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Breaking ground
Charles Burnsís grand experiment
BY MATTHEW SHAER

In 2002, Jonathan Franzen declared fictional sex dead: his own experiences and the maudlin portrayal of intercourse in literature had met incongruous ends. The essay was "Books in Bed," collected in How To Be Alone (FSG), and in it, Franzen went further, confessing dread at the prospect of yet another scene of "orgasmic collapse." "The more sincerely explicit a novelís dirty bits, I think," he wrote, "the more they beg to be removed."

Some enterprising editor should attach the whole of Charles Burnsís intricately wrought new graphic novel, Black Hole to Franzenís essay as an exercise in literary-hypotheses-proved-shamefully-wrong. This book is that good: it exists as a sort of fuck-you to anyone who was convinced that sex couldnít be done right on the page, and done, furthermore, as an art form. More important, it asks whether todayís comics are explaining something traditional novels canít.

The entirety of Black Hole takes place in a suburb of 1970s Seattle, where a group of teenagers have fallen victim to a ravaging virus. The disease, which is spread via unprotected sex, has ghastly results. One victim sprouts hair on his face, like Michael J. Fox circa Teen Wolf. Another develops a vaginal gash on her back, through which she can crawl out of her skin, like a snake shedding its scales. There are warts, pus, misshapen heads, and even, in one case, a penis that has become improbably curled, like the tail of a pig. The Surgeon Generalís office should be taking notes; no one who reads Black Hole will ever leave home without a condom again.

In the midst of this small-scale epidemic, a handful of characters rattle through the ups and downs of high-school life. Dorky Keith Pearson loves calm, collected Chris Rhodes. Chris is in love with tall, handsome Rob Facincani, whom she meets at a party. Keith and his friends smoke a lot of pot, drink a lot of beers, and operate on the fringes of a social scene based mostly around keg parties and skinny dipping. Everything seems to be ticking along Dazed and ConfusedĖedly until Chris and Rob have sex in a local cemetery and a small mouth on Robís neck starts groaning. Chris, worried, lights up a cigarette and backs away, but not before weíre made to understand the worst: she is now infected.

The book explodes from there. A community of diseased teenagers have taken to the hills around the high school, where they hide from their peers. Chris and Rob join them, and Rob is promptly torn to death by a sadistic forest creature. The rest of Black Hole is spent putting the pieces back together. Other reviewers have noted that this book is a murder mystery, and it is, I guess, but only in the way that The Brothers Karamazov is a family drama. Black Hole is a grand experiment, a working testament to how powerful a graphic novel can be.

Burns has a deft and knowing touch; under his hand, a dozen plot strands ó which are twisted and melded by a handful of perspectives, and dragged through an unknown number of realities ó connect through explicit and implicit portrayals of intercourse and intimacy, illumination and shadow. In other words, this book, when not overtly concerned with sex, is concerned with the emotional ramifications of sex, with our sex dreams, and with every Freudian and Jungian sex trope under the sun. Through hundreds of carefully choreographed black-and-white panels, the characters in Black Hole act out a sort of ballet, and the moral is ambiguous: this is shameful, and strangely beautiful. Or: this is natural, and beautiful. Whatever the case, the effect is extraordinary.


Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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