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Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Review: Black Hole by Charles Burns, Pantheon Books, 2005.



For those who don’t know, I have previously reviewed another of Mr. Burns’ works, titled ‘Big Baby’, to rave raves. I purposely allowed time, space and other readings between these two books to ensure I had cleared my palate. In the end, it didn’t really matter because both morsels are more than tasty.

This modern telling of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ is a compilation of 12 issues from the Kitchen Sink Press, then Fantagraphic Comic. For those who can’t find the original comic books, this volume is a true gem. To say that Charles Burns’ is a genius at character development would only state the obvious.

Welcome to the outskirts of Seattle in the 1970s where an STD known as ‘the Bug’ leaves teenagers with physical mutations. Said mutations cause them to be shunned by the rest of ‘normal’ society. As I recall, in my high school years, sex was a badge of honor that made you cool. Here, however, as in the real world, sex can destroy one’s very existence. Whether this story arc is an allegory for AIDS, I am uncertain. But given the development of these characters, and the turns in their interlocking storylines, ‘the Bug’ does seem to be something more.

‘The Bug’, or ‘the teen plague’ as it is also termed, is the staging for defining and re-emphasizing the angst and indecision of a young person moving toward adulthood. I don’t want to give away the various story lines involved here, but a triumph of the will is not necessarily the outcome on its face; but a complete understanding of the human condition and the heroic steps taken by those afflicted certainly is. This is not an ‘after school special’; this is true emotional and moral torment.

Just as he did with ‘Big Baby’, Charles Burns lights up the goal with a masterful story and an exhaustive study of life and experience that is not only entertaining, but poignant. Every emotion is on display here and drawn out of the reader in kind. Very few pieces of literature accomplish this, though many try.

Rumor has it that ‘Black Hole’ took a decade to complete. Like a fine wine where patient aging and expert blending create a joyful explosion of flavor and full body on the tongue, this book was worth the wait. This is exactly how a story should be told. And the masterful artwork is the delightful after dinner aperitif.

Buy this book.

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