BLACK HOLE (Pantheon)
Written & drawn by Charles Burns
Collects Black Hole #1-12
Man, being a teenager sucks. Everything you experience is so crazy and intense because you basically have nothing to compare it to. That seems to be one of the big themes behind Charles Burns’ Black Hole which I just read for the very first time thanks to my newfound urge to expand my comic horizons. I’ve always considered myself a realist, going as far back as I can remember thinking about how I think about things, so I can’t exactly relate with the impetuous decisions many of the characters in this book make (my buddy Sean pointed out how hyperbolic everything is when it comes to this group of teenagers). The logical part of my brain says “hey, don’t screw the girl you KNOW has an STD that will turn you into a mutant” and “it’s no big deal to go back home, your parents will love to see you,” but I get that the teenage mind doesn’t always work that way, especially when faced with extraordinary events like life-altering disease and the death of a loved one.
Here’s my best attempt at explaining the book. There’s two main characters: Chris (a girl) and Keith. Both are teenagers in a small town with a nasty STD making the rounds that seems to give each victim/carrier a different physical mutation: skin peeling like a snake, warped faces, extra mouths, tails and huge boils or warts among others. Keith has a thing for Chris, but Chris likes a dude named Rob. Rob gives Chris the bug. Even though Keith like Chris, he still hooks up with Eliza and gets the bug himself. Overall, Keith is all around bored with his life, unhappy at every turn and obsessed with a girl he’s put up on a pedestal who can’t help but fall once he learns more about her. I might not be able to relate to the bad choices these kids made, but I can relate to that feeling of disappointment in someone you hold in esteem. I had a lot of that in my younger years. Meanwhile, Chris is just trying to figure out what life’s all about, following her passions for Rob and falling in love with him even after he makes her sick (it’s actually interesting, now that I think about it, that her mutation is mostly absent for the latter part of the book, I wonder if it went away). To be fair, most of Chris’ bad fortune is a result of her bad choices instead and not the disease.
Burns’ use of squiggly panel lines to denote flashbacks and dream sequences are the comic book equivalent of the wavy effect they use to show flashbacks on TV and in movies, except it doesn’t just start and end those sequences. It’s always there, which gave the images even more implied motion in my brain. Not only was there implied movement between panels, like in every other comic, but it was almost like the panels themselves were moving, vibrating, humming or doing that TV flashback thing. I’ve never spent this much time looking at panel lines, but there was something hypnotic about those perfectly round waves which continued from one panel to another, though invisibly, between panels. There were also times where the curved nature of the panel borders gave the panel itself added depth, I think that’s because, oftentimes, the line would cover dialog boxes, giving the illusion of layers. Very cool.
The art itself is just as absorbing. At first, the characters look cartoony, like something you might see in a newspaper strip, but it becomes very clear early on that these figures carry an emotional weight to them you don’t always see. The teens in this book are not having a good time of things, neither are the mutants in the woods. Man, some of them are really creepy. Burns also seeds a lot early on with imagery that pays off later in the book. There’s also the ever-present shape of an opening that realizes itself in everything from lady parts to a cut on a foot.
It took me a while to catch onto the snake theme. We’re shown snakes early on and one appears in Chris’ dream, but it wasn’t until she really started shedding her skin that I got the gag. She’s a snake, shedding her skin and possibly her old life. S[peaking of dreams, Burns has an incredible knack for creating nightmare fodder with his vast creepy landscapes filled with garbage and monsters. Just as creepy are Rick the Dick’s sculptures which look like real-life interpretations of those nightmares.
I went into this book thinking it was more horror themed. Sure there are horrific elements. I cringed a number of times while reading this book (the foot wounds and tail snaps were ROUGH) and it does have a disease that essentially creates monsters, but I don’t think I’d categorize it under the horror genre. It’s more of a teen drama with strange elements that never really get explained. But, much like Lost, this story is more about characters and less about explaining the weirdness. I was actually surprised at how familiar the story itself felt. Sure there’s the mutant STD, but at it’s core, this book’s about teenagers thinking they’re in love, running away from their problems and feeling like everything they do is so catastrophic that they can’t go back and just say “sorry.” There’s no reason Chris can’t go home again. Sure she’d have some explaining to do, but I bet her folks would just be happy to know she’s alive. It’s nice both characters got a kind of a happy ending, but much like their fear, it won’t last. Chris can’t live on the beach forever, especially in the North West and there’s no way Keith and Eliza are clever enough to avoid the eventual police investigation. Their prints are all over the McCrosky house.
In addition to making me cringe a time or two, the beginning of the book literally left me dizzy, which is something I’ve never felt from a comic before. Burns does this scene early on with Keith passing out after seeing the open wound of the frog he’s supposed to dissect with Chris. There’s this crazy circular piece of art with lots of imagery that will be important in the book and then we get a page of shots from Keith’s POV. The mooning faces of his classmates are huge in the panel, but I realized the dizziness came from how that perspective spins and flips around. This creates a kind of swaying, spinning motion that’s only exaggerated by the fact that the gridded ceiling tiles create a kind of crazy squared-off spiderweb in the background. I actually had to put the book down for a minute and now that I’m thinking about it again I’m feeling it again, though to a lesser extent. This is amazing work by a man who really understands how to use the comic book panel to his advantage and build a story with that knowledge that feels new, fresh and tragic even if some of the elements are familiar.
Okay, I’ve said a lot of positive things because I do think this is a classic piece of graphic fiction, but I do have a few questions/complaints. First up, and this one is really minor, they spelled Rob’s last name differently in its two appearances (Facincani/Facincanni). That bugged me and should have been fixed in the reprint process. I was also disappointed that the Pantheon collection has zero extras. No intro, no full covers, zilch. I could have definitely used some in-book insight after reading the book, but I guess I’ll just have to troll the internet. Finally, I’m not sure how a pair of scenes are supposed to fit together in the first few sections. There’s a scene with Keith and his buddies hanging out in the woods. Keith splits off and finds a girl’s skin in the brush. We found out in the next story that the skin came from Chris. But, Chris hasn’t been infected yet, which would seem to imply that this story is out of order compared to the rest of them. The rest of the segments seem to be told in somewhat chronological order except when denoted by the aforementioned wavy lines, but the one with Chris shedding her skin takes place seemingly too early in the story. I’m not sure what the deal with that is and maybe it’ll make sense on a later reading. And I will definitely be reading this book again. It made me actually feel something, which can’t be said about most comics and it seems like there’s a lot to unpack, making future readings even more interesting.