The Human Stain

Black Hole opens with a hole, a white gash sliced into an all-black page. It’s a long, narrow slit that, on the next page, widens ever so slightly until, on the third page, it’s a gaping, throat-to-genitals wound in the soft belly of a frog splayed and pinned to a dissecting tray in a high school biology class. Holes recur throughout Charles Burns’ recently published comic book compilation, metaphorically as the huge blackness into which the eerie story’s teenagers tumble and literally as the creepy orifices that rudely open all over their bodies. In the story, a group of pot-smoking, acid-dropping, beer-drinking teenagers in the mid-’70s suddenly begin mutating. One grows an embarrassing tail; another sprouts an extra, overly chatty mouth; and yet another has a deep lesion along her spine. Those infected by the sexually transmitted “bug” eventually move to a makeshift colony where more mayhem ensues. As in all of the work by Burns, the magnificence of Black Hole is not so much the story, or its uncanny familiarity, or even its deft allegorical assessment of a particular cultural moment. It’s in his inky black-and-white drawings, and the way his fluctuating panels convey nuanced meaning. In one sequence, a girl reckons with her monstrosity, and the page implodes, panel borders becoming shards and the body an assemblage of amputated pieces. The Philadelphia-based Burns, who started drawing comics in 1981 for Art Spiegelman’s Raw, has always had a penchant for dark themes and horror. His characters include a bevy of lovable freaks like Big Baby and Dog Boy, but rather than simply shock, Burns balances compassion and empathy with repulsion. Burns has done illustrations for the likes of Time and The New Yorker, covers for The Believer, and album art for Iggy Pop. Black Hole, which took 10 years to complete, is his masterpiece.

BLACK HOLE | By CHARLES BURNS | Pantheon | 368 pages | $25 hardcover

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