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Comics Feature

Dark Arts

Comics Master Charles Burns Digs Deeper in Black Hole

Alex Fine

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 9/28/2005

Did you ever have a nightmare so vile, involving images so perverse, that you woke up feeling unclean and strangely guilty? Take a peek at the art of Charles Burns and it will all come back to you: the diseased flesh, the deformed features, the tiny monsters and gloating robots performing unspeakable acts.

You can’t be blamed (or praised) for what your unconscious brain coughs up. Burns, on the other hand, hatches such things in his waking imagination and then renders them in cold, black ink with such precision that, as R. Crumb once wrote, “It’s almost as if the artist . . . as if he weren’t quite . . . human!” For most of his career, Burns has matched his black art with pitch-dark yet playful humor, ranging from gross-out sight gags to mordant pop-culture allusions. Even when he’s not playing for laughs, he gleefully recombines the DNA of pulp detective yarns, teen romance, The Outer Limits, and EC-era horror comics. The result is equal parts weird and familiar, clever and disturbing.

Burns has long held an exalted status among practitioners and fans of comics “for mature readers.” His early contributions to Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s RAW magazine—such as “Dog Boy,” the tale of a guy with a transplanted canine heart—are art-comix classics. In the mid-’80s, his work found a wider audience through serialization in weekly newspapers; longtime City Paper readers may remember his Big Baby strips. Major magazines have hired him for special illustration assignments, but Burns has generally been deemed too icky for prime time.

Over the last decade, with his 12-issue series Black Hole, Burns proved that he was, despite Crumb’s misgivings, human after all. He was still subjecting his characters to horrible, degrading experiences, but instead of snickering about it, he examined how the characters felt. While Burns’ familiar graphic style and banal dialogue were vividly on display, humor had faded to an ironic hiss in the background.

On Oct. 18, Pantheon will release the collected Black Hole as a full-length, hard-cover graphic novel. Taken altogether, it’s not Burns’ most outrageous story, but it’s clearly his most ambitious literary effort and an awe-inspiring feat of graphic art. It’s plenty creepy, too, especially if you’re a newcomer to Burns Country.

The story concerns a small population of aimless suburban teenagers in the Pacific Northwest, some of whom have been infected with “the bug,” a mysterious, sexually transmitted disease that results in random deformities. Some sufferers are able to hide their afflictions and pass for disease-free. Others, more obviously disfigured, have run off to the woods, where they huddle morosely around campfires until hunger drives them to the KFC in town. One particularly monstrous character lives in hiding from the other exiles. Meanwhile, the uninfected—apparently a bunch of losers who’ve never had sex—sit around in bungalows eating junk food, smoking pot, listening to records (it’s the ‘70s), and reading porn. In its sheer pessimism about young ’uns left to themselves, Black Hole recalls Lord of the Flies.

In a recent interview, Burns said that he’d always intended Black Hole to be a deeper, more character-driven story than any of his previous works. After a false start, he decided to ditch a couple of villainous adult characters—they never got off the drawing board—and concentrate entirely on the morally ambiguous youths. His own adolescence in Seattle provided source material for the teenage-limbo milieu, but Black Hole’s slackers and their suburban setting could be anywhere in America, any time since 1970. The horrors they endure, both social and biological, are surreal exaggerations of familiar teenage woes. As a result, just about any likely reader can identify with them. As Burns says, “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Where did you grow up? . . . ‘Cause I had the same thing happen to me.’”

It’s hard to imagine many readers seeing themselves in the grotesques that fill Burns’ earlier work (with the exception of Tony Delmonto, aka “Big Baby,” a fairly normal boy despite his very weird looks). Burns used to make us cackle; in Black Hole he makes us care.

As a result, the darkness of Black Hole is more believable and affecting than the caricatured terror of his earlier work. Compounding the sense of reality, there’s more frank sexual material and a grimly honest treatment of violence.

“I wasn’t making a comment” about sex, drugs, and violence, says Burns, who now lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two daughters. “It’s just part of the landscape. After I was done with the series I did in newspapers, I very consciously wanted to not censor myself in any way. There’s certain stuff you can’t put in a weekly newspaper—themes and ideas I didn’t touch on because they were too dark. I wanted to tell a story where I could pull it all out.” Still, Burns says, he’s “not remotely interested in gratuitous sex or violence.” He simply wanted the story to be “as horrific as I could make it.” Most of the story’s sexual and violent events occur off-page; the ones we see and read are stronger for it.

Throughout Black Hole, Burns shifts adroitly between interwoven story lines and layers of fictional “reality.” Between panels, the narrative switches seamlessly between dream or hallucination sequences and the here and now. One character’s thread will be quietly dropped and another’s will pick up. This is a commonplace device in comics, as it is in film and prose fiction, but Burns uses it with uncommon skill, throwing readers off-balance, requiring them to fill in disturbing gaps and speculate on loose ends. The story ends without resolution as several infected characters flee their plague-ridden hometown.

In keeping with his more realistic narrative intentions, Burns in Black Hole nudged his drawing style into a more naturalistic mode without sacrificing any of its stark graphic power. More than ever, Burns’ pages and panels are stunning essays on the power of black-and-white art—with the emphasis on the black. But where the earlier Burns satirized the human body the way he satirized humanity, in Black Hole he seems to have discovered and embraced beauty for the first time. His female protagonists are soft, sexy, and naturalistic in spite of their afflictions—and in spite of the hard black lines that define them. (To draw certain figures to his satisfaction, the artist occasionally hired models.) Burns’ trademark sawtooth shading—defined by rows of elegant, tapered brushstrokes—has become ever more refined, capable of rendering the subtlest forms of flesh or drapery.

A more naturalistic approach also allows Burns to render images of ruin, decay, and disease with clinical fidelity. The episodes of Black Hole are separated by pages where background motifs from the story—bones, half-eaten food, dead tadpoles, broken glass—become elements of foreground design. (You’ll never see fried chicken the same way again.) Patterns of plant life—dark woods and trashy weeds—punctuate the story, suggesting both the fertility of the teens and the virulence of their disease.

The only downside to the new Black Hole collection—aside from the fact that you’ll have to hide this scary, explicit, and sometimes repulsive material from the kids and in-laws—is that some of the original endpaper art and all of the original cover designs have been sacrificed to the unity of the full-length production. With lurid color schemes and imagery that riffed on the themes inside, the glossy covers turned each volume of the comic-book series into a complete art object. From a collector’s standpoint, the fat new hardback is no replacement.

But what’s lost on the graphic scale is gained, somewhat, on the literary side. In its collected form, Burns’ Black Hole becomes one of those relatively rare books that really deserve to be called graphic novels. It’s not just about heft: Without all those glossy covers to fondle between the episodes, the reader gets the whole brutal continuity right between the eyes.

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