Pantheon, 368 pp, $34.95, hardcover.
Between the thick black lines of the artwork and the High School Confidential! spin on the hell of adolescence, Charles Burns's growing-up-in-the-'70s Black Hole would be horrifying enough without the extra goosing that comes from a mysterious disease transforming the neighbourhood kids into mutant Swamp Things.
Black Hole collects a dozen comix Burns published with Fantagraphics between 1995 and 2004; bound together into one black brick of a book, they make for can't-tear-your-eyes-away reading. Burns clearly remembers the pointless, specific unpleasantness of late childhood. He captures the awkwardness and randomness that sandbag those years. He's specific about the era, too, the characters all aviator glasses, centre parts, and sideburns. (Check out how avant-garde that David Bowie album cover looks compared to everything else!) Even the "tough" drug dealers with their $15 lids and stashes of Black Beauties seem naive in hindsight. One gushes: "So you know what I'm talking about… It's just… It's total kick ass weed." Dude!
It may have been a more innocent time, but not in Charles Burns's world, where sexual awakening comes at a terrible price: a strange STD leads to shedding skin, growing a tail, or sprouting a second talking mouth ("…and further inside, a tiny tongue. I could feel it trembling, fluttering up against mine"). And even though the kids all know, their hormones get the better of them one after another: it's a whole book keyed to that instant in gore movies where the girl takes off her top and gets in the shower and she's just definitely gonna get whacked.
Burns is all about mixing genre horror with other forms of pop culture, and he uses horror conventions, especially from the old EC comics of the '50s (nudity, entrails, nature gone wild), to his own ends, even if those ends are never made clear.
Black Hole is tremendous fun, enormous in its scope, beautifully consistent in its chilly pen-and-ink style. It exhumes those awful teen years when acceptance and getting laid seem more important than anything else and immortality is unquestioned. The weird epidemic never takes on emotional weight, however, and the spooky Lord of the Flies hideout the infected build in the woods-complete with grisly voodoo sculptures and a nut job on the loose with a hatchet-is a cheap grab for pity when, really, the hell each kid carries inside is all the horror we need.