By Charles Burns, Pantheon, 352pp, $24.95 HC
Charles Burns' Black Hole is the kind of graphic novel that should bring more readers to a medium whose audience is already growing. It is a story of high school alienation and the lurking fear of 'others' that crosses the humor and realism of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused with the dread and gore of the early EC Horror Comics. Burns has an ear for the dialog of his characters and era, and his vivid black and white illustrations seamlessly blend the surreal with the mundane.
Set in the pacific-northwest in the 1970s, Burns explores the social strata of a group of local high school students. In between the beers, after-school jobs, joints and peer pressure, Burns describes a deforming but basically harmless disease cycling through the area's youth, known only as 'the bug,' which is contracted through sexual contact. While some may hide the reptile ridges that appear on their hands, others have more trouble concealing a morphed face or newly grown tail. What begins as a simple story of cliques that is recognizable to almost anyone who has suffered through adolescence slowly diverges into something darker, as the bug plays on characters' stronger and less rational emotions, mainly love and fear.
The story begins with a pair of acquaintances, Keith and Chris, who share a lab desk in science class. While Keith secretly yearns for Chris, their separate experiences with the bug will pull them apart. Chris' insecurity and doubt among her peers are only amplified when she meets and falls for Rob, a charismatic student who hides his mark of the bug well. "God, I’m a monster," she says to herself, alone in the school bathroom between periods, after she’s noticed the slow changes overtaking her body. Keith, on the other hand, is drawn to Eliza’s overt sexuality and she slowly woes him, taking him away from his friends who are content to exchange insults and false tales of bravado. But neither Chris nor Keith can recede peacefully into love— rather they're pulled into the tangled web of deceit and cruelty woven by those who are free of the bug. Everyone seems to know about the lurking dread, but most are too scared and would rather look away.
Burns is captures feelings of loneliness and inner turmoil, while simultaneously drawing his characters down a spiraling path of suspense and murder. With the same eye for detail he can illustrate both a simple package of rolling papers and a panic stricken acid trip. He transitions between hopes, nightmares and reality so well that it almost becomes moot what is "really" happening to his characters because the psychological consequences are all too real. Burns’ biggest strength is his simple refusal to sum up his story with neat explanations or happy endings. He never delves into the origin of the bug and rarely includes adults into this story. Rather, he draws the audience into his own world, giving them just enough to believe the more fantastic elements. By the final pages, he has created a dark and tripped out yearbook that traces the lives of his characters. While clearly not looking for any solutions, he captures those moments that can still makes us squirm, and at times shiver and shriek.