In October 2005, Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole, the culmination of ten years of work, was finally released in a single collected volume. Black Hole is a surrealist nightmare drama set among the adolescent population of a suburban town in America during the 1970s. A sexually transmitted disease, called “the bug,” is spreading through the youth of the community. The disease affects everyone differently but always causes a disturbing mutation: one character has a second mouth growing out of his neck. Another periodically sheds her skin. Some are grotesquely deformed, so that they cannot return to society; others can hide their mutations and pass as normal. The narrative follows two high school students in their struggles with the usual adolescent issues of love, sexuality, drugs, and belonging; the mutations and a string of murders provide a horrific backdrop, but the basic content of the story remains that of adolescence.
Black Hole has been welcomed with open arms by the press: The Harvey Award for comic books has nominated it for 12 awards in the past two years—one in every category for which it was eligible in 2004— and its reputation among comics artists has been compared to that of Joyce’s Ulysses. Yet Black Hole is such a weak specimen of comics art that its critical acceptance can only be seen as an indication of a deep lack of sophistication on the part of comics criticism. Black Hole is not merely inferior to its highbrow comics contemporaries, from David Boring to Jimmy Corrigan; it pales even in comparison to the late eighties Silver Surfer Marvel comics that I used to collect out of the back-issue boxes in comic book stores as a kid, with the ads for Chips Ahoy cookies or the latest Nintendo game on the back page.
Formally, comics is perhaps the most complicated artistic medium. It entails all the traditional dimensions of drawing and writing, as well as the added element of the interaction between the two. The composition of a single page of comic book, taking into account both intra-panel and inter-panel forms as well as text, panel borders, etc., is one of the most daunting design problems imaginable. The explicit, mutable language of visual icons used in comics, including the bizarre behavior of time within and between panels, is a unique semiotic phenomenon interacting with all the other elements of the medium simultaneously. More than most media, comics demands careful and rigorous criticism.
When I was eleven, I was lucky if I could get an adult to admit that comics were an art medium at all, let alone one that might contain some worthwhile content, but all that has changed in the past decade. A new generation of intellectual comics artists has received a kind of widespread attention previously reserved for Art Spiegleman and Art Spiegleman alone. They are no longer viewed as aberrations within an otherwise substanceless pop medium, but as pioneers of an exciting “new” art form.
The field of comics criticism, and a small host of comics critics, have thus recently emerged. The viewpoints of these critics, though by no means uniform, have all arisen out of the particularities of comics’ current and previous position within American culture. A critique of Black Hole necessarily entails a critique of the contemporary comics critic; and, in as much as the critic is both the mouthpiece and the teacher of the culture, we thus set out to critique the attitude of American literary culture towards the medium comics.
Though it has risen from the realm of pop to the realm of art, comics retains a connotation of pulpiness through which every work in the medium is viewed. In a 2004 article for The New York Times Magazine, Andrew Arnold suggests that comics may someday replace the novel just as the novel replaced poetry a couple hundred years ago. Arnold’s lengthy article is devoted to plotting the landscape of contemporary comics and revealing it as the blossoming art form that it is, but even Arnold concludes: “ no matter how far the graphic novel verges toward realism, its basic idiom is always a little, well, cartoonish…. this is a medium probably not well suited to lyricism or strong emotion…. They appeal to that childish part of ourselves that delights in caricature…” Even highbrow comics cannot escape their pulpy origins, and it could only be in this unfair light that comics critics are unoffended by Black Hole.
The average conversation in Black Hole reads like stock dialogue from a TV teen drama, retrofitted with an embarrassing array of 70s drug slang.
—Mmm… Sorry, I’m getting pretty fucked up… This is pretty good dope.
—Good? It’s killer! It kicks ass on that rag weed you buy!
—Look, check it out… fifteen bucks a lid, but it’s worth it! All flower tops…
If Burns’ casual dialogue seems shallow, his dramatic scenes display the kind of excruciating pretense of depth that you would expect to find in the writing of an angsty sixteen year old:
Chris: Mmm… That’s better… God, you feel so good. (next panel) Why did it take this long? Why wouldn’t you ever talk to me in school?
