PRINT November 2002


Black Hole

CHARLES BURNS GETS OFF TO great starts, though his comic-book episodes don’t begin in media res so much as in the middle of nowhere. Take issue no. 6 of his ongoing series Black Hole (Fantagraphics Books): On the left page, a teeny square hit of acid sticks to a strip of Scotch tape on a pitch-black ground. On the right, a pudgy teenage girl in a bra and jeans, arms hanging like summer sausages, stands in her dorky bedroom (Siamese cat posters, Christmas-caroling-Hummel-figurine knockoffs, a framed yearbook portrait, a ceramic pencil mug) wearing a dumb smile, her shiny hair parted down the middle; the word windowpane vibrates in psychedelic lettering across the top of the page, signaling the type of acid. More than just name-dropping, Burns offers privileged access to Black Hole’s teenage milieu not by way of an open door but by sneaking us in through the window.

Tweaked perceptions are nothing new for Burns. who has destabilized points of view since he first published “Big Baby” in 1983 in Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, introducing its audience to a gigantic mutant infant who not only walks and talks but also lights plastic army men on fire and goes to sleepaway camp. Burns earned critical praise for rendering this deranged suburban tale with a hardedged drawing style associated with EC Comics (famous for publishing creepy stories like Tales from the Crypt in the ’50s). During the ’80s, Burns continued to make comics both for RAW and for Seattle’s now defunct alternative paper The Rocket. He experimented with photographic novels, made a foldout cover for Iggy Pop’s 1990 CD Brick by Brick, and illustrated covers for Time magazine. (He even collaborated with Mark Morris on the art direction for a reworked Nutcracker that gave up the nineteenth-century bourgeois German Christmas party for a ’60s suburban American wife swap.) In 1994, Burns began publishing Black Hole, his twelve-issue semi-autobiographical take on the horror of dealing with adolescence” in ’70s Seattle. (Black Hole No. 10 comes out in December.) The first issue introduced Keith, “that nice guy from biology class,” who falls for Chris, “a total fox” infected with the “teen plague,” a sexually transmitted disease with heinous symptoms that affects only adolescents. Burns doesn’t use the disease to gross-out effect as much as to allegorize the often humiliating transition, steeped in sexual anxiety, from innocence to experience. Without lapsing into retro conveniences or sappy nostalgia, Burns sustains a wizardly synthesis of high slang and deeply saturated visuals that evokes, more than poignant memories, the vulnerable state of adolescent affairs.

Keith and Chris share Biology 101, but Burns doesn’t spend much time in school. Kids mostly hang out: at Planet Xeno, the “soft insulated green world” above a wooded ravine where Keith and his buddies meet to drink and get high; at parties, where Chris hooks up with “dark and sexy” Rob and lures him to a graveyard for sex under a full moon; or at a friend’s place on Friday night, “trying hard to have fun . . . sitting in a dark room, fried out of our minds, watching TV.” Burns’s sharp edged, black-inked stoner-goth mélange brims with the nervous tedium of teenage beer buzzes and awkward sex.

A pair of legs tiptoeing at the edge of black water and the bold, sinuate script that reads “Racing Towards Something”; the cover of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs; Chris, asleep in her tent, with a pair of boots, a sharp stick, Tampax, Marlboro Reds, a gun, a flashlight, a paperback of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; a close-up of the forest floor: dead leaves, chicken bones, a ring-pull beer-can tab, a Snickers wrapper. Images, logos, and words accumulate across panels, sometimes effectively standing in for dialogue or narration. What Burns calls “all of these little ellipses of cups” litter a kitchen table in issue No. 10; he painstakingly works out shapes, but he’s also working out pauses between words, thoughts between ideas. On the one hand, Black Hole is as closed as Burns’s characteristically clinical drawings get, legible down to blades of grass. On the otherhand, his repeated details open up a floating world of patterned trash, abstraction laced with artifacts and clues. Flashbacks, dreams, and drug hazes stop and start in funny places; it isn’t always easy to figure out when or where you are, but Burns’s airless visual style somehow, beautifully, keeps the story on course without suffocating it.

For all its moodiness, Black Hole isn’t always heavy. Or it is, but it’s just teenage heaviness, like Chris’s teary explanation for Rob’s mysterious disappearance: “I kept telling myself there had to be some kind of logical answer. . .you know, like his mom grounded him or something.” Or Keith’s petulant soliloquy in issue No. 4, “Bag Action,” after he scores some pot only to find “it didn’t get me where I wanted to go. . . some place where I wouldn’t have to listen to a bunch of burnt out college dipshits talking the talk.” When complimented on the authenticity of his female voices, Burns candidly replied that “the easiest are the guy characters who are hanging out with their buddies and buying dope and getting loaded. Those voices I have down pretty clearly.”

Whatever you say, man.

Siobhan McDevitt is a Los Angeles-based writer.