It’s so hard to know where to start, when you’re talking about a book like “Black Hole”. Charles Burns’s opus has garnered enough of a following in its collected form that you’ll find it on a lot of top ten lists, and yet it still manages to be a slightly obscure title, something that maybe not everybody at your local comic shop has heard of. Originally serialized by Kitchen Sink Press and Fantagraphics in a twelve-issue run, you can now find “Black Hole” in a trade paperback big and heavy enough to stop a door — and yet most people I’ve spoken to say they read it in one sitting. It’s just one of those books that draws you in with consistently gorgeous art and some truly eerie ideas and imagery, scaring you at the same time as intriguing you so that it’s impossible to look away. Even just looking it over for the purposes of this write-up I started to get sucked in again… and on this umpteenth read it still feels fresh, thanks to all the tiny bits of detail, both visual and plot-related, that Burns has weaved into this narrative.
On the level of plot, “Black Hole” concerns itself with a group of high schoolers living in 1970s Seattle. There’s a sort of STD going around that’s the cause of some unease: everyone who has it manifests symptoms in a different way, but it always results in a physical deformity, from a vestigial tail to a tendency toward shedding your skin. Rob, one the main characters, grows a extra mouth on his neck that talks, in a childlike voice, when he’s asleep. It’s all fairly creepy stuff, but the STD itself doesn’t take center stage in any way. More than anything it’s a metaphor for the way the afflicted teenagers in the story find themselves ill-suited — the wrong shape — for the lives they’re living, as the story tracks their struggles to build lives for themselves outside of school and outside of the homes they grew up in. For most of them this process entails spending a lot of time in the woods, with some of them going so far as to start living there… but there’s something terrifying going on in the woods, and that is where this book becomes a horror story.
Zeroing in on four central characters who take turns telling the story, the narrative takes the form of numerous interweaved flashbacks — and while “flashback” is one of those words that, personally, tends to discourage me from reading something, these reminiscences are really well handled. They come up organically as characters look at their lives and think about what has happened to them so far, and are never confusing. The flashbacks may actually be part of what makes this book so hard to put down — leaping directly to the moments in the overarching story that are the most pertinent to the matter at hand, they really deepen the reader’s engagement by giving them a sense of the whole constellation of occurrences that this moment is building on.
And then there’s the art.
I think one of the main characters puts it best when at particularly low moment he says he’s glad that he’s stoned: “Things look better… everything sharp and bright and clean.” The black and white pages of “Black Hole” are sharply and cleanly drawn to the point of having a surgical air, and yet there’s also something hallucinogenic to them, as though everything’s too bright and clear to be real. Things like chicken bones and half-eaten popsicles — even a plastic fork — come across as these beautifully detailed, transcendent things that could swallow you up in contemplation of them if you looked too long. Throw in some unnerving and surreal dream sequences, featuring imagery that gets pretty Freudian without coming across like a psychology textbook being crammed down your throat, and you’ve got one aesthetically arresting book.
It all becomes that much more incredible when you realize that this was a book serialized over the course of ten years, with Burns managing to keep the style and character designs perfectly consistent throughout the entire thing. Actually, this sense of integrity may be the greatest strength to “Black Hole” — it comes across as a story being told in exactly the way it needs to be told, undiluted and with no compromises or second guesses. Which may be the only way to tell a story that’s fundamentally about growing up, and deciding what it is you want.Continued below
So spend an evening — or, as was my case, a really intense four hours in the middle of the night — with “Black Hole” when you can. It’s the sort of story that stays with you, colouring the way you look at comics and maybe even life, as cheesy as it sounds. And you’ll find yourself drawn back to it over and over as time passes, like it really is something massive and celestial, with a gravity all its own.