Black Hole by Charles Burns

It is hard enough to be a teenager once; the idea of having to relive the high school experience again is almost too obscene to bear. And yet that is exactly what Black Hole is and aspires to be, the archetypal high school experience printed on high-quality paper and bound between two thick, hard covers. That it takes place in the 1970s and is preoccupied with the concept of mutation and deformity is of little consequence. These facets of the story — all facets of the story not pertaining to the principle notions of alienation and paranoia endemic to the teenaged classes across the industrialized West — are glossed over in favor of a loose, diaphanous metaphorical structure that proves as intense, and ultimately as intensely anticlimactic, as the very act of growing up itself.

The book follows the outbreak of a strange disfiguring disease among the teenage population of a small Washington state high school in the early 1970s. The world is presented as our own — there are numerous references to Aladdin Sane-era Bowie and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (although, sadly, no appearance by Tarkus) — but every effort is meant to keep the story tightly focused on the concerns of its principle characters. There are no mentions of Watergate or even Vietnam — surely high among the concerns of any American teenager growing up in the era of Ziggy Stardust. But more conspicuous still in their almost total absent are the parents. For all the dozens of cast members who weave through the book, there are only one or two perfunctory appearances by adults, almost on the level of the squonking trumpet teachers from the Peanuts cartoon. None of the adults in this small, tightly knit town notice when their children start turning into tentacled, werewolf-faced, gangrenous mutants? Furthermore, is this a localized plague or is the entire nation feeling its effects? Why can’t they simply buy a pack of condoms?

These questions are beside the point, because the mutant “plague” that engulfs the narrative is little more than a metaphor. Teenagers are isolated and alienated, and sex is seen as a mysterious, fearful talisman — so in the world of Black Hole, those who transgress sexually are cursed with some form of disfigurement, be it a rather innocuous tail growing from the posterior or a full-on ghoulish corpse makeover. The more disgustingly deformed set out for a campground in the woods where they live apart from the rest of the population, venturing in only to dive the dumpsters for food, or bum a shower from a sympathetic friend. This is where the book’s female heroine, Chris, goes after she is inflicted with the disease (following a fling with the ill-fated Rob), and gains the rather awkward ability to shed her skin like a snake. That’s it: no antenna or scales, just an occasional surplus skin. Enough, perhaps, to make her something of a misfit, but to send her into exile from humanity? Only in the lovelorn imagination of a teenager…

The book’s ostensible protagonist, Keith, spends three quarters of the book mooning over Chris, even though she couldn’t be more disinterested, and spends the last quarter in rapturous love with the tall, elegant, intelligent and almost comically idealized Eliza. Eliza doesn’t seem to have any attributes except for being artistic and sensitive; sensitive enough to be incredibly attracted to Keith despite the fact that he doesn’t do anything but walk around, moon over Chris and get stoned (they get stoned a lot, actually). If you went to any high school in the country and found a requisite shy, introverted and misunderstood teenage boy, their dream woman would undoubtedly bear an uncanny resemblance to Eliza: uncommonly beautiful and perceptive enough to see the true value of the shy, introverted and misunderstood teenage boy just waiting to be made into a confident, assertive and articulate man through the healing power of bumping uglies. Anyway, Eliza has the bug too, but only in the form of a little itty bitty tail (which is even drawn in a fetching manner), and when she spreads the bug to Keith all he gets for his trouble is little itty bitty phalanges under his armpits, easily covered with an ace bandage. Of course, if Keith and Eliza had anything less than supermodel good looks, it would be hard to wrap a story — or at least this story — around them. Because, really, the ugly people who get infected with the bug and live in the woods just aren’t as interesting as the beautiful freaks. No one seems to care that they’ve essentially disappeared off the face of the planet. Which is kind of a sad meta-commentary in and of itself, but there you go.

Perhaps the single most powerful aspect of cartooning as an art form is the ability of the artist’s style to reflect their thematic preoccupations, enabling them to subliminally communicate information regarding mood, setting, pacing and temperament through the dense array of artistic choices that compose the creation of every page. It’s easy to get a feel, for example, for Chris Ware’s propensities for harried, almost pathologically contemplative characters through his use of densely intricate and subtly facetious structural conceits. Similarly, an artist like Dan Clowes expresses emotionally barren ennui and paranoid detachment through the use of an infinitely refined and purposefully expressionless style that brings to mind the heights of anonymous commercial art and disposable cartooning from the 1950s. Burns, simply by virtue of his skill a craftsmen, easily deserves his place in the pantheon (pun definitely intended) of today’s great cartoonists. His lush swaths of feathered black ink create a supple, almost velvety texture that gives his work a distinctive tactile quality. The play of hard black on a shining white backgrounds (or, better yet, faint white on hard black) gives his best work the quality of a black-light poster of the kind you used to find in head shops, sucking you into the page with the vertiginous pull of the titular black hole.

His baroque, wonderfully expressive style allows him to pull off a number of ambitious stylistic effects that, honestly, the book shouldn’t be able to pull off. A handful of dream sequences and hallucinatory montages throughout the book give Burns the opportunity to play with a variety creepy psychedelic effects. Leave it be said that while these sequences are stylistically amazing, they are almost too precious to be believed: Burns has never met a crevice or portal that couldn’t be exploited for it’s passing resemblance to a vagina, and every snake, hot dog and gun seen through these pages carries the unspeakable subtext of — gasp! — overbearing Freudian imagery. The fact that these writhing, demoniacal snakes and gaping caves are so well drawn might serve to mitigate the unrelenting monotony of the book’s incredible predictability, but only slightly.

Black Hole comes to bookstores with an impressive pedigree. Having been serialized in 12 issues over the course of nine years by Fantagraphics, it has already amassed a significant fanbase solely by virtue of Burns’ distinctive and inimitable skill. The decade-long gestation has given the work something of a totemic aura in a community that already values patience and deliberate artistry over speed and easy facility. There are already talks of a big-budget adaptation, with script by Sandman alumnus Neil Gaiman. I’m sure if they stick fairly close to the source material it should do excellent business: it’s Dazed and Confused meets X-Men by way of whatever schlock horror film is at the multiplex this week — only, you know, without any of the subtext you would usually find in a Richard Linklater film, an X-Men comic book, or your average horror movie. Instead of subtext we’ve got what is essentially supertext (a term coined by bloggers to explain the inexplicable ham-fistedness of 1950s comic books), the thematic equivalent of “BEING A HORNY TEENAGER SUCKS AND NO-ONE UNDERSTANDS ME” written in fifty-foot tall neon letters above the interstate.

The only thing throughout the entire book that rang even remotely true to me was the ending, at which point Keith and Eliza ride off into the sunset, abandoning their sad-sack life in mutant Washington for the vague promise of a better life somewhere south, and the very strong implication that it’s time to grow up. Indeed, I could have told them that earlier and saved them almost 400 pages of meandering indecision. But then, I guess that’s what being a teenager is all about.