Black Hole


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Black Hole


  • Words: Charles Burns
  • Art: Charles Burns
  • Inks: Charles Burns
  • Colors: N/A
  • Story Title: Black Hole
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books
  • Price: $24.95
  • Release Date: Oct 19, 2005

Charles Burns’ massive opus is finally collected in hardcover, telling a unique tale about teenage life and the oddities that always come with it.

Imagine yourself as a teenager living in suburban Seattle in the 1970’s. When you weren’t complaining about school or work, you were probably out partying with your friends. Drinking and drugs were almost a prerequisite. And it finally started to look like sex was becoming a part of life too, a very good part. But that’s until a new disease started spreading through the sexually active teenagers of the town. Not an ordinary disease that caused physical pain, instead this "Bug," as it shall come to be known, seems to cause disfigurement in whomever contracts it. Sometimes these mutations are small and can be covered up. Other times they tend to be large changes to one’s body causing serious disfigurement. Things that make people point and shout "Freak!" Well, welcome to the world of Keith and Chris, two teenagers who will be the reader’s guides through their world where all of this is happening.

The hardest part about writing a story surrounding teenagers is getting their dialogue right. Too often writers will try too hard to make their characters profound and their dialogue believable and it really shows. Charles Burns has none of those problems. His characters are all believable, in dialogue and motivation. He captures all the essences of teenage life with his writing– angst, apprehension, confusion, hope, and sometimes even love. The dialogue moves along smoothly. There are times when it could have very easily fallen into complete cheesiness, but Burns never falters. The book itself is rather large, yet once involved in the story and lives of the characters, you never want to put it down.

But the real star of this book is the story itself. At first glance, the spread of "The Bug" throughout the students can be seen as an obvious analogy to the more topical discussions of teen sex and the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV and AIDS. But Burns takes the story deeper than that, for "The Bug" almost seems to be the personification (or would that be "virus-ification?") of teenage sexual tension. At times it takes on the form of fear and apprehension and at others it is hopeful. Sometimes with its hideous disfigurement it resembles something gross and disgusting, and it is just as often shown as something beautiful. But whatever it is, it is always new and different. Each mutation is unique and it is up to each individual teenager to find out what he or she will do.

For those unfamiliar with the name of Charles Burns, you’ve probably seen his stuff and never even known. Most recently he’s been in charge of the advertisements for Altoids mints. He’s an incredibly gifted cartoonist whose work really takes on new levels of iconography. And his artwork on this story really makes the book a wonderful journey. Like his dialogue, his character designs work perfectly. Aside from a few occasions, his characters really look like teenagers, from the goofy smiles and awkward stances to the occasional glimpses of the almost naïve inspired beauty. His decisions with the different mutations fit them all very well. He is able to convey emotion almost too easily, but it’s with his backgrounds and inspired inking and shading that really make the pages come to life. There is incredible detail put into some of the pages, and with others readers will find themselves admiring the simplicity of the work. But every time Burns uses the backgrounds to create the desired mood and emotional impact on the reader.

What seems to be most impressive with Burns’ storytelling, is that he never seems to stray far from using a standard comic book grid. The story is carefully laid out on the page and never once is it hard to follow. Even when doing a dream or flashback sequence, most instances Burns will just make the panel borders wavy to signify a segment of the story out of time. This isn’t to say that Burns never takes his chances. His dream sequences are breathtaking and express what the characters are feeling with amazing visuals that can literally leave you swimming for shore.

The sad thing about this book is that even with this glowing review, I can still tell that this book is not for everyone. People who like their superheroes will find this book lacks action. This is only an adventure story in the broadest sense. And as a further warning to some, the book does contain nudity and cursing. But it is a book that everyone who loves the comic art form will be able to appreciate. I think the best way to say it is to quote one of the workers at my local comic shop.

"Not everyone will like it, but everyone should read it."

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