February 23, 2006

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Black Hole by Charles Burns (Pantheon, 2005, 368 pages)

If you have ever learned way too much about a perfect stranger by overhearing a conversation, you know what is like to read Charles Burns’ latest graphic novel, Black Hole.

Set in Seattle during the 1970s, Black Hole is a coming-of-age tale as much as anything. The action centers around two students, Keith (a boy) and Chris (a girl), who have nothing in common other than the confusion of adolescence and a biology class. Keith has a thing for Chris and Chris thinks Keith is nice. Meanwhile, there is a new sexually transmitted disease in town — the “bug” that makes people who get it grow tails and develop facial tumors, among and other deformities. The bug is 100 percent communicable so if you have sex with someone who has it, you get it. Some people get it worse than others — the worst cases, the ones who can’t hide the disease, move into a tent commune in the woods.

Burns’ art is fantastic but the story reads like a therapy session with a particularly imaginative 16-year-old. The series is a metaphor, of course, for the angst of adolescence. Sex can be scary and, if you are having it as a teenager, when not all of your friends are, you can feel like you are marked. Likewise, if you are not having it, you can feel left out of the club. But, unlike in Burns’ world, not every opening you see is a vagina allegory.

Perhaps because the story was written as a series, over 10 years, the book loses some cohesiveness toward the end. It is also heavy-handed at times — in one scene Chris literally tears himself off a piece of tail.

What the book does do well, through art and words, is put you in the same mindset as the characters. Keith and Chris have little hope of things working out well and, by the end of the book, you pretty much feel the same way.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book but, if only because of the art, I couldn’t put it down. And I may have to read it again. B-
—Robert Greene.

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