Ten Essential October Comics: ‘Black Hole’

Today’s Essential October Comic is a stark and startling examination of adolescence and alienation:

7. Black Hole by Charles Burns

Those of us who have passed it by remember adolescence as a tumultuous time of change. Our relationships with friends, our relationships with family, the politics of school, even our own bodies – everything was in a constant state of upheaval. Is it any wonder that the typical portrait of a teenager is a sullen, uncommunicative grump sitting alone in his or her room?

It’s rich material for an artist to explore in and of itself. But Charles Burns isn’t the kind of artist to produce an angst-filled comic series about the day-to-day lives of a group of high school teens – at least, not one without his particular slant on it. Burns’s slant comes in the form of a mysterious plague, a sexually-transmitted disease that manifests itself in strange physical mutations ranging from small tail nubs to total disfigurement. Because the effects are sometimes easily hidden, having sex is a gamble – one that, not surprisingly, most of the teenagers seem willing to take.

Burns renders all of this in his signature stark, dark style – a style which is particularly effective when depicting the mutations of the afflicted kids. These are not the slick, cool, superpower-granting changes of an X-Men comic – some of these kids look as though their flesh has been turned to clay and reshaped by the hands of a madman. It is the typical changes of the teenage body seen in a fun-house mirror, and it helps make the story a powerful and unsettling metaphor for that most confusing time of life.

As thought-provoking as it is shudder-inducing, Black Hole is a towering achievement for its creator. Originally released in twelve sporadically-appearing single issues, it is now available in collected form from Pantheon Books.

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