I just finished Charles Burns’ Black Hole. From glancing at bits of it in the past, I had thought it might violate my “art comics are trying to be literary fiction” paradigm…but on closer inspection, it really doesn’t. Again, we have a bunch of standard pulp tropes (essentially the horror/super-hero-romance hybrid perfected by Lee/Kirby) slowed down, arted up, and spit back out as coming-of-age narrative. And while the premise (teens contract a sexually-transmitted plague which results in unpredictable mutations) sounds original and surprising, the story as it unfolds is both cliched and predictable. Here’s the earnest first person narration…the awfully nice guy who isn’t going to get the girl of his dreams…the sexually wiser (slightly) older woman who saves him…the popular girl who gets her come-uppance…the geeky losers who turn out to be okay…the geeky loser who turn out to be secretly murderous. And then there’s the whole generation gap, parents just don’t understand, tiresome tripped out baby-boomer fetishization. And, as I’ve mentioned in a few posts, it just wouldn’t be comics if we didn’t appropriate minority (black/gay) experience (the kids marked by sexual difference, the few less-affected who can, in Burns’ words, “pass”) without ever acknowledging the existence of actual minorities.
Still, there is a lot to like. Burns’ layouts aren’t especially inventive in general — we’re dealing with basic grids for the most part. But his stark, wood-blocky art, all blacks and whites, turns each page into a kind of ink blot; his style is so unique that the pages are visually unified even when, in terms of action and composition, there’s not much to distinguish them from any number of other American comics. What he draws is great, too; he clearly has a real love of the macabre. The sequence at the beginning of one issue is particularly amazing, as a disgusting Freudian dream transforms into an equally disgusting Freudian reality: the female lead, Chris dreams about penis-corkscrew, a fetal potato creature, and a the male lead as a gigantic snake; she then then wakes up as a vaginal wound on her back splits open…and she precedes to tear her skin off in one big piece.
That pretty much sums up the book’s themes right there; sexuality as the prelude/initiation to a monstrous adulthood. It’s a neat metaphor on which to hang a story (probably better than the high-school-is-hell analogy of the comparable teen horror vehicle, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) The fact that Burns doles out the worst mutations to minor characters, allowing all his major ones to retain their good looks, does turn the end of the story into a nostalgic reconcilement with adulthood which is rather a cop out. But if we’ve got to have Bildungsromans, I wish they were all as creepily ichorous, and as beautifully drawn, as this one.