Hailed as the masterwork of a comics superstar, Black Hole is a frightening trip into a nightmare of teenage anxieties, rendered with drawings that recall the darkness of both Rembrandt and Dracula.
The story involves a bizarre plague that infects a group of teenagers in the Seattle area during the 1970s -- a time when it wasnt exactly cool to be a hippie any more, but David Bowie was still just a little too weird.
The plague manifests itself as a disgusting mouth that opens on the victims neck, back or on the sole of the foot, saying bizarre things or revealing nightmarish visions. At times you dont know if the teen characters are simply having nightmares about the agonizing experience of getting through high school, or if theyve literally fallen into a black hole and are wandering in another dimension.
The untreatable illness is spread by sexual contact, and many of its victims are transformed into grotesque ghouls who live in a shabby camp in the forest where the kids party. The ghouls are apparently the alter-egos of the teens and how they feel about themselves. Characters sprout horns, shed their skins, and receive bizarre messages through cuts in the soles of their feet. Some of the geeks are recognizable as unpopular high school misfits -- fat kids, nerds and shy teens who dont fit into any particular cliche. But there are also popular, good-looking teens -- such as the protagonist Chris -- who are drawn into the black hole.
Is the hole a gateway of depression and anxiety into adulthood through which every teenager must pass? Draw your own conclusions.
At any rate, once youve got the illness, theres no going back.
Burns ingeniously inhabits the minds of a group of brilliantly realized characters -- some who have it, some who dont, some who are about to get it, states press info accompanying the book. What unfolds isnt the expected battle to fight the plague... What we become witness to is a fascinating and eerie portrait of the nature of high school alienation itself -- the savagery, the cruelty, the relentless anxiety and ennui, the longing for escape.
The novel is based on a comic book series that Burns began in 1994. He claims that the book is semi-autobiographical, based on growing up in Seattle in the 1970s.
Burns got his start as an artist working on Art Spiegelmans Raw magazine in the 1980s and has since been involved in projects ranging from album covers for Iggy Pop to working on an ad campaign for Altoids.
There are a number of subplots in the novel, including Chriss romance with Keith, the nice, nice, super nice guy from biology class, and her one-night stand with Rob, who infects her with the disease in a graveyard tryst. Then theres a mysterious naked girl named Eliza who has a tail, a cat-faced killer who lives in the woods and parties with the teens, and the dark, surrealistic world of the ghouls.
Published by Pantheon Books, Black Hole has been hailed as a masterpiece of the graphic novel form by The New York Times Book Review, the Boston Globe and Sci-Fi Magazine, among others. For those readers who are still on the fence as to the cultural worth of graphic novels, consider that many are being made into noteworthy films, including The 300, A History of Violence, and the Batman saga, a cinematic character who was revived by The Dark Knight graphic novel series of the early 90s.
Often, Black Hole strays into the logic of a dream, where nothing seems to make sense, but then, thats the power of this media, which marries pictures with prose in a way that has no limits to the imagination. This novel could never work as traditional prose because much of its power is dependent upon its horrifying images. Although the plot is difficult to follow at times, theres no denying that Black Hole is a hard book to put down, and you may feel compelled to return to its pages again and again, if only for the incredible artistry of its drawings and the dread they inspire.