Take a heap of post-adolescent angst, a handful of deftly executed metaphors, some kitschy horror films, and a bit of David Lynch style weirdness, and you’ll have something which begins to approximate this creepy and gorgeously intricate graphic novel from Charles Burns.

The story revolves around a few teenagers in a Seattle suburb, against the smoky backdrop of the David Bowie and Emerson, Lake & Palmer-laden 1970s. Our protagonists are Keith, a geeky stoner, and Chris, a pretty, sweet, popular girl. Keith harbors an impossible crush on Chris, to which she’s naturally oblivious. It’s a fairly traditional high school dynamic, but that is quickly upset by The Bug, a sexually transmitted virus which is rapidly making its way through the senior class. The disease results in horrible physical deformities. One student sprouts a tail, while another’s face is covered in boils, and a third grows webbed fingers. Because the disease is so visually obvious, the infected kids are immediately ostracized by their peers. Afraid of the reactions of their friends and parents, the afflicted end up setting up camp in the woods, creeping into town for food and any provisions they may need. While the allusions to teen pregnancy and AIDS panic are pretty obvious, Burns is also constructing a metaphor for the awkwardness and pain of adolescence. These people are literally growing out of their own skin, as physically uncomfortable as the average teenager feels.

Back to our characters, though. Chris unwittingly contracts the disease after a one night stand with Rob, a cute guy from school. As her disease progresses, she’s forced to run away from home and live out in the woods with the other outcasts. Rob’s symptoms are less visible, and so he continues attending school, but visits Chris at every opportunity. Chris’ disappearance forces Keith to forget his crush on her, and he meets a lovely infected girl, Eliza, who seduces him almost immediately. Despite the complications of the disease, both relationships retain a youthful optimism; after all, these are just high school kids. Burns maintains an incredible amount of narrative tension, especially for such a dreamlike, meandering story. His characters are realistic enough to identify as types, but still remain blank slates- it’s frighteningly easy to project yourself onto any one of them. They anguish they suffer will ring true to anyone who endured those four years- years spent in a world completely inaccessible by adults (who wouldn’t understand, anyway).

The artwork is what really pushes the story into surrealism. Using only jet black and stark white, Burns doesn’t shy away from portraying the grisly details of his story. His heavy lines illustrate every gaping wound, every oozing sore. Just as skillfully, he captures the intimacy of a first kiss, or a moment of tenderness in someone’s eyes. The imagery is also undeniably Freudian. Every page is loaded with sexual imagery- motifs are woven into the story so that it never feels out of place.(click to enlarge)

Visual patterns show up repeatedly. Each chapter opens with a diptych of a random object, often piece of discarded garbage, and an image of the character. A half-eaten hamburger is mirrored by an overhead view of Chris, curled into a fetal position. Keith, surrounded by a hazy, vertical cloud of smoke, is opposed by an oversized joint. Nearly every page layout matches that of the opposite page; it’s an incredible feat of planning and design.

Black Hole tells a richly illustrated story of pain, adolescence, and sexual awakening. Much of the story is on the cusp of being so horrifying you can’t turn away, but it is punctuated by moments of pure sweetness or vaguely sexy perversities. (click to enlarge)

A demented beauty pervades Black Hole, and its combination of terror and wistful yearning will linger for days. Thus far, it’s the only full-length graphic novel Burns has produced, and it took him ten years to do so (it’s easy to see why, considering the elaborate artwork and layered story). We can only hope it’s not his last.


Entry filed under: Betty, Books for Hire. Tags: , , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. neekaps  |  July 10, 2008 at 2:18 am

    Man, I’ve heard such great things about this comic.
    I’ve finally discovered the joy of comic book reading. finished tank girl, reading the crow if you ever want to borrow them.

  • 2. Tim Cameron  |  July 10, 2008 at 2:28 am

    I’m a tard for not having read this yet. I must admit I found that last panel pretty disturbing, in a good way; I guess this is a comic that teaches you to have an open mind.

  • 3. Ryan  |  July 10, 2008 at 6:47 am

    Among other things, Tim.

    I was gonna get this for a friend for a birthday present, started reading it in a comic book store, got too freaked out, and put it back. Now I really want to go get it for myself.

  • 4. themoviecult  |  July 10, 2008 at 8:09 am

    This looks excellent. Thanks for the recommendation, Betty.

  • 5. parkrangerolivia  |  July 10, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Oh my goodness, those pictures are beautifully disgusting. my ticklish neck quivers with the last graphic especially..

  • 6. Betty  |  July 10, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    Ryan: You probably made the right choice in not getting it as a gift- I wouldn’t unless I knew the person pretty well, and knew they wouldn’t assume I was a crazed sexually deviant murderer (more than usual, anyway). You definitely should buy it, though, because you’ll probably want to re-read it a few times.

    Katie: YEAH I wanna borrow them! Let’s have a comic swap!

  • 7. Nicol  |  July 22, 2008 at 4:08 am

    This was a great read. It is the first graphic novel for me. I plan on reading it again in a couple of weeks. You’re brave – I wouldn’t recommend this to many people.

    Apart from the brochure for the Marvel adaptation of the Stand the guy who sold this to me gave me, I have no clue where to go from here; I’m looking forward to more posts in the segment.

  • 8. Somnopolis  |  December 24, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    It is a wonderful book. Looking forward to David Fincher’s film version.


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