Rob: I don’t know, I guess ‘cause I felt so guilty and everything… I… it’s hard to explain.
Chris: That’s ok. It’s just that I want to know everything about you. I want to make sure we do things right this time.
Rob: I do too.(ellipses original)
The copious narration in Black Hole falls into a similar category:
As I started to talk, I felt something swelling in my chest, straining to get out. And when it broke, it came spilling like a flood… my voice loud and raw, straining on the words. I don’t know why, but I felt like I had to tell them everything. Everything. Every last detail. When I was done I was empty. It was silent except for the crackling of the fire. It was finally all out of me… I was as pure and empty as the flames moving in front of me. (ellipses original)
Disconcertingly, there is nothing in the book to imply that such sentiments are meant ironically. The shallow casual dialogue may be satirical (if boring), but the dramatic dialogue and narration attempt to portray genuine emotion; the catharsis described in the above excerpt is treated as a real catharsis.
The plot, too, of Black Hole has been treated with an undeserved indulgence. The conclusion of the comic has been described by critics as turning from darkness towards hope, but the rays of hope in this case are nostalgic and naïve, married to a dream of freedom that had proved hopelessly simplistic by 1969, 24 years before Burns began writing Black Hole.
When the Silver Surfer says to himself: “Why does her memory haunt me? Why can I not escape her? It is as if a piece of her essence was left with me—wherever I soar, whatever I am to be,” we smile indulgently, because we know that this is a comic written for twelve year olds. When Keith, in Black Hole, tells us, “A terrible sadness welled up in me. I felt sick… sick of myself… sick of being stuck out in the woods, stoned and alone” (ellipses, original), we grit our teeth, because this is a comic aimed at adults.
If you were to read such drivel in a novel, you probably would not keep reading. Why should our standards be any different for comics? If writers for the New York Times Magazine believe that comics will always be “well, a little cartoonish,” it is because they continue to read, and expect, poor writing in comic books. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing about dialogue bubbles that necessitates literary drivel. The following exchange is from David Boring, by Daniel Clowes.
WANDA : Would you ever kill me in the heat of passion?
DAVID : I doubt it. I don’t even like to kill ants.
WANDA : Since when am I an ant?
DAVID : When I was a kid I once cried for two hours because my mother stepped on an anthill.
WANDA : My professor says it’s not love if you’re not willing to kill for it.
The drawings in Black Hole display the same combination of shallowness and angst as the writing. Burns’ faces are elegantly drawn but bland, the eyes small and uniform, the noses slightly fat and piggish. The haircuts look like wigs from some 1970’s theme party. Throughout the endless unnecessary conversations of stock dialogue, we are forced to watch these mannequin faces, their mouths lightly open as though frozen in the midst of speaking, their eyes overly earnest or else empty and emotionless. It is as though Burns has cast his drama with TV actors.
Again, this all might appear ironic at first glance, but ultimately it is simply boring. There are also good reasons to assume that it is not meant ironically. Keith and Chris and their respective lovers, the heroes of the plot and the ultimate champions of freedom and happiness at the end of the comic, all wear such bland plastic masks. For these heroes and heroines, even the supposedly hideous transformations of the bug leave their expressionless faces as pretty and empty as ever. In fact, those most deformed by the “bug” are the geeks who, on the one hand, were ugly to begin with, and, on the other, become degenerates and criminals after their transformations. So, after the bug, the freaks remain freaks and losers, and the pretty people stay pretty and discover freedom and sexuality.
If Burns’ faces mirror the shallowness of his dialogue, his backgrounds mirror the overblown angst of his inner monologues. Black Hole is drawn in black and white, with wedges of light and dark for shading, in the manner of old-fashioned woodcuts. The effect is nicely gothic, but when nearly every panel and every page except a few at the end is dominated by black, the result is a bit monotonous. Frank Miller, in the early volumes of his recently film-adapted Sin City, also uses a pallet of pure black and white, but he interchanges them for negative and positive space. The result is a visually exciting set of images, and a variety of white-background and black-background panels that allow for stunning page compositions and compelling drama. In Cages Dave McKean uses a three-tone pallet of black, white, and blue; in any given panel, any one of these colors may be negative space, positive space, or accent. Burns’ invariably black dominated, white on black compositions provide no such variety and stimulation. The pages begin to resemble one another, the small panels squeezing together in no particular grid. After a while, all that black just starts to look like a gimmick.
