by Charles Burns
Here's what I've done for the last decade every time I've gotten a new issue of Black Hole, Charles Burns' gorgeous comic-book series about 1970s Seattle teens driven into shameful isolation by a grotesque sex disease. I bring it home from the comic store, find wherever in the house I've left the stack of previous issues, put the new one on the bottom of the pile, and start reading again from the beginning. You have to have some kind of ritual when something so lovely appears so seldom: 12 times, to be exact, in the 10 years since the series began.
Even if you haven't read Black Hole, you're likely to recognize Burns' signature style from covers he's done for the Rocket, The Stranger, the New Yorker, and, most recently, the Believer, where they're so happy to have him as a house artist of sorts that they put an exclamation point next to his name on the masthead. Burns' dominant color is a deep, flawless black, out of which images shine like faces at a fireside, wrapped on all sides by the spiky edges of an inky shadow. His earlier series, Big Baby, tended toward caricatures and easy gags, but Black Hole was from its very first pages up to something more subtle and expansive.
The story is simple: Teens are starting to catch a new disease, known as "the bug," from having sex. No one seems to die from it, but its effects are sometimes so horrible that they drive the afflicted out of society. There are whole groups of freak kids camping out in Ravenna Park, with faces turned feline, or skeletal with tufts of hair. Others, with less visible symptoms, live closer to the margins of society or even try to pass as healthy, only to be revealed as carriers, sometimes before they know it themselves. Foxy Chris has caught the bug from a cute guy named Rob (her symptom: she sheds her skin from time to time; his: a little mouth with teeth just below his Adam's apple), and she soon moves out to the woods, where Rob takes care of her as long as he can. Her biology lab partner, Keith, has a crush on her but finds his own bug donor in Eliza, a troubled artist with the sexiest symptom of all: a swishing little tail that grows back if you pull it off. This all may sound like a kind of Northwest version of the Uncanny X-Men, but there are no mutant superpowers here, just sad teens getting stoned, scavenging burgers from the Herfy's dumpster, and flipping through old yearbooks to remember how they used to look.
What gives Black Hole its majesty is the dense, organic detail of Burns' drawings and the tenderness of his view of teen life. Like Gus Van Sant in Elephant, his Columbine movie, Burns recognizes that beauty and the grotesque are inextricably and intensely linked in those blooming years. The ravages of the bug only exaggerate the monstrosity of it all. Each issue opens with a similar two-page spread of a realistic yearbook-style portrait paired with an otherwise identical drawing of the same face disfigured by bulbous pustules or strange fibrous growths. There is an even-handed tension between the before and the after, driving you to find the one inside the other.
And his objects share a similar calm equity. Burns' thick-outlined style invests everything--bottle caps and baloney sandwiches no less than severed limbs and shed skin draped in the shape of a ghoul--with a vividness that makes the most mundane objects seem horrible and the most horrible ones almost mundane. Particular images--snakes, sticks, and bones; wounds, black holes, and gaping slits--return again and again with the kind of gleeful symbolism that makes you think Freud was onto something after all, but the way Burns saturates every object with meaning causes even the most laughably direct symbol to float unsettlingly free of its moorings.
In this final issue (the series will appear as a graphic novel in the fall) there's an offhand mention that the bug finally clears up and disappears, as mysteriously as it arrived (making it more like acne than AIDS). But not everybody makes it out of those teen years unscathed, and the end of the story feels as menacing and melancholy as its beginning. For a project that was so long lived, and that developed in public the way these series do, you'd expect some change over time--in draftsmanship, in scope--but you see none of that in Black Hole. The first frames are drawn with the same stroke and composed with the same eye as the last. It's not an insult to say that the entire series was contained in the first few pages of the first issue. That sustained, patient vision is in fact its genius.