By Charles Burns
Pantheon. 359 pp. $24.95
A good deal of the scary-story genre relies on babes in the woods and creatures waiting to pounce on them. From Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel to Dorothy in Oz to Frodo's trek to Mordor, monsters lying in wait have given children nightmares for as long as such stories have been told. Charles Burns's new graphic novel, Black Hole, offers a variation on that theme: a coming-of-age nightmare in which the children no longer get the nightmares, they give them.
Published this month as a novel, with a fantastic cover designed by the author, Black Hole has been an ongoing comic book serial since 1995. Readers unaccustomed to the subculture of comic book shops might know Burns as the house artist for the Believer magazine or from his work for Time, the New Yorker and Iggy Pop albums. Comics fans will know him as a charter artist from RAW, the Art Spiegelman imprint that published Burns's first cartoon masterpiece, Hard-Boiled Defective Stories. In Black Hole, Burns's careers in the comics subculture and the wider world of pop culture merge for the most deeply felt work of his career.
The story takes place in Seattle in the 1970s, where Burns spent his own teenage years, and our sympathies to him if the tale he delivers here is autobiographical. This is not Cameron Crowe's Seattle of peppy coffee houses and space needles but the Pacific Northwest of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" and the sonic gloom found in the music of Eliot Smith or the Screaming Trees. Black Hole covers the high school years of a group of kids who find themselves catching a venereal disease known as "the teen plague." After sex with an infected partner, they deform and mutate. The infected person might develop a tail, like Eliza, who encourages lovers to grab it during sex. Or there's Rob, who develops a second mouth on his lower neck. Some can hide it, but others turn into freakish social pariahs and join a teen leper colony in the woods. "It was like a horrible game of tag," writes Burns. "Once you were tagged, you were 'it' forever."
Chris is a typical victim: a straight "A" student from a good home. At a house party, she drinks and has sex outside with Rob, who gives her the plague. Days later, when she is skinny-dipping with friends, her skin peels loose like a reptile's. As much as Chris appears to fall from grace, this girl next door enjoys alcohol, exhibitionism and risky sex. She feels a stifling boredom in her overachieving, flat suburban world. After catching "the bug," Chris falls in love with Rob and moves in with other plague victims. But the same jealousies and rivalries that made them outcasts in high school develop again within their plague community, and soon passions lead to murder. The killer, living deeper in the woods than the other kids, hangs broken dolls from trees. If they are an obvious piece of symbolism, the dolls are also effectively frightening. It's in drawing them and a menagerie of warped faces that Burns makes use of his particular genius for the grotesque.
Black Hole reads like a downer dream one might get while suffering from the flu, and Burns is not interested in making his story work outside that dream. When reality intrudes, such as when Chris's mom realizes that her daughter needs help, the reader gets shaken out of the torpor long enough to ask questions: Why aren't more parents doing something about this? Where's the panic in discovering your boy has two mouths? But ignoring those questions is part of the point: Burns properly keeps his kids in their own angst-ridden world, that space in life that every teen is convinced no adult will ever understand.
Longtime fans who know Burns from Big Baby or Hard-Boiled Defective Stories may miss the ironic humor-horror of those earlier works. Here, Burns builds up to a comic-book symphony of dread and self-loathing about that scarring experience called "growing up." Burns's art is thick with black ink -- so much so that even daylight scenes sop with pools of shadow and dark ooze. His kids drag clouds of despair with them. Often drawn in photo negatives, Black Hole depicts a world in which the white lines of order hold back the nocturnal depths of emotion, but just barely.
Anyone who has driven the lonely highways of Washington state and seen the eerie moonlit silhouettes of pine trees lined up against the road knows that the instinct is to drive faster, to press the pedal harder, as if hidden eyes are watching your every move. Don't listen to Charles Burns; this is where he wants you to pull over. *
Ben Schwartz has written about comics and cartooning in Comic Art, Suck.com, "Krazy & Ignatz 1929-1930," the Chicago Reader and the Comics Journal.