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Black Hole [Paperback]

Charles Burns
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The first issues of Charles Burns's comics series Black Hole began appearing in 1995, and long before it was completed a decade later, readers and fellow artists were speaking of it in tones of awe and comparing it to recent classics of the form like Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan and Daniel Clowes's Ghost World. Burns is the sort of meticulous, uncompromising artist whom other artists speak of with envy and reverence, and we asked Ware and Clowes to comment on their admiration for Black Hole:

"I think I probably learned the most about clarity, composition, and efficiency from looking at Charles's pages spread out on my drawing table than from anyone's; his was always at the level of lucidity of Nancy, but with this odd, metallic tinge to it that left you feeling very unsettled, especially if you were an aspiring cartoonist, because it was clear you'd never be half as good as he was. There's an almost metaphysical intensity to his pinprick-like inkline that catches you somewhere in the back of the throat, a paper-thin blade of a fine jeweler's saw tracing the outline of these thick, clay-like human figures that somehow seem to "move," but are also inevitably oddly frozen in eternal, awkward poses ... it's an unlikely combination of feelings, and it all adds up to something unmistakably his own.

"I must have been one of the first customers to arrive at the comic shop when I heard the first issue of Black Hole was out 10 years ago, and my excitement didn't change over the years as he completed it. I don't think I've ever read anything that better captures the details, feelings, anxieties, smells, and cringing horror of my own teenage years better than Black Hole, and I'm 15 years younger than Charles is. Black Hole is so redolently affecting one almost has to put the book down for air every once in a while. By the book's end, one ends up feeling so deeply for the main character it's all one can do not to turn the book over and start reading again." --Chris Ware

"Charles Burns is one of the greats of modern comics. His comics are beautiful on so many levels. Somehow he has managed to capture the essential electricity of comic-book pop-art iconography, dragging it from the clutches of Fine Art back to the service of his perfect, precise-but-elusive narratives in a way that is both universal in its instant appeal and deeply personal." --Dan Clowes

