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