Charles Burns’ “Black Hole”

Veteran independent cartoonist Charles Burns began his career by supplying album cover art for Sub Pop Records and first came into the comic shop limelight through Art Spiegelman’s RAW. His artwork is familiar to many on account of his distinctive textural style and the fact that so many merchandisers (from Altoids to Coca Cola) have decided to use his hip artwork to appeal to a young demographic.

Charles Burns developed his serialized Black Hole from 1993 – 2004 through Fantagraphics Press with a collected edition released by Pantheon Books in 2005. The Harvey Award-winning series is lauded by critics and fans alike.

Black Hole is an amazing comic book that has resonated with me ever since I first read it. Following the lives of a group of high schoolers terrified by something called ‘the bug,’ the series resides in the late 70’s era of kitsch and the cultural malaise of suburbia. As the story progresses, we see characters undergoing transformations due to exposure to the bug that are nightmarish and akin to the sexual awkwardness of teenagers.

The ‘bug’ which brutally transforms the carrier’s body in various ways (from a mouth growing on your neck to a tadpole-like tail), but always results in expulsion from society. Only transmittable by sexual contact or an exchange of bodily fluids, victims of the ‘bug’ are shunned and avoided, but never treated for their condition. It seems that once you contract the disease, your life as a person is over.

The collected story reads very much like a cross between a morality tale and an adolescent nightmare. Images foreshadow key events that overtake the characters, but the entire landscape of the series is dreamlike as well. While characters guzzle cheap wine mooning over each other, mutated teens live in the woods a stone’s throw away, lamenting the lives they can never return to.

Black Hole detail

Characters linger on the brink of the wilderness, with drug use of sexual promiscuity always playing a key role in the temptations to join the outsiders that live in the woods eating twinkies over a lonely camp fire.

While this might seem like a message toward a life of abstinence, Burns‘ characters are excited and intrigued over the newness and escape provided by both sex and drugs. There’s very little left open to the teens in the book. Much like the cul de sac’s that they live in, life is very much an cycle that feeds itself with only oblivion as a possible escape.

As Black Hole chronicles the experiences of its three major characters, all three experiment with forms of escape typical of suburban life… with disastrous results. One ends up beaten to death in the woods, another manages to run away from a house full of gunshot corpses with the love of his life (who sports a sexy tail) and the last swims off into the void that she so often viewed in her dreams as unavoidable.

Black Hole is a marvelous story that so perfectly captures both the hopelessness of the mid 70’s (as many books and films have failed to do) and the tender age of immortality and frailty that is post adolescence in such a tender way that it feels very personal to the reader.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

One aside, though. I read the entire book in one sitting recently and felt myself so affected by the torment of the prose that I broke it up with a collection of Donald Duck comics.

I’m not saying you have to do that… but it worked for me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s