Questions for Charles Burns

Amazon.com: Cartoonists are about the only people today who are working like Dickens did: writing serials that appear piece-by-piece in public before the whole work is done. What's it like to work in public like that, and for as long as a project like this takes?
Charles Burns: There were a number of reasons for serializing Black Hole. First of all, I wanted to put out a traditional comic book-- I'd never really worked in that comic pamphlet format before and liked the idea of developing a long story in installments. There's something very satisfying to me about a comic book as an object and I enjoyed using that format to slowly build my story. Serializing the story also allowed me to focus on shorter, more manageable portions; if I had to face creating a 368-page book all in one big lump, I don't know if I’d have the perseverance and energy to pull it off.
Amazon.com: One thing that stuns me about this book is how consistent it is from start to finish. From the first frames to the last ones that you drew 10 years later, you held the same tone and style. It feels as though you had a complete vision for the book from the very beginning. Is that so? Or did things develop unexpectedly as you worked on it?
Burns: I guess there's a consistency in Black Hole because of the way I work. I write and draw very slowly, always carefully examining every little detail to make sure it all fits together the way I want it to. When I started the story, I had it all charted out as far as the basic structure goes, but what made working on it interesting was finding new ways of telling the story that hadn't occurred to me.
Amazon.com: Some of the very best of the recent graphic novels (I'm thinking of Ghost World and Blankets, along with Black Hole) have been about the lives of teenagers. Do you think there's something about the form that helps to tell those stories so well?
Burns: That's an interesting question, but I don't know the answer. Perhaps it has more to do with the authors--the kind of people who stay indoors for hours on end in total solitude working away on their heartfelt stories... maybe that kind of reflection lends itself to being able to capture the intensity of adolescence.
Amazon.com: In the time you've been working on Black Hole, graphic novels have leapt into the mainstream. (I think--I hope--we're finally seeing the last of those "They're not just for kids anymore!" reviews.) What did you imagine for this project when you started it? What's it been like to see your corner of the world enter the glare of the spotlight?
Burns: When I started Black Hole I really just wanted to tell a long, well-written story. The themes and ideas that run throughout the book had been turning around in my head for years and I wanted to finally get them all out--put them down on paper once and for all. I've published a few other books and while they sold reasonably well, they didn't set the publishing world on fire. I was pretty sure I'd have some kind of an audience for Black Hole, but that was never a motivating factor in writing the book. And my corner of the world is still pretty dark. I guess I'll be stepping into the spotlight for a little while when the book comes out, but I imagine I'll slip back into my dark little studio when it all settles down again so I can settle back into work.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The prodigiously talented Burns hit the comics scene in the '80s via Raw magazine, wielding razor-sharp, ironic-retro graphics. Over the years his work has developed a horrific subtext perpetually lurking beneath the mundane suburban surface. In the dense, unnerving Black Hole,Burns combines realism—never a concern for him before—and an almost convulsive surrealism. The setting is Seattle during the early '70s. A sexually transmitted disease, the "bug," is spreading among teenagers. Those who get it develop bizarre mutations—sometimes subtle, like a tiny mouth at the base of one boy's neck, and sometimes obvious and grotesque. The most visibly deformed victims end up living as homeless campers in the woods, venturing into the streets only when they have to, shunned by normal society. The story follows two teens, Keith and Chris, as they get the bug. Their dreams and hallucinations—made of deeply disturbing symbolism merging sexuality and sickness—are a key part of the tale. The AIDS metaphor is obvious, but the bug also amplifies already existing teen emotions and the wrenching changes of puberty. Burns's art is inhumanly precise, and he makes ordinary scenes as creepy as his nightmare visions of a world where intimacy means a life worse than death. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. Grade 11 Up–Set in a Seattle suburb during the mid-1970s, this dark, atmospheric story is a gripping (and often unsettling) journey into the psyche of suburban teens on the brink of adulthood. The bug is a sexually transmitted disease that causes strange and irreversible mutations: one boy grows a miniature second mouth above his collarbone, a girls skin begins to molt, and another grows a preternatural tail. Some are able to conceal their mutations and live a normal life, while others are shunned and forced to seek refuge in a supportive, but tenuous community deep in the woods among the homeless and the homicidal. The impact of the plague on the community is seen through the eyes of two teens, Keith and Chris, both of whom become infected and develop mutations. Burns skillfully explores the inner drama of high school alienation with tenderness, precision, and grace. His masterful black-and-white illustrations evoke an eerie surreal tone that beautifully complements the underlying horror of the textual narrative. This accomplished graphic novel is a serious work of artistic and literary merit and is essential for any collection that includes adult graphic novels such as Dan Clowess David Boring (Knopf, 2000), Craig Thompsons Blankets (Top Shelf, 2005), and Gilbert Hernandezs Palomar (Fantagraphics, 1989).–Philip Charles Crawford, Essex High School, Essex Junction, VT
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Burns' Hard-Boiled Defective Stories (1988), Skin Deep (1992), and Big Baby (2000) are pretty weird, but satiric elements keep them from being disturbing. Black Hole isn't satiric, seems emblematic, and is definitely disturbing. In a middle-class suburb in Washington State in the seventies, what the teenagers call the bug is spreading among them, physically marking its hosts. Eventually, the afflicted kids disappear from school. When Keith wanders away in the woods from his pot-smoking pals, he discovers a tent community of disappeared kids. Each has become more marked; for instance, one boy's face has become decidedly catlike. Keith has a crush on his biology lab-partner, Chris, but since sex with him after a party, she's fixated on Rob, who has a tiny mouth on his throat. They fall in love, and Keith is desolate until he meets Eliza, who has a short, hairless tail, a second time. Both young-lover pairs are ill-starred. All have horrible nightmares, Eliza is abused before Keith meets her, Chris has to run away, Rob is attacked by one of the tent kids, and Keith leaves town implicated in a mass murder. Is the bug "punishment" for sex (of which there's plenty, frankly rendered)? Maybe, but the tent-kids may be virgins; it's not indicated that they aren't. And at the end, Keith isn't showing his bug stigmata, and Chris may have lost hers. As always, Burns' gorgeous high-contrast art deepens the atmospheric darkness, and this time he really gets under the skin. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

Winner of the Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz Awards

"Smoldering brilliant... What Burns does so memorably here is blend the erotic and the frightening to create a black hole the reader will want to visit again and again."
--The Boston Globe

"The best graphic novel of the year... One of the most stunning graphic novels yet published."
--Time

"Black Hole is Burns's masterwork."
--The New York Times Book Review

"Surreal and unnerving... A remarkable work."
--Chicago Sun-Times

About the Author

Charles Burns grew up in Seattle in the 1970s. His work rose to prominence in Art Spiegelman’s Raw magazine in the mid-1980s and took off from there, in an extraordinary range of comics and projects, from Iggy Pop album covers to the latest ad campaign for Altoids. In 1992 he designed the set for Mark Morris’s delightful restaging of The Nutcracker (renamed The Hard Nut) at BAM. He’s illustrated covers for Time, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. He was also tapped as the official cover artist for The Believer magazine at its inception in 2003. Burns lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two daughters.

