Black Hole, by Charles Burns

It isn't rocket semiotics, but it works
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The Independent Culture

A high-school kid keels over and faints after hacking open a frog in biology class, and within weeks a plague is moving through 1970s Seattle. Spread by sexual contact and fluid exchange, it attacks only teenagers. One grows a little tail. One begins to shed her skin like a snake. Some lose their noses; some get harelips; some degenerate into little more than skulls. Deformed and cast out, the victims retreat to tents in the woods and live a hand-to-mouth existence among their own kind. But something is stalking them there too...

That is one version of the plot for Charles Burns's Black Hole, a graphic novel published in 12 instalments between 1994 and 2004, and now collected in book form. But, brilliantly, it's not the important bit. By using the conventions of the teen horror genre - and its most common theme, the link between sex and corruption - Burns has created in stark black-and-white an exploration of the adolescent-pubescent psyche that rivals the best Bildungsroman in pure print. If there were any doubts left about the graphic novel as a serious medium, Black Hole should dispel them.

Burns is something of a legend among cartoonists. He went to college with Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, then drew for Art Spiegelman's seminal comic RAW for 10 years. In all that time, he barely changed his drawing style: he makes high-contrast, black-and-white panels of unearthly poise and detail, like a cross between the Sin City comics and Mad magazine. Both Spiegelman, the writer of Maus, and the venerable Robert Crumb are devoted to his work, and Black Hole, clocking in at more than 300 pages, is the longest, most detailed piece he has produced.

Inescapably, the plague that stalks the teens reminds us of Aids; but it is as much an external figure for the emotional and intellectual transformations of adolescence. Burns never pushes the reader one way or the other. The kids drop acid, smoke doobies and talk about the bug like it was always there. Some can hide their deformities and pass for normal (some people always can); some have no chance of hiding it. The worst affected are the geeks, who hide in the woods, horribly scarred, dreaming of chess games and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The book's otherworldly, detached style extends to the tacit vocabulary of symbol that runs through the illustrations. Branches intertwine to form the shape of a mouth or a vagina. A boy grows a thin-lipped, tiny mouth on his chest, while a girl cuts her foot in a dream and pulls a long, rolled scroll out of it. Snakes, guns and twining roots abound. It isn't rocket semiotics, but it is pervasive: the inescapable pressure of sex, and the pull towards adulthood, is stiflingly conveyed.

Comics writers have long bewailed public ignorance of the maturity of the genre. "Nobody explains to you what movies are," Burns complained in a recent interview. "Like: 'This is a moving picture, a motion picture that people enjoy watching. And it's got sound!'" Black Hole needs no excuses made for it: this depth of field just couldn't be done in any other medium. Read it and be converted.