Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Reader's Diary #854- Charles Burns: Black Hole

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A couple of weeks ago I updated the sidebar of my blog (I'm ridiculously slack at doing that). You may have noticed that I've added a few "glaring omissions" lists. These are lists of books that I feel I should have, as a well-rounded reader, already read yet somehow have not. A couple of these lists I published as blog posts over the past few years (i.e., the International edition and the Canadian edition), but I've also added a couple new ones: a northern edition and a graphic novels edition. The Northern one wasn't too difficult to come up with. I collect northern books so I could pretty much just look at my shelf. I would caution though that anyone unfamiliar with Northern writers should not necessarily use that list as an "essential reads list" or even a starting point. There are a lot more recognized and acclaimed northern books than many of these, but I've already read them. (If anyone's interested, send me an email and I'll send you a northern reading primer list). As for the graphic novels, it wasn't so easy. I Googled and read as many top 10 lists and award winning graphic novels as I could, to see which books most commonly showed up. The comics and graphic novels crowd are, let's just say, a very opinionated bunch. There's a lot of discrepancy in these lists. There were a few, however, that showed up more often than others: Watchmen, Maus, The Dark Knight Returns, Ghost World, and the Sandman in particular. Fortunately I've read most of those. But I still managed to squeeze out a few more books that I should probably make an attempt to read. Of course in all these glaring omission lists, there are probably others still out there that I've missed (Don Quixote, for example) but I made a promise to myself to not replace any spots in the list until all have been crossed off, at which point I may create a whole new list. I usually have 4-5 books on the go at any given moment, so I've resolved that at least one of those should be taken from these glaring omission lists.

Which takes me to Charles Burns' Black Hole. Black Hole has won a gazillion awards, many of which were  for inking. I've often made fun of other publishers for those pages at the back of books dedicated to the typeset. You know the ones, "This book was set in Monotype Dante, a typeface designed by..." Who cares, right? Well look at all the categories of the Eisner Awards; they've had more categories than the Grammys, including "best letterer," "best colorist," and "best inker." They take this stuff VERY seriously. And while I'd be tempted to make fun, Charles Burns' Black Hole makes a convincing case for the inking award. Holy cow, there's a lot of black ink used in this book, and not just used but artistically used. While the characters are similar to the Daniel Clowes' Ghost World stylistically, the panels themselves almost look like woodblock prints they are so heavily and carefully inked. It's no wonder the book took 10 years to finish.

And that's not to mention the detail. The plot of the book is essentially about teenagers dealing with an STD that carries far-fetched mutations. To compliment this plot, Burns draws a lot— a lot— of genitals, both real and figurative. Plus collages of nightmarish imagery. This added to the heavy black ink, you can get a feel for the tone of the book without reading a word of text.

And what about the text? The story is intriguing, for sure. I couldn't put the book down and finished it in a couple of days. Critics have talked ad nauseum about the very obvious themes: AIDS parable, discourse on life in the 70s, a metaphor for teenage pressure. It's heavy handed and no doubt that's the point. However, and fortunately, it doesn't come across as preachy. I've heard folklorists justifying urban legends as morality or cautionary tales. If those teenagers were making out, for example, they wouldn't have encountered the man with the hook. And if Burns did present Black Hole as a cautionary tale, it is this urban legend tone he tells it in rather than a preacher from a pulpit vibe. That is to say, the audience will actually want to hear it. (Of course in both cases neither are likely to curb any inappropriate behaviour).

The story is, however, not perfect. I read one review that complimented the consistency of the art. That it was done over such a span of time, the reviewer said, it was amazing that the look didn't fluctuate. I'd probably agree with that assessment, but I do think the story suffered for it. In particular there seemed to be a few plot twists that were hinted at but didn't pan out in the end. I first suspected that what made the STD unique (other than the fact it causes some people to grow mouths on their necks or tails on their backside), was that it caused the diseased to be somehow more sexually attractive. In two cases the sexual appeal of affected characters seemed implausible, even in this book which thrived on its over-the-top vices. Could another symptom of the disease be that it made the victim secrete an abundance of pheromones? Now that would complicate matters! But it's never explored.

There's another scene in which one character walks in on another in the kitchen who isn't wearing pants or underwear though she shares a house with a bunch of teenage boys. Again, even in a liberally moral book as this one, it rang false. Especially when her character is more developed later on and it seems even more out of whack with who she is.

Finally there's the ending. I won't worry you with a spoiler alert except to say there isn't much to spoil. I know in real life stories are arbitrary in their beginnings and endings, but if you're retelling an event you can't go on forever in either direction, so for god's sake finish talking. Sometimes books use an implied ellipsis for some pretentious literary point, but Burns' seemed to eschew such pretensions in the rest of the book, so it was beyond disappointing that he went that route at the "end."

Still, despite its flaws, Black Hole deserves the accolades its gotten and it'll stick with me for some time.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I had no idea that the Eisner awards celebrated such an array of highly specific arts. For some reason, this pleases me greatly. Because, holy hell, I wouldn't want to do all that inking!

I'm going to look for this book!

Perogyo said...

I have come to really appareciate the use of white space (or black space!) in picture books so I am pretty sure this would appeal. Thanks for introducing it. You and Buffy are responsible for me not hating the English version of manga.