Sunday, July 8, 2007

Black Hole

Review of Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, from the Toronto Star, fall 2005. Burns was at the IFOA here in Toronto that year, and my book club did Black Hole that month. I liked the book, but boy oh boy, did they hate it; it broke down a bit along gender lines, as I recall.

The North American teenager has been a boon to horror writers, right up there with Jack the Ripper and the atom bomb.

Above all else, the teen years are years of anxiety – about identity, about status in the weird demi-monde that is high school, and about future roles in the larger community (“the real world,” as the constant reminder goes). Teenagers also tend to obsess over their emotional states and to magnify the importance of their personal relationships – which represent, after all, one of the only real staging grounds in which they can assert themselves.

Oh, and in many cases their own bodies are still mutating on them.

Small wonder, then, that Stephen King’s very first novel, Carrie, was set in high school. Or that one of the most acclaimed TV shows of the past decade, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brilliantly presented deformed monsters and otherworldly demons as metaphors for more prosaic teenage terrors.

Even as Buffy was spellbinding TV critics, Charles Burns was producing Black Hole, a long graphic novel that also mixes horror tropes with teen romance ones. Over the past 10 years, the Philadelphia-based writer-artist has serialized Black Hole in a 12-issue series of comic books; now, the Random House imprint Pantheon has collected the complete story in a beautifully packaged hardcover book.

It’s hard to imagine taking in Black Hole as its original readers did, at a rate of only a chapter or two per year. Although the story’s made up of brief vignettes, their power is cumulative rather than discrete. And the book’s greatest strength – its eerie, nightmarish mood – is best appreciated with sustained reading over a sitting or two.

Black Hole is set in the 1970s in a Pacific Northwest town, where a sexually transmitted disease referred to only as “the bug” is spreading among the local teen population. The bug causes physical deformities, but afflicts each victim in a different way, from the subtle (one girl grows a tail) to the dramatic (one boy’s face is transformed into an inhuman mass of tentacles). Some are able to mask their mutations and pass for normal at high school classes and bush parties. Those who can’t are ostracized, reduced to living in a makeshift campground in the woods outside of town.

The metaphorical power of this premise is obvious – plague terrors, body terrors – but as the story wears on, the nature and meaning of the bug remains undeveloped. Adults are almost entirely absent in Black Hole, and we learn nothing about the larger community’s reaction to the disease. There is no sense of anyone questioning or fighting it, only a matter-of-fact resignation. This flat treatment both encourages and discourages thematic resonance: on the one hand, readers are left free to superimpose just about any of their own fears or preoccupations onto the proceedings, but on the other, the deformities caused by the bug are so singular – rendered almost lovingly in Burns’s black-and-white inks – that they resist any comforting abstractions, insisting on their own reality.

That’s not the only tension that vibrates through the narrative: there’s also a sense of some kind of creepy collective unconscious bubbling and boiling beneath the everyday teen angst of the characters’ waking lives. The story comes together around a sort of love triangle: an amiable doofus named Keith adores an aloof girl named Chris, who in turn adores an amiable doofus named Rob. As Black Hole opens, Rob is already infected; he’s grown a second mouth in the middle of his neck, one that has a habit of moaning his secrets as he sleeps. Early in the story, he infects Chris, whose entire skin begins moulting and shedding. She retreats to the woods, while Keith finds his own way to the community of outcasts there. Soon secondary characters are drawn into the orbit of the main trio, and various alliances and desires gradually push the plot toward bursts of horrific violence.

But just as important to the narrative are the many dream sequences, filled with images of decay and degradation. Dream descriptions often seem superfluous in films and novels, but in Black Hole they feel integral – mainly because of Burns’s expertise as a graphic storyteller. A skilled draftsman, he works in black-and-white with no shading or tones, employing a sharp, clean line and liberal use of solid black. The resulting images are surefooted and readable (or whatever the graphic-novel equivalent of “readable” might be), but can also shift into dense, hallucinatory dreamscapes smoothly and without warning.

Most impressive is the way Burns manipulates the reader’s perceptions and emotions at an almost subsonscious level, moving us back and forth in time and offering grim foreshadowings – all with the use of visual cues (a gun, a mutilated doll) that orient and disorient us in the same way language does in all-text books. The dialogue and narration in Black Hole is straightforward, even mundane; it’s the imagery and the pacing that creates a powerful mood of dread and melancholy.

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