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BLACK HOLE
By CHARLES BURNS (Pantheon; 2005)

A stunningly rendered graphic novel thatís notable primarily for what it doesnít do. About a sexually transmitted virus circulating among a group of teenagers in the mid-1970s, it sounds pretty straightforward, with a premise that would appear to suggest any number of easily-digestible scenarios. Yet BLACK HOLE is unique, following its own inscrutable path that exists somewhere between DAZED AND CONFUSED and VIDEODROME.

     This is to say that BLACK HOLEíS diseased protagonists donít turn into zombies or homicidal maniacs as you might expect, and nor is there any great rush to contain the virus. Rather, the virus is presented as simply another of the many awkward and alienating elements that comprise adolescence, which as portrayed here rings disconcertingly true.

     BLACK HOLEíS cast of wayward teens reside in a forresty American suburb. The source of their mysterious affliction is never explained, but it results in some mighty gruesome physical permutations: odd vaginal slits open up in the middle of one kidís back and the bottom of anotherís foot, skin literally sloughs off bodies, ugly growths appear on peoplesí faces and an otherwise attractive young woman grows a tail. Disquieting dreams and hallucinations are further constants, and thereís even a prologue that suggests the whole thing may in fact be a dream experienced by a hormone-addled adolescent in his biology class.

     Co-existing with all the Cronenbergian insanity are a plethora of more down-to-Earth predicaments. A pubescent couple run away from home with disastrous results, just as a boy invites his stoner pals to stay in a tenantless house heís looking after with equally disastrous results, while all the while a creepy old guy lurks in the woods, harboring unhealthy designs on one of the girls.

     The writer and illustrator was the multitalented Charles Burns. His artwork, which has graced comics, magazine covers and countless advertisements, is distinctive enough that youíre likely familiar with it even if the name doesnít ring a bell. Burns drafts in highly cartoony black-and-white without any color gradation or shading. The effect is quite surreal, yet also curiously familiar and reassuring (recalling everything from the classic newspaper cartoon strips to the work of Mad Magazineís David Berg), and so succeeds perfectly in visualizing the crazy-quilt mingling of reality-based nostalgia and otherworldly strangeness that is BLACK HOLE.

     

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