Burns, Baby, Burns

In the twisted world of Black Hole, the new graphic novel by Charles Burns, there's none of this makeover bullshit -- no one goes from 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 the transformation from childhood to adolescence," says Burns about his book. 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 follows the weary reality and demented dreams of a high-school crowd. Their lives are complicated by the spread of a "teen plague" that disfigures its victims with rashes, growths, or even extra body parts. As with AIDS, the "bug" is sexually transmitted. It's chronic. And, as with cooties, if you catch it, you won't remain the most popular kid on the playground for long.

Since the mid-'80s, when his work gathered a cult following through RAW magazine, Charles Burns has published several compilations, including Skin Deep and Big Baby. In between, he's done everything 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 visceral impact. Unlike an ad, though, Black Hole gives you the creeps. Burns's lettuce looks like molten skin, matches look like worms, and shrubbery 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's this additive process. The images take on different meanings throughout the story." Like building up a snowman's abdomen, Burns rolls images together until they gain a disembodied, terrifying weight of their own.

Sure, lots of other comic books teeter between the grotesque and beautiful, from Dame Darcy's gothic doll-inspired comics to Chester Brown's Ed the Happy Clown, in which said clown gets a Ronald Reagan head transplanted onto the end of his penis. But Charles Burns is one of the only comic artists to use montage, as in classic Eisensteinian film theory: abstract, non-sequitur images that give rise to new meanings and moods. And few other graphic novels have Black Hole'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 book world, critics have looked to film directors for comparisons. "For a while, I was the David Lynch of comics," Burns grouses. "It was an easy, immediate way to figure me out: comics! David Lynch!" Sure, both Burns and Lynch unearth mystery and symbolism in suburbia, but the comparison ignores all the clever ways Black Hole takes advantage of the comics medium. For one, Burns plays with panel borders, as when wavy edges highlight dream sequences. For another, the guy's got serious drawing chops. His drawings reverberate with recurrent lines and textures -- squiggles, pockmarks, and his trademark backgammon-board shading. Most importantly, unlike any of Lynch's movies, Black Hole 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 once asked him, "Is this story set in Ohio? Because that's exactly what I used 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 sex with that mutant guy who had a weird second mouth on his neck.

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