No fable

Once you’ve made the hole the central metaphor of a lengthy work of fiction, you’re going to have to resign yourself to a whole mess of Freudian baggage. Whether you bring them with you, as part and parcel of your understanding of psychology, or they’re ascribed to your work irrespective of its contents, or they simply resonate unavoidably from the page for a proportion of your readers, Freud’s theories of desire, our relationships with our parents, our fear of sex, the close coupling of sex and death, are all going to be implicated in the interpretation of your work. Charles Burns’s holes are, for the most part, vagina-esque slits, through which pass instruments of body horror, revelations, indiscretions, characters and penises, and here I’m just talking about the literal pictorial narrative—their symbolic activity is off the chart!

The strongest significance of this metaphor, for me, is that oblivion into which we sometimes feel ourselves to be falling, particularly when the world is confusing and we are not clear on how to find comfort in our own skins. When we’re struggling with adolescence, trying to forge some sense of self, independent of our parents, buffeted by so many unwanted demands, it’s difficult to imagine what our adult future will look like—it seems quite unknowable, as though it were on the far side of the event horizon of an astronomical black hole. Our suffering and disorientation feels unique to us, and unless we’re some kind of unthinking, conventional jock/cheerleader type, we often feel stigmatised, marked out by real or imagined difference. Although the titular hole is a recurring symbol, there is another conceit which dramatises that feeling of otherness within the story: Burns imagines a disease, passed on sexually, which marks its teenage victims out with bizarre deformities like additional mouths, tails, skin-shedding and spectacular facial distortions.

Black Hole, then, is a work of speculative fiction, but Burns chooses to focus exclusively on the local social consequences of his speculative intervention. We learn nothing about the ways that this plague has been presented in the media, about the medical response, about the actions of government. What we see is the moral judgement passed by their peers on those displaying symptoms, their ostracism, the collapse of their relationships with their parents, all elaborated against a backdrop of suburban 1970s Seattle. The deformities are, in a sense, realistic: they externalise the freakishness that many adolescents see when they look in the mirror. Many of the central characters in the story are pot-heads and acid-freaks, and the alienation which comes with those choices is layered in complex ways against that which comes from ‘the Bug’, which affects some of them, but not all.

Black Hole was originally published as a twelve issue limited series. The anthology edition, of which I’ve just read the handsome hardback version, won awards, and while producing the series Burns repeatedly won the Harvey award for best inker. In purely technical terms, this is indeed the most outstanding aspect of the comic. Burns is an excellent cartoonist, who tells stories in the round, but it’s the extraordinary finish on his work that is likely to leave the reader with the most persistent after-images. He’s one of those rare comics artists, like Jaime Hernandez, who never lets a panel go to print that couldn’t stand to be framed and hung on a gallery wall. His art is highly worked and precisely drawn in a style that looks like wood- or linocut printing—black seems to be the natural background, with white appearing as an absence. The shading, highlights and hatching are applied in precisely rendered forms, with nothing sketchy or gestural making it onto the page. Combined with Burns’s very solid modelling, the result is almost monumental—his permanent looking images would feel very static, if it were not for his considerable skills as a visual storyteller.

The layouts are largely regular, with consistent story beats marked out in ways that can almost be counted in the same way as musical notation. There are no bleeds, the panel boundary marking an absolute limit around the narrative. Wavy borders are used to mark recollection, but there is no violation of that threshold, except in one acid-trip sequence, where text panels cross the images—and in another dream sequence, the panels become fluid, but it’s the borders that transgress the drawings, rather than vice versa. I’m still trying to work out what the affective and narrative consequences of such decisions are—all I can really say is that they are a profoundly important part of the expressive qualities of a comic. A Black Hole full of bleeds and floating panels would feel very different, would be a very different book. The regularity of the unbroken frame within which Burns’s bizarre story plays out seems consistent with the conventional social context in which his characters must struggle with their various forms of difference.

As I’ve sketched it here, Burns’s story might be understood to be a fable, an unreal and fantastical narrative which trades in symbols and metaphors. But its power lies in the concrete details of its characters, their interactions, and the precisely recalled time and place of 1970s Seattle in which it plays out. The plot is dynamic enough in its treatment of time to be interesting, but if it’s not slavishly linear, it is pretty straightforward, and won’t leave its readers puzzling over the sequence of events. Because the story is not a fable, it doesn’t have a moral, or a single obvious point: it’s an exploration of the experience of growing up, and the experience of difference, which uses its speculative elements, and its recurring symbols, to bat around some relevant ideas in more provocative ways than a straightforward suburban Bildungsroman would permit.

Instead of a single, clear biographical account, from which we can only extrapolate speculatively, the weirdness of Burns’s central conceit opens possibilities for the reader—it invites them to revisit their own adolescence, to imagine future adolescences, perhaps of their children, to empathise afresh with people they knew and perhaps did not understand in their teens. Social contagion is a factor in the lives of many teenagers, but Burns’s ‘Bug’ combines it with elements of the sexually transmitted disease, and with other vectors of difference and social capital. It takes a slice through the layers of a youth culture that was still reeling in the early stages of a continuous flux that has characterised it since the 1950s. And it is, importantly, a very particular story about some very particular people. All that Burns does, in the tradition of the cartoonist, is to exaggerate certain features of their experience.

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