Growing pains

Charles Burns’ graphic novel masterpiece Black Hole is a brilliant trip down the rabbit hole of teenage alienation and the painful transition towards adulthood that transcends any generic ties to horror fiction it may be labelled with.

It is set in 1970s suburban Seattle, where Charles himself grew up, and describes the spread of a sexually transmitted disease amongst the town’s youth, which causes them to mutate in various different ways, causing those infected to be shunned and further outcast from the general population. There is a murder subplot, but such thriller affectations are far less disturbing than the sexual desires, fears and nightmares of the teenage protagonists. The true horror is not the threat of a possible serial killer, but the sheer pain of dealing with life, a universal terror synonymous with adolescence.

Charles’ genius is that the mutations are individual to each victim of the plague, a literal manifestation of their inner desires. Therefore, Rob has a small mouth in his neck, prone to spouting his fears in a baby voice. His girlfriend Chris sheds her skin, the initial signs of which are a vaginal opening on her back, as she craves freedom from the strictures of being the good girl in small town society. Keith sprouts tadpole growths on his stomach, signs of sexual frustration finally giving way to carnal awakening when he discovers his true love, Eliza, gifted with an endearing tail.

The story was initially published as a 12 issue comic book series, from 1995 to 2004, before it’s release in hardback form in 2005. The lengthy production schedule is apparent in the brilliant, rich black and white imagery Charles conjures across the pages, each one a work of art in it’s own right. His style is the tableau of nightmares, retro Americana redrawn with a surreal Boschian eye filtered through the stark shadows of German Expressionism.

In many ways, Black Hole is his most coherent ‘straight’ work, other books in his oeuvre far more surreal and obviously warped. Big Baby tells the adventures of a child in a man’s body, a slapstick comedy about refusing to grow up, while his recent trilogy X’ed Out is a fantastical journey through a warped dreamscape, metaphor for the protagonist’s desire to escape from impending fatherhood with his pregnant girlfriend.

All his characters are attempting to forge their own identity, questioning both who they are, and apprehensive of what they could potentially become. Adulthood is scary, as all life can be, and this recurring theme is most accessibly told in Black Hole.

Indeed, for all the cult darkness of Charles’ roots, his work is slowly making it’s way from the fringes further into popular culture. The novel was featured in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), as a book the teenage human son bonds with his ape counterpart over, both characters looking to find themselves. In movie terms, Black Hole’s teenage wastoids are the stoner kids of River’s Edge, undergoing Cronenbergian mutations, slipping into a Lynchian nightmare. David Fincher has been mooted to be developing a film adaptation since it’s publication, with Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary having submitted a screenplay.

As darkly alluring as such a movie could potentially be, the true home of Black Hole is on the printed page, where the potency of Charles Burns’ feverish dreams explode out in all their unnatural, perverse glory. It is a contradictory work that grows with successive readings, managing to be both populist and obsessively cult material, but most of all genuine, sincere, horrifying, addictive, shocking, heart breaking, moving, tender and hilarious.

Just like life.

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