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Charles Burns Asks: Why Are There Scales Where There Should Be Fur?

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Black Hole
Charles Burns
Pantheon Books

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

For most, it's mercifully easy to forget the anxiety, isolation, and misery of the teenage years. This is apparently not the case for Charles Burns, whose creepy graphic novel Black Hole will bring it all rushing back to you ? and then some. Nosing out every corner of the claustrophobic emotional space of adolescence, Burns uncovers every kind of debris, from run-of-the-mill high school alienation and unrequited crushes to larger themes like AIDS and teen violence.

Set in the mid-'70s, the book follows the lives of a group of Seattle high school students as they deal with the consequences of a plague in their midst. Transmitted by sexual contact, the ?Bug,? as they call it, seems to afflict only teenagers, and manifests itself differently in each victim: some appear outwardly normal; some are able to hide their condition; others have disfiguring symptoms that are impossible to conceal. In any case, once they are found out, the victims are stigmatized, and the most obviously afflicted drop out of school, becoming homeless and living in the woods.

To illustrate the plague's effect on the various strata of high-school society, Burns rotates the burden of narration between two main characters: regular-guy Keith and pretty, popular A-student Chris. The story begins with the two as lab partners in biology class, queasily dissecting frogs while Keith nurses a secret crush on Chris. Burns pulls off the difficult feat of writing from the teenage point of view with perfect clarity and seriousness. From Keith's self-consciousness to Chris's private misery over the encounter that gives her ?the Bug,? to the ominous, prescient nightmares both experience, Burns puts us inside his characters' heads in a way both unnerving and completely engrossing.

As good as the writing is, it takes a backseat to the brilliant illustrations. Burns is a master of his craft, and in Black Hole, he takes his recognizable white-on-black style to new heights, coming closer to realism than he has in the past without sacrificing the stylization that marks his unique aesthetic. He has always been able to convey a sense of spookiness, but here his images take us straight past spooky to nightmarish, haunting, and indelibly memorable. Recurring visual motifs that echo between the characters' dreams and waking lives serve to underscore a nauseating sense of inevitability that permeates the book, vividly conveying the familiar adolescent plight of feeling at once fiercely independent and utterly helpless and out of control. And Burns' imagination has created a disfiguring illness with strange and dreadful symptoms: one character's skin begins to shed like a snake's; another develops an extra mouth in his neck; still another grows a small tail ? all of which he renders with an unflinching pen, further adding to the general atmosphere of nightmarish surreality.

As the disease spreads, and more people join the outcasts in the woods, even the makeshift community of victims of ?the Bug? begins to fray at the edges ? and then things get worse. Ominous tokens begin to appear in the woods; the vague sense of foreboding they convey is realized when characters start turning up dead. Like many a drama of adolescence, the murder mystery is seen through the filter of the powerful emotional struggles of the main characters; when the mystery is resolved, the answer is almost beside the point. The real weight of the narrative rests firmly where Burns has placed it throughout this bizarre allegorical tale: on the shoulders of his two protagonists as they navigate their uncertain futures. It's a testament to the author's skill that he manages a hopeful ending without betraying the grim realism he has so painstakingly maintained in the story as a whole.


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