From The Washington Post

A good deal of the scary-story genre relies on babes in the woods and creatures waiting to pounce on them. From Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel to Dorothy in Oz to Frodo's trek to Mordor, monsters lying in wait have given children nightmares for as long as such stories have been told. Charles Burns's new graphic novel, Black Hole, offers a variation on that theme: a coming-of-age nightmare in which the children no longer get the nightmares, they give them.

Published this month as a novel, with a fantastic cover designed by the author, Black Hole has been an ongoing comic book serial since 1995. Readers unaccustomed to the subculture of comic book shops might know Burns as the house artist for the Believer magazine or from his work for Time, the New Yorker and Iggy Pop albums. Comics fans will know him as a charter artist from RAW, the Art Spiegelman imprint that published Burns's first cartoon masterpiece, Hard-Boiled Defective Stories. In Black Hole, Burns's careers in the comics subculture and the wider world of pop culture merge for the most deeply felt work of his career.

The story takes place in Seattle in the 1970s, where Burns spent his own teenage years, and our sympathies to him if the tale he delivers here is autobiographical. This is not Cameron Crowe's Seattle of peppy coffee houses and space needles but the Pacific Northwest of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" and the sonic gloom found in the music of Eliot Smith or the Screaming Trees. Black Hole covers the high school years of a group of kids who find themselves catching a venereal disease known as "the teen plague." After sex with an infected partner, they deform and mutate. The infected person might develop a tail, like Eliza, who encourages lovers to grab it during sex. Or there's Rob, who develops a second mouth on his lower neck. Some can hide it, but others turn into freakish social pariahs and join a teen leper colony in the woods. "It was like a horrible game of tag," writes Burns. "Once you were tagged, you were 'it' forever."

Chris is a typical victim: a straight "A" student from a good home. At a house party, she drinks and has sex outside with Rob, who gives her the plague. Days later, when she is skinny-dipping with friends, her skin peels loose like a reptile's. As much as Chris appears to fall from grace, this girl next door enjoys alcohol, exhibitionism and risky sex. She feels a stifling boredom in her overachieving, flat suburban world. After catching "the bug," Chris falls in love with Rob and moves in with other plague victims. But the same jealousies and rivalries that made them outcasts in high school develop again within their plague community, and soon passions lead to murder. The killer, living deeper in the woods than the other kids, hangs broken dolls from trees. If they are an obvious piece of symbolism, the dolls are also effectively frightening. It's in drawing them and a menagerie of warped faces that Burns makes use of his particular genius for the grotesque.

Black Hole reads like a downer dream one might get while suffering from the flu, and Burns is not interested in making his story work outside that dream. When reality intrudes, such as when Chris's mom realizes that her daughter needs help, the reader gets shaken out of the torpor long enough to ask questions: Why aren't more parents doing something about this? Where's the panic in discovering your boy has two mouths? But ignoring those questions is part of the point: Burns properly keeps his kids in their own angst-ridden world, that space in life that every teen is convinced no adult will ever understand.

Longtime fans who know Burns from Big Baby or Hard-Boiled Defective Stories may miss the ironic humor-horror of those earlier works. Here, Burns builds up to a comic-book symphony of dread and self-loathing about that scarring experience called "growing up." Burns's art is thick with black ink -- so much so that even daylight scenes sop with pools of shadow and dark ooze. His kids drag clouds of despair with them. Often drawn in photo negatives, Black Hole depicts a world in which the white lines of order hold back the nocturnal depths of emotion, but just barely.

Anyone who has driven the lonely highways of Washington state and seen the eerie moonlit silhouettes of pine trees lined up against the road knows that the instinct is to drive faster, to press the pedal harder, as if hidden eyes are watching your every move. Don't listen to Charles Burns; this is where he wants you to pull over.

Reviewed by Ben Schwartz
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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