Sex, drugs and mutants

There’s a dead frog staring up at you from the classroom table. You make an incision in its stomach, peering at the preserved organs inside. The dissection would be normal, except the incision turns into a mouth and you’re sucked into a nightmarish dream world of mutated teens, dead bodies and dusty piles of bones and refuse. Oh, and your head is attached to a worm.

There’s a dead frog staring up at you from the classroom table. You make an incision in its stomach, peering at the preserved organs inside. The dissection would be normal, except the incision turns into a mouth and you’re sucked into a nightmarish dream world of mutated teens, dead bodies and dusty piles of bones and refuse. Oh, and your head is attached to a worm.

This kind of thing happens a lot in Black Hole, the latest graphic novel from cartoonist Charles Burns about an unknown plague that has descended upon mid-1970s Seattle suburbia.

The book chronicles the lives of a handful of average high school kids who have contact with a virus, which only afflicts teens. The bug can only be caught through sexual contact with someone who already has it, usually resulting in a victim’s physical mutations.

Here Burns dabbles in horror. One character sheds her skin like a snake and another grows a small mouth just below his neck that sometimes speaks. Burns doesn’t limit his imagination in Black Hole, and sometimes the results are downright creepy.

In any case, the mutations cast make those unlucky enough to have caught the bug pariahs from society, rather than just the halls of their high school–and given the plague’s sexual nature, it’s easy to see where all the characters’ anxiety comes from.

As a result of their afflictions, the most disfigured teens have to take refuge in the forest surrounding the suburbs, a place the characters frequent even before their transformations begin. But the woods don’t really offer much in the way of safety, since someone–or something–is lurking in the darkness of the woods as well, killing its infected inhabitants.

The tone and style of the story are equally dark. Black Hole‘s characters are mostly pensive and outwardly insecure. Much of the book takes place in nightmarish dream sequences and the cold, dark woods. To say nothing of Burns’ fantastically surreal artwork, often resembling a slightly more Kafka-esque, horror-tinged Daniel Clowes (of Ghost World fame). The violence in the story is sparse, which makes it more effective as a mood-setting device. Burns spends more of his time dealing in foreboding dread than out-and-out blood and gore.

But maybe the most interesting thing about Black Hole is in its ideology. Instead of taking the idea of a virus that, say, infects and kills teenagers, Burns only damages each character, which (in theory) isolates them.

By slowly, carefully peeling back the skin of each character, Burns takes the time to explore their hopes, fears and regrets, as well as their afflictions. In short, Burns uses the disease to highlight the alienation all teenagers are afflicted with.

The characters that inhabit the world of Black Hole are normal teenagers, experiencing all the lust, heartache, loneliness and isolation of an adolescent’s most formidable years. They just happen to be wearing different skin.

Q & A with Charles Burns

The Vanguard caught up with Charles Burns, author of Black Hole, after a recent appearance at Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland.

What made you want to write Black Hole?It was a very slow process, there were stories that I seemed to be coming to again and again, kind of themes about this idea of a teen plague, or a disease that only afflicts teenagers. And somehow, I liked the idea of thinking of adolescence as a disease.

So I did a couple of comics that kind of dealt with some of those ideas, and I realized I was coming back to it again and again, and really wanted to explore that whole idea or that time period in someone’s life very deeply.

Black Hole took the better part of 10 years for you to finish. Why did it take so long? That’s a cringe-inducing question, that it took a very long period of time. It’s true. It was serialized over 10 years. My straight job is doing advertising and illustration jobs that pay. And I guess my comics–that I have complete control over–are things that I work on when I have the time. It was one of those things where I was starting and stopping when jobs came in, so I was working on this big long story. It’s also a very slow process and I work very slowly.

Why did you choose disease as a metaphor in Black Hole? [Laughing] I could have probably have told the story without dealing with the disease, but I liked the idea of this thing that would transform the characters and was this catalyst that would push the feelings and that situation of adolescence even further. I liked the idea that there was all this internal turmoil that manifested itself physically, that you would actually see these characters that were feeling like monsters and would see some physical manifestation of that. I guess the short answer is that there were certainly times during that period of my life when I felt like a monster, so that’s part of it too.

What was the reason for showing the disease in the ways that you did? Like for instance, a character shedding her skin? I think that a feeling I had at that age is the need to try to shed my skin and turn into another person. So I like that idea, thinking about the same way a snake or an animal like that would molt its skin, and someone turning into a different person. In another case you’ve got a character with a mouth on his neck. Or at one point you’re seeing an overweight girl that’s out in the woods and you don’t really see that she’s got any problems.

Maybe she’s just someone who’s made fun of in school and she just feels more with these kids who are out in the woods. So I was curious about that. I also like the whole idea that there are some characters that are able to hide their affliction. They have something that’s underneath their clothing and they can kind of pass for normal kids and walk among their peers instead of having to be forced into running away out to the woods.

How do you feel about David Fincher directing a film version of Black Hole? I think that a director of his caliber is a good thing. Meaning that the time and money and focus and effort would go into making, hopefully, a well-realized movie. That being said, I realize that there’s a big, big difference between a comic and a movie, and it’ll be a very different experience if the movie gets made. But I think he’s perfectly capable of coming up with something that would be very strong.

Are you involved in the project at all? No, other than cashing checks, no, I’m not. That was supposed to be funny. I guess if I wanted to I could have pursued trying to maintain more control, trying to be involved in the script writing process, all of that. But I made a choice not to, just knowing that I could spend how many more years of my life devoted to trying to write a script and end up having it just thrown away, like studios can do. I was more interested in moving on and creating more of my own stories that I can maintain complete control over.

Are you working on anything else right now?I just finished an animated movie or a portion of a feature-length animated movie for a French production company called Peur Du Noir (Fears of the Dark). It’s six different authors doing their versions or their stories of fear in the dark. It’s a black and white movie, all animated. My segment’s about 20 minutes. I’m also slowly working on a new story and putting together a book of my illustrations and drawings that I’ve done over the last 25 years.