Jason Pettus's Reviews > Black Hole

Black Hole by Charles Burns
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Apr 09, 08

bookshelves: contemporary, comics, hipster, smart-nerdy, weird, dark, personal-favorite
Read in April, 2008

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

It's definitely true, that although I personally am a big fan of so-called "comic books for grown-ups," I rarely review such projects here at CCLaP, for a variety of deliberate reasons: because of the medium's sketchy reputation with the public at large, for example, because of CCLaP's emphasis on being a destination truly for adults (as opposed to a destination for extra-smart adolescents), because of so many such "graphic novels" barely qualifying as reviewable literature in the first place. (So in other words, many of these projects are not bad per se, but are merely not substantial enough to have a lengthy analytical essay written about them.) Ah, but I'm making an exception today for writer and illustrator Charles Burns, again for a variety of deliberate reasons -- because I've been following his work since the early 1980s (originally through the pages of RAW magazine while in college), because he does lots of other interesting things besides just comic books (he was the set designer, for example, of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's controversial 1992 production of The Nutcracker, and is also the full-time cover artist for lit-crit magazine "The Believer"). Most importantly, though, Burns' creations over the decades have mostly been a far cry from the usual navel-gazing whining and postmodern superhero discourses of most "alternative comics;" he is instead a master of the grotesque and macabre, the unsettling and weird, a bastard love-child of David Lynch and Walt Disney, with a little Robert Crumb and Hieronymus Bosch thrown in for good measure.

And thus do we come to Burns' magnum opus, 2005's Black Hole, actually written over the course of a decade and originally published serially through hipster comics outfit Fantagraphics. (DISCLOSURE: As is the case with many small presses mentioned here, I am personal friends with several people associated with Fantagraphics; it makes me pre-inclined to like their projects more than other critics do, something you should be aware of when reading this review.) Like many of his other projects, Black Hole is a "body horror" tale, in which otherwise normal people slowly mutate into horrible freaks over the course of the plot; instead of the pulpy noir tales of many of his most well-known past projects, however, Burns here tackles a much more complex and down-to-earth story, using his creepy visual style to metaphorically evoke terrors which are usually only psychological in nature. And indeed, I don't think it's any coincidence that the dust jacket of this book features dual illustrations of Burns himself, one from the 1970s and one from our times; although not literally an autobiographical tale, you do get the sense that Burns is working out at least a few personal issues from his own youth here, using an otherwise fantastical tale to intimately explore many of the emotional subjects that come with being a teen.

The story is simple enough -- it is the late '70s, and a mysterious new sexually-transmitted disease is starting to affect the high-schoolers of suburban Seattle; but instead of being an AIDS-style killer that eats away from the inside out, this virus actually attacks a person's exterior, manifesting as a series of random genetic mutations depending on who you are but otherwise leaving the inside of the body healthy. And since these are very prominent mutations for the most part (mysterious tiny mouths appearing on people's throats, bodies covered in rotting boils), it soon becomes quite apparent to all which teens are sexually active ones and which aren't, leading not only to a moral panic among the parents but a whole new system of class stratification among the high-schoolers themselves. Burns' 400-page tome, then, is a detailed and complicated look at the lives of half a dozen of these suburban teens, as well as the dark milieu they inhabit -- including a dangerous shantytown in the outlying woods where many of the teens relocate after becoming family outcasts, as well as the various complicated relationships these post-outbreak kids all have with each other in their little self-contained new society.

That's probably what's most interesting about Black Hole, to tell you the truth; because when all is said and done, what this book is mostly about is the natural awkwardness and alienation that most people go through during their teen years, and especially about the endless ways such teens hurt and disappoint all the people around them because of a whole series of romantic misunderstandings and miscalculations. And the reason this is so interesting, I think, is because Burns shows how it's almost more efficient to tackle such a subject through the bizarre metaphor of sexually transmitted genetic mutations, rather than a traditional plot; to cite just one great example, there's a sex scene in this book involving a vestigial tail that explains the erotic-awfulness / awful-eroticism of young sex in a better way than a thousand John Hughes movies added together. This is what I mean when I say that Black Hole is both autobiographical and not, and why I think it's one of the rare graphic novels worth reviewing here; because although the story is definitely one that can only be told in comic-book form, it still rings emotionally true from the very core of the plot, in a way that straight-ahead dramas about teen angst often fail to do. It's a big book, one that takes a surprisingly long time to actually get through (welcome news for regular comics readers, I know), but certainly one that is worth the effort, and one I highly recommend to those who only tackle one or two graphic novels a year.

Out of 10: 9.3
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