In the twisted world of Black Hole, the new graphic novel byCharles Burns, there's none of this makeover bullshit -- no one goesfrom high school freak to Williamsburg hipster. If you're infected,you're a freak. For life. Oh, and you're contagious.
"I was playing with all these ideas: being accepted; and thetransformation from childhood to adolescence," says Burns about hisbook. Originally issued as 12 comics released over the past decade,Black Hole (Pantheon) comes out this week in its compiled,368-page glory. Set in Seattle in the '70s, the graphic novel followsthe weary reality and demented dreams of a high-school crowd. Theirlives are complicated by the spread of a "teen plague" that disfiguresits victims with rashes, growths, or even extra body parts. As withAIDS, the "bug" is sexually transmitted. It's chronic. And, as withcooties, if you catch it, you won't remain the most popular kid on theplayground for long.
Since the mid-'80s, when his work gathered a cult following throughRAW magazine, Charles Burns has published several compilations,including Skin Deep and Big Baby. In between, he's doneeverything from Iggy Pop album covers to an ad campaign for Altoids.Like the best advertisers, Burns can give the most mundane products --bologna sandwiches, popsicles and beer -- an unexpectedly visceralimpact. Unlike an ad, though, Black Hole gives you the creeps.Burns's lettuce looks like molten skin, matches look like worms, andshrubbery looks like pubic hair. And there's tons of molten skin, worms,and pubic hair to begin with.
"I work towards a kind of repetition of images," says Burns. "It'sthis additive process. The images take on different meanings throughoutthe story." Like building up a snowman's abdomen, Burns rolls imagestogether until they gain a disembodied, terrifying weight of their own.
Sure, lots of other comic books teeter between the grotesque andbeautiful, from Dame Darcy's gothic doll-inspired comics to ChesterBrown's Ed the Happy Clown, in which said clown gets a RonaldReagan head transplanted onto the end of his penis. But Charles Burns isone of the only comic artists to use montage, as in classicEisensteinian film theory: abstract, non-sequitur images that give riseto new meanings and moods. And few other graphic novels have BlackHole's unique fusion of elements: horror, teenage angst and cold,retro drawings.
Since it's hard to find Charles Burns's parallel in the comic bookworld, critics have looked to film directors for comparisons. "For awhile, I was the David Lynch of comics," Burns grouses. "It was an easy,immediate way to figure me out: comics! David Lynch!" Sure, both Burnsand Lynch unearth mystery and symbolism in suburbia, but the comparisonignores all the clever ways Black Hole takes advantage of thecomics medium. For one, Burns plays with panel borders, as when wavyedges highlight dream sequences. For another, the guy's got seriousdrawing chops. His drawings reverberate with recurrent lines andtextures -- squiggles, pockmarks, and his trademark backgammon-boardshading. Most importantly, unlike any of Lynch's movies, BlackHole nails the angst, monotony and lust we all felt in high school.
"I chose the '70s only because that's what I'm most familiar with,"said Burns. "But at the core of the story, there's something universal:that transformation from adolescence, both physical and psychological."
Which is why Charles Burns relishes the time an Ohio native onceasked him, "Is this story set in Ohio? Because that's exactly what Iused to do in Ohio."
Yup, that's what we all did in our teen years. Hang out in the woods.Brood. Eat fried chicken. With luck, have sex. With worse luck, have sexwith that mutant guy who had a weird second mouth on his neck.