Black Hole softcover (Pantheon)

bh-header.gifCharles Burns’ haunting, Harvey Award-winning series is collected in a new, more affordable format.



368 pages B&W; $17.95 softcover

(W / A: Charles Burns)


Reading Charles Burns’ Black Hole is undeniably a memorable experience, but it isn’t easy. It’s the kind of story you really fall into, with some of the most stark, mesmerizing artwork in comics, you don’t even notice that each turn of the page causes your face to slowly scrunch up with discomfort and your stomach to turn inside out. By the end of my first time through it, I felt sick and didn’t want to talk to anyone. Yeah, it’s that awesome.

Burns is a very talented and accomplished illustrator. New readers will be quick to notice his use of contrast and negative space is as powerful as Frank Miller and Mike Mignola. But unlike them, his inks feel mechanically precise, slaved over to perfection. Every large black pool of ink is carefully feathered with sharp lines that come to fine points. Burns probably commands an army of 1/10 scale Charles Burns’s with tiny brushes to do his inking. Or maybe not. It was a very slow-cooked story.

Black Hole #1 was first released in 1993. Ten years later, its 12th and final issue came out. In 2005, it was collected in a hardcover book. And now, in 2008, the softcover version’s been released. Does that really warrant another review? It does, because it just keeps getting better. Not that the softcover has any extra sketches or DVD director’s commentary. For me, the new edition simply meant replacing my copy that I gave to a friend because he had to read it. It also meant rereading it, knowing how strong it is, and taking the time to appreciate the care and consistency it must have taken to craft this story over the stretch of a decade. Not only does the style and quality of the brushwork look indistinguishable from cover to cover, but the writing, layouts, endless sexual metaphors, and the downright creepiness are all so carefully constructed that it really deserves to be called a masterpiece like many reviewers have done before me.

Strange that it’s built on a setting that seems ripped from stale old horror comics. A sexually transmitted disease, simply called "The Bug" passes through the youth of ‘70s Seattle suburbia, causing unusual mutations in its victims. Burns doesn’t bother to explain where it came from, and it doesn’t lead into an adventure to find the cure. Instead, The Bug is simply part of the setting. Just another element supporting the main theme: teenage alienation and confusion, the black hole of youth. Most of the victims of the disease are high school outcasts and rejects, perhaps despite the sexual contagion of The Bug. Some of these punks and stoners become hideously deformed and give up on trying to fit into society altogether, banding together in a doomed, makeshift camp in the woods. But others have more subtle effects that allow them to get by. Some mutations seem to reflect the character’s personalities. A sensitive guy grows an extra mouth at the base of his neck that mutters his deepest thoughts. A temptress grows a tail. One girl simply sheds her skin like a snake, but the scar it leaves down her back still causes her peers to stare and gawk.

Given the time in which the book was written, it might have easily been inspired by AIDS and the misinformed fears around it. It definitely has powerful themes that are relevant, but Burns never addresses them directly. The Bug hangs on the periphery of understanding, along with early sexual encounters, drug use, and acceptance. Though it can be surreal and disturbing, the real horror in the book is the high school maelstrom and the fear that the things that make us unique can destroy us. | Nick Main

Click here to see four-pages of Charles Burns’ Black Hole, courtesy of Pantheon!

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