Burns Bright

A graphic novel that takes only hours to read, but ages to appreciate

In 2004, when describing Charles Burns' then-unfinished book Black Hole, Chip McGrath wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "Graphic artists talk about it the way people talked about Ulysses." Like Joyce's book, Black Hole is thick (it contains no page numbers, but imagine a doorstop) and first appeared in installments (in Burns' case, over a period of 10 years). But unlike Ulysses, I read Burns' work whole in a few hours, a feat I'm admittedly uncomfortable with. A decade of toil digested in a single night? So it goes with graphic novels.

Set in 1970s Seattle, Black Holefeatures teens awash in adolescent angst, experiencing all the boy-girl, geek-jock troubles that make high school such a joy. Most scenes center around finding or ingesting drugs, with characters constantly pulling out thin joints, drinking beer in the woods, and putting quick distance between themselves and their parents. When in packs, the boys treat the girls like shit; individually, they fumble declarations of love and inwardly cringe. A nasty sexually transmitted disease complicates things, as one of its symptoms is a face blurred beyond recognition. Unexpectedly, those typically afflicted are geeks, who, banished to the woods, retain their sense of kindness -- all except the primary killer (yes, there's more than one), a former chess-club kid who pines for a girl to the point of murderous rage.

Charles Burns' Black Hole.
Charles Burns' Black Hole.


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The weirder manifestations of the disease -- one girl grows a tail, another sheds her skin, a boy develops a second mouth in his neck -- place the book safely outside the familiar, undercutting comparisons to today's STDs. And in sharp contrast to his usual realism, Burns in-cludes plenty of surreal panels highlighting dreams, inner dialogues, and drug-induced paranoia, which visually capture the emotional battles occurring within high-school minds. His style is also a wonder, bold black-and-white pages with characters' faces shining from dark backgrounds or cast in slanting shadows. Black Hole may be a fast read, but its art takes sweet time to appreciate.

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