Spring 2006

Mutant teenage kicks – with existential undertones

Black Hole

By Charles Burns
Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Ten years in the making, graphic novelist Charles Burns’s magnum opus is a horror story that is as beautiful as it is unsettling. Set in mid-1970s Seattle, a sexually-transmitted plague is afflicting only teenagers. It causes skin conditions and deformities ranging from rashes to the sprouting of horns and tails. The most badly mutated kids are forced to set up camps in the forest.

Burns’ trademark high-contrast art, with its severe lighting and acres of black ink, is perfectly in tune with the existential undertones: Val Lewton-meets-EC Comics, but with added iciness. How he managed to keep a consistent look over a period of a decade is in itself . . . unnatural.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the plague itself is not the focus, spectacular though the symptoms are, but people’s reactions to it. The victims carry on with their lives: going to parties, smoking dope, lusting after each other. But at the same time they’re alienated and desperate, just like regular teens. This sense of youthful angst is cleverly evoked via the deformities – one character sheds her skin like a snake, suggesting that excruciating time in life when you want to leave your body behind and become someone else. Another has a tiny mouth at the base of his neck that talks when he’s not expecting it, as if his subconscious is revealing things he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

Yet the horror is time-specific. This was a period when the hippie dream was over, and punk had not yet happened. At one point, the characters listen to Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, the album in which Bowie was experimenting with ‘mutation’, complete with a sleeve depicting half-human half-animals. Drugs are also much to the fore, conjuring post-hippie excess and acid casualties, leaving us to wonder whether maybe the mutated teens are ciphers for some of the folk we might have known in our time, who took one tab too many and similarly ended up ‘unrecognisable’.

But the drugs aspect has other dimensions. We are never sure if things are as they should be. There are flash-forwards and flashbacks; hallucinatory episodes; curiously labyrinthine passages. Sometimes this makes the plot impossible to follow, but the cumulative effect is to generate an almost Lynchian sense of the hyper-real.

Finally, what of AIDS? But by setting Black Hole in the mid-1970s, it is not clear whether this is the kind of metaphor Burns is after. More likely, there are other reference points – David Cronenberg’s psycho-sexual horror movies for one (and like those movies, gynophobia is a uncomfortable criticism of the comic in places), the aforementioned Bowie vibe for another.

Rather, it is the intimacy of the tale that impresses. If it is a metaphor for anything, it is for Burns’ own teenage experiences. The heart-tugging dedication to his school pals in the inside cover and the sheer level of observation are dead giveaways. By the end of the book, he has taken us through the black hole of his memories, and out the other side. It’s quite a trip.

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