Critics may be motivated to overlook embarrassing dialogue and boring drawing by a misplaced sense of comics’ pulp-based kitsch, but they will fail to discuss the idiosyncratic formal elements of comics for entirely different reasons: either because they are unaware of this dimension of comics or because they do not think that their readership has the knowledge or interest to follow such a discussion. In either case, they are disserving the public and disserving the medium.
Comics lies on the borderline between written word and image and thus has access to the power of each. The comic book writer/illustrator wields both the logical force of the word and the ambiguity, the stillness, and the silence of the still image—even film does not give us the purity and sexuality of the standing image, whose unmoving frame tantalizes us with what is not depicted.
Burns, however, so overuses language in Black Hole that the force of the image is lost. Everything is explicated and noisy. Even the dream sequences and drug fantasies in Black Hole buzz with unnecessary narration.
In one dream sequence, early in the book, Chris is walking beside a watering hole when she steps on some glass and cuts her foot. At the top of the page, we see her foot with the cut in it, and narration: “unn… still hurts….” We see her fingers reaching into the cut, to grasp the tip of something inside: “…like maybe there’s something else in there.” We see her pulling a cigarette-like cylinder from the gash: “that’s odd… looks like a cigarette.” We see her unrolling the cylinder like a sheet of paper: “no, it’s not, it’s a rolled up piece of paper.”
In a comic, the eye is drawn to text. Images that share a frame with words will not receive the same attention as images in “silent” frames. A comic whose every frame is explicated with words is little better than a picture book. Such a work is truly aimed at children in that it assumes its readers are unable to follow an ambiguous narrative.
Comics contain not only the interaction of the language and image, but also their history and their evolution. The hieroglyph is a comic book: a set of ordered images that give meaning, but it is also the beginning of language. As pictures become fixed icons, they shuffle off their representational coils and transform into letters. In comics, this process is still in effect. The language of icons used in comics, from the ubiquitous dialogue bubble to the sweat-drops flying off of a frightened Tin Tin’s head, represents the continuing transformation of picture into letter. (For a longer, clearer, and more original discussion of this and other topics in the semiotics of comics, see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.)
The many icons used in comics are proto-letters of a new language, no longer picture and not yet inscription. To the extent that these retain an element of the pictorial, they are mutable and their mutations are interpretable because they resemble things. An artist who wishes to depict a character saying something in a voice that is dripping with sarcasm, may draw the dialogue bubble dripping down the page. A saw cutting a log replaces the traditional “zzz” over the head of a sleeping character; a buzz saw indicates even deeper sleep. To write a comic is to participate in the development of this language of icons: to modify them is to keep them fluid and evolving; to use them unchanged is to solidify their current form.
Burns attempts very few modifications on the traditional set of icons. In fact, he seems to avoid icons in general, limiting himself to dialogue bubbles, narration boxes, and panel borders. The only piece of non-standardized iconography in Black Hole is a densely rippled panel border, which he employs in dream sequences and memories. Like Burns’ drawing in general, the rippled panel border is too tight to be effective. It’s density and rigidity disrupts the composition of the page. Rather than dream and memory, it suggests the frilly border of a greeting card.
Like so many elements of Black Hole, the rippled panel border is more mechanical than impressionistic. It is a stiff symbol of dream, and thus utterly un-dreamlike. Comics has the power to be both dreamlike and genuine. It contains stillness, silence, and logical meaning simultaneously. Its power is to be at once seen and read, to depict and at the same time to refer.
It is admirable that Black Hole’s critics want comics taken seriously. They are doing no service to the medium, however, if they allow irony to excuse and ignorance to obscure the flaws of poor craftsmanship. Let neither kitsch nor glamour be a shield against rigorous criticism, and let us not permit comics to descend, from their ennobling role as the pop pariah of literature, into the trendy murk in which so-called high art has come to wallow.