Black Hole #1-12
By Charles Burns
Published by Fantagraphics Books; $4.95 USD each

Ten years in the making, Black Hole, a macabre blend of horror and romance, is undoubtedly Charles Burns’ masterpiece.

Centering on the concept of a “teen plague,” a theme Burns has explored extensively in prior works, Black Hole focuses more on the teenagers than the disease. Minimal time is spent exploring what caused the plague, what its symptoms are, how it’s transmitted or trying to find a cure. Instead, Burns characterizes the teenagers affected, through a series of shifting first person narratives, as they struggle to understand the changes in their lives.

Keith Pearson and Chris Rhodes, the two main protagonists, are thoughtful, intelligent, and in some cases poetic in their descriptions of their experiences. Both are the victims of “the bug” which results in grotesque physical mutations rather than death. A strong sense of alienation runs through their monologues, but Burns captures a realistic sense of teenage angst without ever slipping into cliché. But while Keith and Chris are like most teenagers, with sex and drugs their primary social vehicles, their deeper motivations are understanding and acceptance amongst their peers, even when those peers are the mutated outcasts of society.

The simultaneous pain and pleasure of sexuality is a recurring theme throughout the story, both in the narration and the imagery. Chris’ passionate tryst with Rob in the cemetery leads to her contracting the plague. Yet as the two find themselves further segregated from normal society, their relationship deepens. Similarly, Keith’s relationship with Eliza, though he knows he risks getting the plague, is too passionate for him to resist. In both cases, it is emotional love that these characters seek, yet the physical act of love that brings destruction upon them.

Artistically, this paradox of sexuality is also prominent. Phallic and vaginal symbols pervade the story from the cover of the very first issue, yet the forms in which Burns presents them are frequently violent and painful. The incision of a scalpel dissecting a frog, the wound on the bottom of Chris's foot, the vulva-shaped skin that Chris sheds in the first issue; all of these images of female sexuality are directly correlated to physical pain.

No part of the book is wasted, with both the front and back covers contributing to the overall narrative. Each issue opens and closes with a full two-page spread that, more than anything else, serves to both foreshadow some detail of the script, and establish the mood of the story. These usually depict, in scrupulous detail, the ground of the forest where the outcasts have taken refuge. Following this opening is another two-page spread, a double headshot in a before/after style that contrasts a normal teenager’s yearbook photo with the same picture after the effects of the plague. In some cases the mutations are drastic – boils covering the face, giant goiters on the neck – while others are more subtle – loss of hair or distorted eyelids. All are beautifully imagined and skillfully rendered. Burns’ creativity even extends to the title fonts, which differ with each issue.

The black and white artwork is gorgeous, elegantly simple, yet deceivingly complex. Every page is meticulous, almost obsessively so, with even the tiniest leaf and pebble painstakingly drawn by hand. But the finished results are phenomenal. Literally every panel is a miniature masterpiece.

The dark tone of the story is reflected in Burns’ heavy use of solid black inks, creating harsh lighting and deep shadows. There is a definite Bernie Wrightson influence, but with the dramatic flair of Jack Kirby. A combed inking style is used liberally, and these distinctive prongs of black and white not only demark the shadows, they give his work an instantly recognizable quality. The effect is startling and unique. The characters also have that distinctive look – round faces, '70s hairdos, thick eyebrows - consistent with Burns' previous works like Skin Deep and Big Baby (which contains a similar story called “Teen Plague”).

What is perhaps most surprising is how well Burns’ vision remained intact throughout the decade it took to complete. Black Hole reads as if it were one complete story, released as a single volume, with events and panels in the first issue foreshadowing the final issue seamlessly. Burns also maintains an artistic consistency throughout the story which will make the inevitable collection that much stronger. Fantagraphics, the series publisher starting with #5 (Kitchen Sink published the first four) has done an excellent job both maintaining the production quality and design of the book, while keeping all issues in print.

Even before it was finished, Black Hole was included among the Comics Journal's list of the Top 100 English-Language Comics of the Century (#75). With his singular vision finally completed, Black Hole should firmly establish Charles Burns among the elite creators in the industry. Grade: 5/5

-- Marc Sobel

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