Sunday, November 2, 2008

Comics Review: Black Hole, Charles Burns

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, completed in 2005, replicates many of the tropes and conventions of North American horror films from between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s. One sees the same emphasis on teenage protagonists, the use of horrific material as a metaphor for adolescent anxieties, and the superficially secure suburban setting of John Carpenter’s Halloween combined with the primeval woodlands setting of the Friday the 13th franchise. David Cronenberg employed physical disease as a metaphor for alienation in his films of the period (all were horror genre pieces), and Burns does as well. However, Burns’ approach is not sensationalistic: the horror elements aren’t there to shock an audience. Instead, he brings the subtexts of those elements to the forefront, and uses them to create a poetic narrative about adolescent alienation.

The story's setting is ostensibly the Seattle suburbs during the mid-1970s. There are a number of characters, but the main focus is the different but occasionally intersecting lives of Chris Rhodes and Keith Pearson. Chris seemingly has everything going for her: she’s a beautiful, popular, straight-A student. Keith, on the other hand, at first appears far more poorly adjusted. He’s shy around girls, and he’s fed up with his friends. All they do on their own time is smoke, drink, and do drugs. But Keith’s heart isn’t in it, and he’s almost desperate to find a new direction for his life. As one of his friends says to him, “You always want to be somewhere else.” As it turns out, Chris behaves as self-destructively as Keith and his friends do: for her, all life has to offer away from school is smoking, getting intoxicated, and casual sex.

Burns takes care to show that the hedonism reflects a need for the kids to make contact with one another. It’s a social activity. He also recognizes the irony of their actions. Intoxication in particular has the effect of making one more psychologically isolated than ever. Burns dramatizes this in small ways and large ones. In one scene, a girl who smokes cigarettes to socialize finds that it cuts her off from her friends. They’re in front of a mirror in a public bathroom talking while, unbeknownst to them, she’s partitioned away smoking in a stall, using the cigarette to lose herself in her thoughts. In another scene, a girl wistfully describes Quaaludes as “the perfect buzz. You just sit there and don’t give a shit about nothin’.” When her troubles catch up with her, and she breaks down crying, she screams at a person who comes up to her to leave her alone. Keith permanently dumps his friends when he walks up to talk to one and finds the fellow so high that he’s completely oblivious. Keith’s description of him:
His face had changed. The skin was all pulled back in a horrible grin and his teeth were showing. Suddenly his body started shaking and he let out an awful barking sound. It took me a while to realize he was laughing.
Burns emphasizes with this and other moments that getting intoxicated ultimately comes at the expense of one’s humanity. One can’t connect with others, and one ultimately loses touch with oneself.

There is a second, smaller community of teenagers outside of the high school students. They live in the woods, and they are all in the advanced stages of a venereal disease. Early on, Burns shows them sitting around a campfire roasting hot dogs, and he renders the fire-cooked frankfurters so that they resemble penises with running sores. The metaphor points up a similarity between the disease and herpes, and like herpes, it doesn’t appear to be a direct threat to the sufferer’s long-term health. Someone who is afflicted just becomes disfigured; the signs of the disease are benign sarcomas, permanent rashes, and molting or permanently withered skin. In the two oddest instances, the disease leads to the development of a small tail and a vestigial second mouth. In narrative terms, the disease is a metaphor for adolescent anxiety about sex: the terror of how having it signifies that one is making the transition from childhood to being an adult. A girl who manifests the disease on her back (where she can keep it hidden) looks at her face in the mirror thinking, “I shouldn’t look like this. I look normal but I’m not. I’m a monster.”

Teenage sex is viewed as ultimately as alienating as the drugs and alcohol; in fact, it’s portrayed as a later symptom of the same anomie. The disease speaks to the terror of having had it, and through Keith’s point of view, Burns creates one unsettling visual metaphor after another for his anxiety over not having it: the chest incision into a biology-class dissecting frog, a cut on a girl’s foot, the tear through which a disease victim has shed a skin layer like a snake—all are deliberately rendered as vaginal imagery. The anxiety is so emotionally disruptive for Keith and the other characters that they employ drugs and alcohol as a catalyst for sex. The only rapport is shared intoxication; there’s little or no emotional connection between lovers.

Burns doesn’t treat sex as inherently unhealthy; he simply recognizes that the self-absorbed milieu perverts it. The impulses of goodwill upon which strong emotional relationships are built are certainly present. Keith, who’s attracted to Chris, helps her tend a wound after she’s badly cut herself in the woods. He has to overcome his considerable squeamishness at the sight of blood, but he succeeds, and the act of helping her is genuinely fulfilling--he even looks at her blood on his hands as a sign of communion. In another scene, a girl who’s found the beginning of a rapport with a boy comforts him even after he reveals he’s upset over being rejected by another girl. “Shhh, of course there’s a girl,” she says to him. “It doesn’t matter.” However, despite his own attraction, the boy rejects her when he fears being with her will make him look uncool to his friends. Chris doesn’t respond to goodwill, either: her relationships with others are also predicated on glamour and looking cool. She’s oblivious to Keith despite his help, and later in the story, after she’s run away from home, she becomes dependent on a boy in the advanced stages of the disease. She rejects him as well, which being the latest in an unbroken string of emotional defeats for him, sets him off on a murderous rampage.

However, Burns doesn’t lapse here into the reactionary tendencies of the horror genre; he’s not creating a sympathetic monster through whom society rediscovers its communal values by destroying. He doesn’t go out of his way to make the murderer sympathetic; the killer is kept on the periphery of scenes throughout most of the book. And the fellow’s not a threat to people in the greater community; his only act of violence there, although over the top, is one of self-defense. His only victims are the other diseased residents of the woods, and his violence is just a later stage of the deterioration that alienation inflicts upon society. The group of disease victims in the woods is the only place where communal values of goodwill have reasserted themselves, and the killing spree destroys it. Those that survive disperse and flee to parts unknown, and Burns makes it clear--explicitly in some cases and implicitly in others--that they have nowhere worth going. At best, they are pursuing fantasies that will leave them lost and alone.

The book is masterfully executed. The dynamics of the story feel more poetic than dramatic. It doesn’t develop by emphasizing narrative conflict; Burns constructs the scenes by using the action to create powerfully resonant metaphors and epiphanies. These combine to create a narrative world of extraordinary emotional complexity. The story structure is remarkable, and so is Burns’ cartooning. His draftsmanship is excellent, and the hyper-controlled rendering of the art seems almost mechanical--it emphasizes the emotional sterility of the milieu. It also abstracts the horrific and violent elements to such a degree that one views them almost clinically; the imagery is fantastic at times, but it’s never shocking. A film version is in the works, and one can’t imagine how a cinematic depiction could treat Burns’ visuals without sensationalizing them; the book works because Burns’ medium is comics, not despite it. Black Hole is easily one of the most accomplished graphic novels to date.

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