Friday, May 16, 2008

Black Hole by Charles Burns

Touted as ‘one of the most stunning graphic novels yet published’ by Time magazine, Charles Burns’s Black Hole had a lot to deliver just to be deemed adequate. A bit to my surprise, I found it an excellent and haunting story, with several stylistic choices that really enhanced Burns’s narrative.

Set in mid 1970s Seattle, the narrative focuses on a group of teens who are infected with a mysterious, sexually transmitted disease that causes all manner of mutations and leaves them outcasts from society. One boy
s face turns feline, another girl sheds her skin, while yet another grows a second mouth on his lower neck. Though many of these teens are involved in the drug culture, Burns avoids a judgmental stance by presenting several people who are users and having sex yet do not contact the ‘bug.’

It is refreshing to see teenagers written in a believable way. Too often I have read books or seen movies, most recently Juno, where it is impossible to believe that a person that age would say those things or have those thoughts. Yet throughout the novel, I felt my own teen years conjured up, and seeing how Keith pine
s for Chris only to have his love unrequited, I remembered how I felt the same way in high school. And while I wasn’t around in the mid-1970s, the elements of the drug culture seemed to be accurate to me as well.

Instead of exploring the origin of the disease, Burns is more interested in how its presence affects those who are infected. Their relationships with each other and the outside world are altered, often tragically, yet a chord is struck between the alienation these teens feel and the alienation we all felt as we were growing up. Perhaps we didn’t have strange growths coming off of our bodies, but in a sense we were all infected.

Burns uses varying perspectives, often of the same material, in order to tell his story. The inner monologues of Chris, Rob, and Keith are poignant, and it is interesting to note that the fourth major character, Eliza (the sexy woman with the tail), never serves as the point of view in the narrative. Wavy lines are used to border panels that show the past or contain dreams, blurring the line between memory and fantasy.

There is no gray in this comic: only black and white. Mostly black. In the world of Black Hole, there are only two ways to end, happily or horribly. And the dominance of black is reflected by the ending, with the majority of characters meeting not so happy fates.

Burns also shifts visual perspectives from panel to panel is striking ways, often blending faces together. In one instance, he splits the faces of Rob and Chris and sets them side-by-side, so that a reader must rely on the boxed text and dialogue to grasp that the face, which merges from the two panels, is actually two distinct faces. In another, the adjacent panels are aligned so that it appears the back of one character’s head is spread between the two, yet Burns actually has this over the shoulder perspective flip from character to character, causing temporary confusion until one realizes that we are over Rob’s shoulder in one perspective, and Chris’s in the other. I know that images would help convey this better than I can with mere words, but I am unable to locate appropriate ones online.

My experience and knowledge aren’t broad enough to judge whether Time’s assertion is true, but I can say that Black Hole is an engaging and satisfying read. The narrative is compelling, but you would be doing yourself an injustice to not slow down and take in the artwork as well. A haunting read that will likely evoke your own feelings of adolescent alienation.

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