"Everything's either concave or -vex," the Danish poet Piet Hein once wrote, "so whatever you dream will be something with sex." In Charles Burns' decade-in-the-making graphic novel "Black Hole," the natural concavity and -vexity of everything leaps out at you: Nearly every image is a sexual metaphor, with the distorted clarity and mutability of a nightmare. And sex in "Black Hole" also means body horror, sickening transformations and loss. The first page's abstraction -- a thin, wobbling slit of light on a black background -- opens up to become wider and fleshier, then to become a blatantly vaginal gash in a frog on a dissecting pan (surrounded by pools and pearls of liquid). That's only the beginning of the book's array of weenie roasts and clumsy tongues and trees leaning away from each other like spread legs.
Burns originally serialized "Black Hole" as a 12-issue comic book series, beginning in 1995; a New York Times Magazine article last year offhandedly compared its reputation in the comics world to that of "Ulysses." That's not a particularly useful analogy, not least because Burns' narrative gifts are much more visual than verbal. The only thing the two books really have in common is a formally audacious structure, with a chronology complicated enough that it takes a few readings to work out. ("Black Hole" is riddled with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and multiple perspectives.) What made each issue of the comic worth the long wait was its sustained tone. Chip Kidd (who designed the jacket), speaking on a panel this summer, pointed out that Burns had managed to keep his drawing style perfectly consistent for the 10 years it took to finish. The mood of the story moves in a slow, graceful arc from its initial plunge into repulsion to its final glints of hope; every panel suggests that Burns knew what it would look like from the moment he began the book.
"Black Hole" is set in the suburbs around Seattle, circa 1974. Its characters are all high school students: they hang out with their cliques, they're cruel or kind to each other in a high school way, they get high on whatever's available, they're dragged along by sexual urges they barely understand. And there's a disease going around, "the bug." Once you get it, your body changes, and everyone notices. You might just get little tadpole-shaped growths on your chest, or bulbous things on your face, or your hair might all fall out, or you might grow a tail, or worse. You are never the same again, and you don't belong at home anymore. "The bug" is, of course, sexually transmitted.
It's not a metaphor for AIDS -- too early -- or for herpes, or even pregnancy (although a sobbing girl tells her philandering boyfriend that "maybe now that I'm starting to SHOW you're getting grossed out and want to move on"; what she's showing is webbing between her fingers). The disease that these scared, horny teenagers are passing on to each other is, basically, sex itself.
In a delicious touch, the endpapers of the book are close-ups on a page from a high school yearbook. On the inside front cover, we see a selection of mid-'70s teenagers smiling for the camera (with terrible hair, little mustaches, protruding teeth); on the inside back cover, the same characters and facial expressions are reprised, but this time everyone's faces have mutated. (Evidently, everybody got it on in high school in those days.) Look back at the first pictures, though, and you can see the hints of what each of them will become. Burns specializes in drawing people and things that look like they're just beginning to curdle.
"Black Hole" begins with sideburned teenager Keith Pearson dissecting the aforementioned frog in his high school biology class, with "sweet and perfect" Chris Rhodes as his lab partner. He suddenly collapses and sees a vision of the future: the gash in the frog, a gash in a foot, a huge tear opening up on Chris' back, a hand over a woman's crotch, and then a whirlpool of tiny, iconic images from the events that follow. At a party, Chris heads off for a graveyard tryst with a tall, handsome boy named Rob Facincanni; as they're having sex, she notices that there's a tiny mouth on his neck, making groaning noises. But she doesn't realize that she's got the bug until a week later, when she goes swimming with a bunch of her classmates, who notice the skin splitting open along her spine. Before long, she's realized that she's repeatedly shedding her skin, like a snake. Rob apologizes to her, and she kisses his neck-mouth: "It was warm and salty. It was like the ocean ... a clean, sharp taste ... and further inside, a tiny tongue. I could feel it trembling, fluttering up against mine." (Burns' work has a lot of virtues, but subtlety is not always one of them.) Soon, she's run away from home to live in a tent in the woods, near the bonfire where all the infected kids go, and one day Keith, getting high with his friends, sees Chris' abandoned skin hanging on a tree.
Keith, it turns out, has been flirting with the bug himself. He's been hanging out at a local drug dealer's pad, and an artist named Eliza who lives in the spare room there has her eye on him -- she's got a tail, and he's a little turned on by that. Eventually, she has her way with him, and while she's deflowering him, a piece of her tail breaks off in his hand. Meanwhile, something terrible is closing in on the alienated kids; there are weird, chopped-up dolls appearing all over the forest, people are disappearing from their bonfire clique and never returning, and somebody swears he saw a severed arm deep in the woods. And there's an image that Burns keeps slipping into the story, of something awful in the forest, a young man lashed to a tree, a gag around his mouth, his hands tied in front of his crotch. It might be Keith; it might be someone else; it might not be there at all.
What makes all these Cronenbergian grotesqueries work is that Burns doesn't play them for gross-out value -- everything looks subdued and formal, and the story's tenor very rarely departs from what you'd see in a monster-free coming-of-age story. In one scene, a group of rough-living kids have trashed the house their acquaintance is taking care of for the summer; in another, a girl stands in the dark, outside a party thrown by a friend she's fallen out with, realizing she'll never see her again. These characters are mutated creatures, but their mutations stand in for the physical and emotional changes of adolescence. The horrors of "Black Hole" are the horrors of high school, just made more vivid.
Burns' name isn't yet widely known outside the comics world, but his style will be instantly recognizable to people who read more than a few magazines. His sweating, beady-eyed characters have appeared in a bunch of Altoids ads, and he's drawn the cover of most issues of the Believer. His ink brushwork is so clean and assured it almost seems like plastic, frozen into place (even when he draws smoke or falling detritus, nothing in these images ever seems to be moving), and the panel and page compositions in "Black Hole" are direct and unfussy, with fringes of light glinting out of the blackness that dominates almost every page.
The story strikes a few sour notes near the end with a violent wrap-up of one of its subplots, but the last chapter is magnificent: two visions of what can happen after the turbulence of a sexual awakening. In the first, a pair of Burns' bug-mutated characters run away together, talking about how they're going to start a new, idyllic life in a new place. It's the kind of fantasy that tends to get cut down by fate, and even earlier in "Black Hole" it would have been. This time, though, it's accompanied by a dream sequence that reprises the structure of one of the book's first scenes, transformed from a vision of hellish squalor into an apparition of serenity and stark beauty; the implication is that maybe things will work out, that their grotesque fumblings have become something meaningful.
It's followed by an overwhelming final scene, in which we see what Chris has shed her skin -- metaphorically, as well as literally -- to become. What sex has made of her isn't a monster but a whole being. She can never have her childhood back, as much as she's longing for it; she has to work out a new way to relate to the rest of the world. But on the last few pages, we see another recapitulation of an earlier dream, an image that Chris once thought would be "my end ... a sparkling ceiling ... some cheap, glittery shit," under which she was naked, stumbling over ground littered with mangled corpses and bones, broken glass and snakes, things concave and -vex decayed into garbage. As she actually experiences it, it's the beginning of her new life: a million stars in the sky above the icy water, beyond a soft beach where she's buried the symbol of the change she'll remember forever.
Douglas Wolk's graphic novels column runs at the beginning of each month in Salon Books.