STATS: BOOK (GRAPHIC) / CHARLES BURNS / 368pp. / Begun in 1995, published as a collection in 2005.
If you’re in the market for a book that nails the combination of the almost impossibly banal and the overwhelmingly surreal that comes to characterize the high school experience of a certain kind of smart, drug-inclined, socially isolated American teenager … and why wouldn’t you be?
I don’t know of anything else that quite gets it. I love High School as a genre, from the total broism of American Pie and Blink-182 to the slightly stranger, quirkier Buffy and The O.C., through the hip noir of Brick, to the earnest, wounded types who lurk around in John Hughes — all fantasy versions of high school, for me, lives I never got to or quite wanted to lead — but nothing I’ve come across touches on the cerebral and celestial dimensions of my high school experience in the way of BLACK HOLE, nor grounds them in as convincingly actual a place and time.
The nascent romance, the flickering excitement and fear associated with segueing from pot into acid, the all-importance of music (it’s Bowie for Burns’ 70’s Seattleites; it was Radiohead and Wilco for me in 2001-05), the lostness even among peers and supposed friends, and the interaction of town and country — the separate, often conflicting appeals and dangers posed by streets and houses as opposed to woods, lakes, beaches, and the night sky, which probably gets looked at and thought seriously about more during those years than at any other time (for me, in moments like that, it was Counting Crows’ August & Everything After).
It’s all there in Burn’s massive and lavishly illustrated B&W book, drawn in a style that combines the clean, efficient lines of classic comics with the exaggerated starkness of German Expressionism and early 20th century American woodcut master Lynd Ward, all dosed with some heavy mutation.
Loosely organized around a disfiguring (to varying degrees) plague that infects a group of high schoolers as they enter into sexual and other sorts of congress with one another, the whole project seems to me to really be about tracing the interactions — both intermixings and diametric clashes — of boredom and isolation with terror and revelation in the lives of American 17- and 18-year-olds.
The first time I tripped, at 16, things blew open in a way that hasn’t yet closed — though, even as a much younger child, devouring fairy tales and Narnia and all the standard fare, I had no doubt that the interaction of the mind and the body, and the mind-body and the larger world, was no simple business … it just took until high school, and the advent of drugs and the allure of sex, to make it clear that the body itself could be both catalyst and subject for the realms of the bizarre and nightmarish that, until then, had dwelt solely in my mind, in my little childhood bed, insulated by walls of books, behind a sort of translucent barrier sold to me, then, as “make believe.”
The main feeling I got from reading this over the past month, digesting one of its short-story or TV-episode length sections every few days, is that of the simultaneity of too-muchness and too-littleness, the sense that the world (or, better put in this case, the universe) is both incredibly boring and overwhelmingly interesting, somehow at once full of too little to be worthwhile and too much to be even remotely graspable.
You’re on the world, spinning through space, and you feel both the immense importance and the diminishing nothingness of that fact … and also, a lot of the time, you completely forget or just can’t stand to think about it at all, and do whatever you’re doing despite its still being true.
Another way I sometimes put this to myself, in thinking about my own art and writing, is the union of STRANGENESS & SADNESS — I don’t ever want to have one without the other. Life is both: there’s the Cronenbergian body horror that infects every day, the gnarled mess of desire and revulsion, the fear of / attraction to aliens and monsters and cults and maniacs et al … coupled, always, with dreariness, loneliness, money, getting gas or a burger, seeing the same old people in the same old places, the end of another day in the same place when you haven’t gotten much done except roam endlessly around your mind and pick things up in town.
All of this became clear to me in high school, when my faculties of perception were seemingly at their sharpest but my faculties of expression were pretty much non-existent … so my mind was constantly exploding while devouring an infinite buffet of otherworlds and innerworlds and non-worlds, etc etc … talking about it nonstop with the one or two friends I was lucky enough to have who got it … all of us biting off way, way more than we could chew … and then coming back to bite off more.
The feeling of having all the gates of time and space blown open, all of language and art and symbology burned to shards, laying bare the jagged and vulnerable mythic structures beneath, like some weird power plant on the bottom of the ocean, while tripping in the woods somewhere, and then returning to town, at sunset, coming off it, saying hi to your parents’ friends when you run into them while debating amongst yourselves whether to get pizza or burritos or maybe splurge on Indian …
There’s comfort, even joy, mixed into all of this — the feeling that this is my life and I wouldn’t trade it. A kind of cherishing of all that you have that you don’t know what (else) to do with. Call it the TENACITY OF THE NORMAL, both a curse and a blessing: however far you go, you always — in middle class American life, anyway — get to and have to come back, unless you go truly insane or die, which does happen but probably not too too often in the scheme of things.
The thing about a graphic novel, obviously, is that it has to be graphic: Burns has to find a way to render this idea or feeling about the universe visual, and spatial. And he does: he arranges his frames so as to represent both the inert, frustrating outer reality and the elating, terrifying inner one at the same time, or at least on the same page.
This comes across in an alternation of very clear, sparse frames, the comics equivalent of photorealism, and very dense, jumbled ones, like tapestries, illuminated religious manuscripts, or sinister, slightly insane Where’s Waldo frames.
And he builds his Seattle this way as well: his scenes lapse from a bunch of dudes toking up on the couch and watching TV, upstairs, to a sexual wonderland and nightmare-realm in the basement, or between convenience stores and bologna sandwiches to crucified fetish dolls and Young Goodman Brown style Witches’ Sabbaths in the woods.
He plies the edges of control, contorting his frames and bodies as far and much as possible before they completely break down into chaos. Then they snap back into the mundane, just as the morning has to come after the night has gotten as extreme as a night can get.
That’s the visual version of the real-life thing about the tenacity of the normal.
A filmmaker I hugely respect once told me something: if you’re doing body-horror or grotesque metamorphosis in film, you have to strive toward the point of doing as much to the body as you possibly can, without crossing the line and just doing things to the image: if you lose the physicality, the sense of pleasure, pain, and meaningful, costly distortion, you enter a gratuitous, drama-free realm of just playing around on your computer, which doesn’t do much good for anyone.
Burns is clearly cognizant (at least intuitively) of what and where this line is, and he respects it. Everything that happens to people in BLACK HOLE, no matter how out-there, still happens to people, not to lines on paper.
The same is true of his bodies and their associated horror — the way that feet, necks, and backs peel open into vaginas and mouths, faces bubble and warp, people turn into freaks while still maintaining their bonds to one another — the snarl of inner life etches itself undeniably across the body’s canvas covering, forcing people to be what they actually are as they go through the world, without obviating the basically soap operatic challenge of being friends and lovers to the people who happen to live near you.
There were rumors for a long time that David Fincher was planning a film adaptation. They’ve been pretty well put to rest by now, but if it’d happened and wasn’t a disaster, it would’ve been great.
” … Only I knew I wouldn’t be hiking back to my warm, safe home in the morning.”